L.A. Confidential: Contact Center Roundtable

In February, Multichannel Merchant escaped the winter storms of the Northeast and jetted to sunny West Hollywood, CA, to discuss contact center management with a group of multichannel executives. Although the participants represented diverse merchandise categories, the challenges they face running a contact center and improving customer service are universal.

Multichannel Merchant: What is your biggest challenge right now in the call center, and what has it been over the past few years?

David Robinson, customer service/call center manager, See’s Candies: I think our biggest challenge is that we’re very seasonal. During the summer months we have 15 agents, and that balloons into 300 for the holiday season. Then we slowly lay off and bring some people back for Valentine’s Day and Easter. But being so seasonal does pose a lot of challenges, from finding the staff to training the staff to having the resources for the staff.

Lorena Abood, director of customer care, Modern Postcard: Ours is recruiting. We year-round have about 15 reps. We’re able to handle the seasonality because we put them through training. But we have queues all over the building. We have a sales center that handles all the sales calls. I handle the customer care portion of it, but then we have 17 production teams [who oversee the production of the postcards for customers], which also have individual queues.

The average tenure [of the reps is] about two years. Any time we have someone leave us — leave the company or, most of the time, get promoted to other positions up in the company — it’s finding their replacements [that’s the challenge]. Right now we’re just trying to raise the bar and find quality people to be able to handle all the e-mail communication and phone communication and special programs.

Robinson: Can I ask what you pay your starting reps?

Abood: For customer care it’s $13.25. We’ve typically been hiring at the $13.25 starting rate, but now I’m open to hiring somebody at a little bit higher than the starting rate because of what I’m going to be tasking the new people with. It’s really hard to find qualified reps. We’ve started some assessments — they need to know all the pricing, they need to be able to handle digital files and learn about the different type of mediums.

Robinson: It sounds like your rep has a far stronger skill set than ours. We start ours at $10 per hour, which also limits the talent that we get.

Abood: But see, the product knowledge would be much more limited. Here we’re requesting that they know about direct mail and all the different postal situations and, in addition to that, about production and printing and product.

Christopher Foster, marketing director for Modern Postcard: We offer a mailing component and advice and consultation to help customers with their projects, so we’re very service oriented. Our strategy and intention is to drive as many people to call us as possible. When they go to the Website, it’s great, but I actually want them to call because then our value really rises, because everybody’s got a Website, but not everybody has the people that we have. So not only do our reps need to know all about the jobs, but they also need to ask callers about their business, ask them how we can help their business.

Abood: But another challenge for us is that we don’t have all the calls come into a centralized call center or centralized service center. We have production people handling client interaction, and it’s really hard to keep that level of service equal.

Morlee Griswold, director of direct marketing for Patagonia: How many calls does it take for you to complete an order?

Abood: I don’t know exactly, because we handle all the reporting in customer care, and then production manages all of their reporting, so it’s difficult to tell… We actually make some outbound phone calls because we need to send [customers] a layout for approval, so if you’re counting the outbound calls as well that’s the second call. The third call would be if they call in with questions about billing or layout changes and things like that. And they receive an e-mail that tells them their package has shipped, and it has the tracking number. Typically it’s more than one phone call; it could be two, three, max four if there’s a lot of extra changes and details in the project.

Griswold: That’s a really complex call center. The call center is really like the center of your business.

Foster: We’re asking Lorena to centralize the customer experience and be the champion of a consistent vision of service and level of service throughout. But there are areas of customer care that don’t report to Lorena. We’re trying to work with our vice president of production, saying, Corral it in so that Lorena can manage the entire call group so that we can have a real bookend experience.

Griswold: You’re in that terrible position of having the responsibility without the authority.

Abood: We’re looking at doing some testing and putting different programs together to boost the level of client experience. One of them is to embed a customer care rep in the team. We have different work groups, and each work group consists of six production teams, so instead of routing them to six individual queues we’re going to pool them into one queue and have the customer care rep and another team rep handling the phone calls. If I got my wish, it would be to centralize to customer care all the phone calls that aren’t sales related and have that be the first point of contact, but I think what we do to diffuse the point is once a job comes into production we send them an e-mail telling them that we have all the data out there, and the name on there is the team rep name and extension.

Griswold: I’d say our biggest challenge is something somewhat similar, or at least related, and that is integration — going from a call center to a contact center. And changing the mindset of “we have 10% more calls, we have 10% more business coming in, so we need 10% more reps to handle that,” because some things are becoming extremely efficient — you know, having the FAQs and e-mails going out. But it goes back to that whole “we thought computers were going to make our lives easier, and we were going to have a paperless office” and all of that. We went from a 100% call center where it was one call for every order, and now we’re in this blended contact center where we still have an equal number of contacts [but in different media] to an equal number of orders. But we don’t have so much the problem with recruiting, because we’re a premium company to work for, so people come in. But it’s more [of a challenge] once they’re in. The work of the call center is tedious and concise and precise, and it’s just really a tough job. We start out at about $11 an hour and bump up from there pretty quickly at three months, six months, nine months, and a year. They max out at a year, but we keep our reps when there’s not really any chance of advancement for two, three, four years because it’s just so stable. But what do you do with a rep for three or four years to keep them engaged and busy?

Griswold: I’d say our biggest challenge is something somewhat similar, or at least related, and that is integration — going from a call center to a contact center. And changing the mindset of “we have 10% more calls, we have 10% more business coming in, so we need 10% more reps to handle that,” because some things are becoming extremely efficient — you know, having the FAQs and e-mails going out. But it goes back to that whole “we thought computers were going to make our lives easier, and we were going to have a paperless office” and all of that. We went from a 100% call center where it was one call for every order, and now we’re in this blended contact center where we still have an equal number of contacts [but in different media] to an equal number of orders. But we don’t have so much the problem with recruiting, because we’re a premium company to work for, so people come in. But it’s more [of a challenge] once they’re in. The work of the call center is tedious and concise and precise, and it’s just really a tough job. We start out at about $11 an hour and bump up from there pretty quickly at three months, six months, nine months, and a year. They max out at a year, but we keep our reps when there’s not really any chance of advancement for two, three, four years because it’s just so stable. But what do you do with a rep for three or four years to keep them engaged and busy?

MCM: Do you have specific staff just for phone or just for e-mail?

Robinson: We have specialized reps for phone vs. e-mail. It goes back to that talent pool. Each is a vastly different skill set. Those who can answer e-mails might not be the greatest people on the phone, and I can tell you that 99.9% of the people I have on the phone could not write an e-mail, so we keep the staff separate. Actually our e-mail Web service is part of our back-end office operations, and my goal is to bring those individuals into the overall customer care center so that we know we’re delivering one specific message. And then ultimately if those people are good we can perhaps cross-train them for picking up phones when there’s a high demand.

Foster: Do you have scripts and templates that they use if they’re answering common questions?

Robinson: We do in Web, very definitely.

Griswold: Yes, in Web, and we have training protocols for calls, so that ends up being scripted, but we don’t truly script them like a call center would.

Foster: Do you have instant messaging? Did you find that to be of interest to you for your business model?

Robinson: Not initially. Our phone demographic is pretty old. We’re talking the 50-, 60-, 70-year-olds. It’s always fun — you can hear someone having to shout, and you know it’s just a dear sweet little old lady sending a box of candy to her granddaughter. But we don’t. And a lot of it is that we are very technology-stymied, both in our Website and in our order management system.

Griswold: We have quickened up our turnaround on our e-mails. We answer most of them, remarkably, within 20 minutes. We always finish the day with 100% answered, and most of the time it’s just real time.

Foster: So when they’re in your call center they’re on the phone and typing at the same time, or are they in separate groups?

Griswold: Yes, separate groups.

Foster: Have you found training modules to help people write good, informative e-mails?

Griswold: Not yet. We just invested in some.

Robinson: I just tasked human resources to do that.

Foster: I was just wondering if there’s a lead that we could find. We have a person in HR who’s designated to training, and we have very specific modules for e-mail communications. It’s one of the things we’re trying to get our hands around.

Robinson: If we find something I’ll let you know, because it is extremely important, and e-mail is clearly growing far faster than phones.

Foster: And it’s such a reflection of the brand — especially when one of our brand promises is quality, if there’s an e-mail with improper grammar, that’s just terrible.

MCM: Do you all monitor your phone calls, and do you record them?

Robinson: We don’t record, but we do monitor.

Griswold: How often and how do you monitor?

Robinson: Not nearly as often as we need to. The goal is three calls per rep per week. We actually stopped doing it for this last peak season; we simply didn’t have the time for it. So during that period we were essentially just going through observations and what the team lead saw and experienced.

Griswold: And do your executives have a way to monitor?

Robinson: We never put them on to monitor.

Griswold: I do from Ventura. One time I set it up during lunchtime, so we just sat around. It was really good, but it is really risky. I’ve been horrified listening in Ventura to [our] Reno [contact center]. We’ve changed a lot of what we’ve done because of it.

Robinson: Because we struggled a lot the year before, our CEO has his secretary call in periodically during the peak season just to see what our speed-to-answer is.

Foster: I’ve just started doing side-by-sides, where I sit with the reps and just listen, and it was so enlightening to hear the struggles that the customers had with our operations. We even redesign whole Website sections seasonally because of some of the comments I heard coming in to the call reps. So the side-by-sides for me weren’t for monitoring their performance but really to monitor what they experience every day with the customer and how from the marketing side I can make their life easier by arranging some things or adjusting things or offering different information on the Website.

Abood: We also have a really good top-quality assurance program put in place. We do record and monitor our calls, and we have a team of individuals who are responsible for doing the monitoring.

Robinson: And is that all they do?

Abood: Unfortunately no. We have one person who is our quality assurance specialist, and that’s all she does, and then she has the customer service lead who is monitoring and coaching, and some other leads I have in customer care, and then each of the production leads, so there are three other individuals who are coaches.

Robinson: We do it with our team leads and our managers.

MCM: What do you measure?

Abood: We measure their call metrics, their ACD [automatic call distribution availability] and the amount of time they’re in aux [auxillary mode, during which they are not available to receive calls from the ACD] — their productivity. We measure their attendance, we measure their quality assurance, and we have a scoring system and recognition program that we put together. Top reps earn cash prizes at the end of the quarter, and at the end of each quarter we have team metrics that we have to achieve, and if we achieve those then we have a team celebration.

Robinson: Those cash prizes, what percentage of your workforce actually receive those?

Abood: Three out of 15… It’s really fun. Each month we have a different theme. We had Rock Star Supernova, we have CCG [customer care group] Idol, and they really get into it. The customer care reps’ potlucks and any kind of celebration really motivate them.

Robinson: We did some upselling contests for Valentine’s Day, and there was one particular row [in the call center] that had the best fun, and quite honestly they got nine-tenths of the prizes. They were going back and forth with each other: “Now I’m at 33. Now I’m at 34.” And it was very successful. What was quite discouraging when we sat down and looked at it was that those were all our seasonal reps. None of our year-rounds were part of it, and that’s so unfortunate. It shows how difficult it is for us to move into a sales environment and to stay motivated.

Morlee, are you in a sales environment or an order-taking environment?

Griswold: We’re in a customer care environment. Patagonia’s a very odd company, and we hire athletes in Reno who are skiers, in the off-season climbers, fishermen, rafters, kayakers, which is really important because when people call up they’ve got to be able to understand about waterproofing three-layer fabric and the difference between down and synthetic material and really be genuine.

But what happens is we sometimes have a “too cool for school” attitude of “Yeah, you’re from New York, you’re not really going to be using this to climb Mount Everest. You guys are Wall Streeters.” But that’s our bread and butter. And there’s no one like New Yorkers for needing good warm waterproof gear — they’re standing at the bus stop or walking across town. So a lot of what I do in monitoring is say, “Pretend this is your grandmother on the phone, and she’s very sweet, and you have to have patience with her, and she means a lot to you. And these customers mean a lot to us.” So I’m interested in the contests.

MCM: Let’s talk about technology a bit. What is everybody using, and what would be on your wish list?

Foster: From the marketing side, one of my challenges is not only constructing a solid database that’s reliable and can give me the transactional data that we capture but can also thread in behavioral and attitudinal stuff that we get from surveys and other stuff. What I want to do is empower Lorena’s team as much as practical by turning and socializing the data so that they can say, “Oh, I see you’re a nonprofit. Did you know we offer a nonprofit rate? I can help you out with the paperwork.” And they can’t do that without the data or without specific messaging for specific categories or business types. Top-flight companies like ProFlowers or Harry & David or some of our competitors offer that level of customization now. It’s not new anymore, and [now more people] say, “Why didn’t you personalize the Website for me? Why don’t you know who I am?”

Griswold: Yeah, it went from being creepy to being expected.

Foster: And that transition happened within half a year. It was really fast, and people now have a completely different sense of, All right, I’m going to engage with you, you need to know who I am, you need to know what I want, and you need to know my tolerance for selling me or not selling me, and you need to know my preference for contacting me, if I want a call or I want to have e-mail. You should know all of that. Why don’t you know all of that?

I’m looking for technology to quickly allow us to socialize data so that Lorena’s team while in the mode of conversation has it readily available to talk to their customers. It’s not necessarily the CRM stuff, it’s more than that. I know the technology is available.

Griswold: We’re lucky. We have a really good marketing database through [a cooperative database provider]. It’s a relational database, so we need to know what they bought, when they bought it, where they live; we overlay it with a few demographics, gender, age, presence of children, that sort of thing. But we don’t feed that back to the reps; rather it’s for how we communicate with [customers]. It’s for personalized e-mails and targeted e-mails and catalog drops, and then we use that within the company for product development and line extensions. So it’s really, really powerful.

And again it goes back to, Is it creepy or is it expected to say, “You bought this kind of jacket six months ago; do you want to buy this kind of long underwear?” I think we’re teetering on that. The technology is there and available.

Robinson: We’re extremely technologically challenged. We’re on a very old AS400 green-screen order management system, which really ties our hands as to what we can do. We have a small IT organization that keeps us up and running — maintenance mode basically. We still manage our own Website inhouse. There are people in the company who don’t think that is the best model for us. We know candy, we don’t know Websites, we don’t know this technology.

We have embarked on an IT roadmap for our future. We are in the process of looking at vendors, so I’d love to come back in two years and tell you that our systems have been completely updated across the board. That is the goal, but right now we’re very limited. It’s very, very difficult.

Griswold: We have so many marketing ideas and plans. But then, “Does that have to go through IT? Forget about it.”

Robinson: Pieces of paper, that’s our technology. When we say what we need for a particular marketing campaign the first question is, “Does it require IT?” And if does then, “I’m sorry, it’s off the board.”

Griswold: You know, what we do is we hire outside vendors.

Robinson: We’re looking to use more and more outside vendors for individual pieces of technology. We still have to get over our own internal IT hurdle.

Abood: As far as the technology for the phone, we’ve got Avaya for telecom and the NICE system for monitoring. What we don’t have is workforce management. I’m not sure if you guys are using a workforce management system. To do the staffing and scheduling for 15 reps is fine, but once we try to centralize and have all the calls routed into one area, it’s not going to work without a workforce management system.

Robinson: I made it through the holiday season with my own [workforce management] version in Excel, and it’s like, I shouldn’t be spending six hours a day scheduling these associates. One of the things we’re looking at is a vendor that will provide VoIP [voice over Internet protocol]. One of the nice things about going with the vendor for VoIP is we get all of those other services like workforce management.

Griswold: Is that right? We went with VoIP and are still trying to figure out what we got. Okay, so we replaced our phone switch, but I know we bought a lot more than this, and again, I’m not the technology person, so I have to go to IT to the phone guy to have him explain what else we got.

Robinson: We’ll be getting the workforce management.

Foster: What was the hook to convince management to accept that?

Robinson: We simply convinced [them] that the $800,000 piece of hardware that we’ve got in our phone room, in 12 months we won’t find anybody to support it, and if anything happened to it, oh well. And to replace it would be anywhere from $1 million to $1.2 million. So we then move in the direction of looking at other ways of getting the whole thing accomplished.

Our big problem is that from Mother’s Day to Halloween we’ve got just 15 people working. How do you justify a $1 million piece of equipment that you’re using 1% of for half of the year or two-thirds of the year? [With the new system] it’s easy to make the ROI. We’re looking at this company where we’ll be paying a lump sum for the development, then we’ll be paying a per-transaction and duration charge. We haven’t seen the complete numbers yet. I actually just finished going over the preliminaries with the professional services yesterday, but we’re quite excited about it.

MCM: How do you train and schedule your seasonal staff?

Robinson: It’s very difficult. We did make some tactical errors this year. We tried to streamline our training, but we streamlined it too much, so they really didn’t get the level of training they should have.

Foster: How did you know it wasn’t working? Was it customer complaints?

Robinson: It was a little bit of customer complaint; it was a lot of observation from our team leads. Most of the team leads are from the year-round staff, so they could very quickly assess what somebody wasn’t providing and wasn’t able to do. So it took a lot more supervision.

Foster: Are your customers forgiving?

Robinson: Our customers are very forgiving for the most part, until they get closer and closer to the holiday. But we have some very loyal customers. We have customers who don’t mind sitting in queues. We rarely queue, but they don’t mind. They’re extremely loyal.

Foster: Do you have a high percent of repeat vs. new?

Robinson: We do. With our systems I couldn’t tell you exactly how much, but we do have a lot of repeat.

Foster: One of our challenges is that new customers require more handholding and a little bit more education about how we operate and work, so the time and devotion we put into first-timers is radically different than for someone who’s been ordering with us two, three times. So Lorena’s championing a first-time buyer program, which is a cross-functional program.

Griswold: We track very carefully our percent of buyers, what percent comes in and how long it takes for them to convert to multiple-time buyers, and we’re always trying to push them further into the brand. But our best buyers probably ask more-complex questions than our first-time buyers.

Robinson: Again, seasonality is a huge challenge for us. I’m trying to tackle it from a lot of angles, but we are fortunate that we do get a lot of repeat seasonal people to come in year after year. But our job pool, our candidate pool, is somewhat limited from our location.

Griswold: How long do the seasonals stay with you?

Robinson: The bulk of them will only stay from late October through Christmas. Griswold: [In training staff to sell as well as take orders], we’ve been saying that people are calling us because they want to buy stuff, so satisfy that, don’t let them get off the phone without satisfying them. We’re not pushing it down their throats, but if we don’t have a jacket like [the one the customers requested] suggest other ones and try to satisfy them.

Robinson: That’s what I tell the associates. We’re selling candy, we’re not selling burial plots. Everybody wants and likes candy, so you’re not hitting them over the head, you’re just showing them what you have. They called us; just show them what you have…

We don’t want to start out the conversation with “What’s your first item number?” [but instead with] “What can I help you with today?” “Oh well, I’m getting a gift for my grandmother.” That should immediate point you to the tins and in the case of Christmas, the Christmas tins. Grandmothers love the keepsake-type stuff. Listen to the words; are they saying “gift” in there? If it’s a gift, go to some of the fancier items, don’t just go to a box of candy. If they’re doing something for themselves for the dinner table, give them a box of candy. They don’t need anything fancy. The hardest part is getting those year-round associates to say, “What can I help you with?” not “What’s your first item number?”

Foster: That’s amazing.

Robinson: I had one year-round associate who walked out of our very initial sales-as-part-of-customer-service training module — just a one-day kind of “acquaint yourself with sales.” She’s probably been with the company 12 years, and she walked out and said, “Well, if I had known I was going to have to sell when I took the job I never would have taken the job.”

Abood: And that’s a challenge when you’re trying to convert the customer care reps into sales reps. What we found was when you convert them, instead of calling it a sale, tell them the value add: Wouldn’t you feel cheated if you were running down the street with a friend and talking to them and realized they got a special for a second pair of shoes whereas you had just placed an order and the company didn’t offer that to you?

Robinson: It’s just a service, and I have such problems with the philosophy of, No, that’s sales. No, if it’s approached right it’s customer service, and you’re actually doing the customer a favor.

Roundtable participants

David Robinson, customer service/call center manager for Carson, CA-based cataloger/retailer See’s Candies

Christopher Foster, marketing director for Carlsbad, CA-based printer/direct marketer Modern Postcard

Lorena Abood, director of customer care for Modern Postcard

Morlee Griswold, director of direct marketing for Ventura, CA-based Patagonia, a manufacturer/marketer of outdoor gear and appare.

Multichannel Merchant executive editor Melissa Dowling and special projects manager Heather Retzlaff moderated the discussion.

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