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Timberline’s Tips on Turning Customer Service Into an Award Winner

Just a few years ago, Timberline Software’s Client Services department was plagued with problems--dissatisfied clients, low employee morale, inconsistent processes and management practices--stemming from company growth and a reorganization that combined three separate support departments into a single entity.

At the time, 80 percent of the customers polled indicated they were “very dissatisfied” with the promptness of service they received. Callbacks from a technical support specialist ranged from five hours to two days, no matter how critical the problem. Call center employees lasted an average of just 18 months before quitting or transferring to another department.The system was clearly broken.

Turning the department into an award winner, recognized by the Software Support Professionals Association (SSPA) and the Association for Services Management International (AFSMI), took nearly two years. Everyone from administrative assistants to Timberline President and CEO Curtis Peltz pitched in the combined effort.

The rewards? In addition to national recognition, Timberline saw its efficiency improvements result in savings of $1.4 million a year and added revenue of $5.4 million, plus skyrocketing customer satisfaction.

Those improvements were the result of innovation, new technologies, and just plain hard work. Following is a checklist that other firms might use for their own customer support efforts.

The Steps to Success
  • Create a vision statement. Our “Focus on the Customer” re-engineering effort began with the creation of a vision statement that captured the company’s core values and beliefs. The key to making the vision statement into more than a motto that hangs on a wall somewhere is to involve staff members from all levels of the organization in its creation, which ensures department and/or company-wide buy-in to the philosophy.

  • Analyze the status quo. After a thorough analysis, Timberline on discovered that rapid growth due to sales of its Windows-based construction accounting and estimating products had left its Client Services department unable to keep up with call volume. During peak call volume periods, clients could wait up to two days for a callback from a technical support specialist, and there were no provisions for dealing with clients who had critical problems requiring immediate assistance.

  • Involve the employees in the re-engineering process. Brainstorming in small groups, department employees can help set goals and objectives as well as work out the methods for reaching them. At Timberline, employee involvement was the key to success. To launch our Focus On The Customer initiative, we closed call centers for an entire day so everyone could attend the kick-off meeting. Support staff was assembled off-site for a day-long seminar that included information about the project in general, communication of specific project goals and speeches by senior management, including the CEO.

  • Examine the call-taking process. Timberline shifted from a gatekeeper process to live call-in mode. The improvement was dramatic. Response time now averages two minutes, down from 34 minutes; talk time averages 11 minutes, down from 25 minutes; and first-call resolution is at 84 percent, up from 60 percent.

  • Evaluate, or create, a call escalation process. Timberline previously had no consistent call escalation process. Call prioritization was based on whether or not the customer experienced check printing problems or whether the customer was insistent. The client who yelled the loudest often got the promptest attention. Now, we prioritize all calls on a scale of 1 to 3 based on the severity of the problem as defined by the customer. Mission critical problems are given top priority when the client says the problem must be fixed to continue processing or to get operations back up. Urgent problems, rated 2, are ones that the client has a work-around for and can wait up to 24 hours for resolution. Low-impact problems that don’t cause significant inconvenience for the client, are level 3 priorities, which can wait up to 48 hours for resolution.

  • Monitor call length. After 20 minutes on a call, a support specialist must decide whether he or she needs more help. If so, they alert the designated person in the call center, who determines whether the call needs to be turned over to a more senior person. This helps newer support specialists from feeling overwhelmed by problems they don’t know how to solve and keeps clients happy by continuing to move their problems toward resolution.

  • Tie employee appraisals to proper handling and prioritizing of client calls. At Timberline, we use overall client satisfaction ratings to provide feedback for the employee performance appraisal. As part of the review process, we include both the customer satisfaction survey results as well as quantifiable call center performance metrics. We also include feedback from peers and managers, and each employee fills out a self-evaluation. Employees like the new appraisal system because it clearly and quantifiably recognizes their performance.

  • Increase employee longevity. In the past, our call center employees averaged just 18 months before either leaving the company or transferring to another department. To improve longevity, we created clear career path opportunities within the support department, defining how employees could move up from one level to another. We also instituted a pay-incentive program for each core competency a service rep attains.

  • Increase employee satisfaction through recognition. Employees and managers can now recognize a co-worker who exemplifies Timberline’s goal of world-class customer service by giving an “on-the-spot” award of a TimberBuck. When an employee collects seven TimberBucks, they get to spin the “Wheel of Prizes” at the next quarterly meeting. The prizes are valued from $100 to $500. At a recent quarterly meeting, more than 60 employees got to spin the wheel, resulting in prize giveaways of over $17,000. We also created a “Wall of Fame.” We prominently post all positive customer letters we receive, and if a specific service rep is named, that person gets an automatic TimberBuck and has his or her photograph posted with the letter from the customer.

By adapting the steps we took at Timberline to dramatically improve our customer service, other companies can make similar improvements. The key for us was the use of teamwork, involving the entire staff in creating goals that everyone could embrace and make happen.

Carol Vega, senior vice president/Client Services, Timberline Software Corp., 15195 NW Greenbrier Pkwy., Beaverton, Oreg. 97006; 503/690-6775. E-mail: carolv@timberline.com.