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Liz French President and CEO CSR Inc.

Liz French, president and CEO of Customer Service Review Inc., recently spoke with Focus On Customer Care about customer-service issues. Established in 1990, CSR was created to improve the effectiveness of customer service and sales organizations. The company specializes in frontline monitoring and training, offering in-depth reviews of companies’ performance. Once the assessment is complete, CSR provides the tools necessary to help frontline employees deliver. CSR customers include Comcast, Time Warner Cable, HBO, Starz Encore, Charter and Insight. An edited transcript follows:

Q: What do you do for an operator when they call up for help?

A: Our focus is on skills that they use on the phone: Motivating, [offering incentive] and providing quality assurance programs that improve the skills and breadth on the side. Whether it be sell the triple play, retain a particular service. We basically look at the whole call from soup to nuts. Did they service them well? Was the customer well taken care of? We have a couple different kinds of programs that are all measurement-based and employee development-based.

The bigger projects come in for the form of an incentive program or one that is focused on a particular product or group of products and services, or the retention of those products and services. We take their training program and model our program into their training program so we’re measuring on the same things they are being trained on.

Q: What are cable operators looking for when it comes to a CSR’s success: retention, sales or satisfaction?

A: They are most concerned about triple-play sales.

Q: What is involved in the training of these CSRs?

A: Our direction is sales and retention skills. We have three different departments. One is our full quality assurance program where we teach skills to handle the whole call. We do not train them on product knowledge. We don’t have anything to do with that. We are assuming the operator has done all that. We have developed some training on the interface programs and how to properly use the interfaces that operators have developed. But that’s a minor part of what we do.

And as that becomes more technically advanced, we will probably steer clear of that because it’s become too technical. We’re assuming they have had product knowledge training that they are skilled at pulling up information on their computer and that they can process an order on their computer. We will teach them how to sell and save the product or service; how to position it to the customer; how to promote the value; mention features and benefits; tie features and benefits to what the customer is telling them they want; and tie it to the product they are selling. You’re looking for people who have a predisposition to sell. But not all people have the skill sets to sell, and that is where we focus a lot of our attention.

Q: Why is it that with all the things cable operators have done to improve customer-service satisfaction, they still often fall below their competition in terms of customer expectations?

A: Satellite grew up in a standardized environment. If you’re in Austin, Texas, or Portland, Maine, you’re going to get the same package. So the way that satellite developed lends itself to standardization and to a concise, better message to a customer. There’s just more consistency. Whereas cable grew up as a local companies and developed into big companies like Comcast and Time Warner Cable. Standardization is becoming more the practice with cable now. That is closing the gap — offering standardized channel lineups, pricing and offerings. We’re beginning to begin to see some consistency across the country. And with that [cable operators] will do better on things like the J.D.Power surveys.

Q: Are there things the satellite firms are doing that the cable companies aren’t?

A: I’m not sure about the satellite companies, but I know the Bells companies are offering better deals on pricing and offering some goodies that perhaps the cable operators can’t throw in now. One of the things that make customers satisfied is when they think they are getting a good deal. The more you can throw into a package the better their perception is about the deal. So I think that contributed [to consumer satisfaction]. I don’t think satellite is doing a better job of that at this point. In the past they did. But not now. I think the Bells are. And the Bells have another advantage in that they’re delivering in high-revenue districts so there are a lot of advantages of coming into this market later.

Q: What’s better? Mega call centers or small centers that cater to a local feel?

A: I think the trend is toward regionalizing the call centers, at least with cable.

Whereas satellite has more of the mega-center model. From my perspective, it’s better to have the regionalized ones. It’s harder to move those mega-centers in different directions. The bigger it is, the harder it is to change it to meet customer and business demands. I firmly believe that large regional centers are easier to operate.

Q: What are operators doing effectively to close the satisfaction gap?

A: They’re trying to move in the direction of providing more one-stop shopping, more standardization. The product offerings they are putting into the triple-play packages will act more like glue. Offering additional advanced services that tie into an existing package that makes the life of the customer easier will also make a difference. I think if you’re calling into an organization and it takes 15 minutes to get transferred from a video rep to another rep to answer a simple question — they have to move away from that. And they are moving away from that.

Q: What is the most important skill for a CSR?

A: I think sales and retention skills are pretty important but you also have to be nice. You have to have some understanding of effectively communicating and that includes active skills, listening and able to translate what they tell you and match up what you’ve heard with what you can pitch to that customer.

Q: What are the CSR’s toughest challenges these days?

A: I would say handling the volume. There is a lot to know about products, pricing and packages. Keeping it all straight is tough. Of course, they have a lot of tools to help them to be effective. But they have to use them.