Outsource this! U.S. Cellular takes home-grown approach to customer care
Inside the cavernous building just off Illinois Route 53 in Bolingbrook, you occasionally can hear echoes. In the middle of a space that looks big enough to land a plane, U.S. Cellular is germinating what CEO John “Jack” Rooney says is the call center of the future.
Opened in May, the place from all outside appearances could pass as any modern call center. But take a deeper look and listen into the rooms that snake around the central core of the facility, and it becomes immediately apparent that this is not just any warehouse for customer service representatives (CSRs), or “associates” in U.S. Cellular parlance. Entering into one room where about 15 soon-to-be customer care reps are in the middle of a four-week training regime, Rooney casually tosses out the phrase “customers expect it.” Almost immediately and in unison, the class thunders back a room-rattling “And we deliver!”
This place is different all right. From the mere fact that U.S. Cellular, which is majority owned by TDS Telecom, continues to expand customers service operations in the U.S. to the design, the call center is a reflection of what Rooney wants the world to think of the carrier. Unable to play on the same level as the large national carriers when it comes to net additions, U.S. Cellular has for the past several years — coinciding with Rooney's arrival from the former Ameritech Cellular — measured itself more on customer service metrics than on the numbers that pop eye balls on Wall Street. At the end of the first quarter, the company reported a churn rate of 1.5%, which is one of the lowest in the industry.
“Customer care is a core competency,” Rooney said. “It's not just that we have to provide customer service; we want to provide customer service.”
That kind of talk borders on heresy in some quarters of the industry. For most of the largest wireless carriers, call centers are something that can easily be outsourced. Why staff an operation with 400 or so highly paid Americans in a facility in New Jersey when you can do it for less than half the cost in India or China? For Rooney, the answer is simple: Saving a couple bucks on customer service ends up being more expensive if the people answering the phones don't share the same geography and cultural mores. For wireless carriers that may be getting calls about dropped calls in specific locations, it's even more important.
“There is no way I want to send customer care call to Pakistan, India, Ireland or China,” he said. “If someone calls and says, ‘I keep getting a drop at State and Madison,’ how is that person going to know that State and Madison is in Chicago and not Minneapolis?”
U.S. Cellular, in fact, has taken the local approach to almost an extreme. The Bolingbrook center is the most modern customer care center for a carrier that covers 150 markets but certainly not its only one. The other facilities are in Knoxville, Tenn; Waukasha, Wis.; Cedar Rapids, Iowa; Tulsa, Okla.; and Medford, Ore.
Though housing only around one-quarter of its capacity, Bolingbrook is likely to serve as a model for all the other locations. “Opening a new call center isn't that special, but this is the one we want to hold up as the gold standard,” Rooney said.
Take the design of the facility, which ironically was originally built by Sprint PCS as a customer care location. Like most call centers, it's largely open. But instead of lining the outside walls with offices, the call center's manager sits in an open-top office surrounded by glass walls. In the office, one gets the true meaning of “living in the fish bowl.” It's intentional, according to Rooney.
“We found that the associates like to know where their leadership is,” he said. “We made it so there's no place for the leaders to hide. If you give them privacy, they tend to use it, and call centers are hives of speculation.”
Not that the CSRs have many places to hide, nor are their results easy to conceal. Posted high, near the entrance of the Bolingbrook call center, is a live ticker that tracks the number of CSRs available for each of the three general product categories (post-paid, data and prepaid), the number of calls waiting in cue and the longest time that a customer has been on hold.
Unlike most other call centers, U.S. Cellular doesn't measure CSRs on how fast they can get people off the phone or the number of calls they can process. The company looks instead at the percentage of times a customer care rep can resolve a subscriber's issue on the first call.
The carrier tries to limit the number of CSRs in each center to less than 400, in part because Rooney believes that any more and “a bunker mentality” begins to develop. There also is a competition between U.S. Cellular customer care facilities with the top two or three getting bonuses to distribute.
“We're constantly rewarding associates,” Rooney said. “We know what the appropriate call measures are, but we don't measure against them. If you're being held to rigid metrics, you're not providing service. We don't want them on the phone for 25 minutes trying to solve world hunger, but we're not measuring them by how many calls they handle. That goes against their nature.”
Besides treating associates differently, U.S. Cellular also doesn't just take anyone that walks through the door and throw them behind a console. Associates go through a four-week training regiment followed by a period of “nesting,” in which they are watched closely on the floor. Though early in the process, the company is now bringing in “coaches” from other call centers who will be instructing associates in their locations. Additionally, employees in the company's Chicago headquarters go through their own education dubbed “Camp Dynamic Organization,” which includes repeating the “And we deliver” mantra.
“It's really the culture of the business,” said Rooney.
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© 2013 Penton Media Inc.
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