• November 1, 2002
  • By David Myron, Editorial Director, CRM and Speech Technology magazines and SmartCustomerService.com

A Day in the Life of a Call Center

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"We've got a Lotto winner," boasts a contact center agent, pointing over his newspaper and to his left down a row of cubicles inside the New York City Department of Housing Preservation and Development's (HPD) Central Complaint Bureau (CCB). 

The lucky young woman stands up, all smiles, and brings to her chest a thin black cloth sack that when removed reveals a large cardboard check for $1,000 paid to her boyfriend, an amount he will receive every week for the rest of his life. Even with that financial windfall, she still reports to work every day as a contact center agent--despite its reputation as being a transitional job. 

It is no coincidence that the HPD's CCB retains 95 percent of its employees, according to Millicent Padgett, deputy director of the CCB. HPD's management credits its low attrition rate to the professional environment inside the contact center. And although the CCB is government run, its success in employee retention and productivity is impressive--even by private sector standards, which suggests that even private sector contact centers can benefit from the strategies the CCB uses. 

Private sector and public sector experiences are often interchangeable; at least that is what successful moneyman Michael Bloomberg maintained during his winning New York City mayoral campaign last year. Based on the HPD's merits, it is no wonder that Mayor Bloomberg is looking to the HPD, which runs the city's highest volume nonemergency call center, to guide the city's 311 initiative for nonemergency calls. It's a gigantic undertaking that will combine most of the 40-plus city-run contact centers under the 311 umbrella. 

Padgett and her team at the CCB work in what she calls a comfortable and friendly work environment, which is clean and well lighted. Agents come to work casually dressed--many of them clad in T-shirts and jeans--and work in their personally decorated cubicles, which stand roughly four feet high. It's likely that this comfortable and friendly--yet professional--atmosphere has helped induce many employees to stay.

"A quiet call center is conducive to enabling employees to accomplish their jobs. In a quiet, controlled environment where you have a cubicle, it's not perceived that there is a lot of chaos going on. That's a very healthy environment," says Michelle Curless, the director of The Customer Group LLC, a Chicago-based consulting firm that specializes in customer interaction. "The chaos is going to be there on days you cannot predict. Although there is chaos behind the scenes, it tends to be managed better in a professional environment." 

When the CCB's call volume is slow, it is not uncommon to find an agent reading a newspaper, doing homework, or cracking open a book to pass the time. While garrulous conversations are frowned upon, a quick "hello," a smile, and perhaps a quick joke are the norm during slow days, which are typically in the warm summer months. The friendly work environment helps keep employees happy. 

But don't let the laid-back work environment fool you. It can get quite intense at the CCB, which fields calls 24 hours a day, 365 days a year. The calls range from complaints of cockroaches to gas leaks. The HPD's CCB receives more than 400,000 calls per year, besting the NYC Department of Health, the NYC Department of Transportation, and the NYC Department of Buildings. 

On slow days the CCB will receive about 600 calls per day. In the winter months, however, the cold weather takes its toll on homes and buildings, and as a result the incoming calls skyrocket to an average of about 3,000 per day, and sometimes reach about 8,000 a day, largely due to complaints of no heat or no hot water, or frozen pipes. To handle this kind of call volume the CCB must staff up to roughly 100 agents over a 24-hour day, up from 30 to 40 agents in the summer months. 

Managing the Complexities
To make matters even more complicated, nearly 90 percent of all calls coming into the contact center necessitate a follow-up call, says Cary Peskin, associate commissioner and CIO of the NYC HPD. "Quality-of-life issues can be life threatening. Some examples might be callers saying, 'I smell gas; I smell smoke; my fire escape is broken,'" he says. 

In these cases the HPD needs to act fast. "Depending on the problem we will make the call to the utility company, the fire department, the building agent, the Board of Health, [or] the Department of Buildings--if bricks are falling off of the building--and so on," Peskin says.

What's more, due to New York City's cultural diversity calls come into the center in as many as 26 languages. The HPD has several bilingual employees who can field Spanish-speaking calls internally. In fact, the HPD's interactive voice recognition also has an option to continue in Spanish. Callers who do not speak either Spanish or English are transferred to the AT&T Language Line, which acts as a third-party translator. Naturally, these calls average at least twice as long as calls from English-speaking callers, because all the questions and answers have to be repeated so the agent can register the complaint. 

Peskin says he would like to handle all calls internally, but his technological needs are beyond the capabilities of current CRM technology advancements. Fortunately, fewer than one percent of calls require the AT&T Language Line, Peskin says, so the costs are not astronomical. 

Naturally, when dealing with such large call volumes, some requiring immediate attention and some requiring the assistance of a third-party translator, it is easy to see how problems can arise. Managing the activity on the floor is critical. Therefore, between the hours of 8:00 a.m. and 4:00 p.m., the busiest time of day, the CCB usually has two to three deck supervisors stationed on a raised platform facing the agents. Deck supervisors primarily ensure agents are at their desks working by scanning the CCB agents. Supervisors periodically listen in on conversations for quality control issues, and walk the floor for an in-the-trenches view of the agents' work. However, deck supervisors--some of whom are former agents--don't merely act as Big Brother watching over the agents. They are also there to support the agents with technical or legal issues. 

Additionally, deck supervisors monitor the local weather reports and enter the current temperature into the system, which appears on the lower right hand corner of the screen. This is important for agents, especially between the months of October and May, when landlords are required by law to ensure that the inside temperature must be at least 68 degrees F when the temperature outside drops below 55 degrees F.

Despite the complexities of the HPD's contact center, it thrives on some basic--yet intuitive--reporting tools that help guide the CCB agents through a call. The tool-of-choice is an internally developed object-oriented interface, which was built using Sybase Inc.'s PowerBuilder. The interface accesses HPDInfo, a suite of homegrown applications built on its Oracle 8i database. When a call comes in agents answer the phone and log on to the password-protected database. Immediately, a screen pops up that prompts agents to fill in required identification information, starting with the caller's name, borough, and building number. Then the screen guides agents through a list of possible problems that agents can click on for ease of reporting--things like leaky pipes, no heat or no hot water, a broken fire escape, and so on. The complaint is registered and, depending on the immediacy of the problem, an inspector is sent to the site later that day to investigate the complaint. 

In one unusually long call (it was more than 16 minutes, whereas an average call takes about three minutes, according to Peskin), a caller rattled off a list of complaints against a landlord, indicating his utter neglect toward the building. The agent got the preliminary contact questions--name, phone number, borough, zip code, street, building number, apartment number--out of the way. She verified the information, then, like a dam release, the caller's complaints came in a rush.

"There's rubbish in front of the building? Where exactly? You also see roaches?" the agent asked. She then clicked on the appropriate boxes in the application that identify the problems and their locations inside the apartment.

"Anything else? There are no lights in front of the building?" She clicked again. 

"Anything else? There's garbage in the hallway?" More clicks. 

"Anything else, such as the floors sagging? The floors are sagging? Where? In the living room? OK." Sloping floors are particularly alarming, as the building could be experiencing structural defects, which may result in buckling and possibly collapse. 

"Anything else? There's an odor coming out of the faucets?" She clicks some more and writes a note in a window at the bottom of the screen associated with the faucets that reads "dirty and unsanitary odor." This could be due to rusty pipes, lead, or bacteria--all of which needs to be inspected. 

"Anything else? No? Is the super available? No? OK." 

The agent then told the caller the complaint had been registered and provided the caller with a reference number. "We will send someone out within an hour," the agent said. 

Suddenly, the caller bailed and did not want anyone to be sent to the apartment building. 

The agent realized the call was a false alarm. She transfered it to a deck supervisor after 16 minutes and 48 seconds. Unfortunately, the CCB receives a lot of false alarms by disgruntled tenants. "It's a very common problem," Peskin says. 

Leading the Way
Despite these types of calls, agents are required to maintain this professionalism by remaining calm under stressful and discouraging situations. It is their professionalism that enables them to maintain a positive attitude, even during the often-stressful winter months. 

All these efforts and accomplishments prompted Mayor Bloomberg to model the city's 311 initiative after the HPD's CCB. "Mayor Bloomberg wants a single entry point into the city. He likes to tout 'one city, one agency,'" Peskin says. "[Bloomberg] built his success on customer service at Bloomberg Corp. without any machines. He wants every call to be answered by an agent in one phone call without being bounced around from one agency to another."

Many of the city's 311 agents will be moved to a location in downtown New York. The 311 project is slated to begin a phased rollout in Q1 2003, beginning with the HPD. Like the Lotto-winning agent's boyfriend, the HPD aims to hit some winning numbers of its own.

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