Bodamer Consulting, LLC  

Customer Service:

at sixes and sevens with 24/7

      Albert Bodamer      

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 today.

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 outsource?

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.

Monitoring Traffic

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 revenues billed?

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 service support.

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 resources.

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, including:

  • 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 months.

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 initiatives.

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.


Publication Details

Title: Customer service: at sixes and sevens with 24/7.
Author: Albert Bodamer
Web address:
Publication: Rural Telecommunications (Magazine/Journal)
Date: March 1, 2003
Publisher: National Telephone Cooperative Association
Volume: 22    Issue: 2    Page: 30

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