• June 1, 2003
  • By David Myron, Editorial Director, CRM and Speech Technology magazines and SmartCustomerService.com

A Slice of the Good Life: Washington, D.C.--AARP

Article Featured Image

Twelve-year veteran Ava Baker regularly works 12-hour days, yet she still finds time to volunteer in her community and to help her 85-year-old mother with chores and shopping. With her selflessness and compassion it is easy to see why Baker is a natural as director of customer service centers for AARP, one of the country's largest lobbying groups in Congress, representing the needs of 35 million Americans ago 50 and over.

Today like every workday, Baker climbed out of bed at 4:30 a.m., giving her enough time to prepare for work and get through the 45-minute drive from her Maryland home to her Washington, D.C., office. Awaiting her at AARP's headquarters is a large--and, as her CIO says, "painful"--call center transition project. 

At Baker's suggestion AARP is abandoning its current call center outsourcing company because of technology limitations and cost. Baker discovered that call center outsourcing company Precision Response Corp. (PRC) can meet her technological demands, and for less money than what AARP is currently paying. 

Her efforts for the past month have been devoted for the most part to preparing for the July 1 launch date, which will give her a little more than two weeks to get the kinks out for her first-ever ribbon-cutting ceremony in New York, slated for July 16. Prominent members of the community and AARP's top brass will be watching, so Baker needs everything to be flawless, which is not an easy goal. AARP's Washington, D.C., and Lakewood, CA, call centers and its outsourced call center annually receive three million phone calls. Emails flood AARP's agents' mailboxes at a rate of 10,000 per week, and paper mail averages nearly 30,000 pieces per week--all of which must get an appropriate response. 

This morning Baker arrives at her office at 6:30 a.m. And while pressures abound, Baker starts her day focusing on her staff. She uses the quiet early hours of the morning to respond to emails, check phone messages, and meet with her management team on pressing call center or AARP event issues. But she is not only focusing on her management team. Between the hours of 6:30 and 9:00 Baker's door remains wide open to all staff members. 

Like most mornings and some afternoons, Baker spends a half hour talking with call center agents. It could be about business or personal issues--whatever is on their minds, she says. The conversation topics range from work-related issues to new engagements and marriages, as well as to ailing relatives. The inspiration for this open-door policy rests right outside her office door, where a poster-size illustration of the January/February 2002 issue of Modern Maturity magazine, now called AARP, The Magazine, prominently displays Colin Powell on the cover. "That's my hero," Baker says with a smile. "He teaches me to never let my success go to my head."

Baker is back in her office at 9:00 and the door closes. She spends the next hour reviewing materials for the day's meetings and briefings. That's when her day shifts into overdrive, with back-to-back meetings.

At 10:00 Baker sits at the head of a large conference table talking with her management team about how AARP can leverage PRC call center agents to improve branding initiatives across the company once PRC's call center goes live with dedicated AARP agents. Two PRC representatives, Rae Towsley, vice president of information technology, and David Berger, vice president of teleservices, also attend the meeting. 

Most of the meeting is spent on Berger's attempts to quell AARP CIO John Sullivan's technology concerns, so there is a little time left to talk about branding ideas. After exchanging ideas and their technological feasibility, they all agree that PRC call center agents could promote AARP's National Event at the end of calls, and direct interested members to AARP's Web site for more information or send them a brochure on the event. 

At 11:00 Baker invites the PRC representatives, a BearingPoint consultant, and two colleagues to lunch at the upscale Caucus Room, next to the FBI building on 9th Street. Resting on the table are two books, both about Antarctic explorer Ernest Shackleton. Next to Baker's plate lay a copy of Shackleton's Way, by Margot Morrell and Stephanie Capparell--Baker's latest required reading assignment for her management team. PRC's Berger had placed his book on the table as well, Endurance: Shackleton's Incredible Voyage, by Alfred Lansing, which was given to him by one of his clients. He's reading it for the second time. Over salads and crab cakes it isn't long before a debate ensues, comparing each author's view of the explorer, who through tenacity and revered leadership skills saved the lives of 27 men stranded with him in the Antarctic for almost two years. "I like the book, because it shows tremendous willpower despite extreme adversity," Baker says. "Shackleton and his crew nearly died, but they persevered!"

The conversation takes a winding path, covering other recommended leadership books as well as a discussion on call center technology today and how it can help organizations cut costs, recognize profits, and improve customer relationships. The conversation could have gone on much longer, but at 12:45 p.m. at Baker's suggestion, it stops. She needs to prepare for a panel discussion at 1:15. 

Today's panel discussion is part of an annual update for roughly 100 employees in AARP's Operations Group. Baker sits with two other directors, Katharyn Marks, director of value management, and Julie Cohn, southeast field director, at the front of the room, but most questions are directed at Baker. One operations employee in the audience asks, "With budgets shrinking, why are we investing in a new call center?"

Baker responds that it will enable AARP to improve communications with members, as well as increase branding initiatives across the company. Although not on the panel, Sullivan stands up from his table to explain that perhaps the most important reason to partner with PRC is that it will help AARP cut costs. "We'll see an ROI in one year," he says.

Keeping a tight schedule, at 2:30 p.m. Baker meets with her branding and media relations team to talk about event promotion issues, such as renaming the National Event, ways to increase awareness of the event to bolster attendance, and some of the statistics of last year's attendees. 

After the 90-minute meeting it's back to her office to catch up with email and return phone calls Baker heads for home at 7:30 p.m.--13 hours after her workday began. However, that doesn't faze her. Similar to the affection she gives her colleagues, she says of her call center initiative, "This is my baby!" 

Why CRM?

Ava Baker and her call center team at AARP use CRM to:

  • effectively answer 5 million queries per year
  • improve branding initiatives across the organization
  • increase awareness and attendance at AARP events
  • cut costs associated with service and support

CRM Covers
for qualified subscribers
Subscribe Now Current Issue Past Issues