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Avoid giving service reps a bum rap

A Netherlands-based mobile operator matches boardroom strategy with customer interaction center technology to take its customer service from worst to first.

Throwing technology at a business challenge without first considering the organization's overall strategy is a little like spitting into the wind -- only a heck of a lot more expensive. It's a post-bubble lesson that a lot of companies have learned the hard way. But for many that have not fallen into the cart-before-the-horse trap, CRM-enabling tech investments are paying off.

Consider Netherlands-based mobile operator Ben Nederland. Ben has more than 1.2 million subscribers, making it the country's third largest mobile operator. Customers identify with its personable promotional strategy (employing an everyday "Ben" as spokesman), as well as its bundled pricing plans.

But things haven't always been so rosy. As recently as two years ago, a customer service survey by a Dutch consumer organization ranked Ben dead last. "We weren't happy, but at least we knew we could only go up in the rankings," deadpans Joop Evers, managing director of customer service.

But running a "personable" customer interaction center (CIC) when your staffing needs suddenly jump from 45 agents to more than 700 is no easy task. Add to this the scramble for quality CIC employees in the Netherlands, a country with remarkably low unemployment and more than 300 major call centers vying for candidates. Complicating matters further is the need to keep skilled employees charged about delivering one-to-one levels of service.

3-2-1 contact

The first priority was to attract, motivate and retain high-quality customer service representatives (CSRs). Before making any technology decisions, Evers brainstormed with supervisors, managers and agent representatives. Before long, two strategic objectives emerged: First, reshape the CIC into a clearly defined career path; and second, initialize objectives, benchmarks and measurements to evaluate and motivate staff.

Armed with this information, Evers got to work. Step one was simple enough: Send weekly e-mail memos and prominently display posters detailing week-to-week performance levels and future goals. Step two was bringing the technology to match the strategy. The result is "Passport," the firm's employee-development program.

After some initial training, agents can enter the seven-level program, where they're graded on communication skills and knowledge. From there, CSRs can progress from interacting with the shorter-term needs and value set of prepaid customers all the way up to the level of senior agents who act as "buddies" to newcomer employees. By tying compensation to achieved levels, he or she "sees it in their salaries," says Evers. In order to determine promotion eligibility, supervisors review each employee's phone and Web interactions. Ben predefines about 40 performance indicators, says Evers, ranging from the "verbal handshake" (saying, "Hello, my name is") to more complex scenarios.

Working hand in hand with oversight is empowerment. "If we had installed such a system, but introduced it in a different manner, it might have been perceived as a 'Big Brother' sort of thing," says Evers. "But from the beginning, we said, 'This is for your development,' and that was perhaps the most powerful part in it."

From worst to first

Early on, Ben's staff reached its internal objective of resolving 80% of calls within 20 seconds. The career-path approach to running the CIC also helped the company attract the employees it so desperately needed (currently at 900). Ben's 2.8% turnover rate is less than one half of the industry average -- pretty cost effective when you consider the $8,000 per CSR training expense. Best of all, Ben's new and improved CIC earned top customer honors from Netherlands' National Contact Center Awards committee in 2001.

While the Passport program is an excellent example of matching CIC strategy with technology, expect plenty more in the near future, promises Evers. Ben will deploy churn prediction and campaign management tools later this year, says Evers, all designed to enrich each CSR's skill set and career development path.

To read more articles like this one, visit Peppers and Rogers Group's Web site at

All materials copyright 2002 Peppers and Rogers Group - 1:1 Marketing.

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