Do You Hear What I Hear?

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Listening to her call center sales agents as they spoke to customers and providing feedback on their performances was an important priority for Maureen Mann. Unfortunately, there was no way for this vice president of catalog sales for The Nailco Group (TNG), a multi-million dollar wholesale beauty supply distributor headquartered in Farmington Hills, Mich., to do so without physically standing behind a particular agent and plugging in.

The sales supervisors in the call center had a similar problem, plus an additional one--they had no quick and easy method of determining which agents were busy, which were not and how many calls were stacking up in the queue. The company clearly needed a better way to manage incoming calls. It also needed a means of insuring that responses and customer service were meeting Nailco standards.

The solution came in the form of a sophisticated CRM call center solution that improved customer service by enabling sales managers to provide on-the-spot feedback to customer-facing agents. "When the new call center technology upgrade was installed in 1998," says Mann, "customer service improved significantly as a result of the ability for enhanced training and follow-up."

Call Center Problems

The Nailco Group is an experienced 15-year-old wholesale beauty supply distributor that boasts more than 100,000 clients worldwide. Besides its headquarters near Detroit, TNG sports distribution facilities in Atlanta, Santa Fe Springs, Calif. and Cranberry, New Jersey.

Recognized as one of the Future 50 Companies in the Detroit area for four consecutive years--a city program highlighting businesses that have brought growth to the area--TNG employs more than 230 people and did roughly $50 million in sales in 2000.

Part of this success, says Mann, is that TNG prides itself on its employees. "In 1994 we were doing about $12 million in sales," she says. "That year, at the company Christmas party, our CEO, Lawrence Gaynor, promised a brand new automobile for any employee who was still with the company when we reached $50 million. We've reached that goal and he bought 23 brand new cars. He's promised to do it again when we reach $100 million."

Open from 8:30 a.m. to 8 p.m. Est--orders can also be placed on TNG's Web site, www.theindustrysource.com, 24 hours a day--the previous antiquated monitoring system operated through the telephone system itself. While a supervisor could click into someone's call, there was no overall phone system management.

The Nailco Group call center wasn't broken. It just was not operating as efficiently as the company would have hoped. At that time the company was using a 16-bit Windows 3.1 system with very limited network ability that dated back to 1996. With this system, TNG used a very basic evaluation process done through the phone system. Mann says the name of that system was lost in time, but does remember that it was very laborious to use. "We had no idea how to evaluate our agents and no idea what their production was," says Mann. "We couldn't tell what percentage of their day they spent on the ACD (automatic call distribution) and we couldn't record their conversations for training.

You can't improve if you don't know what you need to improve upon."

At that time, TNG was rapidly expanding its market penetration and appropriately, increasing the size of its call center staff, which only exacerbated its call center woes. With more than 50 agents working at one time, the call center "seemed" to be working well, but there was no effective way to find out. It became apparent that an infusion of new technology was required.

Better Quality Control

After evaluating a number of call center applications from various CRM vendors, the best solution, says Mann, came from Telecorp Products, a Michigan-based provider of call center technologies. Telecorp's CentrEE Solution Suite offered TNG a vehicle for reporting and observation that enabled supervisors to obtain quantitative statistics for customer service agents. "That," she says, "gave us a better form of quality control."

CentrEE is comprised of three major technology modules, representing the three areas of expertise in which Telecorp Products specializes. TNG uses Telecorp's Total E-Call technology module to instantaneously track the performance of the operation as events happen. This can be viewed by both a centralized system and each workstation user.

The Instant E-Play module features observation and recording tools that allow management to oversee all calls or selected calls of an individual sales agent, record them and then archive them for future use. The final module of the triumvirate is Rapid E-Port, which includes total historical reporting functions, viewable through easily comprehensible graphs.

The Telecorp solution gives Mann the ability to know exactly what is happening on the sales floor at all times. She even has a speaker on her desk, which allows her to listen in at her convenience throughout the day. "The feature I liked about Telecorp the best is Total E-Call," says Mann. "I don't have to walk around people's cubicles to see what state their phones are in, whether they are busied out or reading a magazine. From my office, I can glance at a screen and tell you exactly what every agent is doing, based on color-coding. It makes it easy to know how many callers are in the queue, are the agents on a call, and if callers are waiting, literally in two seconds. It makes overall management of the call center a lot easier."

One of her chief goals was to reduce an on-going attrition rate of 20 percent among her sales agents in their first six months on the job and create an atmosphere at TNG where timely fulfillment of customer needs was the norm. After implementing and integrating E-Call software into their operation, the attrition rate has dropped to about 10 percent.

Day-To-Day Operations

"Any time a sales agent walks into my office, they can hear their co-workers," she says, quickly explaining that it is not to catch them doing something wrong but is used as a means of rewarding them for doing their job well. "When somebody has had a great call, we make sure we follow up with a reward."

The reward is usually Nailco dollars, an incentive program that can be used to purchase gift certificates, products in the Nailco catalog and, if the agent so desires, days off. "It's an 'attaboy' for not only doing your job, but for those calls that go way beyond, and the company wants to recognize this extra effort."

Mann explains that every one of her sales agents is fully aware that all conversations are recorded, and stresses that it is not only good for training, but it helps prevent them from being placed into a bad situation. In essence, she says, "Don't say anything on the telephone you wouldn't want someone else to hear."

Reflecting on Nailco's previous call center system, Mann says it put the company in a quandary because the floor supervisors were not really sure if customers were being ill served. "Employee awareness was not as high as it should have been for what they were doing," she says. "Tone was not an awareness factor for them. It's not what you say, but how you say it. Tone is incredibly difficult to teach people, but if you can take an employee and let them listen to themselves, they come to understand how important telephone words like 'May I please...' and 'Thank you,' really become."

TNG management feels that when someone is trying to sell something, tone of voice becomes crucial. Using the ability to playback a conversation as a training tool in and of itself, the company feels, is worth more than putting them in a program or a class. This way, they actually hear what they have done.

While training and playback sessions help prepare a call center sales agent for any contingency, there is always the potential for there to be an unhappy customer that just cannot be turned around. In that situation, says Mann, employees are expected to handle the call to the best of their ability. "If they are unable to handle it, we have floor managers that can take over."

TNG Sales Supervisor stacey Bogdanos uses the Telecorp solution to manage call flow as well. "We didn't have a system like this before," says Bogdanos. "I had to check with everyone all the time to see what was going on. Now, when I'm walking the floor, I can just glance at my monitor from anywhere in the room and, thanks to color-coding, I know who is on the telephone, who is off and who is ready to take a call. I don't have to be at my desk. I really rely on it."

Bogdanos says the supervisors can discreetly monitor someone if they feel that person is not doing a good job on the phone, explaining that if she feels there is a problem, she can listen in on four or five calls and try and figure out what is going wrong without sitting with the agent and making him or her nervous. "I rely on the system so much," says Bogdanos. "If there is a day the system is down, I feel bare."

According to Lori Bocklund, a call center practice manager at Vanguard Communications, a Morris Plains, New Jersey-based consulting firm, the ability to monitor calls is highly valued in call center operations. "While call centers have been doing monitoring for a long time, the new and different thing these days is they are very focused on quality. Not just looking at who is doing what and how long is the call lasting, but also recording the call and scoring it against a set of criteria."

By doing this, says Bocklund, call center management is not only looking at productivity and how sales agents are spending their time, but at the quality of the calls and the improvement of sales processes. Call center managers can use this technology to improve individual performance and change training techniques if necessary. "There is a high burnout in call centers," she continues, "and quality monitoring is a great kind of incentive. Everybody is looking for the next incentive that is going to make people enjoy working there and be happier doing their jobs."

Software Installation

"The Nailco Group is a very interesting and unique customer," says Keith Collins, a Telecorp sales person who was first hired on in the company's tech department. "They are very aggressive in managing the activity of their sales people in order to evaluate them.

"Nailco is a company that wants to help their agents do something right, and such a system can get a lot of agents very apprehensive. So when the product was introduced, they recorded a well-done call and passed it around the company with kudos." As a result, he says, TNG was able to significantly reduce their attrition level, the greatest
problem call centers have.

Mann agrees. "We were in search of a system and made the initial contact with Telecorp Products. We didn't need a major overhaul, but more like an addition. It was not a difficult implementation. Short of installing software and putting up the reader boards, there was really nothing to it. No glitches or major failures whatsoever."

Nailco was one of the first customers for Telecorp's Instant E-Play system. Rapid E-port and the Total E-Call Implementation system were added later. Collins says implementing the software took about a day, with a second day set aside for training. Since the initial Telecorp system was installed in 1996, upgrades and new bells and whistles have made it much more sophisticated.

The recording function was a feature installed in 2000. Before that, TNG was not able to record or playback calls. Now it is considered an invaluable tool. And by using the auto delete function, the tape starts automatically when a call comes in and stops the minute it ends, thereby leaving no dead air time. Tapes are routinely kept for 30 days, and stored on the hard drive before being erased.

Increased Level of Service

If the Telecorp Products software was not a major overhaul, as Mann says, but rather an addition, was TNG able to ascertain measurable improvements from the new installation? The answer is an unqualified yes. The biggest increase Mann noticed was that the level of service afforded by the new software was on an upward curve. "Our catalog is released twice a year, and in January we were taking about 3,000 calls inbound every day," Mann says. "When you're taking that many calls, everybody has to be on their toes call after call after call.

"We encourage our agents to 'suggest' a sell, so it wasn't used to increase sales, but rather the level of service a customer received. In doing so, their perception of what we're doing for them increased," she says. "That goes back to the sales agents' awareness."

In addition, says Mann, the length of each telephone call began to decline as well. Today, each agent will receive about 150 calls during an eight-hour shift averaging three minutes and 30 seconds. While TNG says they do not have exact figures on what the average length of each call was before The Telecorp Products software installation, it is down significantly.

Another method TNG saw improvement in was the their survey cards, sent to customers on a regular basis. "Our goal for customer service is 90 percent superior service," says Mann. "That's a tough cookie to get because we offer no incentive for the customer to send the card back. What we find, however, are customers who really want to say something about us. We get an incredible amount of superior cards back as far as overall experience with a sales rep, as well as comments about how quickly their call was taken. Without incentives to return the card, we are getting 88 to 89 percent super satisfaction and have a lot of customers that write back about individual sales agents."

As TNG continues to grow--the company has swallowed four competitors in recent years--Mann is taking a hard look at the future and potential upgrades to Telecorp Products' software. Her biggest objective, she says, is keeping up with the rate of growth of her call center sales agents as well as keeping their attrition rate low. "A great deal of my call center people are licensed cosmetologists or nail technicians," she says. "If you're going to sell someone a perm or a color, the inbound caller is going to want to know how long it will take and my agents better be able
to answer."

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