Please read this case study and answer the question on the bottom.Travelink Solutions Sixteen months had passed since William had joined Travelink Solutions’ call center. It had been a fulfilling and at times, frustrating employment experience. Now he was facing a decision concerning what to do next. Should he remain and try to make a difference or should he follow through on his plans to leave? Rather than letting the experience simply fade or become the subject of selective recall, he had followed through on an old teacher’s advice and documented the work experience, hoping it might be helpful to him and maybe even to the firm. Rather than keeping the documentation to himself, he decided to share it with Robert, a close friend and a marketing manager at Travelink. Discussing his observations with Robert would help him test the accuracy of his perceptions and sort out what he should do next. When William had joined the firm he had signed a non-disclosure agreement; consequently when he documented the experience he decided to disguise the firm. William didn’t want to put individuals, the organization, or himself at risk. Robert had been with Travelink for three years. His first job had been in the call center and he remained keenly interested in its operation, due to its impact on customer relations. He had been eager to see what his friend William had written. However, Robert found himself wincing as he read. All too clearly, the writing captured what had been happening and left him pondering what he ought to do with the concerns it raised. Change was needed but raising awareness and generating solutions that would be agreed to and implemented would not be easy. He turned to William and shook his head. “Fascinating – let me read this once again and think about it a little before we talk.” Robert hoped that the answers would become clearer to him after another review of the matter. William’s background: William was enthusiastic about his new job at Travelink Solutions Canada: a service company that provided travel assistance to global travelers on a 24/7 basis. Its core product had been emergency roadside automobile assistance, but over the years Travelink had expanded into other areas of travel help, such as legal assistance and emergency travel arrangements. The company did this for both its own individual customers and for other firms that offered related services but 1 © Noah Deszca and Gene Deszca, Wilfrid Laurier University, 2006. Not to be copied or reproduced without permission. 2 Travelink Solutions who had outsourced the product design and/or post sale customer service function to Travelink. William had successfully completed his final university course requirements while working full time as a baker on the midnight shift at Tim Horton’s. After eight months of beginning his workday at 11 pm, it would be nice to reintegrate himself into the realm of daylight. He knew that there would be occasional night and weekend shifts (no more than one week or weekend per month) to work at the call center, but that would be fine. He hoped that the challenge of a new job working within a call center would prove more satisfying than slinging dough at four in the morning. The application process had been an intensive experience. At the age of 24, William had never applied for a position that demanded a lengthy series of interviews, references that were verified and tests designed to document his computer literacy, interpersonal and problem solving skills. While these procedures had been stressful, William felt positive about the process. Surviving such a careful system of selection left him feeling good about himself. It suggested to him that this firm must be serious about the quality of the people it hired. Call centers: how they operated: Several call centers were located in William’s home town. The presence of universities and the ethnic diversity of the area provided call centers with access to a literate and multilingual labour pool. Further, office rental costs and labour rates were moderate by provincial standards and there was an excellent telecommunications infrastructure. As a result, many of William’s friends had worked or were working for other call centers. Their experiences, however, had generally been negative – particularly for those working in outbound call centers, those that make unrequested solicitations for everything from rug cleaning services to cell phones and charitable donations. Friends who had worked in this type of call center told him that there were attractive sales related performance bonuses but that the base pay of between $10-$12.00 per hour was what most had to rely upon to pay the rent. In addition, his friends reported that there seemed to be few employment benefits (e.g., dental plans) available in many of these firms and that some positions were structured as permanent part-time positions, in order to fit the need for labour in the late afternoon and early evening period and reduce benefit obligations. They were almost unanimous in their descriptions of their outward bound call center jobs as quite stressful, characterized by hang-ups, call recipient abuse and performance pressure. Travelink, however, was an inbound call center that responded to customer requests for help with services they had already purchased. Furthermore, the people William knew who had worked for the firm spoke very positively about the work atmosphere. Robert, for example, had started on the phones but had been promoted to a marketing management position. He commented on the 3 Travelink Solutions supportiveness of co-workers and his boss, as well as the satisfaction derived from helping a customer sort through a difficult situation. William’s new position came with comprehensive health benefits, paid holidays that exceeded legislated standards and special rates for things such as local gym memberships, theme park passes, and concerts – discounts that the human resources department had negotiated for Travelink employees. It seemed to William that his new employer had thought about how to make the firm an appealing company to work for. “Wow,” William thought. A living wage, combined with such benefits represented a pleasant change (see Exhibit 1 for compensation and benefit details). Building a business: Travelink was founded in 1987, in Jackson, Mississippi, to provide roadside assistance to car owners. It had grown from a tiny office space of fifteen employees to a billion dollar, global service firm with offices based in Europe, Asia and Australia. In 1992, a Canadian office of 20 employees was established in William’s home town. Thirteen years later, Travelink Solutions Canada had grown to 200 employees, occupying two stories of a ten story office building. Travelink’s offerings had been extended over the years to include insurance policies that provided emergency support for national and international travelers facing a variety of perils, including the theft of personal property, automobile breakdowns, accidents, legal assistance, travel interruptions, and emergency travel related concierge services. Policies were modular in nature and were designed for the traveler who wanted to avoid unpleasant surprises. Travelink’s Canadian call center was located on the lower of the two floors it occupied, and involved approximately 150 of its 200 employees. A reception area on the upper story led into office space for underwriting and marketing employees, the human resources and training department, IT, accounting, supervisory personnel, and the senior administration (see Exhibit 2 for a partial organization chart of the Canadian Division). Call center activities were supported by a web site that provided customers with valuable travel-related information, advice and links to other relevant websites. New employee orientation and training: Training for William commenced December 1st and lasted one month. On his first day, William joined eleven other new employees, all of whom were university arts graduates. Some (William included) had been referred to the company through friends that worked for the firm. As a recruitment incentive, a bonus of $500 dollars was offered to any employee who referred a potential employee who was hired and successfully completed the training. Travelink Solutions tried to coordinate its hiring so that a group of 6 to 12 began training at the same time. 4 Travelink Solutions William’s trainers, Luther and Marie, seemed approachable and knowledgeable. They worked diligently to accommodate any questions that were asked about work procedures, customer service, company policies, or the call centre industry. William found himself quickly integrated into a comfortable training environment, where dialogue occurred openly and people seemed to be genuinely helpful. The training program was quite structured and occurred in a classroom environment. The first two weeks focused on industry and firm specific information that would be relevant to those who would be addressing customer questions and concerns. It included information related to specific products and services, what associates could expect from the customer and their employer and what was expected of them. The second two weeks included additional content related to products, corporate policies, and workflow procedures, as well as call center simulations and role plays. These latter activities were designed to develop employee competence with the firm’s customer service strategies and effective work practices. At one of the first training sessions, Marie explained that the Travelink Solutions call center offered uniquely satisfying service opportunities. The services that associates provided, as she explained, acted as an island of sanity amidst an ocean of uncertainty and panic. As Marie said: “you are not merely the voice on the end of the line. You are the line. You are someone’s lifeline during an inherently unstable, frustrating and, at times, frightening situation. If a customer’s car breaks down in Mexico, or they get mugged, arrested or stranded in a foreign land, you are the person they turn to for help.” Luther told William’s training group that the average cost of recruiting and training a new call center employee was approximately $14,500. William learned that Travelink Solutions employed approximately 200 people in the Canadian office, 2/3 of whom were directly involved with the phones in the call center. Direct sales of Travelink’s services were done through brokers, agencies, and the internet. Travelink Solutions had a team of underwriters and marketers who crafted and promoted automobile and travel-related service policies throughout Canada, via its distribution systems. This group was also heavily involved in the design and delivery of similar services for other firms (e.g., banks and insurance companies), under their clients’ brand names. This accounted for approximately 75% of Travelink’s gross billings, profitability and call center volumes. Trainees were told that Travelink was considered a leader in customer service quality. Industry benchmark data rated them in the top 10% in customer satisfaction and quality and it was reported that they had almost never lost a corporate account, once the business was won. Business volumes and profitability had been growing by more than 20% per year since 1998, with the exception of the twelve month period following September 11 th , 2001. At the end of the month long training period, each new employee was required to complete a three hour comprehensive exam, dealing with the information that they had been exposed to. If a grade of ninety percent was not achieved then an employee was required to rewrite the test before being permitted to field calls. Although he was nervous, William believed that his training 5 Travelink Solutions sessions had been effective in transferring the needed knowledge, and he passed the exam with flying colours. Out of his training group of twelve, two people needed to rewrite the exam before receiving a desk within the call center, one week later. The work began: When he was initially assigned to the phones, William was apprehensive. He often consulted online and paper manuals, to ensure that he was providing callers with the proper information and advice. For the first few weeks, Luther and Marie were available on the floor to answer trainee questions that arose. Beyond the presence of the trainers, team leaders encouraged new employees to discuss any questions or concerns with experienced associates. William was directed to Yolanda, a senior associate who said that she would be happy to help. She had been working at Travelink Solutions for over three years and the supervisors allowed Yolanda to log off her phone whenever new associates approached her with questions. Overall, it seemed to William that the call center was a smooth and efficient operation. The friendly and helpful environment gave him confidence that he would be able to effectively assist callers. Initial supervisory checks and feedback during his first month on the phones further honed his competence and reinforced his confidence. Marie’s comments during the training session concerning the importance of the services that call center employees provided to customers proved true. Offering assistance to distressed travelers was quite satisfying. William deepened his familiarity with policy details and advisory support materials to ensure that he was providing callers with the correct information, useful advice and effective service. Of course, there were occasional complaints and angry callers who vented their unhappiness with the quality of service (e.g., tow truck operators who were slow to respond or rude) or the answers they received concerning whether or not they were eligible for the requested coverage. William quickly learned that it was not helpful to dwell on such calls. Instead, through the guidance of the trainers and Yolanda, he developed techniques that calmed customers and helped to defuse difficult situations. By and large, William received positive feedback from the callers and this increased in frequency over his first three months on the phones. William’s experience within the call centre was not an anomaly. Comments from fellow trainees echoed his reactions. He noticed that there was less turnover and absenteeism than what friends at other call centers had led him to believe were the norms in the places they worked. Employees at Travelink voluntarily participated in and seemed to enjoy company events, such as potluck lunches. Friends employed at other call centers typically told him that this was not the case within their firms. One person reported that her firm had made participation mandatory at its corporate social events, leading someone to post an email, stating that management had decided the floggings would continue until morale improved. 6 Travelink Solutions The changes: After about five months of employment, William began to notice changes in his workplace. For example, senior managers were voicing concerns related to the need for greater efficiency and new business and greater efficiency0 at the monthly company meetings and team leaders seemed more stressed than had been the case earlier. Robert, the marketing manager and William’s friend, explained to William that Travelink had ramped up its staff levels within the call center in anticipation of obtaining new business that had not materialized. As a result, management was under pressure from the head office to improve its financial performance. “I’ve been working 60 hour weeks for the past several weeks, exploring new market opportunities and drafting proposals related to potential contract bids. There have been rumours that senior management is talking about layoffs if new contracts do not materialize,” Robert explained. William was shocked by Robert’s candid comments. Sure, the phones had been unusually quiet lately, but this was also May, a month in which clients were no longer faced with the harsh winter elements that breed traffic accidents and mechanical breakdown. May was also a month in which vacation travel was typically down, resulting in fewer travel-related emergencies. Was this not a time when the phones were supposed to be quieter, allowing staff to follow up on the claims that had arisen earlier? Within the next four weeks, four of the people who had trained with William left the firm. In their places were empty cubicles. Every time an employee was laid off or quit, the human resources department would send an email to all employees, notifying them of the person’s departure. For example, one day William came into work to find that Linda, a friendly woman who sat in the cubicle next to him, was no longer there. Within two hours, he received a company memo that read: “we regret to inform you that, as of today, Linda Jameson is leaving Travelink Solutions. Please join us in wishing Linda all of the best in her future endeavours.” Within another hour, William received a second email that read: “please be advised that the door security codes have been changed to 25678. Thank you for your cooperation.” Over the next several weeks the number of empty cubicles grew. He was surprised that the departures were almost never discussed on the floor. It was as if the employees who had once filled the unused space had never been there in the first place. However, the loss of people did seem to be associated with rising tension levels. People’s willingness to help one another declined, as did the overall friendliness of the workplace. William began to save his money to ensure that he would have something to carry him through in the event that he too “went missing”. A new assignment: But William did not go missing. One afternoon in June, he was surprised to find that his employment situation was about to change for the better. He was invited by his team leader and 7 Travelink Solutions the Director of Information Technology to participate in the “Datasmart” project, as the individual who would be in charge of drafting and editing the standardized company correspondence forms that would be used by employees in Canada. He would be entering these documents into a new corporate database that was under development. He was excited over the opportunity to advance within the company and use some of the writing skills he’d developed at university. As part of his new assignment, William was offered a pay increase that would kick in after his next performance review which he anticipated would be held within a few weeks. He was given a quiet workspace away from the call centre where he could concentrate on his writing and editing tasks. The company correspondence project was part of a larger organizational undertaking that involved the revamping of their information systems. In order to pave the way for a new database called Datasmart, all company information, standardized documents, reports and work flows were being charted and reviewed. While working on the project, William was to report to the Datasmart project manager and was involved in weekly meetings with the IT department, who was overseeing the implementation. William reacted positively to his new assignment. Within two weeks, he was sent on his first business trip to attend a training seminar at the parent company’s headquarters. However, supervisory guidance in Canada was quite limited. It seemed as if his new supervisor was always very busy with more pressing tasks and had minimal time to discuss questions that William had regarding the content of specific documents or due dates. “Sorry, but I can’t meet with you this week. I’m drowning in work. Can we reschedule? Just use your judgment – you seem to be making good progress,” was the usual response he received from his supervisor. All members of the ten person Datasmart project team seemed to be very busy with the components that they were individually responsible for. However, William could not help but feel somewhat out on a limb as he revised and rewrote company correspondence and related required documentation. People were using his revisions, but had he understood the implications of the wording and made the right changes? He was concerned that one day, he would be terminated as the result of something he had written that opened the firm to unanticipated liabilities or created serious difficulties with one of the firms for whom Travelink supplied services. Since everyone else on the implementation team was focused on the technical aspects of the project, no one was available to provide specific guidance to William concerning the correspondence and documentation component of the project. The formal processes related to approving document changes had become informal over the years, with the individuals processing the claims handling theses elements largely on their own. A number of other events over the next three months caused William additional concerns about his future prospects at Travelink. William knew that the firm had invested a lot of time and 8 Travelink Solutions money trying to implement Datasmart. However, the launch date for this software solution had come and gone on at least three separate occasions. Each time that Travelink appeared ready to go live with the new software, an email would come out, advising that the launch would be postponed to a later time. The emails that William received, as a member of the project team, suggested that both the US and Canadian offices were confused about implementation problems, and what the firm now needed to do to fix them. Eventually, no new emails concerning the release date for Datasmart were sent out. It seemed as if the entire Datasmart initiative had disappeared. By mid-September, William was stunned to notice that there was a new topic on the embargo list. No one within the company was discussing the new software at all. All employees had received two hours of training on the basic functions of the new software and staff had been told that detailed training related to the use of the software would follow. Luther, the trainer, had led a half-day workshop about adapting to technical change and everyone in the company, including the managers and directors, had attended. In the beginning there had been a lot of excitement circulating around the office, concerning what the new system would be able to do for the firm. T-shirts had been printed to commemorate the launch of the project and a potluck lunch and information session had been held to celebrate its anticipated benefits. William wondered if other employees felt the same way that he did: were they wondering what had happened to Datasmart but were afraid to ask such questions for fear of the answers? William heard from Robert that the plug was going to be pulled on the project because of persistent problems associated with integrating it with existing applications and data bases. It was somewhat reassuring, though, to find that his rewritten documents were being put to use on a daily basis. Frustrations deepen: William had still not received his performance review and promised raise by the middle of September. The Travelink Solutions employee handbook stated that each call center associate would receive an appraisal review after six months of continuous employment. Once a successful review was completed, an employee would be entitled to a pay increase. William had checked with the remaining members of his training group and none had been approached yet, regarding their six month reviews, despite the fact that they were now into their tenth month of employment. The initial feelings of frustration that William experienced concerning this were slowly turning into anger. After all, he believed that he had done an exceptional job. He had taken the initiative to learn about the office structure, the policy and procedure intricacies underlying different types of services, and different service techniques that went well beyond the competence required of a phone operator. He had worked long and hard to improve corporate correspondence and documentation and done so under minimal supervision. Yet, ten months had passed and still 9 Travelink Solutions William had received no recognition, no review, and no raise, despite his attempts to remind his supervisors that such a review was long overdue. There had been consistent supervisory comments that he was doing a terrific job and that the performance review would be looked after soon. However, managers were very busy and nothing was ever scheduled. By October, William’s correspondence and documents project was three quarters of the way to completion, but the phones in the call center were busy again…very busy! Robert told William that Travelink had been successful in winning two new major contracts. While management was thrilled to have obtained the new business, Robert was apprehensive. As a marketing manager, he was delighted that his hard work had contributed towards obtaining these new accounts. As a former employee in the call center, however, Robert was frightened that the additional call volume would greatly exceed the current resources available. Robert told William that he had argued to have new employees hired and trained in advance of the start dates for the new contracts. “What happened? Well, senior management said no. The word from upstairs is that budgetary pressures mean that they cannot afford to bring on new employees until the new revenue begins to flow. Even crazier, a couple of senior managers seem to believe that fewer new employees will be required if the call center is properly organized and staffed to respond to volume patterns. All that I can tell you is that I sure wouldn’t want to be in the call center right now,” Robert said. Robert’s prophecy became a nightmare for the employees within the call center over the next few months. The phones started ringing and there were simply not enough hands to pick them up (see Exhibit 3 for call center volumes). In addition to the spikes in call volume generated from the new contracts, Travelink was now entering its busier season. Just a few months ago, the phones had been relatively quiet – to the extent that employees often found time in between calls to provide extra service steps for their clients, such as arranging billing for insured expenses or expediting alternative hotel and flight arrangements. Now, there was no time between calls. From his new workspace, William overheard managers discussing that it was not uncommon for clients to be placed on hold for up to five minutes while waiting for an available agent. Travelink provided a contractual guarantee that clients would only be on hold for a maximum of three minutes, and Robert told William that account managers were finding themselves having to explain to their contract representatives why individual customers were forced to hold for extended periods of time. One day in early November, William was asked to move back down to the call centre. The increase in call volume necessitated his reassignment to his old position, without even a formal “thank you” for the work he had been doing. With the lack of available trained employees to service the high volume of incoming calls, the customer service managers were scrambling to ensure that the hold time was eased as much as possible. The following Monday morning, William entered the call center and noticed that Luther, the trainer, was sitting beside him in the 10 Travelink Solutions empty desk that Linda used to occupy. Marie was sitting directly behind him. As he looked around the office, William realized that other staff members were also in the call center, answering calls. When asked why he was there, Luther simply shook his head in disgust and said: “I worked here and earned my way to a training position. Now, I’m back where I started.” Marie overheard the conversation with Luther and simply threw her arms up in frustration when William nodded to her. All available hands were now busy answering calls rather than providing their usual support services. William noted that there were also a diminishing number of company events being organized by the human resources department. Social events such as potlucks, staff birthday celebrations, and theme days were cut from the schedule due to work pressures and the monthly company noon hour meetings became bimonthly affairs. When an event did occur, added pressure was placed on employees to partake. It seemed to William that senior managers desperately needed to give the impression that employees were enjoying their work and feeling good about the firm, in spite of the workload. By mid February, customers’ hold times had increased from five minutes to, at times, thirty minutes or more. As Robert confided, it was not uncommon to have customers waiting on hold for an hour. On one occasion, William talked to a man who had been on hold for two hours, waiting for someone to arrange for a tow truck. Team leaders sent out emails that reminded agents to apologize to customers who were required to wait for periods of twenty minutes or longer. “Please apologize profusely,” the messages read. At this point, William was so frustrated that he would often forget to apologize. After all, it was not his fault that the company he worked for had not made the proper arrangements to service their clients. Why should he apologize when he and his coworkers were suffering too? William found himself making less use of some of the techniques that contributed to customer service excellence, such as empathy, friendliness, and attention to detail. The lack of appropriate planning and implementation related to heightened call volumes was having a visible, negative impact on the performance of all call center associates. For example, anytime that an agent logged off the phone to document a call, they were required to go on “not ready” status. This status was employed in order to write the required case notes into the Travelink database. According to the employee manual, agents were allowed to go on “not ready” for an hour each day, in addition to scheduled break times. With so many calls flowing into the call center, however, acceptable “not ready” time had disappeared. Team leaders were able to see agents who were not taking calls and they began sending out emails that read: “please log in. Several calls are waiting.” Out of frustration, William began counting the number of emails he had received that were entitled “Please log in.” Within one week, the tallied amount was thirty-two. 11 Travelink Solutions Eventually, team leaders stopped using emails to ask agents to log in and began phoning their direct extensions every time they were not prepared to take a call. On one occasion, William received a call from his team leader asking him to log in while he was documenting a call that he had received from an elderly couple that had been in an automobile accident in Mexico. From that point on, he attempted to type his notes for one case while he was on the phone with the next client. He questioned the efficacy of the new shortcuts that he was employing, but there was nothing that could be done. Every time that William or any of the other operators tried to log off of his phone to document a call, they were bombarded with messages telling them to log back in. Every other agent that William talked to was utilizing the same tactics to deal with their inability to go on “not ready.” Essentially, everyone was short-changing documentation in an attempt to meet the incoming demands. To make matters worse, the claims department, which was in charge of reviewing the documented cases, was growing increasingly frustrated with the customer service agents over the large number of mistakes that were occurring within the documentation. The load of case corrections related to errors had essentially quadrupled. Travelink began to actively recruit new phone agents in January, with the first ones arriving in the call center on February 1 st . Melanie, a new agent, moved into the empty desk in front of William. She was friendly and a hard worker, but she noted that she was feeling overwhelmed and ill prepared. She explained that some of the new employees were being hired on a contractual basis and that her contract was for a period of three months. William could not understand the rationale behind hiring new employees on a contractual basis. After all, call center employees had just been informed that they would now be taking all of the incoming complaints calls – a queue that naturally became busy in the aftermath of the bus
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