The topic of the moment, at least for the worried mother from Minnesota, is baby poop. Specifically, her daughter's, which turned green after the baby began taking a new formula. She's reached a call center in Salt Lake City. She's talking to a customer service rep named Sarah, a young woman who doesn't have a baby — but does have two years of experience talking to strangers about the eating habits of their babies. Sarah has even sampled the formula, so she can reassure parents: "Yes, it's supposed to taste 'yucky.'" She soothes the worried mom: the color change is common when switching formulas, and temporary.
Not far away, in a different call center, a customer service rep named Brandon Hanson is on the phone with a middle-aged caller who's been playing "Wheel of Fortune" on The Station, Sony's new Internet game site. Lovemoney (his online handle) has a problem. "According to the charts, I've got the highest score by a long shot. But I'm not listed on the Top 10 for the week or for the day." Hanson praises the caller's skill. But Lovemoney doesn't want ego gratification. He wants, well, money: "I'm not worried about the Top 10, but about what the prizes are based on. If the game's not recording my scores, it may not be registering me for prizes, either."
Meanwhile, back across town, Calvin is on the phone with a caller from West Frankfort, Illinois. Andrew, a customer of DirecTV, the satellite broadcasting service, has a problem: he can't find the Bulls-Hornets basketball game. Calvin zaps through the channels. He sees that the game's blacked out in Chicago, puts Andrew on hold, and flies through pages of schedules and restrictions. Finally, he solves the mystery. The game is being broadcast by a Chicago TV station, and broadcast stations trump satellite carriers. "That's the reason it's blacked out," he explains. "You may want to check your local listings."
Sarah, Brandon, and Calvin work on the front lines of business. Every day they do what most senior executives merely talk about. They listen to the voice of the customer. They field complaints, solve problems, calm nerves. But none of them actually works for the companies whose customers they're helping. They all work for Matrixx Marketing Inc. — a fast-growing operation with headquarters in Cincinnati and call centers around the country. If the voice of the customer is the most important sound in business, then Matrixx may be the most important company you've never heard of.
More and more companies have reached the same conclusion: customers are so important that we don't want our people talking to them; we want the best service reps in the world talking to them. And that means Matrixx. The company solves technical problems for owners of Hitachi laptops. It helps Gatorade drinkers quench their thirst for product information. It answers phones for the Microsoft Network and for two of the three largest long-distance carriers. All told, its clients include 33 of the 100 largest public companies in the United States.
No company has embraced the "give-away-our-customers" model more aggressively than DirecTV. The satellite-broadcasting pioneer launched its service in June 1994 and now has nearly 3 million subscribers. Yet no one at DirecTV has ever answered a single customer call. Early on, it recognized that customer service could be a competitive advantage against the cable industry, whose track record in that area was famously dismal. It also recognized that as a manufacturer of sophisticated satellites, it knew nothing about taking care of individual consumers. Says Larry Driscoll, DirectTV's senior vice president of customer service: "We just couldn't amass the expertise we needed in the time we had to launch this business."
Enter Matrixx. When DirecTV debuted, Matrixx had 25 trained agents taking calls. Today it employs 2,500 people who do nothing but answer calls about DirecTV, 20 million times a year. Matrixx manages the entire relationship between DirecTV and its customers, from a first-time inquiry ("What's all the fuss about satellite dishes?") to a technical question about taking the dish to the summer cabin.. "We are an extension of our clients' business — the voice of the customer," says Elizabeth Stites, Matrixx's director of marketing. "Our core business is managing customer relationships."
Business is booming. Matrixx, which was founded nine years ago, is a division of Cincinnati Bell Inc. In its first year it generated $5 million in revenue. Last year it generated nearly $400 million in revenue — up nearly $100 million from the year before. In 1996 it grew from 9,000 people to 15,000. In Utah, where it has 7 of its 23 call centers, it is the second largest private employer, behind Brigham Young University. Matrixx answered 200 million calls last year — more than 500,000 per day. It controls 40,000 toll-free numbers, more than any other company that doesn't provide phone service.
But what's most striking about Matrixx is not the scale of its operations but the skill of its agents. It has taken one of the most mundane rituals of contemporary business life — the incoming call from a confused or disgruntled customer — and turned it into a rich stream of impressions, ideas, and data. Matrixx doesn't just answer the phone. It answers the most urgent questions facing any company that claims to care about customers: What is great service? How do you help people to provide it? How do you keep getting better at it? The techniques Matrixx has perfected amount to a handbook for cutting-edge service — the how-to practices every company needs to compete in a world where business is still about getting and keeping customers.
A version of this article appeared in the October/November 1997 issue of Fast Company magazine.