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Published Sep. 27, 2005

A Clearwater call center's recognition as one of the best in North America has validated the Tampa Bay area's growing reputation as a call center mecca. More than 50 companies operate customer service shops here.

Think your teenage kid gets too many phone calls? Karen Peters answered 1,945 last month. She dialed another 526.

The Gulfport resident isn't likely to have her telephone privileges yanked any time soon, though. If anything, she needs to take even more calls.

Peters, 42, is a customer service representative at Time Warner Communications, the Tampa Bay area's largest cable television provider. Managers at the company's 24-hour call center in Clearwater have set the bar high for Peters and 71 other service reps who work there: Answer at least 90 percent of billing and service inquiries within 30 seconds. Resolve them in an average of three-and-a-half minutes. And try to sell even the grumpiest customer a premium service such as HBO or cable Internet.

Such efficiency recently led Call Center Magazine to dub Time Warner's Clearwater shop one of the nine best in North America. The award validated the Tampa Bay area's growing reputation as a call center mecca. More than 50 companies, including Capital One, Disney and Home Shopping Network, operate customer service shops here.

The award also reflects the intense drive and enthusiasm of the call center's director, Jerri Bronson. A retired GTE executive raised in St. Petersburg, Bronson started her cable television career in 1994. As an entry-level rep at Time Warner's former Paragon Cable division, she learned the business from the ground up. The 55-year-old has a reputation among her staff for an easy laugh and a propensity to break into song when the mood strikes.

Employees also know she does not laugh off poor performance. The customer comes first. "You have to really be great at being able to calm the customer, understand the issue, take some action, make that customer happy and then try to make a sale," she said.

As the recent strike by operators and customer service reps at Verizon Communications suggests, the factors that contribute to a successful call center _ call-routing technology, efficiency-oriented incentives and contests _ do not necessarily make for a pleasant working environment.

The pace can be exhausting. During peak hours, the reps at Time Warner, who do not belong to a union, may have less than a second to breathe between calls. Bathroom breaks, signaled by hoisting a green flag above one's cubicle, generally are limited to seven minutes in the morning and seven minutes in the afternoon. Personal calls are expected to be made during the two 15-minute paid breaks or the half-hour unpaid lunch period.

Snarly customers add to the stress. A typical day brings in about 3,200 calls. When a technician is late for a service appointment or a monthly bill is unexpectedly high, customer service reps receive the brunt of the ire.

Employees have to resist the urge to counter-punch with a string of expletives. A supervisor could be secretly monitoring the calls.

Peters knows this as well as anybody. Though she calls Time Warner a "good company," she moved to another job within the company several years ago because stress at the call center was causing her to grind her teeth. That, in turn, exacerbated a painful ear infection. She returned to the call center in October.

"With some people," she said, "the nicer you become, the meaner they get."

The Clearwater call center, located within Time Warner's three-building campus across the street from St. Petersburg Junior College, is a bit like the control center at NASA.

The supervisor-in-charge is perched behind a desk on a raised platform with a view of the room. Customer service reps, numbering five to 30 depending on the time of day or night, sit in violet cubicles with headsets and computer monitors. About 80 percent are women.

Half a dozen televisions hang from the ceiling. On-screen fare varies from Bay News 9 to employee-only updates about cable outages in Pinellas County. Supervisors stroll around with portable telephone headsets, answering questions and putting out customer-service fires.

On the wall hangs a digital scoreboard, a reminder to all of the call center's purpose and omnipresent burden. In red type, it displays a running tally of callers on hold and the longest waiting time among them.

Given the high activity, the noise here is surprisingly low. Reps are instructed to keep their voices at conversational volume so they don't bleed into one another's calls. For many, this comes naturally. Supervisors say the job attracts introverts who like to help people.

Occasionally the volume picks up. Loretta Williams, a quality assurance supervisor, gets up on the supervisor's platform to sing a popular tune a cappella. She has revised the lyrics, replacing them with upbeat thoughts about the Clearwater call center.

Later that afternoon, director Bronson lets out a whoop when the scoreboard shows the queue at "00."

"Zero! Yes! Goose eggs, guys!" she cheers. "Nobody's waiting!"

Few raise their heads to listen. The kudos are welcome, but the reps are too busy with their callers, too busy trying to make their numbers. Within minutes, the queue of thumb-twiddling callers is back in double digits.

It's all about the numbers. Statistics are a crucial indicator of job performance at call centers, and a key factor in awarding merit raises, promotions and contest winnings worth $10 or $20 a week per person.

Bronson's goal is to answer at least 90 percent of calls within 30 seconds. Most months, the staff makes it. If not, she said, "My boss will flog me."

January was one such month: The center's performance level dropped to 88 percent. "Horrible," she said. "I blew it. I'd lost some employees, and I didn't bring enough new ones in." Her boss chewed her out. Her boss' boss chewed her out.

The range of stats that are collected and analyzed is mind-numbing: Total number of calls answered. Average duration. Number of callers who hang up before being helped. Number of callers who receive a busy signal. Percentage of time spent on the phone with customers, spent idle or spent doing post-call wrap-up work, such as completing a service request.

Too much "wrap" time, for example, is a sign of inefficiency.

"I don't like to see a lot," Bronson said. "We try to teach our employees to talk and type at the same time."

Not that the quality of care is unimportant. It's a key performance measure.

Customer service reps are supposed to be polite but efficient. They are supposed to remain calm at all times, even when a customer is yelling at them. They are supposed to address the customer by his or her last name at least twice during each call and give their name and extension twice.

Bronson understands the customer's ire. "You can't yell at a company," she said. "You're going to take it out on the person at the other end of the phone." But if a rep fails to deal with a customer's anger properly, she said, it damages Time Warner's reputation and erodes its customer base. Competitors such as Verizon's americast, which has about 60,000 subscribers in Pinellas County, may benefit.

"As opposed to Verizon having to build their business, I could build it for them," she said. "But that wouldn't be very smart."

There are exceptions to these and other rules, and supervisors make them frequently. For example, reps are allowed to terminate an offensive call if their first warning is not heeded. If they feel angry or hurt and unable to contain their emotions, they can turn the call over to a superior.

Managers also have the power to stop the clock when necessary. Reps are urged to use the bathroom during break time, but when Peters had a stomach ache recently, she told the supervisor-in-charge that her bathroom flag might be up more than usual. She got permission, and it didn't count against her statistics.

Similarly, if a rep is terribly upset by a caller, she can ask for 10 minutes of "cooling-off" time, off the clock. Supervisors also will let reps make emergency personal phone calls during working hours, such as to make child care arrangements.

By and large, however, the customer service rep is at the mercy of her supervisor, however benign, and the customers who call in. And she is constantly under the watchful eye of sophisticated software that tracks her every telephonic move.

The rep also is aware that a supervisor may be secretly monitoring her calls, even from home. The goal is to monitor each rep five times a month.

Dave Bjelland, a 36-year-old triathlete who manages day-to-day operations at the Clearwater center, acknowledged the system's flaws. "Human beings don't like to be watched," he said.

But he denied that call-monitoring is reminiscent of Big Brother, the authoritarian figurehead in George Orwell's futuristic novel 1984.

"It's a training tool," he said.

It's 4:55 p.m., and Karen Peters' phone is ringing. Again.

Much like the 60 or so calls she's fielded today, Peters hits a button and settles back in her chair, ready for anything.

The caller, it seems, is a bit perturbed.

"Someone is supposed to come here between 4 p.m. and 6 p.m. to install my cable television," the caller says. "I'm just calling to confirm that they're coming."

Peters scans the customer's record on her computer monitor.

The news is not good.

"The appointment is scheduled for tomorrow, not today," she says, bracing for a heated response.

The caller is indignant. "What?" she snaps. "I was told it would be today!"

Peters apologizes for the confusion. But it's too late to send a technician out today, so she offers the industry-standard compensation for late service instead: $20 off the first month's bill. The possibility that the customer, not Time Warner, screwed up the service date goes unmentioned.

A pause. "Can I get the first month free?" the customer asks hopefully.

Peters considers. That's fine, she says. But she'll need clearance from her supervisor. She puts the caller on hold and rings the supervisor, who fails to respond. She's on her own.

Her attention returns to the customer's record, in search of a way out.

It doesn't take long. She sees the customer is paying $10.95 a month for HBO and Cinemax but is eligible for a steep discount. Why? Because the caller lives in a "competitive area" _ in this case, a location where Verizon also offers cable television.

Peters counteroffers. What, she asks, if Time Warner were to reduce the caller's $10.95 monthly fee for HBO and Cinemax to $4 for the next 12 months?

"I'll take it!" the customer responds, gleeful over saving $78.

Peters hangs up the phone and smiles, shaking her head.

"With some people, there's just no pleasing," she says. "Some, you can find an angle."

Technology at Time Warner's call center is impressive. A call-routing program sends the longest-waiting caller to the longest-idle representative. Scheduling software tells managers how many people to assign to each of the center's 20 shifts, based on historical call-volume data.

Still, Bronson, a former customer service rep at both GTE and Time Warner, understands the value of keeping good people.

"These folks are the ones on the front line," she said. "They're the ones taking the heat and keeping my customers, so I'm protective of them."

Entry-level wages at the call enter are $8.60 to $10.50 an hour, depending on experience. Health insurance costs $7 a month for an individual rep or $96 for a family of four or more. Bronson gives new hires four weeks' training and assigns each a mentor.

After a year, employees become eligible for a 401(k) retirement plan under which Time Warner contributes $2 for every $3 contributed by the employee, up to 10 percent of the employee's salary. Other perks include a free top-of-the-line cable television subscription and a free America Online account, a product of Time Warner's recently announced merger. Merit raises are awarded each year.

Kimberly Huffman, 24, was four months' pregnant when she was hired for a customer service position last year. Despite her brief tenure, she received six weeks' maternity leave, which was paid for with sick leave and short-term disability.

"We want people to stay and grow with the company," human resources director Cindy Jameson said.

The job's not for everybody. Bronson has fired seven customer service reps this year, mostly for chronic tardiness or absenteeism. Ten percent of the reps who were on the payroll Jan. 1 are no longer with the company.

And though she cares for her employees, she expects them to work hard. They also must understand that the customer's needs come first. That means managing stress, an occupational hazard in this business.

"You have to be able to say, "It's not me, it's the company,' " she said. "That's hard to do, because some customers try to make it personal."

Peters said she's learned to handle the stress better since returning to the call center in October. Even when a customer is yelling at her, she is busily "plotting a resolution" that will make him content.

She has learned other tricks, too. If a customer who lives in a neighborhood served by a rival cable company is unsatisfied by the end of a call, she'll say "Thank you for calling Time Warner" rather than "Thank you for choosing Time Warner." The latter, she's found, simply baits the customer to change carriers.

As for after her 9:30 a.m. to 6 p.m. shift, Peters, a divorced mother of two, decompresses the only way she knows how.

"I go home and read a good book," she said. "I've always been hooked on love stories."

Time Warner Communications' Clearwater call center

Full-time customer service reps: 67

Part-time customer service reps: 5

Multimedia specialists: 9

Average daily call volume: 3,200

Calls answered within 30 seconds: 91.5 percent

Average length of call: 4 minutes, 26 seconds

Other Tampa Bay area call center locations:

_ Brandon, serves about 250,000 customers in Hillsborough County.

_ Bradenton, serves about 100,000 customers in Manatee County.

_ Auburndale, serves about 250,000 customers in Citrus, Hernando, Pasco and Polk counties.

Source: Time Warner Communications

Best Call Centers of 1999

(in alphabetical order)

Centralized Marketing Co., Cordova, Tenn.

CompUSA, Plano, Texas

Compaq Canada, Ottawa

Con Edison, Brooklyn, N.Y.

Liberty Health, Markham, Ontario

MasterCard International, St. Louis

National Post, Toronto

Time Warner, Clearwater

Wells Fargo, Minneapolis

Source: Call Center Magazine, May 2000