Executive Forum Q&A: Location, Location, Location

Ann Vezina, EDS's Division vice president for CRM with responsibility for the customer interaction centers, is based out of Troy, Michigan. EDS provides E-business and information technology services to 9,000 business and government clients in approximately 55 countries around the world. Having founded the information technology (IT) services industry more than 35 years ago, EDS delivers management consulting, electronic business solutions, business process management, and systems and technology expertise for clients' critical business imperatives.

Q: What kind of a work force are you looking for?

A: We have to be able to get enough part-timers, because with business the way it is today and with volume fluctuations, it's always good to have a healthy mix of part-time and full-time agents. We look at a variety of different profiles and a variety of different work schedules. Research groups have been predicting that about 45 percent of customer service responses would be online by 2001. I'm not sure it's going to be 45 percent. It's moving, but slower than I thought and it isn't just a simple matter of moving away from phones and into e-mail. Rather our customers want to talk to their clients more and more often, so phone volume is staying about the same and perhaps increasing a little bit. At the same time we're seeing significant increases in the nontraditional channels like Web and e-mail. As a result the volume of communication coming into the customer interaction centers is increasing tremendously.

We're have to prepare for that and obviously people are the key component. You have three options: train all your agents to handle all channels, have pools of agents dedicated to each channel or have hybrid agents. Right now we are operating under a hybrid process. We have one pool of agents is dedicated to phones, which is our highest volume channel. Then we have another pool of hybrid agents, and they do a little each of phones, Web, and e-mail. Then we have agents who are dedicated to those alternative channels.

Now, this kind of technical trend impacts how you recruit and train as well as how your internal processes are set up--how you communicate with your agents, whether it's a daily or a monthly communication. We found that our best tool for dealing with all those process implications is the COPC 2000 standard. It's the whole discipline around documenting processes, a methodical approach to treat the processes that you are employing throughout the centers. We have chosen to standardize on the COPC standard. We have begun to standardize our centers and will continue until they are all done. I have a team of about six people that is focused on that task and it has really allowed us to meet the process demands and process trends that we are seeing as a result of today's economy.

Q: How did you come to consider Nova Scotia as a site for your customer interaction center?

A: We realized that the labor market in the United states was becoming painfully difficult to contend with. We started looking at offshore tech locations, and decided on Canada because the incentives were there, the accent was acceptable, and the culture was similar (although I will tell you we are looking at other geographies as we speak). Then we divided the Canadian map into the four quadrants and honed in on about ten different geographic locations. From there we started an RFP-type process with the local governments to understand what incentives we might be able to take advantage of. And we simultaneously looked at the next level of detail around labor markets. And that brought us down to a short list of three different geographies and we began detailed face-to-face discussions with each one.

The thing we liked about Sidney, Nova Scotia, was the people--the incentives were there, but they were in other places as well. Let me define people as the government officials that we worked with, the other businesses that were in that geography, the university professionals we met with, and just the plain old folks on the street. Everywhere we turned we found nothing but receptivity to what we wanted to do. The universities could not have been more helpful to us. Before we agreed to anything they put together course work and began putting university students through it at no cost to us if we would then make some level of commitment to hire them. And the level of commitment they were looking for was not much more than a handshake. They opened up their classrooms to us so that we could get agents trained before our facility was physically ready. That's the kind of genuine commitment they had to making this a success. The government officials came to Michigan and met with me and showed a genuine desire to make this happen.

They wanted to understand what it was going to take on our end, real flexibility, which you don't usually see with government. I was on a very short time frame and I needed something to happen fast. I told them, "look--you've got to fast track this or forget it. I've got to have something here done by the March time frame." They looked at me like I had three eyes but they did everything possible to make it happen, and in fact they succeeded.

Then we interviewed a lot of local businesses that we would need to buy services from like security and vending. Again, they had that same level of receptivity. And if you go to the center and meet the people who are actually working for us, you never want to leave. You are so overwhelmed with their sincere desire to make EDS and our clients successful. It's like nothing I had ever experienced prior to that. You actually get the feeling of, "Wow, this is a neat place to work." I went to town hall and so often when you do a town hall the typical concerns of employees--due to their age and career level--are very "me" focused. In contrast, in Sidney their questions and concerns were focused on EDS and our clients. What more could you ask for from permanent employees? It's refreshing.

Q: Was it difficult to move your client's business to the new location?

A: It's working out extremely well. We had three existing clients whose business we intended to move. When we approached them they were not exactly giddy about the prospect of moving, but they understood why we wanted to do it and they respected that we had their best interests in mind. Still they were extremely concerned about the transition. Today all three of them would tell you that it was one of the best decisions they ever made and one of the most painless transitions that they ever experienced. They are so pleased with the level of service that they're getting now.

Q: What future trends do you anticipate?

A: We're operating in a hybrid environment from a process perspective where we've got some folks dedicated to phone and some dedicated to the other channels and some that can do all. If we're building a 300-seat center, I look for a labor market that could potentially sustain what I call 300 universal agents. I believe that this notion of having pools of agents dedicated to a specific channel, which works today, isn't going to work in the future. We're going to have to hire and retain and afford financially the caliber of agent that's capable of being a truly universal.

Another trend that we are seeing is the remote agent. You need to be able to support the agent-at-home scenario because the technology is beginning to become very adaptable to that type of a solution. And then lastly, voice over IP. It's not the big channel today because the technology is not quite there, but it will be. This whole global workforce/mobile tools challenge is going to happen and we need to be prepared to support it. And that has implications on technology, people process and location, each of which has to be considered.

Chris Hodges

Chris Hodges is CEO and president of NSDI Tele Performance, a division of SR Teleperformance Group, based in Paris France. NDSI was founded in 1990 and was acquired by Teleperformance in 1999. The company offers outsourced CRM solutions and teleservices to over 3,000 clients worldwide.

Q: Where are NDSI's state-of-the-art, multi-media customer contact centers?

A: We actually have four dedicated multi-media contact centers. Two are in Texas. The El Paso center was opened in April of 2000, and the McAllen facility, was opened in October. Then we opened the Atlanta Multi-Media Contact Center and CRM Laboratory in August of this year and our Youngstown facility opened in late September.

Q: What is the CRM Lab?

A: Our CRM Laboratory in Atlanta is a dedicated facility for the development, implementation and what we call crash-testing--which is really pilot programs--of CRM projects. In that facility we have all of the CRM tools necessary to customize a customer relationship management program for clients and test it in a laboratory/workshop-type facility before the programs are deployed into a larger production-type facility. For instance, we are using products such as the e-Gain ERMS tool and the Noble Systems Predictive Dialer tool and we have got Sable on the desktop there as well, all connected in a combination of NT, Linux and Unix operating system platforms. All of that equipment is fully integrated with a Lucent ACA, which enables us to really determine which tools would be best utilized for a particular client's application, whether it's predictive dialing or an inbound ACD-type application. It allows us to work out issues such as integration of scripting and employee training in a small hands-on facility before those programs are made more transportable, if you will, so we can move them to a larger production facility and get all the bugs worked out. We have a depth of team resources, a depth of client services and production resources here so we have a high ratio of resource to agent while working on the applications with the client. We have facilities here to support the clients on-site to work with us in the development of the programs.

Q: What was your strategy for placing the El Paso center?

A: We have a contact center for telemarketing facilities in Las Cruces, New Mexico, which is approximately 45 minutes outside of El Paso. You have to fly into El Paso to get to Las Cruces, so from a management control standpoint, we could achieve some logistical synergies by having another facility close by. The facilities are close enough for regional management to interact with both but far enough away that they don't compete with each other's employee base. So that was one consideration.

The second was seeing what kind of a draw we could get in an established market with experienced telemarketers. We purposefully recruited at a level above the current market wage base with a higher price point and a much high profile facility.
The El Paso facility has a truly state-of-the-art multimedia customer contact center with large workstations, comfortable chairs, headsets, 17-inch computer screens at each station, large break facilities, all kinds of amenities. It's not a typical telemarketing facility. It requires a dress code. There we had very high levels of screening and only hired a third of those who applied. We required a minimum of two years' experience on a PC. We have been able to establish that facility as a gem in the area. Experienced teleservice agents who are ready to go to that next level seek us out. That was our strategy there.

Q: What is the point of your dress code?

A: It establishes a more professional tone. We compete with more traditional telemarketing outfits that have a high density, lower wage, churn-and-burn mentality. Our position is more top shelf. Here folks see the look and feel of the facilities, the 6-foot by 5-foot desk with a high partition versus a 32- or 48-inch cubical, with people in business attire who take a series of tests before we even conduct the interview. All of this increases production.

Q: Where did this idea come from?

A: One of the benefits of our worldwide organization is that we are able to share best practices with other countries. We have quarterly and semi-annual meetings where we engage in workshops to discuss these kinds of strategies. For instance, next week I will be in Paris for workshops on things like IT and resource marketing. In addition, we have the Tele Performance Institute, which is a global training standard we have developed for the different subsidiaries, not only for agent training but also management training and best practices in terms of procedures in IT, HR, etc. This kind of standardization helps us provide consistency for global accounts regardless of what country that they are doing business in. There are labor laws in France, which are significantly different than the labor laws in Argentina or here in the United states. In the United states you have a lot more latitude as an employer than in other places. In the Philippines you have significantly more latitude than you would in the United states. You have to study these best practices at a high level and when you are implementing procedures you have got to consider local laws, customs, etc.

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