When it comes to talking to customers, even God needs a hand. In January 1999, when Pope John Paul II visited St. Louis, calls from Catholics so overwhelmed the archdiocese that the church called in a company named Convergys to handle questions about the pope's visit. "We were desperate," says Jennifer Stanard, vice chancellor for special projects at the Archdiocese of St. Louis.
Taking calls for the pope ("Is it okay to throw confetti at His Holiness?") was no problem for Convergys, a company with thousands of customer-service agents. Fast Company first profiled Convergys more than four years ago, when it was a division of Cincinnati Bell Inc. known as Matrixx Marketing Inc. ("How Can I Help You?" October:November 1997). In the world of customer service, we wrote, "Matrixx may be the most important company you've never heard of."
At the time, brands as diverse as AT&T, Carnation Baby Formula, DirecTV, and Gatorade were using Matrixx to take their customers' calls. Customers calling in have no way of knowing they're talking to Convergys and not to Carnation.
The company was renamed Convergys Corp. in 1998, when it went public and was spun off, with another division, from Cincinnati Bell. Since the spin-off, Convergys has grown even more dominant. Back in 1996, Convergys had just less than $400 million in revenue. Last year, Convergys reported nearly $2.2 billion in revenue — and nearly $330 million in profits. The number of people taking calls has jumped from 15,000 to 41,000. And the number of "customer contacts" has more than doubled to 1.2 million calls and Web inquiries a day — 50,000 an hour. If you've ever dialed an 800-number to reach a customer-service department, chances are you've talked to Convergys.
The scale, argues Convergys's David Dougherty, is what gives the company the ability to do customer service better than companies themselves. "Nobody's got 45,000 employees, 25,000 workstations," says Dougherty, the chief development officer. "The economies we get enable us to provide quality at a good cost." The company, for instance, has the capacity to take calls in 30 languages.
Dougherty says that one of the most surprising things about the past four years is that while people expected the Web to automate many customer-service functions — and therefore to reduce demand — that hasn't happened. Often, he says, the new technologies are "stimulating more contact. People get one level of questions answered, and that leads to another level." At this point, just 8% of the company's customer-service revenue comes from answering email or Web queries.
Convergys is in two other businesses that are related in interesting ways to its core job of taking care of other companies' customers. The first is the arcane, computer-intensive work of calculating cellular and cable-TV bills. According to company figures, Convergys calculates 40% of the cell-phone bills in the country. The infrastructure required to handle real-time billing for cell phones is, like running call centers, complex and expensive — and Convergys argues that companies are better off outsourcing to a company that specializes in that technology.
Convergys is also developing a "boutique" customer-service sideline: handling HR functions for sprawling companies such as AT&T and Lucent Technologies, as well as large parts of General Electric. Convergys calls this "employee care."
"We administer and handle all benefit needs of actual employees in client companies," says Dougherty. "We get them signed up for benefit plans, we explain changes in plans, we administer other benefit programs — all the things that are traditionally part of HR."
Convergys has also evolved its larger customer-service business in the direction of more-specialized offerings. About 90% of the company's customer-service calls go to "dedicated agents," who handle calls for a single company. Those agents have the skills to handle specialized calls.
"We've got certified Cisco engineers, in dedicated call centers, talking to Cisco customers who are also engineers, debugging Cisco routers," says Dougherty. Convergys even maintains a lab to help diagnose problems with Cisco routers.
"The idea that you have to own the customer-service operation, or that you have to own the billing system — that's really 20th-century thinking," says Convergys chairman, president, and CEO Jim Orr. "This is all we do."
One thing that hasn't changed much as Convergys has grown up: Companies remain shy about admitting that they've outsourced their customer service. "The relationship exists between the company and the customer," says Orr. "The people who call are not our customers — we're just managing them on behalf of our clients. As we say, 'The only thing that should come between you and your customers is . . . us.' "
Contact David Dougherty by email (firstname.lastname@example.org).
Sidebar: How to Do More, Better
When companies grow fast, service usually suffers. Convergys can't afford to expand at the expense of the customer experience. The company's chief executive, Jim Orr uses the following ideas to help balance two core elements: people and technology.
1. Keep the business transparent. For its own customers (the companies, not the callers), Convergys offers secure, Web-based access to the huge flow of information from its call centers. Companies can check anytime to see how well Convergys is doing. And the information flow is real time, says David Dougherty, chief development officer.
2. To manage for the future, predict it. Convergys prides itself on forecasting the number of calls that its centers will get. Good forecasting — which requires skill at handling computer models like those used to predict the weather — is the only way to schedule enough staff to handle call volumes properly.
3. Grow fast, promote slow. Convergys resists the urge to use inexperienced agents to handle calls beyond their expertise, despite the volume.
4. It's great to automate. Many things can be handled automatically, by providing information to those who, in essence, press "1." The company knows that if a new fee or tax appears on bills, thousands of people will call in, and most of them will be satisfied with an automated explanation. But Convergys also is alert to the frustration quotient. "We always urge our clients to give customers the option to press '0' and talk to a live agent," says Dougherty.
A version of this article appeared in the December 2001 issue of Fast Company magazine.