September 30, 2004, 12:00 AM

Beyond Phones

Tomorrow’s call centers will demand multi-tasking ine-mail, live chat and, oh yeah, phones.

With a personal goal of selling $1,000 of home and car electronics every hour from the Crutchfield Corp.`s call center in Charlottesville, Va., Greg Telep helped add more than $1 million to the company`s top line last year. Other agents have longer tenure and some sell even more, but what makes Telep a star is that he does something that relatively few other agents do-at least so far: he moves with equal ease among the customer contact mediums of phone, e-mail and chat. Not only does he handle all three, but he`s applied the skills he developed for one medium to improve his performance in the others.

A phone agent for several years at Crutchfield before e-mail and chat came along, 51-year-old Telep sensed that more business would shift to the Internet and took every opportunity to learn the electronic mediums when they were added to the call center. While he spends most of his time on the phone, because that`s still where the best selling opportunities are, he now also puts in three to four hours a week on e-mail and about as much on chat, spelling other agents dedicated to those mediums or helping with overflow there if the phones are slow.

"I like the different challenges with all three mediums-that`s helped me," says Telep. "You`re talking on the phone, and you may go back and forth, getting 12 responses. With e-mail you don`t want 12 responses; you want to move it along. So you have to think ahead and give the best possible answer. When I started doing e-mail, I also did better on the phone because I was thinking in a different way."

More than orders

Yesterday`s call center agent was an order-taker with a pleasant phone voice. But with the growth of Internet retailing and web-enabled call centers, tomorrow`s best call center agents will fit a profile more like Telep`s. As in past times, an attitude of service to the customer is bedrock to the success of agents working in any medium, online or offline, but that`s just the first tier of what retail call center recruiters look for now. That`s because today, the call center agent`s role has changed.

"Particularly for Internet retailing, it`s changed as we`ve refined what we are looking for those reps to do," says Rebecca Gibson, manager of educational services at consultants and conference company Incoming Calls Management Institute. "What a lot of retailers want now is somebody who can sell their products and go beyond taking an order to build value in a customer`s selection."

Beyond the ability to sell, the new skill set includes computer and Internet literacy. At some call center facilities, agents can expect to wrangle with an increasingly complex set of inventory and customer data on their screens. Then there`s product data. Depending on the product category, they`ll train for weeks or even months before initiating regular customer contact.

The web and chat functions add more training requirements to what`s already one of the industry`s longest training programs at the two web-enabled call centers that support Crutchfield`s catalog and web site. The home and automobile electronics retailer sells a complex, highly-configurable product that requires deep category knowledge on the part of agents. In fact, because agents are so heavily schooled in the product and the company, Crutchfield`s call center has become a route to jobs in other departments.

The typical agent gets four weeks of product training, followed by a few weeks of live sessions on the phone, and then an additional four to five weeks of phone and basic e-mail training. On average, Crutchfield agents have 12 to 13 weeks of training before they ever have regular customer contact. With the exception of some reps such as Telep who are cross-trained in three mediums, Crutchfield`s agents are phone-dedicated or chat- and e-mail-dedicated. "We try to keep the mediums segregated because it seems to help the agents stay focused on the tasks at hand," says George Wade, web sales manager.

Some agents move off the phone onto e-mail and now chat, added in June. Training for those agents starts with a closer look at typing and writing skills and goes deeper into how to operate the online customer interface. "We encourage phone advisors to have a good knowledge of what happens on the web site as well because the customer who is having trouble with the site may well pick up the phone," adds Wade.

Compensation for phone-dedicated agents at Crutchfield is largely commission-based. The agents accept risk and a certain amount of pressure in exchange for the opportunity to earn more. Online agents swap out both the risk and the potential of higher reward in exchange for a salary and a more predictable workload-though they are still expected to sell online as needed. The addition of chat and the effort to find a compensation system that balances commission with salary has caused Crutchfield to reexamine its whole compensation structure for call center agents. While phone reps currently have the most earning potential, Crutchfield is redesigning its compensation plan to better support the contributions of agents across all thee mediums.

The goal of the call center agent compensation plan in development is to find the right balance. "The agents who are the most valuable to us are able to make a lot of money on the phone (where compensation is commission-based), but also can do chat and e-mail efficiently," says Doug Smythers, director of Charlottesville operations. "We can keep them busy all the time. That`s part of the struggle, to figure out how to compensate them because they are being the most efficient."

Better efficiency

QVC uses the same rationale as Cruthfield in managing the workflow of its 800 dedicated customer service reps, a subset of its estimated 4,000 call center agents. Agents are largely focused on either online or offline customer contacts, though a few dedicated e-mail and chat agents are cross trained to move to the phone as needed. "You want to make sure people are comfortable with the technology they are using," says Gary Ormont, QVC`s manager of customer service. "Not all the skills are required by everyone. So from an efficiency standpoint, dedicated processes seem to work the best, at least at this time."

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