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Published: Sunday, 7/2/2006

Extra ears on the line?

BY MARY-BETH McLAUGHLIN
BLADE BUSINESS WRITER

No, there isn't usually a person listening in on the telephone when you hear the taped message, this call may be recorded for quality assurance purposes.

But that doesn t mean those calls for customer service aren t heard.

Companies from utilities to banks to health care providers keep track of calls between clients and customer service representatives, often saving them for later analysis, which means randomly listening to a sampling to see how the rep is handling the caller.

We do record customer service calls for employee development, said Kelly Wagner Amen, a spokesman for National City Bank.

We don t retain the customer information, but we re making sure we re providing the best possible service.

Mike Davidson, director of a customer center for Columbia Gas of Ohio that handles up to 20,000 calls a day, said the company switched to simply reviewing a random selection of calls after a previous system proved inefficient.

We did have live monitoring of the phone but a lot of time that really was not effective, he said.

Spokesman Mark Durbin of FirstEnergy Corp., parent of Toledo Edison, said the company has an automated phone system in which customers follow a series of prompts and questions to take care of their transactions.

We do have an element to our system that can sense if someone is getting frustrated and a message will come on that says, if you hold, we ll connect you with an operator, Mr. Durbin said.

We try to make it as easy as possible for our customers, but if they re adamant to talk to a live operator, or if they try to go through the prompts and get frustrated, they can get to talk to someone.

Technology used at some of the country s largest firms is taking that type of monitoring a step further, measuring a caller s voice at the start of the call and digitally keeping track if the voice is raised in anger.

If the caller becomes angry, the computer sends the call recording to a manager to listen to later.

The idea behind the NICE Systems technology is to find out what makes callers angry and address it system-wide.

Our technology scans all the calls, then analyzes the phone conversations based on different elements, including specific words or phrases, such as I would like to cancel, said Eyal Danon, vice president of global marketing for the Israeli company.

The system also notes how long a customer waits on hold, how many times he or she is transferred, and even whether the agent is playing solitaire on the computer while taking the call.

We monitor everything, Mr. Danon said.

The agents and the customers can actually get a report each day that shows the top 30 emotional customers of the day, the top 20 mentioning a specific competitor, even the top 50 threatening to leave the company.

Bonnie Ash, director of business operations for Buckeye CableSystem, said the company does not have such sophisticated technology but is a firm believer in the importance of monitoring calls for training purposes, picking out a number of calls per agent, per month, to listen to.

That way, if someone tells us I spoke to someone at the company and they said it s going to cost $3 instead of $30, we can go back and easily pull that call, she said.

If someone is misquoting information or is making a mistake, we can catch it there.

Although companies and their employees are sold on monitoring, customers oftentimes aren t, because of privacy issues and other concerns, said Joe Ridout, a spokesman for Consumer Action in San Francisco.

We get a lot of feedback from customers who are disturbed that companies record their phone messages, because they don t have access to those same recordings, he said.

They would love to hear those tapes when a company reneges on a verbal promise, but they re denied access.

The privacy of a caller is of top concern for Paramount Health Care, which has a center that sometimes handles 2,000 calls a day, said Mark Moser, vice president of marketing.

Any discussions we might have regarding a call the team leader said didn t go well, nobody really is allowed to discuss the member per se, he said. It s all about quality of the answer and the information that was given.

The insurer does not record each call, but supervisors periodically listen in on conversations, taking notes to determine whether proper information is being given out, he said.

We want to make sure that our member service representatives are giving the correct answers to questions and that they re being polite and respectful to our customers, Mr. Moser said.

Because the company has found such monitoring helpful, it is considering a system to record every call, which it hopes to have in place next year.

We want to be able to determine whether the customer had a good experience or not.

Contact Mary-Beth McLaughlin at: mmclaughlin@theblade.com or 419-724-6199.



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