What is Great Service?

Great service is an art. But it's an art that lends itself to a certain kind of science.

Baby-formula agent Judie Blankshan is on the phone with Cathy, a mom from Simi Valley, California. Cathy has called the manufacturer's toll-free number (which means she's called Matrixx) to ask for 50c-off coupons for the formula her son Alex drinks now that she's stopped breast-feeding.

As Blankshan does the onscreen work to locate Cathy's record and issue the coupons, Cathy chats merrily away. "I really love the formula," she says. "Do you have a line of baby foods?"

"We do have a cereal," says Blankshan, continuing to type. "It's not out yet — it's being test-marketed. It's a premium baby cereal, mixed with yogurt and raspberries. It's delicious. I've tasted it."

"You know," Cathy says, "I thought my baby was going to develop an allergy to the formula." Blankshan stops typing, her instincts kicking in. "He was having a wet cough. I think he's just sick," Cathy adds.

There's no change in Blankshan's tone, but she points the conversation in a new direction. "How old is your baby?" she asks. "Four-and-a-half months," says Cathy. "I breast-fed three months, then started on formula. He got sick last week, and he still has the cough."

"Let me take some information," Blankshan says.

"My daughter had an allergy to the formula," offers Cathy. "But it doesn't look like that's what this is. The doctor says he's just sick."

Blankshan nods to herself. Formula and a sick baby usually spell nothing but a sick baby on formula. But sometimes the formula is making the baby sick. "What's the number on the can you're using now? The expiration date?"

Cathy returns with the can and reads off the information. "Okay, I'll send you the coupons," says Blankshan. "And someone will call you in a few days to make sure the baby is getting better."

After Cathy hangs up, Blankshan records on a special screen Alex's wet cough and week-long illness, his sister's baby-formula allergy, and the batch number of the formula. Then she codes the record so it will pop up again in a couple days. Another rep will call Cathy back to check up on Alex.

What is great service? Who defines it? How do you know it when you deliver it? Good service is solving a problem — delivering what people expect to receive. Great service is getting below the surface of the problem — delivering what no one expects to receive. It's listening, learning, assessing, refining.

In this case, a routine call for coupons — a call that could just as easily have been handled by an automated system — turned into a rich and rewarding exchange. The baby-formula company learned that one of its customers is so loyal that even though her last baby was allergic to the formula, she's willing to try its products again. Meanwhile, when Cathy gets a call back from the company, she's bound to feel awfully good about the people who make her baby's formula. (How many pediatricians call back to find out if a baby is better?) Which means she's likely to buy the company's new cereal when it debuts.

Great service isn't easy to achieve. Every customer is different. Every problem is different. At Matrixx, every call is different. The company can't prepare scripts to cover every situation, let alone every personality on the other end of the line. Ultimately, great service requires sound judgments by the people on the front lines. So the only way to keep getting better at answering customer calls is to keep getting better at making judgment calls.

Good judgment starts with deep knowledge. To become a customer service rep on the DirecTV account, for example, a new hire gets two weeks of training in skills both hard (the computer, the telephone, the set-top box, the satellite dish) and soft (how to talk to customers, how to listen to them, how to deal with the angry ones). Next, there's a period in which new agents take calls in what

Matrixx calls the "nesting" area. Veteran reps walk the floors, listen, help, watch over the shoulders of novices. In all, the company says, basic training for a DirecTV rep costs 7$1,500.

Then comes monitoring and assessment. A full-time quality assurance staff monitors every Matrixx agent, with 70% of agents undergoing formal reviews each week. (The DirecTV operation in Salt Lake City has a dedicated quality staff of 21 people). Agents are monitored and coached more frequently (and more informally) by their team leaders — at least a couple of times a week. Client companies do their own monitoring as well. Matrixx's technology lets designated client executives dial in from anywhere in the country and listen to calls. At some point, on any given shift, an agent is likely to have someone listening to calls and offering advice.

And many of the Matrixx managers listening in used to take calls. "The people evaluating you have done the same job you're doing," says Tomoji Shino, a Matrixx rep for a toy company. "People who have been on the phones advance because they know what it's like." (In fact, many supervisors do rise from the phones, often quite rapidly. Even President and CEO David Dougherty, who came to the company from Procter & Gamble, has spent time taking calls.)

No one is exempt from Matrixx's drive to raise the quality bar. Not even Donna Cary, a DirecTV rep in Salt Lake City, who is so good at what she does that Matrixx rewarded her with a five-day trip to Hawaii. Her special skill? Selling NFL packages to customers calling on unrelated business. "People would call to order movies," says Mark Jarvis, Cary's supervisor, "and she'd say, 'Do you like sports?'" But Cary speaks without the enthusiasm that Matrixx likes.

"I'm a real mellow person," she says. "They tell me I speak in a monotone. They say I need to be happier. I tell them I am happy. They say, 'Yeah, but you don't sound happy.'"

Jarvis has just spent two hours listening to Cary take about 18 calls. "I graded her on each call. She did very well. I talked to her about her voice inflection."

"He gives me a mirror," Cary reports, "and says, 'Smile when you're on the phone.'"

After Jarvis evaluates Cary, they switch roles, and for several calls, she evaluates her supervisor. "I like her to have a different perspective," says Jarvis.

"He's really good," says Cary. "He says, 'I'd be happy to help you with that.' That's hard to do on every call."

The process of assessing what good service means — and figuring out how to deliver it — never stops. The sprawling DirecTV operation takes calls 24 hours a day, 365 days a year; sometimes more than 1,000 reps in three states are on the phones at the same time. The service's programming packages are intricate and change daily. DirecTV offers 175 options, including 60 cable channels, 55 pay-per-view channels, and dozens of regional sports channels. To keep everyone on the same page, reps meet in teams for half an hour before every shift to talk about changes, problems, and quality issues — much like the beat cops on "Hill Street Blues." Reps even receive an irreverent daily newsletter ("Direct to You") devoted to being a DirecTV agent and getting better at it.

Four times a week at each DirecTV call center, people gather to evaluate taped calls. The group includes Matrixx employees of every rank, plus managers from DirecTV. Everyone at these "calibration sessions" rates calls as they are played back, and then the group discusses each person's ratings. The result is a permanent conversation about quality, performance, and standards.

Why spend so much time on such small details? Because Matrixx sees a clear connection between the attitude of its reps, the quality of their performance, and the amount of information they gather. Over time, information about short-term problems generates long-term insights. With DirecTV, for instance, Matrixx has learned that a large increase in call volume follows the start of football season. It's learned a lot about juggling multiple promotions at one time. And it's learned that when the time comes for equipment changes (every so often, customers must replace one credit-card-sized access chip with another), it's best not to have 2.7 million customers perform the operation at once.

Great service is an art. But it's an art that lends itself to a certain kind of science. A good call is subjective — literally a judgment call — but that doesn't mean it can't be measured. It just can't be measured on automatic pilot. At one time, for example, Matrixx evaluated service quality with precise rating forms — until it discovered that agents were striving not to provide great service but to get high scores. "People actually started working to the checklist," says Renee Kuwahara, who runs the DirecTV account. "But we realized they could do all the things on the list and still not satisfy the customer. The key question is, Are they satisfying customers?"

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