By Deborah Gage Print this article Print

FedEx already saves money by steering inquiries to its Web site, so how can it justify spending $326 million a year on call-center reps?

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Quality vs. Quantity

At the call center in Fullerton, the reps are judged first on call quality—are they polite, do they provide customers with the right information, or do they force customers to call back? This is a change from a few years ago, says Hight, when productivity was considered most important. But today, callers who get through to the call center are either determined to talk to a human being or have problems that FedEx's Web site and its voice-response system can't yet solve. Either way, these callers require more time.

FedEx has a number of ways to tackle this problem. Reps are regularly evaluated and rewarded for meeting clearly stated goals. Friendly competition among teams of reps is encouraged. One bulletin board along the hallway in Fullerton is covered with certificates of merit proclaiming "Bravo Zulu!"—the phrase that CEO Frederick Smith, an ex-Marine, likes to use to mean "good job!"

FedEx studies reps' behavioral techniques to discover which ones work best with customers. Steward's technique is considered effective. The company found that reps who have no time limits with customers tend to talk too much. Customers view them as "chatty" or "overly nice" and ultimately develop a negative impression of FedEx. "Customers want the facts," says customer service VP Sheila Harrell. Better if the rep solves the problem the customer called about and gets off the phone.

And reps are encouraged to tell FedEx's information-technology department how well the Clarify software helps them do their jobs. Conference calls are held once a month by technology liaisons who discuss, for example, whether reps have to click too many times to get to a certain screen.

During Steward's 45 minutes on the floor, she had to quickly reboot her software between calls because the Clarify desktop became what she calls "swollen." The interface had spread beyond the borders of her monitor, forcing her to scroll around it during calls and knocking precious seconds off her productivity. This could have lowered her evaluation for the day.

There will be no misaligned desktops in the next version of Clarify, which Struminger plans to adopt once he thoroughly understands the impact on FedEx of software that Amdocs has redesigned. In fact, says Amdocs VP Charles Born, the vendor developed much of this new version after designers watched FedEx's reps flipping rapidly between applications as they talked to customers.

Instead of being hard-coded so it follows certain predefined processes, the software will now change as the rep and the caller interact. Amdocs' designers restructured Clarify so that it can directly interface with Java code, Struminger says—this allows reps to switch between applications during a call without re-entering customer data. For example, if a customer needs directions to pick up a package, the rep could tab over to the mapping software, which would bring up all the account and ZIP code information linked to that customer. She could then read directions to the customer without re-keying or leaving the main screen.

Meanwhile, engineers stationed in the call centers continue to seek ways to make FedEx transactions move faster. They are figuring out how to resolve problems while shifting things that customers call about most frequently to the Web. Harrell, the customer service VP, won't reveal FedEx' next move, but says her challenge is to get the call centers to the point where "the rep never has to put the customer on hold."

This article was originally published on 2005-01-13
Senior Writer
Based in Silicon Valley, Debbie was a founding member of Ziff Davis Media's Sm@rt Partner, where she developed investigative projects and wrote a column on start-ups. She has covered the high-tech industry since 1994 and has also worked for Minnesota Public Radio, covering state politics. She has written freelance op-ed pieces on public education for the San Jose Mercury News, and has also won several national awards for her work co-producing a documentary. She has a B.A. from Minnesota State University.

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