Mark Jarvis is a supervisor on the DirecTV account. his world looks simple, routine — like a white-collar assembly line. hundreds of people sit at computers, talking through headsets, answering questions about bills, explaining schedules for pay-per-view movies. Look deeper, though, and a different world comes into focus — a world of subtlety and soul, of favors and friendship.
Veteran reps remember when the service debuted. "Rural folks who had never had TV before — suddenly they had a hundred channels," says one of Jarvis's colleagues. "They literally cried over the phone." These days, customers are less emotional but no less engaged. Jarvis describes a recent call he fielded near dawn.
"A guy named Nicholas called," he says. "He'd been up all night watching TV. You could tell — he sounded kind of blurry. I like to imagine people's faces when I talk to them. He's a big guy, I think. He has a big-guy voice. He says, 'I haven't gotten my NBA welcome kit,' which is basically a schedule and a pullover jacket. 'I go out with my friends, they've got their NBA jackets, I don't have mine. I want my NBA jacket.' So I sent out the welcome kit again. Now he calls me about once a week — just to talk."
Lots of companies says they're obsessed with customers. Lots of companies promise to delight customers. But companies don't help customers — people do. Which is why most companies rarely walk their talk. Customers want to deal with people who are bright, perceptive, sympathetic. But the real work of helping customers can be tiresome, frustrating, tedious. It's easy to set impersonal service standards: How many times does the phone ring before we answer? How long is the average caller on hold? What really matters is less tangible and more human — the attitude, energy, and intelligence on the other end of the line.
"Not everyone is cut out for this," says Chris Long, who does hiring for the DirecTV account. "People say, 'I've been an office manager. I know how to answer the phone.' But it's not just answering the phones. You've got to be as good on the last call at 5 p.m. as you were on the first call at 9 a.m."
Ed Eynon, Matrixx's vice president for human resources, is even more direct. The quality of customer service, he argues, can't exceed the quality of the people who provide it: "We don't make anything. Our people are our business. We need to have the most talented people, at the right place, at the right time."
Matrixx is rigorous about whom it hires, even as it hires thousands of people. (At one point, in Salt Lake City, it hired 1,400 people in 90 days.) Different products attract different customers, and different customers need different kinds of customer service agents. So Matrixx makes subtle distinctions in the skills and personal attributes it looks for in its reps.
Todd Baxter, a Matrixx manager for The Station, the online game center, had detailed discussions with Sony executives about the personality of the Web site, the kind of players it would attract, and the sort of customer service reps who would best take care of them. The Station, Baxter says, "was designed to be a place to have fun." And Sony was clear that it wanted the site to be "the premier customer service provider on the Web." So he decided not to hire computer geeks with the right skills but the wrong disposition: "We were looking for people who had a computer at home and enjoyed playing on it — people who knew about browsers but for whom the computer was more a hobby than an obsession. I had to have people who were going to love this job"
An even bigger challenge than hiring agents is helping them connect personally with the customers whose problems they've been hired to solve. Companies can identify customers. But only people can identify with customers. Bad service begins the moment the person answering the phone can't relate to the caller and the problem on the other end.
Matrixx uses a variety of techniques to make agents feel connected to the companies whose customers they're helping. People who take calls for a specific client wear ID badges with the logo of the client, not that of Matrixx. After six months on the job, DirecTV agents get a free dish and the complete spectrum of programming for their homes. ("There's a good reason," says Renee Kuwahara, senior manager of the DirecTV account. "If it's in their homes, they know the programming intimately. They can really talk about it.") Baby-formula agents get free formula for their infants and the chance to mix with medical specialists and parents at trade shows.
The result? Lots of Matrixx employees don't consider themselves Matrixx employees. Says one Sony rep: "If I'm at a ballgame, I tell people I work for Sony. I don't have that much to do with Matrixx, except that I'm in their building." That he uses Matrixx phones and computers, gets his health insurance from Matrixx, and is paid by Matrixx seems beside the point to him. To Matrixx, that attitude is the point.
Matrixx keeps experimenting with ways to strengthen the quality of the customer connection. For example, it operates a call center for a garden products company. This winter the company's master gardener spent a week teaching the reps about landscaping and design. "We each did our own yard," says agent Zolene White. "We learned about the high spots, the low spots, the wind direction, the sun. Now, when someone calls and has a rose bush that's wilting, we can say, 'Maybe it's on a side of the house where it's too cold.'"
Good connections can produce real innovations. One call-center team, established for a major toy company to support customers who use their computers to "print out" doll clothes, improved service by going beyond the company's technical information base. As the reps figured out how to handle problems for dozens of combinations of hardware, software, and printers, they built their own database of problems, glitches, quirks, and solutions. The database, searchable by PC or printer model and by the kind of problem, started as an informal exchange of tips among Matrixx reps. Now it's routinely consulted by the toy company itself.
Over time, the bonds between customers and reps can become remarkably strong. The Matrixx baby-formula team was the company's first "dedicated" center: the reps all sit together and take calls for one company. Teleservice is a business famous for employee churn — yet the average tenure of these agents is four years. Why do they stay? Because they're dedicated in more ways than one. A few years ago, the team started to worry about gaps in advice over the weekend, when calls were routed to a group with no experience fielding baby-formula questions. The reps' solution: wear beepers during the off-hours. Now, even on weekends, parents are never far from the group's expertise.
A version of this article appeared in the October/November 1997 issue of Fast Company magazine.