Tom Floodeen: Can you tell us a little bit about your operation, such as how many agents you have in your call center and on how many calls?
Barbara Porter: In terms of agents, we have about 180 account representatives on the phone and a team that supports their efforts. That gives us a total of 225 Call Center employees who handle a little under one million calls a year. We’re in one location and our agents are organized into teams. Each team represents one of our utility partners or one of our business units. For example, we have a Warranty team that operates seven days a week to serve the needs of our Warranty customers across the country.
With that many calls they’ve got to be handling the same situation over and over again. How do you create an engaging, rewarding environment for your employees?
We want our customers to have a positive experience, and we believe that the culture and environment we create for our employees will provide that experience. In creating a rewarding environment for customer service employees, there are three things that need to be addressed: physical environment, communication and emotional environment. For instance, when you look at the physical environment, some of the questions you need to ask about your facility include: Is there a lot of natural light? Is it clean? Are the work stations and chairs comfortable and conducive to a positive experience and the ability to have high energy on all of those phone calls hour after hour, day after day?
Another example of how we use our environment to reinforce our positive culture is through the motivational messages that appear on our walls and pillars throughout our call center. When our employees are waiting for a call and looking around the facility, they’re going to see messages that support the values and behaviors that will create a positive experience for our customers. Examples include Listen, Understand, Solve; Earn the Right to Offer Services; and Earn Trust, Build Relationships. These messages remind our agents to listen to the customer, understand what they’re saying, and solve whatever problem or answer any question they may have.
That’s important, because with redundancy it’s almost human nature to want to jump to the conclusion of what the problem is, which can lead to the wrong solution. So can you tell me a little bit about your call-center ambassador program?
Our ambassador program has been in place for three years. It was developed for two reasons: 1) to provide leadership opportunities for representatives who model our values, and 2) to engage our front line team in decisions that impact their role and the service we provide to customers. Initially, we looked at each team and identified people who represented and reflected our values and leadership behaviors. We then asked them to join our Ambassador program, which helps the leadership team identify and prioritize issues that impact the call center and our customers. Now our ambassadors are selected by their peers and serve for two years.
In addition to our Ambassador team, we have monthly roundtables where about 20 employees are randomly selected and rotated every month, and they meet with the director of the call center and one of our managers. It’s an open forum where we ask how things are going and discuss ways to improve the service we provide to our customers. We capture what the front line is hearing, and how we can improve the level of support we provide to help our agents do their jobs. And from those roundtables we get a list of things that we need to address. Our Ambassador team helps us prioritize the key things that we need to do, provides solutions, and participates in the implementation of recommendations.
I assume you came up with areas that needed improvement. How has that worked out?
The process has evolved in a nice way now that the members of the Ambassador team are chosen by their peers to represent them for two years. There’s a lot of trust in the group and the process. I’ll give you some examples that are a direct result of that trust and engagement.
We had an issue a year ago in our call center where people weren’t happy with the perception of how we were disciplining and making decisions to terminate employees. You and I both know that there’s a lot of privacy in those issues, so how it looks on the outside isn’t necessarily what’s actually happening one-on-one between the employee, HR, and the management team. But there was a lot of concern expressed by our call center reps about whether we were being fair. So we partnered with our HR team and met with the Ambassador team to go through our disciplinary process. We wanted them to understand all the different steps we go through before we discipline or terminate an employee. That included reinforcing one of our priorities, which is to make sure our employees are successful in their jobs. And once the ambassadors understood how thoughtful and thorough our process is, they helped us communicate our message at the grass roots level. For instance, if they were sitting in the break room and overheard a conversation about this subject, they could jump in and provide a more balanced perspective. They also hold team meetings to address issues and because employees trust them, their concerns go away.
Obviously as you get this feedback you’ve got to change some of your software systems. What kind of process did your company go through in redesigning the way the system works?
It was quite an extensive process, beginning with a collaborative proof-of-concept process with potential vendors and our employees. First, our front line reps helped us identify the most complex, time-consuming and error-prone activity they encountered, which turned out to be scheduling a claim. We then identified three potential vendors and gave each one of them the same scenario and asked them to come up with a solution-set for us. After that, the final vendor selection took place. That whole effort was rolled out using a collaborative process involving our account reps, trainers, IT, etc.
Having gone through the process, were your employees able to understand that the reason for the change was to deliver better results to the customers?
Absolutely, because we knew that our employee engagement and satisfaction would be driven by their feeling helpful, confident, respected and accepted. You can address those four areas within the culture and the communication and coaching processes. We also knew that to realize additional improvements we needed to provide the right technology and tools so that when a customer calls in, the rep can be helpful and confident in the information they’re providing. There was a point where we realized that our tools were preventing our employees from delivering a consistent experience to our customers.
We had 12 systems, so if a customer called in with a billing question, we may have had to put them on hold while the rep looked in three different systems. There would be different information in each system. It’s hard to feel helpful when the data you have isn’t consistent, and because of the number of systems we had to check, our reps had to continually put the customer on hold and ask them multiple times for the same information. So, we reached out to the employees and solved that problem together.
How do you recognize and then reward good customer service?
The most obvious and probably most fundamental way is receiving a compliment from a customer and recognizing that employee publicly. But we also monitor and listen to calls to get a sense of the experience from the customer standpoint. This year, instead of just having a monitoring score, we will define the call by behavior and the experience that was delivered. So we recognize our employees for providing an experience that turned a customer into an advocate, who then tells their friends and family about the service they received from our company.
kind of metrics do you use to measure employee performance or customer satisfaction?
For employee engagement, we use an intelligence tool that measures the voice of the employee and voice of the customer. This technology platform allows us to combine our employee survey and feedback with operational data, which helps us spot patterns in the data and create insights based on trends and opportunities. It also provides a monthly employee engagement score that we track and communicate, and we also have a quarterly employee pulse score that we track as well.
Do you have any sort of employee recognition based on those scores?
Not yet, but that’s part of our evolution. This year we are going to be linking those scores directly back to the employees, and I’m looking forward to seeing how we can drive that process to where employees are really engaged in providing a great experience for our customers, and are also actively engaged in improving our processes and the environment for each other.
One of the things we learned at my company was that any measurement that we shared with employees changed their behavior, so we had to make sure we were showing them measurements that led to a behavior we wanted as opposed to one we didn’t want. Is that a concern for you as well?
Exactly. One of the new programs that came from our supervisor and Ambassador teams is MVP (Making Values a Priority), where every week a peer can nominate someone who has put one of our values into action. It can be based on a conversation they heard with a customer, a call that they listened to during peer-to-peer coaching, or just an interaction where a peer helped somebody else solve a problem or made their day better. Then every other Thursday a certificate is printed for that employee and given to them in front of their peers by the management team, and they talk about the value that they represented and what the experience was.
That’s good because statistics tend to be gamed by employees. This is based on a behavior observed in a real setting, and you can’t fake that. Can you talk about the agent desktop that you’ve utilized and how that’s helped improve efficiency in some areas?
When we look at any project we look at how it’s going to impact our employees, how it’s going to impact our customers, and then what business outcomes are we going to realize by making this investment in our agent desktop? By measuring to determine our ROI on that basis, we wanted to first reduce our average call handle time. Then we wanted to increase our sales to improve our conversion rate, improve our first-call resolution and then reduce our training costs. Those were the four metrics that we were looking to impact with agent desktop.
Oftentimes companies talk about how their goal is to reduce costs and employees hear, “Oh you’re just trying to eliminate my job.” Whereas with these you’re actually trying to lower pain points that the employees were going through. When it comes to some of the tools and processes you’ve put in place, do you often re-evaluate things like your ambassador program?
Yes, because in our environment the customers and technology are changing so quickly that we are constantly looking at how our tools and resources can make the biggest impact. We know we can’t do everything, so how do we maximize and prioritize the opportunities we have in front of us?
Have you explored any customer-solutions systems?
I think this year is going to be a transformational one for us in terms of having the right applications. Historically, we have communicated with our customers through the phone and direct mail. One of the business divisions that we support is a deregulated energy group. We used a link on their website to give customers the opportunity to communicate with us at any time of the day. This was our way of testing real-time communication with our customers so we could gain the support needed to invest in social media, e-commerce or live-chat tools. So we had to find a way, within our risk parameters, to communicate with customers other than on the phone or through mail.
And there’s a large portion of our customer base that is used to going online and buying products and services, learning about new ways to manage energy efficiency in their homes, and scheduling appointments. So we need to provide those channels, whether with live chat, mobile apps, social media, or a customer portal for appointments. We have a lot in the works for 2012.
Before we wrap up is there anything else that you would like to mention?
When it comes to recognizing employees, our environment is a little different in that we have monthly sales meetings where all the employees get together and recognize top producers, as well as agents who are most improved and have delivered high quality service. We also have an opportunity to ask questions and share what’s happening in the organization. So it’s a great communication tool. It’s also a challenge to schedule and make that time commitment, but it really creates camaraderie. We also have a quarterly Saturday meeting where everybody comes in and we go through voice-of-the-employee and voice-of-the-customer feedback.
What I have found is that about every six or eight months you have to look at what it is you’re measuring, what are you rewarding for? So be prepared to make changes because the needs of the customer change. How is your culture set up to drive change as needed?
Every time you add a new hire class you’re impacting your culture. The director of the call center and I spend an hour with every new hire class and ask them what type of environment they want in a company that would make them look forward to coming to work every morning. We go around the room and people start throwing out suggestions. Then we go through the list and ask them, well, how would you know that a supportive environment existed? And they describe what behavior they would need to see. Then we’ll plan to meet again in three months as a team, and go through the list and see whether this environment exists. And, if not, what can you do to contribute to that environment?
So from Day One people understand that our culture isn’t about what their manager or their leader is responsible for. Our culture will be a reflection of everybody’s daily behaviors and input.
Barbara Porter is Vice President, Customer Experience & Business Development, for Nicor National. She was named to this position on Dec. 19, 2011 upon the completion of a merger which combined the operations of AGL Resources Inc. and Nicor Inc. AGL Resources is an Atlanta-based energy services holding company whose retail operations now include Nicor National.
In this role, Barbara is responsible for the company’s call center, client relations, business development and marketing. Specifically, she manages the operations of a call center with 225 employees who serve the Warranty and HVAC needs of the company’s customers. In addition, Barbara oversees client relations, which ensures that the expectations of utility partners are met; leads all business development planning; and guides the strategy and execution of all marketing-driven initiatives.
Prior to joining Nicor National in 2005, Barbara served as President of IBT Services, a leading call center in the utility/energy industry, which she founded in 1991. When Nicor National acquired IBT in 2005, she was named General Manager, and subsequently promoted to Vice President, Business Development & Customer Service, in 2008.
Outside of the office, Barbara is a frequent speaker at industry forums all across the country. She is an ardent believer in the positive impact that employee engagement can have on customer service, as well as the bottom line. She has published several articles for industry publications, including “
Employee Engagement: Its Impact on Profitability and the Customer Experience.”
Barbara currently serves as a co-chair of the 2011-12 Southern Gas Association’s Customer Experience Committee. In addition, she sits on the Board of Advisors for the Enterprise Engagement Alliance, and is a member of WomenCorporateDirectors, a global organization that espouses best practices in corporate governance. Barbara earned her B.A. in English from Bucknell University, Lewisburg, Pennsylvania.
Tom has spent over 40 years in the high tech industry, starting with eight years in the U.S. Navy as a computer technician and moving into the service sector to eventually become the vice president and general manager of customer support for Mentor Graphics for 11 years. During his career he has been an advocate for driving change. He has vast experience in developing successful customer self help environments and moving customers into those environments. He is well versed on the various aspects of knowledge management and is an advocate of KCS (Knowledge Centered Support). He has developed a skill set around metrics and building dashboards that provide the information needed to drive business success.