News

Customer Service Reps: MSOs Front Line

12/06/1998 7:00 PM Eastern

No one denies that it was a problem. Just a few short years
ago, hanging on to customer service representatives was a challenge for nearly all MSOs,
as low pay and a cavalier attitude toward company "order takers" kept morale
among these employees low and the turnover rate high. But employee retention efforts have
changed dramatically since then. Operators have implemented a variety of tactics to make
the modern CSR happy, productive and, above all, permanent.

The biggest shift, they say, is in how CSRs are now
perceived. Instead of being viewed as the least important part of the employee pie,
they're recognized as an intrinsic part of the company's overall marketing effort. In
fact, many MSOs now view CSRs as the "front line" in the battle for market
share. Good customer service, they believe, is the thing will best set them apart from the
competition.

"In the past, operators paid a lot of lip service to
good customer service," said Liz French of CSR Inc., a consulting firm that measures
CSR quality and performance for MSOs, "but they did nothing about it in particular,
except maybe refresh on product knowledge or give some selling tips. They never checked up
on quality or even trained their CSRs."

As Rick Lang, marketing director at Cable One in Phoenix,
describes it, there was a "logistical mind-set" in terms of how CSRs were
viewed. "Before, we'd say, 'Let's get as many customers as possible and process them
as efficiently as we can.' But as the business became more competitive, we've had to
differentiate ourselves, and it has been a strategic move on the part of many cable
operators to recognize the value of those on the front line." That move, of course,
has meant many fundamental changes in how employees are hired, trained, paid and retained.
There have even been changes in what they're called.

"We've renamed our call center our customer support
center, and our CSRs are now customer support associates," said Deborah Charlton,
director of customer support, telesales and pay-per-view at Media General Cable in
Fairfax, Va. "We're hoping employees will feel that they're here to help and empower
people instead of serve them."

It's all part of a perception shift that MSOs believe will
inspire and motivate CSRs to become more a part of the corporate family. Mike Bojanski,
director of human resources at Cox Communications in Omaha, says that CSRs now officially
fall under the marketing department. "We no longer see them as just order
takers," he said. "They have sales goals, and everyone now earns commissions.
Even our service reps are expected to sell. When, over the course of a month, they talk to
5,000 customers, if they don't ask a few questions, we're losing a great opportunity to
sell more services. We're not talking hard-core selling. We're just trying to match our
services with what the customers' needs are."

Bill Sievers, regional manager of call center operations
for Marcus Cable in Fond du Lac, Wis., takes the same approach. "It's very much a
sales atmosphere here," he said. "Every phone call is a sales opportunity,
whether that call is for billing or repair. We encourage CSRs to sell more, not just for
the company, but because they'll make more money themselves."

Money, of course, has been a major issue with respect to
CSRs, as these employees were once paid minimum wage -- a big factor in the high turnover
rate a few short years ago. That has had to change for a variety of reasons, not the least
of which has been the low unemployment rate in many parts of the country. Overall, hourly
rates are higher now, and benefits packages are the norm. At Cox, for example, an employee
who works 20 hours per week is eligible for vacation pay, holiday pay and discounts on
services. Those who work 30 hours or more are entitled to health benefits and tuition
reimbursement.

"We try to make CSRs understand that compensation is
more than a paycheck, " he said. "We actually break down what a benefits package
is worth on an hourly basis. Omaha is a huge telemarketing center location, with 50,000
people in the industry. We have to be competitive in what we offer." That's why Cox
is also flexible with its scheduling. Recognizing the demands of family on workers, it's
not unusual for CSRs to work four- or six-hour shifts. Bojanski believes this is a
particularly attractive perk in recruiting new employees.

"When friends and neighbors see how flexible we are,
our employees are our best recruiters," he said. Cox offers cash bonuses to employees
who refer new recruits who stay for at least 120 days. Currently, one-third of its
employees are recruited in this way. "Our feeling is that birds of a feather flock
together. Good people typically know good people."

Media General has a similar program. If a referral stays
for three months, the referring employee gets between $200 and $500. "There's no
unemployment [in Fairfax], so people are constantly being recruited away from us,"
said Charlton. "Referrals are how we get most of our applicants."

Keeping them, of course, is another matter, and this is
where training becomes an issue. At Cable One, financial incentives are given to those who
participate in ongoing training programs. "Our training is now more structured and
organized," said Lang. "And our employees are financially incented to
participate in it. When they achieve certain levels, they earn more money."

Media General has just hired a second instructor to devote
more hours to ongoing training, and Marcus has implemented a "team concept" in
its training efforts, meaning that each employee reports daily to his or her supervisor,
who in turn sits down with the employee weekly for an evaluation. "If employees feel
educated and secure in their jobs, they'll stick around," said Sievers. "It's
important that they know exactly where they stand."

At Marcus, CSRs are evaluated based upon their sales and
productivity and the quality of their performance. When they do a good job, they're
recognized for it. This approach is crucial, according to French, in any company's overall
success. It's all about rewarding positive behavior instead of punishing bad.

"What you can measure, you can manage," she said.
"We encourage our clients to measure [not only] attendance and time clocked in, but
also quality, which is the last thing companies measure because it's harder to do. It
takes more time, more money and more manpower."

CSR Inc. measures quality in a variety of ways. For
example, if a company wants CSRs to sell its digital service, CSR Inc. will create a
contest that will encourage employees to say certain things during each call. It will
randomly monitor those calls, then award a prize (such as a small gift certificate) to
those CSRs who demonstrate a certain level of skill during the call. CSR Inc. then
provides feedback to the company on how employees did overall and offers coaching tips.

"If you give someone the motivation to sell something,
they're more apt to do it," said French. "We look for what the employee did
right, and that attitude filters throughout all of our programs."

Cox actually provides employees with a daily report card.
All CSR calls are recorded on a digital device in order to track how many sales or errors
were made. Once they hit certain sales goals, they get promoted.

"It all helps develop team competition," said
Bojanski. "Contests help keep motivation high, so that people are happy to come to
work in the morning."

Cox further fosters this supportive atmosphere with an
on-site exercise facility and reading room, where employees can get away from their
cubicles when they need to.

"Things like this don't cost a lot of money,"
Bojanski said. "You can create them cheaply, and they help develop the whole person.
These are the kinds of things that the new worker is looking for. They want to develop
their skills, which is why we offer online classes for them to learn things like
PowerPoint. Companies are sometimes afraid to develop their employees, fearing that
they'll leave, but if you give them opportunities, they'll actually stick around. You must
care about them as individuals and not just what they can do for you and your
company."

It's important, too, MSO executives say, to show employees
that there are genuine career opportunities within the company. Tele-Communications Inc.,
for example, is committed to promoting from within and to ensuring all employees that
there is an equitable compensation program, such as its 401K plan.

"Our approach can be summed up in two words: We
care," said Ann Montgomery, senior vice president, fulfillment services. "If our
employees are taken care of, then, in turn, they'll care more about our customers. We've
taken pains to define what customer service really means. We want our customers to be
treated as if they were our only customer."

To constantly remind employees of career opportunities
available within Media General, the company has posted a chart in the call center that
diagrams career paths. "We discovered awhile ago that employees perceived that there
were no career opportunities here, and, as a result, many were leaving," she said.
Now, Media General makes sure that employees know what those opportunities are, and that
it's their responsibility to take advantage of them. "The onus is on CSRs to get
themselves promoted to the next level. Every six months they can avail themselves of our
training, then take a test and move up. But they must take the initiative."

It's all about empowering the employee, she says -- an
approach many MSOs share. While they all want CSRs to feel excited and motivated, they
also want them to feel as unencumbered as possible. That way they are allowed to do what
they do best, which is to serve the customer. TCI, for example, lets customers know that
in a rebuild situation, they may experience an interruption in service.

"When we take a proactive approach to service
interruptions or changes, that tends to lighten the load on CSRs in that they're not
mobbed with telephone calls," said Montgomery. "It allows them to do their job
better if they have more time and are not backed up with 20 calls."

TCI also has a new billing system and a new online support
system, called At Home. Customers can e-mail service questions or can receive real-time
online customer service, instead of immediately calling a customer service rep.

"These are all infrastructure tools to assist the
CSR," said Montgomery. "We're proud of what we've done in this area."

So is Lang. "Job satisfaction levels go up when reps
are in a position to satisfy the customer. When you give someone the ability to do their
job, and you don't give them a lot of extraneous rules and regulations, it gives them the
freedom to satisfy the customer and it makes them happier. They feel better, the customer
feels better and it's a nice upward spiral."

Want to read more stories like this?
Get our Free Newsletter Here!