When it began outsourcing after-hours service calls, First Call Heating and Cooling turned to The AnswerNet Network
When it comes to servicing your customers, especially after business hours, there is still no substitute for having someone there to answer the phones.
Just ask First Call Heating and Cooling, of Portland, Ore. For 20 years, it has been rolling over its after-hours calls to contact center outsourcer The AnswerNet Network, based in Princeton, N.J. AnswerNet handles First Call from its Portland center; the outsourcer has 54 locations throughout the United States, plus Canada.
First Call, founded in 1939, services approximately 30,000 mostly residential customers in the Portland, Ore./Vancouver, Wash. metro area. First Call had been relying on answering machines, but was worried that it had been missing calls, explained Mickey Kamer, First Call’s service manager. The answering devices were not checked often. Also, some people would hang up if they heard the recordings.
“We had customers who were upset that we didn’t get back to them in a timely manner,” said Kamer. “We did not want to lose them to our competitors.”
First Call ruled out having its employees stay after-hours because it felt the staff would have been intimidated working alone and walking to and from their cars at night, even though the premises are well-lit and are patrolled.
“It didn’t seem right to have an employee working by themselves answering calls in the middle of the night,” explained Kamer.
The AnswerNet Network answers calls for First Call from 5 p.m. to 8 a.m. weekdays, plus 24 hours on weekends and holidays. There are two weekday shifts: 5-10 p.m. and 10 p.m.-8 a.m., with an 8 a.m.-5 p.m. tour on weekends and holidays. There is one contact center agent/dispatcher assigned per shift, plus a trained backup agent to handle call spikes. If there are questions that the AnswerNet agents cannot answer, they contact an on-call First Call service manager and either transfer the calls or set up three-way calling.
Agents triage incoming calls in four categories: service, emergency oil delivery, sales leads and general messages. For the first two, agents look up customer information, such as account numbers; service plan enrollments; last payments; furnace, fireplace or air-conditioning types; last service date; and last fuel delivery and degree days.
AnswerNet’s staff uses two separate First Call-supplied terminals, one main and the other as a backup. They are linked via a dedicated line to a Dell computer in First Call’s office. While, in theory, AnswerNet’s agents could also update customers’ records online, Kamer explained that security concerns have kept file access to read-only. Agents can, however, attach logs or comments on the accounts.
On service calls, agents ask basic scripted questions to resolve simple matters, such as if the furnaces are oil or gas, if the customers had hit the reset buttons on the furnaces and, if the units are oil, if they had bled the lines to remove air pockets. If the issues are still unresolved, the agents open computerized message templates, ask more in-depth questions (such as names/numbers/addresses, type of furnaces, type of problems, e.g. no heat or not cooling) and enter the information.
For fuel supply calls, the agents check the computers for information such as tank size and last delivery date.
The AnswerNet agents then alpha-pages the details to the on-call service technicians or delivery personnel. The outsourcer receives a list of on-call staff each weekday evening and prior to the holidays.
First Call assigns two technicians on weekday evenings and four on weekends. They are split between two territories: east and west of the Willamette River, which cuts through Portland; Vancouver is considered east. There is also one on-call fuel delivery person, plus one air-conditioning specialist for the entire service area after-hours.
First Call has over 18 factory-trained service staff and 14 fuel drivers.
The service technicians and the fuel representatives have, in their trucks, notes on each customer in their territories. If they have questions, they radio AnswerNet; there is a handset at the contact center (see sidebar).
For sales leads, agents record the information and page an on-call salesperson. That individual then calls in if they have any questions.
AnswerNet agents download all messages, including sales and general inquiries and faxes them into the office on business weekday mornings.
The AnswerNet Network answers an average of 800 calls a MAY 2006-round for First Call, though cold snaps could generate as many as 100 calls over a weekend. In 2005, call volume ranged from 300 calls in each of May, June, July and August, up to 1,800 calls in December.
There are fewer air-conditioning service calls in the Portland area than in many other parts of the country because the evenings in that region are cooler. That lessens the need to chill residences when their occupants arrive home from work or school.
Serving customers can get complicated. There are many account permutations, oil tank and furnace types, explained The AnswerNet Network contact center general manager Mark “J.R.” Ryall. For example, some customers are charged a $75 top-off fee after hours, while others are not depending on service plans and account history.
First Call has experienced very few major emergencies with customers after hours. Calls are typically for no heating/no cooling, emergency fuel deliveries and localized oil spills.
Several years ago, a homeowner’s 275-gallon oil tank toppled over from a stand outside their house, causing a spill. The customer contacted AnswerNet, whose staff then reached First Call, who coordinated the responses between the service tech, the service manager and the company’s containment team.
People and training
One of the most challenging aspects in outsourcing is ensuring that AnswerNet employees provide the same, if not better, quality committed service as your staff. Customers should never notice any difference in the care they receive, no matter when they call.
The AnswerNet Network’s agents see First Call as the contact center’s elite account and compete for openings because the work challenges their skills, said Ryall, who was an agent on First Call for five years. There is so much they need to know to serve customers effectively. The staff must work at least six months on other accounts before being allowed to apply for First Call. They are trained for two to three months and then tested with dummy message templates that successful applicants keep to refresh themselves with.
“Our agents are not started on First Call until they have answered every question on the test correctly,” said Ryall. “If they miss even one answer, they must review the training material, talk with their supervisors and when they feel they are ready they ask to take the examination again.”
New agents are assigned mentors that they can turn to if they have any questions; the mentors also monitor their calls.
New agents sometimes take ride-alongs with First Call service technicians. That includes going into customers’ homes and watching out for the rats, snakes and spiders that sometimes lurk around furnaces, pipes and ducts.
“The ride-alongs gives the AnswerNet agents a better idea of what they are dealing with when customers call,” said Kamer. “Some of them had their eyes opened up when they’ve seen some of the challenges our techs face.”
AnswerNet supervisors carefully monitor agent performance. On rare occasions, new agents have been impatient with customers, resulting in complaints to First Call. When this happens, Ryall finds out who took the call, talks to the individual and if need be, reassigns them to another account until their performance has improved to merit being put back on First Call.
Ryall has never seen any agent permanently removed from First Call in the past five years. Only a couple of agents have ever been briefly taken off the account; they performed well when they were put back on.
“It can be frustrating for an agent to juggle six service calls and four service techs,” said Ryall. “But they have to be calm and reassuring with a smile on their face.”
Kamer appreciates the attention to training, monitoring and performance given by AnswerNet.
“We have a real good relationship with AnswerNet,” said Kamer. “Whenever there is an issue they are on top of it.”
His advice to other dealers considering outsourcing is to make sure that the vendor has the right kind of employees who are courteous under stress, because problems will happen and customers will be upset.
“There is always a little bit of stress whenever you are handling customers,” said Kamer. l FON
Gary A. Pudles is president and CEO of The AnswerNet Network. He can be reached at (800) 411-4777 or firstname.lastname@example.org.