More than a hundred shiny, balloons tethered to a sea of desk chairs are the first hint this Capital One credit card operation isn't your typical call center.
Hint two comes when you check out Standard Operating Procedure inside what's been rated Tampa Bay's top workplace this year in the large employer category.
Unlike SOP at most other call centers, Capital One employees aren't under the gun to get off the phone fast. They're judged and rewarded based not on how fast they dispense with callers, but rather how well they resolve customer issues.
"We focus on quality and customer satisfaction. That's what our incentive plan is based on," said Bill Jacobs, the on-site director overseeing customer service. If an associate can't solve an issue immediately, he or she has the freedom to end the call, research the issue and then call the customer back ASAP.
"Our associates don't feel like they're on a production line," Jacobs added.
Which gets us back to the Mylar balloons.
Each balloon represents an unsolicited customer compliment — a case where a caller is so overwhelmed by the level of service they feel compelled to tell a supervisor about it. Balloons are taken down at the beginning of every month, but it doesn't take long before they pop up everywhere again.
"Personally, I can't tell you the last time I had service on the phone I thought was so good, I said, 'Can I talk to your manager?' " said Shawn Sweeney, an executive from Capital One's Richmond, Va., headquarters who often visits the Tampa site.
"With that being the bar, and to walk around this floor and see that number of balloons? It's just awe-inspiring."
Capital One works hard to make its employees feel not just empowered, but appreciated:
• Gift cards, gas cards and event tickets doled out for strong performance.
• A health and fitness center with exercise classes and Zumba lessons, a basketball court, and a 1.5-mile walking track.
• A multistation food court and salad bar.
• A training/education center with thousands of courses and career assessment tools.
The list of amenities even includes a softball field, an Internet cafe, pool and ping pong tables, and an oversized lounge with leather furniture and a widescreen TV.
Everything hinges, however, on first nurturing an atmosphere of mutual respect.
"It's almost like we're back in the 1950s," said Theresa Vera, a customer service representative. "People open doors for each other and say good morning to each other, whether you know each other or not."
Vera does her part in building that collegial environment, working in a "buddy assimilation program" that matches veterans with newcomers. "Buddies" like her show the newbies around, have lunch with them and act as a resource. "You can have all the training but it helps (to) have someone out there in real life," Vera said.
After a month of classroom training, new employees work "in the nest" for two weeks, fielding incoming calls with plenty of support. Hands go up whenever a trainee has a question, and a roving supervisor runs over to help.
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Once on their own, employees work within teams. But they're never far from a helping hand as team leaders and "floor walkers" decked in bright red and yellow vests are always available to answer questions.
The "we're-all-in-it-together" culture begins at the top with Jacobs and center co-director George Snyder, who oversees loss mitigation — the group that talks to customers in the early stages of missing payments.
Both executives embrace service leadership, Sweeney said. "Their actions, their words embody that they are here to support the agents. (They) do whatever they need to do to make the agents successful."
Snyder meets with all his employees in groups, soliciting suggestions for how to do things better. "Understanding the jobs they do and what they're going through is a really big key," he said.
You might call the management style here an open-door policy, except there are no office doors to open. Snyder and Jacobs both have desks on the open floor. "Visibility is important in letting folks know that no matter what their job is … we care about them," Snyder says
Listening to workers has led to changes big and small, like converting vending machines to accept credit cards.
"Most vending machines are cash," Sweeney said. "We got some feedback: 'Hey we're a credit card company!' So we equipped the vending machines to take Capital One credit cards."
Another time, as the company was training recent hires, some noticed lines forming at a microwave break room. More microwaves were added within a week.
Tiffany Miller, a process coordinator within Capital One's quality assurance group, said the company does a good job listening to workers. "Just the daily recognition is what really hits home for me personally," she said. "Morale is very high here."
Little wonder that Tampa was ranked as the No. 1 site in the Capital One network for employee engagement. "That speaks volumes," Jacobs said. "Everybody feels like they've bought into what we're doing and they truly have an impact on the outcome."
Keeping everybody on equal footing translates to the dress code as well. No shirts and ties. It's full-casual dress code for the 24-7 operation.
"We are a very non-hierarchal culture," says Jacobs, who stocks a candy jar on his desk to induce associates to stop by. "We're on a first-name basis across the company no matter how senior somebody is. We cringe when somebody says, 'Mr.' "
That's why Jacobs, who left Capital One for a five-year stretch, was compelled to return to the fold.
"I came back a year ago February," he said. "It was like putting on my favorite pair of jeans again. … It really is the only job I've ever had where I look forward to coming to work in the morning."
Coming back after a stint at another job isn't unusual. "I did the same thing," said Mark Jacobs of the corporate communications staff. "I'm a Capital One boomerang."
Rewards keep workers happy
Like most workplaces, happiness is closely tied to recognizing and rewarding your workers.
At Capital One, recognition begins with a benefits package that gives employees access to health, dental and vision insurance from their first day on the job.
From there come the stream of event tickets and gift cards. And plenty of food.
"They do feed us a lot," laughed Vera, the customer service representative.
Chief among recognition efforts is the quarterly ROAR program, an acronym for Recognizing Outstanding Associate Results. Top performers in each business group, a couple of hundred associates in all, are taken to a hotel off-site to be honored at a banquet.
Every spring, as a reward to all employees, Capital One also throws a fully catered family picnic on its campus. This year, more than 1,000 people — associates and family members — enjoyed festivities like face painting, cotton candy and a bouncy castle for the kids. (Plus, karaoke, mainly for the brave adults.)
Times change, culture doesn't
Capital One is nestled in a single building in a lush office complex near Veterans Expressway and Waters Avenue.
The remaining buildings on campus are occupied by WellCare Health Plans, which also shares amenities like the fitness center, tennis courts, racquetball courts and a tai chi garden spread across 71 acres.
At one point, Capital One workers filled the entire, 550,000-square-foot complex. Then came a decision in 2004 to close the bulk of its credit card operations here, leading to the elimination of about 1,100 jobs.
During its evolution, Capital One Tampa temporarily became a hub for handling its auto finance calls. Now it's back to handling credit card issues, including late payments and fraud disputes.
And it's growing again.
The biggest part of the Tampa operation, the customer service call center, is leading the way. Call volume is growing in part because the company is adding new accounts and partly because some offshore call center operations are shifting back to the United States.
As a result, Capital One Tampa will expand from last year's head count of about 600 to more than 1,000 by the end of this year. It recently signed a lease for the fourth floor of its current building to absorb the growth.
Amid all the years of downsizing, upsizing and shifting business operations, Capital One leaders say they're keen on keeping one thing constant: the culture.
"We have a high bar … and it's only getting better," Snyder said.
"I can tell you I've been in this business 26 years with different organizations. Never a day goes by that I didn't feel this is the place I want to be."
Jeff Harrington can be reached at (727) 893-8242 or firstname.lastname@example.org.