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Customer service, collections rely on digital systems

At the call center inside the sprawling Fisher-Price headquarters in East Aurora, the people who answer the thousands of toy queries use the company's evolving digital systems to make time to be thoughtful and efficient, not rushed.

"We actually don't even measure how long they take on their calls because I don't believe in it," said Gary Cocchiarella, senior call center manager, who was once assistant manager at the call center at M&T Bank. "Sometimes this is the only contact they have with our company . . . We don't want to ruin that experience."

The East Aurora company does what a myriad of other local call centers for banks, health insurers or bill collectors do - it continually works to find new ways to use technology, new and old, to fit the business.

In Buffalo, the bill collecting service Capital Management has a program that sorts debtors by those most likely to pay, so agents spend time on the most promising. And at a Niagara Falls division of Teletech, an international firm that handles call center work for other companies, agents get higher pay when they do well under a new computer software scoring system.

"Every call is money - to the client, to Teletech and even to the customer," said KC Higgins, a spokeswoman at the Colorado headquarters.

> Time and technology

Staffers at Fisher-Price use time and technology to try to keep callers feeling happy about toys - as when a portable doll house doesn't seem to snap shut the way the box said it would. "We try to be empathetic," said Cocchiarella.

The East Aurora call center, with 65 workers year-round and an extra 60 during the holidays, relays findings of such toy problems to engineers and handles calls for other toys made by the Fisher-Price parent company Mattel Inc. An average of 3,000 calls come in each day with the season peak of about 45,000 logged the day after Christmas.

To make answering questions easier and faster, work stations were rigged about four years ago to allow easy Internet searches. This season staff used the feature to look up stores online and tell eager shoppers where to find the scarce Tickle Me Elmo doll.

Fisher-Price staffers can also e-mail copies of lost instructions, newly digitized in the past couple of years, for assembling a baby swing or to charge the battery of a Jeep Power Wheels.

The toy company's online data base lets workers search among thousands of toys, pull up a toy photo and find vital statistics, such as how Elmo needs six batteries in his feet so he can roll on the floor and laugh.

"It makes our calls faster . . . It makes the agents on the phone sound more knowledgeable," said Cocchiarella. "Ten years ago we were taking calls on paper during the holiday season. We've come a long way."

Fisher-Price is one of many local companies that use call centers. The total number of people in the region doing call center work is impossible to count, said John Slenker, an analyst at the local office of the State Department of Labor.

"It permeates all industries where you have to be in contact with customers," said Slenker. Amherst's GEICO insurance company, Buffalo's New Era baseball hat company and Tonawanda's science gadget catalog company Edmund Scientific all have teams of people charged with answering the phones and so do many others.

"Call centers are a business function," Slenker said. "The business itself can either have it in house, or you can have a company that does this as a service to business."

> Pay for performance

In Niagara Falls, about 700 call center workers in a converted nightclub on Rainbow Boulevard do just that. Their employer, Teletech, is a Colorado- based firm with about 25 call centers in North America and another 55 more worldwide, from India to South Africa, for a total of 45,000 employees.

For the last two years, a new Teletech- developed system - a "performance optimization suite" - began boosting pay for workers based on scores for computer-tracked politeness and efficiency, among other things.

"It basically allows the agent to see how well he or she is performing," said Higgins, the company spokeswoman.

While the company's clients are confidential, Higgins said workers may be answering calls about Internet and cable TV service or handling the phones for a big-box retailer. The agents in Niagara Falls take insurancerelated calls about Medicare and set up rides for people who need to get to doctors appointments.

Even though Teletech's accounts are varied, the company's goals for serving them are similar. Agents are scored on goals that include how quickly they can solve a caller's problem and how many points they make from the scripts that are tailored to each Teletech client. A preset list of things to say may include, "Is there anything else I can help you with?"

"What we try to do for all of our clients is help them retain all of their clients . . . so they come to identify the brand with the service," Higgins said. "It just makes customers 'stickier' . . . It gives them a reason to stay."

Before the new Teletech scoring system, worker pay was based on seniority, not proficiency. A worker with more years on the job who had become apathetic would make more money than a newer, more motivated staffer.

Now top performers are paid for their skill and Teletech has found they are less likely to leave for another job. Poor performers are more apt to quit. "We've had an increase in good attrition and a decrease in bad attrition," Higgins said.

For debt collector Capital Management, based on the seventh floor of the downtown's Larkin at Exchange Street office building, one measure of call center success is how much debt is collected, said Larry Costa, senior vice president of business development.

The firm has 950 workers in Buffalo, in offices at Larkin and on Niagara Street, and another 250 in Houston and South Carolina. It has grown over the years as computer improvements - such as target-sorting software and automatic dialers - has made calling more people more efficient, Costa said.

Automatic computer dialing, a common practice for the last four years, lets staffers go faster and talk once the call goes through, connecting with some 300 people or answering machines a day. Software, improved and modified about every six months, allows agents to sort people by their history of repaying, or by credit score.

"It's taking technology to the next level," Costa said. "You're really narrowing in on the people that are most likely to repay the debt."