How many times have you dialed an 800 number only to be greeted by a
mechanical voice prompting you to "press 1 on your touch tone key pad?" Sure,
the voice is pleasant and the background music soothing, but isn't it maddening
to be trapped in touch-tone hell?
There was a time when you could punch "0" to bypass these menus and speak
directly to a representative. But the 800-conspiracy caught on. Now pressing "0"
simply results in the recorded response: "I'm sorry but that is not a valid
option," and back to the menu you return. This is the state of customer service
In all practicality if companies had their way every customer would be
greeted by a cheery helpful, live service representative. But economics simply
do not allow it--the cost of having staff available for every customer call is
prohibitive, making the automated voice systems inevitable. So how is it that
rural telcos continue to provide live customer service? Size matters: the
smaller the company the higher the level of service it can offer.
As telcos expand into a broader array of competitive services, their customer
support functions are increasingly stretched thin. The level of expertise and
the diversity of products that today's telco offers requires a highly educated,
cross-functional customer service representative (CSR) team.
Rural telcos face a battery of questions regarding the appropriate level of
customer service needed to support company growth: How quickly must the phone be
answered? Do we need customer care specialists broken out by product line?
Should we expand our hours of operation? Should the company offer support seven
days a week? Should we rely solely on internal staff, or should we
The answers to these questions vary by company and circumstance. Generally,
however, the larger the company and the broader the service mix, the greater the
need for expanded customer service.
Rural telcos pride themselves on the personal service they provide. Reaching
a live voice and receiving immediate attention gives customers a level of
service that cannot be matched by the telecom giants. Market research has
consistently shown that customers value this direct access as much as any other
service the telco may provide.
Just as installation and repair are measurable functions, so is customer
service. Traffic flows and productivity levels can be documented fairly easily
by the front office with a bit of inventory. For example, what are your current
and anticipated inbound call volumes? Do you know your call traffic by
hour-of-day, day-of-week, month and year? What's your average talk-time with a
customer? Is it too long? Too short? What's your average speed of answer? Why do
customers call? How many billing cycles do you have? How many customers are in
each cycle? What is your goal? Do you want to provide the same level of service
to all customers, or differentiate based on such factors as longevity or
Most of this data can be obtained from the internal Centrex or PBX phone
system. In fact, the customer service manager should be tracking this
information regularly. If these issues are growing beyond your customer service
team's ability and resources, then you have some business planning to do.
Generally, as a business grows, small problems tend to become large problems.
It's important to take the time to understand both your current and anticipated
situations. Then you can make an informed decision about the kind of service
required to exceed customer expectations.
Specialists or generalists? Smaller operations with relatively few lines of
business tend to have staff generalists who handle every aspect of customer care
across all business lines. As companies grow, both in size and scope of
services, many opt to staff customer care with product specialists. There is a
tradeoff between the benefits of each approach, which largely is dictated by the
size of the operation.
Small companies, with fewer employees, have less flexibility distributing
staff across product lines without diluting the minimal resource required to
support a product. Larger companies can leverage staff size to achieve economies
of scale and apply dedicated resources to its products.
The training demands to support a generalist customer service population are
intense. Smaller companies with less growth and employee turnover tend to have
longer tenured staff that is best suited to support the generalist model.
Larger, high-growth companies have increased hiring demands and less tenured
staff. Therefore, for larger companies, the specialist approach usually is best
suited for getting staff up to speed quickly and efficiently.
Hours of operation: The two main factors that drive a company's decision
about its hours of operation are anticipated demand and competition. Anticipated
customer demand varies by line of business. An Internet user or pay-per-view
cable TV customer has a different calling pattern and expectation than the
traditional incumbent local exchange carrier (ILEC) subscriber. Typically the
more competitive the business, the greater the need to provide extended customer
Doing the math: Once the desired hours of operation have been established,
it's fairly simple to arrive at the needed full-time headcount to support call
traffic. Using your statistics, you can forecast the hourly call volumes for
each day of the week. Using these same statistics, you also know your customer
service staff productivity; that is, how many calls a customer service rep can
handle in a given hour.
From these figures, you can calculate the raw headcount requirement needed at
a given time to support a given call volume. These hours are accumulated for the
week and divided by the weekly available hours of a full-time employee. You then
can divide up the resulting full-time equivalent positions into however many
fulltime and part-time shifts you choose.
Anticipated after-hours call volumes often indicate that one customer service
rep will suffice. Nevertheless, a minimum staff (two to three) is required to
ensure the safety and security of your personnel. If your after-hours call
volumes are small, and staffing at the minimum number is an issue, after-hours
staffing still may be a good strategy from a competitive standpoint. However,
the company must ensure that it is maximizing its investment in its human
Shifting the Day Work
Since after-hours staff may not be heavily engaged with answering inbound
calls, their time can be efficiently utilized by passing "batch" workload
performed during the day to the night shift. In fact, if enough of this work is
transferred to the night crew, it may partially fund the incremental after-hours
headcount expense by reducing staff during daytime hours. Any work that is not
done in real-time should be considered for a night staff to perform,
- service orders
- payment processing
- returning customer calls
- handling written correspondences and other responses
- bill stuffing
After-hours staff can go a step further by taking on customer support and
soft-sales initiatives. To the extent that you understand why your customers
call each month, customer service reps can contact customers to address these
issues. Doing so will both reduce daytime "reactive" call volumes (potentially
lowering staffing costs) and present an opportunity to soft-sell solutions to
customer problems raised during the call.
Finally, night staff can make quality of service (QoS) calls to customers who
have experienced recent service issues, with particular attention paid to
customers who have noted more than one service problem in the past three
Staying In or Sending Out
If call volumes are forecasted to be ongoing and related to core business
support (as opposed to, say, marketing programs) the telco is better served
hiring its own staff, as local staff support and community job creation is vital
to a rural telco's competitive marketing advantage. In-house resources are
easier to manage and train and, as a general rule, provide better, more
consistent customer support.
Other factors, however, may incline your company to rely on outsourced
staffing. For example, you may have a union presence that limits your staffing
flexibility Or, as mentioned above, you may be engaged in short-term marketing
If you do opt to outsource some of your call center functionality, keep it
simple. The goal should be to provide a consistent customer care experience.
Given some of the limitations and constraints associated with outsourcing, these
callers should be trained to answer basic questions. More difficult matters can
be referred to a daytime callback list or representatives can make the calls
after business hours.
When outsourcing, it's better to rely on a service that's in your general
region. Not only will employees be familiar with the area when talking with
customers, you also can visit the call center as needed. Ideally, the
after-hours outsourced call center will have view-only access to your OSS.
Facilitating this secure remote access to your systems can be challenging,
however. Other considerations include a plan for routing calls to the outsourced
call center, and tracking vendor performance and cost of service.
Regardless of how you choose to staff your customer service operation, a
robust, ongoing training program is vital. Ask most CSRs how they were trained,
and they'll respond that it was OTJ (on the job); most likely observing a
20-year, computer-illiterate employee with a bad attitude.
Just like every other facet of rural telecommunications, customer service is
an evolutionary function that must adapt to meet customer demand. Customer
service should be taken as seriously as any other part of the business: that is,
it should be tracked, quantified and planned for based on traffic, business
expansion and customer demand.
Telcos can maximize their value of staffing customer service after regular
business hours, and reach out to new customers at the same time. To ensure new
customers are happy with their service, and to answer any questions they may
have about their bill or other matters, after-hours staff can be directed to
call new customers on two occasions.
In the first call, representatives ask the customer how they like the service
and if they have any questions about its use. The representative also can remind
the customer of some of the features the product offers.
The second call should be made a few days after the customer's first bill is
mailed. At that point, the customer service representative should review the
bill with the customer and answer any questions. Both calls present an
opportunity to soft sell the customer on the company's telecommunications
solutions, and help distinguish the telco from its competition.