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MITCH LIEBERMAN: Lynn, please tell us about your background and your role and responsibilities at U.S. Cellular®.
LYNN COSTLOW: It’s interesting that I ended up in customer service, because I never thought of myself as a contact center person. I think of myself as a businessperson. But of all the roles that I have ever had this is my favorite. I have an undergraduate degree in sociology and psychology and a master’s in organizational psychology. Although I didn’t pursue psychology in a clinical way, it helps me understand how behavior fits in certain contexts.
I spent eight years in telecommunications consulting and, during that time, I helped U.S. Cellular® acquire Primco and launch their brand in the Chicago market. In 2005, the COO offered me a position as senior director in sales, leading end-to-end operations for their national sales force. After two years, in 2007, I was asked to become the vice president of customer service. I hadn’t been in a customer care center before in my career.
We have five internal customer care centers and four external locations. We handle almost three million calls in our interactive voice response (IVR) system every month and about one million of those callers eventually speak to an associate.
How do you share your passion for customer service internally? What impact does that passion have on your customers and their experience when they talk to a call center representative?
You can apply the customer experience to anything in your business or personal life. I don’t believe you have to have a passion for what you do to get your job done. But when you do have passion for your job and you show it and articulate it and live it, it’s a catalyst for high performance. I have people who would literally follow me off a cliff even if they saw that it was a cliff. That makes things easier when we have really tough challenges because people know that I am in it with them and I support them. When they know that I have them in mind, they trust the decisions I’m making at the corporate level. It creates momentum and energy that helps me be more fluid in making business decisions.
How do you empower your team so that they are more capable of helping customers in tough situations?
We live by a set of values and behaviors that every associate, from our CEO to our front line, can articulate. One of those values is empowerment. For example, we have “operational empowerment” that goes across the channel experience. For most of the major carriers in the wireless sector, when you walk into one of their stores and you need a credit adjustment, a representative calls the customer care center from the store. We set out from the beginning to create a frontline experience with our customers, whether it’s at a care center or a retail store or with an engineer who’s going out on a customer call. They’re empowered to do whatever the customer needs, whether it’s service, sales, help or whatever. We allow them to make the call for the customer in the moment.
I personally visit every single care center every other quarter and I have my director of operations for our vendor, who is also at our vendor locations, in front of associates every other quarter. I rotate all associates off the phones in groups of 50—it actually takes six weeks to get through all the centers—and then we do the same thing at our vendor locations and I spend an hour and a half with them discussing what’s happening in the economy, in the industry, in our company, and in our function. I let them know where we’re failing, where we’re succeeding, and how their role fits in helping us achieve our goals. I also allow them to ask questions. Every frontline associate, including customer care, knows what our business goals and plans are every six months. This helps them connect their role to our company strategy, see where and how they fit in, and personally feel a connection—as well as my passion through my communication with them—in these forums.
What is your employee attrition? Do you believe it is lower because of your personal approach? Are you keeping people longer because you make them feel like they are part of the team?
We have very low attrition. I think it’s about 20 percent per year.
For an organization that has had great success with customers’ phone experiences, how are you handling social media interaction?
We’re still trying to figure that out. Our biggest challenge is measuring the experience. We’ve been planning and designing technology for the past 12 months and this year, we’re implementing technology that will give us greater access to information about what the customer experience looks like, not just online but in the IVR system as well. We really shouldn’t exist in this industry. U.S. Cellular® is competing against giants and yet we’re number one in customer service and in customer experience through our retail channel. It’s because we have a workforce of people who interact with customers and make them feel like they matter. The wireless industry is like the airline industry. You have to deal with an airline carrier because you need to fly somewhere, and you have to deal with your wireless carrier because you need a phone. We’re the exception, kind of like Southwest Airlines, where it’s clear that our people actually enjoy what they do in helping people. So, the more we digitize the experience, the more we lose our personalized service. What’s really important to us as we implement this new technology is to figure out how to personalize the experience without that human interaction. We’re still trying to figure that out.
Some companies are using social media to get closer to their customers but they’re not succeeding because they don’t already have a strong connection with those customers. U.S. Cellular® has a strong personal interaction with its customers based on your high level of customer service. How do you transfer that personal interaction to an online forum?
Our customers are the reason we’re in business. It’s amazing to be part of a culture in which the customer is discussed in every conference room and in every meeting and in every conversation. I haven’t seen anything like it until I came here. As we embark on this journey into social media and online support, we would never take action to try to minimize the shouting that happens online in a way that would shut down our customers. Every word about our company on social media outlets offers us an opportunity to try to figure out how to help a customer feel differently about us. Obviously, we can’t be in every forum, but we respond to as much as we can. We want to help people and so we ask if we can call them. We invite them to be on our earnings call; we try to help them through social media.
Do you have customers who act as advocates on your behalf in online forums?
We do but it usually happens in forums like Facebook, where people defend us. We do have a more formal approach. We engage groups of people who are customers and formally ask them to be our advocates and put them in positions to do so. It also happens organically online but we formally try to create that advocacy through our marketing efforts.
What are the biggest challenges that you expect to face in terms of customer service and expectations within the next few years?
Our challenges are mammoth. We’re in an industry that’s almost 100 percent penetrated. Everyone who wants a cell phone has one. So that means that we aren’t just selling the benefits of wireless; we’re actually trying to steal people from other companies and convince them to leave their current relationship, which is much harder than just telling them about the benefits of something they don’t know anything about.
Cellular phones are the number one advertised product in the United States, so the noise and shouting is so loud that it’s hard to get anyone’s attention. Our biggest challenge is reaching people who don’t know about us. We don’t have the budgets that Verizon and AT&T have. We’re number five with almost six million customers. It is a dogfight every day to try to influence people at other companies to come to us. We need to grow. We’re making a lot of investments in technology infrastructure that will help us be more fluid and nimble, get products to market faster, and have access to consumer insights. I would say that that’s our second challenge—as we get more insights through advanced technology, how do we make that insight actionable?
What is your view on self-service? Do you think customers appreciate the fact that they can call and do something themselves?
My view on self-service has little to do with what we want. We do a lot of things that aren’t very efficient because it’s what our customers want. We want to have self-service options if that’s how our customers want to interact with us; on the other hand, if they want to call us, we want to be available to them. If they want to handle something on their own, we want to create that functionality for them. The same goes for online—while we get efficiencies for putting more services online and through the IVR system, we wouldn’t be doing it if people weren’t expressing the desire to interact with us in that way. That’s the lens through which we look at our changes in technology.
How do customer care professionals get a seat at the strategy and planning table?
For us, it’s been part company philosophy and part assertiveness. But when you have a company philosophy that anchors itself in the customer experience and you really care about the service channel as part of that experience, then you are free and EXPECTED to express what you think and feel. Personally, I’ve always said “don’t wait to be asked.” People are busy; they face big challenges in companies and if you want a seat at the table, what do you need to do to get that seat? For me, it means proving that it’s important to be there. Part of that proof is providing data that makes people want you there. When I came into customer care, I went to my first operational meeting where I had to make a presentation on customer service to people from finance, marketing, IS, and engineering. I talked about service levels and average handle times and I literally saw people’s eyes glazing over as I presented. When I walked out of there, I said “that’s got to change.” I need to change the conversation. So I don’t go into these meetings talking about service levels anymore. I talk about how the call center performed in the cancellations queue and how that helped the company overall with churn. I go in with data about why people are calling and which products they call about the most and now marketing actually wants to hear from me. It really changes the conversation when people want you there because you have data that is relevant for them to be successful.
Many contact centers measure the number of minutes on the phone, the number of phone calls per agent, etc., but such operational measurements aren’t really an indicator of the customer experience. What are your thoughts on such metrics?
Our associates never know what their handle time is. Our leaders know handle times and if they see outliers, they’re supposed to sit in on those phone conversations, listen, and then coach. It’s a leadership responsibility to manage the numbers and fall within our forecast and budget. That’s not the associate’s job. That makes a leader’s job much harder because it requires a lot of behavioral coaching, which involves a more sophisticated skill set. But we’ve developed a culture around that, we do a lot of leadership training to support that, and we invest heavily in it.
Lynn Costlow: As vice president of customer service for U.S. Cellular®, Lynn Costlow is responsible for delivering the company’s award-winning customer experience strategy. She oversees customer interactions in the company’s retail, telesales, and care center environments. And she leads more than 2,100 associates who handle more than one million customer interactions every month.
Lynn joined the company in 2005 as senior director of sales operations. In this position, she was responsible for retail, indirect, business-to-business, and alternative sales-channel operations on a national scale. Prior to joining U.S. Cellular®, Lynn spent eight years in management consulting leading large, cross-functional teams and specializing in program management, system conversion and implementation initiatives. For three of those eight years, she provided leadership and program delivery for U.S. Cellular® projects.
Lynn earned a Master of Arts from the University of Tulsa and holds a degree in psychology and sociology from Southwestern University in Texas. While Lynn loves living in Chicago with her son Evan, she is a native Texan and visits her beloved Lone Star State as often as possible.
Mitch Lieberman: Mitch is responsible for maintaining and expanding upon Sword Ciboodle’s future product and marketing vision. Specifically, CRM in the context of modern, multi-channel contact center that now includes ‘Social’ channels. Mitch is a passionate technology executive with expertise in software architecture, implementation services as well as product and market positioning. He also enjoys the great outdoors, making northern Vermont his home.