Listening While They Work


Cable operators are spending more time and money than ever on a habit everybody’s mother warned them against: eavesdropping.

Determined to preserve customers as competition intensifies, operators are fortifying customer call centers with sophisticated recording and monitoring equipment designed to keep tabs on the quality of their employees’ interactions with customers.

Every day, MSOs use digital recording equipment to monitor thousands of customer phone calls in the name of quality assurance, an in-vogue term for measuring and improving what many believe is a critical determinant of customer loyalty.

With CSRs fielding dozens of calls each day, the scale of customer interactions via phone is immense. In a single workday, the 5,000 or so customer service representatives who work for Cox Communications Inc. typically handle 300,000 or more customer phone calls, according to company estimates.


“We feel pretty strongly that customer service could in some cases be our most important competitive differentiator,” says Debbie Siek, Cox vice president of customer care.

The digitally enabled monitoring system of today is a far cry from older techniques such as engaging “mystery callers” to feign the identity of real customers and write down their impressions of a service agent’s acumen. “The mystery caller is kind of dying … as the benefits have narrowed given better phone technologies,” says Sharon Thompson, a customer service consultant. “It’s administratively difficult for the company as well as the monitoring agent.”

Instead, MSOs have turned to digital “customer interaction recording systems” that can be timed to monitor whatever number of daily calls a company prefers.

The monitoring systems — commonly used by other industries, like banking and the airlines — include applications that are able to capture what’s on a CSR’s computer screen while he or she is on the phone. The idea is to produce an accurate record of a customer’s interaction and the CSR’s efforts to handle the request.

Quality assurance systems are used to help fulfill a longstanding mantra of service-industry specialists: get company decision-makers closer to the customer. Witness Systems of Roswell, Ga., one of a handful of providers that sells monitoring systems to cable call centers, has tied its digital recordings to a Web-based platform that allows executives to review recorded call sessions from a call center hundreds of miles away.

That kind of reality check is important, because “the further up the food chain you are, the further from reality you are,” says Oscar Alban, a Witness Systems marketing executive and a former MCI call center manager. He says listening to recorded calls helps executives better understand the way customers perceive cable services, and reduce confusion that often results from second-hand information.

What’s more, executives can choose to filter the calls they monitor. It’s possible, for instance, to select for monitoring only those calls coming from customers spending $75 a month or more who disconnect certain services.

The most common application of a digital recording system, though, is closer to home. Call center managers use the recorded phone conversations to evaluate and coach customer-contact professionals during regular review sessions designed to provide candid feedback and assessment.

In Buffalo, N.Y., for example, supervisors at Adelphia Communications Corp.’s two call centers meet with service agents about once a week to review recorded customer calls and go over grades. “It’s a very powerful learning tool,” says Kate Welton, Adelphia’s call center director for the area. “Most reps love the feedback.”


Even so, installing a monitoring system is only part of the quality assurance task. Thompson, a general partner in the Orange County, Calif., consulting firm Thompson-Cunningham Associates, says getting value from the digital recording systems means putting in place a sensible management approach for reviewing calls and coaching agents. She’s seen some MSOs go overboard with complicated scoring systems that overwhelm both supervisors and their agents.

One operator Thompson counseled had 17 different check-off points just for evaluating the “close” of a call, or the final minute or so in which agents completed a phone interaction. For cable service reps who typically handle 60 or more phone calls a day, that’s too much information. “I like to keep it simple, because these are information-saturated reps,” says Thompson.

She advises that once call center managers have established their monitoring and evaluation routines, they should delegate the job of maintaining schedules and logging recordings to a coordinator or supervisor. Otherwise, the sheer volume of the job can overwhelm managers and directors.

Digitally recording calls isn’t the only way operators are working to assure quality experiences. Some still employ mystery callers, albeit with very precise goals in mind, such as determining how adept reps are in describing new services. Customer-satisfaction surveys, too, remain a common tool for gauging the impressions left as a result of company interactions. Cox has enlisted the Omaha, Neb., research firm Sitel Corp. to conduct quarterly follow-up surveys with selected customers.

Then there are the MSOs that supplement their efforts in a more direct fashion. On a recent weekday afternoon, WideOpenWest LLC president Colleen Abdoulah made her way to the company’s Colorado Springs, Colo., call center and engaged in some quality assurance work the old-fashioned way: listening to callers over the telephone.