Call centers: Applying peer pressure

Aug 01, 1999 9:30 PM  By

Would you buy more from a telephone rep who sounds just like you? Some catalogers are betting that their customers would, and are hiring call center employees from the same demographic as their target audience.

Upscale casual apparel marketer Abercrombie & Fitch, for one, has hired a number of college-age phone reps at its Ridgely, MD, call center to take calls from its largely collegiate customer base. And to get the most out of its workers, A&F created a Generation X “boutique” call center – a separate room within a larger call center – complete with overstuffed couches, the latest music, and gourmet coffee. The environment more closely resembles the set of TV’s Friends than a typical catalog call center.

“Abercrombie & Fitch wanted to create a fun atmosphere that could be heard and felt by its customers calling into the customer service center,” says Jack Dellose, executive vice president of Interactive Marketing Services, the firm that manages A&F’s call center. The cataloger/retailer, which produces the A&F Quarterly magalog, believes callers who identify with reps will buy more merchandise and are more open to upsells and cross-sells.

Although results were not available, Dellose claims that the Gen X call center concept has been a success for A&F, and that the cataloger/retailer is opening a similar call center this fall on the Wilmington campus of the University of Delaware.

The concept of hiring phone reps who “speak your customers’ language” is probably more common in the business-to-business sector. While some companies train phone reps to become experts in the cataloger’s particular field, others hire experienced professionals from the field and then train them to answer calls. Farmington Hills, MI-based cataloger Nailco, which sells professional beauty supplies, has always hired salon experts to answer its phones. In fact, all 40 phone reps in Nailco’s call center are licensed cosmetologists.

“The people on our phones know the salon environment, and they can tell a salon owner how a product will act,” says Lisa Phillion, the cataloger’s director of media development. For instance, a cosmetologist will know not to mix certain brands of chemical hair treatments. Nailco’s reps can also walk the customer through some procedures, averting possible beauty catastrophes. “We separate ourselves from competitors by offering this personalized kind of relationship,” Phillion says. This strategy has also helped Nailco build a rapport with its customers. Since 1985, “we’ve grown at a minimum of 20% every year,” Phillion says. “And most of our new clients come by word-of-mouth.”

In short, if a customer is likely to have a certain level of technical knowledge, then you had better hire someone who also has that knowledge, says Valley Stream, NY-based telemarketing consultant Liz Kislik. “You’ve got to give your customer the knowledge base to feel comfortable buying product from you. You want a technical expert, not just someone who is parroting back specs over the phone.”

A word of caution

Still, product expertise can’t get in the way of selling. “An expert rep may give too much of a technical spin to the call,” Kislik says, “or may get bored, which will affect performance.”

That’s why $1.7 billion computer cataloger CDW hires its reps on personality and then puts them through five months of training. About half of Vernon Hills, IL-based CDW’s reps are right out of college, says vice president of sales training Maria Sullivan. “Generally, the reps we hire aren’t real technical,” she says. “We can teach the technical aspects of the product. But we can’t teach personality.”