Vera N. Held, B.A. Eng., Cert. PR., Tesl Cert., M.Ed.
Coach, facilitator, speaker, writer and PR consultant.
Author of international best-seller "How Not to Take it Personally".
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Workers in this industry can take dozens of calls a day
Good ones know their job and how to deal with irate clients

by Vera N. Held

Rachel Law makes her job at The Elmwood Spa’s 10-person call center look easy. It is anything but. At the end of an eight-hour shift, during which she books clients for a variety of health and wellness packages, she’s drained.

“But I leave feeling like I’ve accomplished something,” says the 22-year-old student who works 16 to 24 hours weekly at Toronto’s and Ontario’s largest day spa. Earning $13 per hour she deals with the pleasant, the needy and the irrate. Out of every 100 clients, Law classifies 15 as great, 20 as very good, 40 as good, 20 as average and 5 as difficult.

Call center representatives (CSRs) work in a variety of business sectors such as health, food products, banking, travel, the courier industry, communication, IT, government and automotive. They perform a variety of service functions to assist customers, such as booking appointments, take queries on existing or new products, checking statements, giving investment advice, taking complaints, updating insurance files, giving technical support and more.

“When call centers work well, they offer consistent and convenient service,” says technology expert Noah Berlove who claims “good” call centers represent their organizations and match the customer with the right representative to best satisfy customer needs.

Despite the repetitive nature of Law’s work, and the high demands on her communication and people skills, which includes being sincere to unpleasant clients, Law says she’s invested in making sure her clients get what they need. “I know you’re not supposed to take anything personally — but sometimes I still do,” she says.

Christina Portillo, 35, a CSR in the California call center for Nutro Products, handles international customer queries on its dog and cat food product lines. Although she enjoys her $14.50 (U.S)- per-hour job, she considers it a stepping stone to the corporate ladder, and admits her CSR job presents challenges.

For instance, Portillo deals with angry customers waiting on pet food coupons they were to have received by mail. Or she takes calls from customers complaining their dog got sick when they switched from feeding it table scraps to actual dog food. “Some of my most difficult calls are from France and Germany where we don’t have a common language,” she says.

Language is not a barrier for trilingual problem solverCSR Brian Xu, 33, who works the Asian Queue from 8 a.m. to 2 a.m. daily at TD Canada Trust Telephone Banking, where he services customers in English, Cantonese and Mandarin. “I learn something new from all the people I talk to. I can solve their problems 99 per cent of the time,” says Xu who has now passed his Canadian Securities Course and whose goal is to be a CSR next year at TD Canada Trust Investment Services.

Berlove contends that dealing with call centers can be like playing roulette: You never know what kind of representative you are going to get or how good or consistent the quality of service or advice will be.

Despite the queue’s impersonal nature, Elmwood customer service manager Wendy Finlason Seymour insists her staff gives personal service. “CSRs keep accurate, detailed notes on customers, and know our staff, services and products. They also quickly get back to customers with requested information,” says Seymour. CSRs book 4000 clients into the spa per month, and 6500 calls are received or made every week.

Should customers be able to ask for a specific CSR? Are they entitled to some form of a managed relationship? “People will be less responsive speaking to an anonymous CSR. Most people want to deal with a person whose name they know, perhaps whom they’ve even met, and who’s successfully helped them before,” says Berlove.

Xu disagrees. Although he admits there are challenges in the queue, specifically, in not having face-to-face contact to help convey his message, he says it’s not necessary that customers ask for him by name to successfully complete a banking transaction. “There are no personal links. We can service everyone well,” says Xu.

“Our CSRs take 100 plus calls a day: 60 per cent are bill payments, 20 percent are statement queries and the remainder in things like wire transfers,” says Karen Buck TD Canada Trust’s VP of telephone banking and investment services. In 2003, there were 10 million inbound customer calls taken by the national CSR team of 600: 350 stationed in the Markham and London locations, and another 100 plus in both the St. John and Edmonton call centers. The English and French telephone queues are open 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

Law, who says she asks a lot of questions to “flush people out and give them the best possible service,” says there are regular customers who ask for her by name. “Occasionally, people try to talk my ear off and they have interesting things to say. I’m flattered they want to share with me.” Despite the omnipresent sense of urgency and the constant level of anxiety Law feels “to get to the next call” in a timely manner, she says she never rushes clients.

Marketing strategist Lorrie Shuman of LMS Enterprises places equal responsibility on customers to effectively communicate with CSRs to ensure both their practical and intimacy needs are met. “Whether you are calling to do a basic transaction like transfer funds or for more complex assistance to book an airline ticket, it's good policy to record for your files, the CSR's name, ID number and direct line, if available. This gives you the necessary information to follow-up should a problem arise,” says Shuman.

They may be miles away, but the CSRs at the other end of your phone line are there to listen.