By Karen Hancock
If any of Newfoundland Power’s 220,000 customers had a problem in 1997, they would choose from four listed telephone numbers. If they were lucky enough to get through, and survive the inevitable call transfers, a staff member might work out the problem with a calculator or look up the appropriate policy in large binders. Then the employee might attach a sticky note to the file reminding them to fax a note to someone else in the company. Not surprisingly, customer satisfaction was at an unacceptable low of 70 percent.
In 1998, the Company began to shape a transition that seemed impossible at the time. The task was to build an integrated contact center and to educate skeptical workers. When the PCs arrived in February 1998, many employees–some of whom were 30-year veterans–had never even held a mouse. Our implementation team included 15 people walking the floor of the 40-seat call center to help employees with the transition. Those who were still not comfortable had one-on-one classroom training while temporary workers covered for them.
In less than two years, Newfoundland Power made a complete conversion from its dated VAX system to a PC environment. It also had a new interactive website and intranet site, a $2 million revamp of the customer information system, a leading edge outage communication system and call center equipment and services. Perhaps most importantly, it made the transformation to a team-based organization.
Contact Center Technology
Newfoundland Power’s contact center infrastructure is composed of technical components distributed among company offices across the province.
The contact center is located in the company’s St. John’s regional operations office. Automatic call distribution (ACD) computers from Aspect Communications, running Windows NT Server 4.0, are connected to the corporate Ethernet network and communicate to the contact center PCs using TCP/IP. The Aspect computers also contain a built-in private branch exchange (PBX) that transfers incoming telephone calls to the agent’s Windows-based “soft-phones,” using WinSet software, that replace traditional telephone handsets. Before the call is transferred to the agent, the customer information is “screen popped” on the agent’s desktop. This is accomplished using a dynamic data exchange (DDE) data transfer from the Aspect computer telephony integration (CTI) to the customer service system client on the agent’s desktops.
Customer service center PCs are Pentium-based desktops running Windows NT Workstation 4.0. These units connect to the corporate Ethernet network and communicate with the Aspect computers and the customer service system at the head office in St. John’s using TCP/IP. The St. John’s regional operations office and head office are network-connected via redundant single mode fiber-optic cables.
When calling Newfoundland Power, customers now can opt for a number of self-service options. The Aspect CTI application sends the request over the network to an Oracle web database at the head office. This web database is stored on an Intel-based Compaq Proliant Windows NT Server.
Offices across the province are connected to St. John’s via a leased frame relay service. WinSet Remote software is installed in seven regional offices to allow remote agent personnel in these offices to answer customer calls. As with the St. John’s-based agents, these agents receive “screen pops” with customer information from the customer service system prior to the customer call being answered.
Contact center employees also have Internet email and desktop faxing capabilities.
In response to our customers’ increasing use of information technology, Newfoundland Power’s Internet site provides customers with 24-hour access to account information and history, payment options and a number of other self-service options. Customers can open or close an account, change account information, join convenient payment plans, report area lighting concerns and learn how to be more energy efficient.
Customers with inaccessible meters and customers closing their accounts also can provide their own meter reading by using an interactive online meter. Customers can access personal electrical account information to check their account balance, review their billing and payment history, view charts on their electrical consumption pattern over the last year and enroll in various payment plans. By accessing the company’s interactive website, www.newfoundlandpower.com, customers can conduct business with us when it’s convenient for them.
There were more than 81,000 visits to the company’s website in 2001, a 227 percent increase over 1999. Further increases occurred in 2002, and web visits currently average about 15,000 per month. In addition, customers increasingly are taking advantage of the ability to correspond with the company via e-mail. Customers submitted approximately 3,500 e-mail inquiries to the company in 2001 and 5,600 in 2002, as compared with only approximately 200 such messages in 1998.
Contact Center Operations
The introduction of new telephone technology, the streamlining of business processes, and better training of our customer service staff have resulted in significant improvements in the center’s operations. Today, 80 percent of calls are answered within 40 seconds, compared with 48 percent in 60 seconds prior to the transition in 1998. Calls abandoned before they are answered have been reduced from more than 10 percent in 1998 to less than 2 percent currently.
Since 1998, the total number of calls answered has grown by 30 percent. The contact center currently answers approximately 460,000 calls per year (see Figure 1) and places more than 100,000 outbound calls to customers. However, by utilizing the new system’s functionality, the percentage of these calls handled by a contact center agent has been reduced. Calls answered using the automated interactive voice response (IVR) system have increased from 20.4 percent in its first full year of operation in 1999 to more than 31 percent in 2002. In addition, during times of peak call volume, the system’s remote functionality enables the contact center’s capacity to be supplemented by staff in other offices across the province, thereby maintaining the desired level of customer service while optimizing the use of staff resources.
Newfoundland Power was one of the first utilities in North America to use the Telephony Video Data (TVD) outage messaging system. Developed especially for utilities, the system automatically generates a voice message indicating the problem and probable time of power restoration. The technology also allows customers to report an outage at their home or in their neighborhood.
The TVD application runs on Windows NT Servers and can provide more than 2,000 simultaneous calls with geography-specific and up-to-date outage information. Depending on the nature of the trouble call, calls are routed to the contact center through the Aspect ACD over telephone lines. These calls can then be distributed to contact center agents for personalized service.
For those customers wishing to contact the company for outage information and reporting, the introduction of the automated outage notification system has enhanced customer service and improved productivity. By automatically providing information to customers regarding outages in their area, the system enables System Control Center staff to concentrate on power restoration efforts, instead of personally answering incoming calls.
During a major snowstorm in April 1999, Newfoundland Power handled approximately 48,000 customer calls over a three-day period. More than 99 percent of all callers received timely outage information, a significant improvement over the approximately one percent of callers who were able to make contact with the company and receive outage information during previous storms.
Since 1997, the company has gathered feedback on the quality of its customer service through quarterly telephone surveys. Each quarter a sample of customers is randomly selected in proportion to each of our eight operating areas.
To track customer satisfaction, the company developed a Customer Satisfaction Index based on customer ratings of our contact center performance, cashier service, field services and the overall level of service provided by the company. Specific questions are included in each quarterly survey that ask customers to rate each type of service on a scale of 1 to 10 (see Figure 2).
In 2002, Newfoundland Power achieved a customer satisfaction rating of 91 percent–a 29 percent improvement since 1996.
Newfoundland Power’s success in transforming its call center into a contact center included a combination of technology adoption and employee development strategies.
Technology Transformation: The adoption of leading-edge telephony technology, including telephone and PC integration, IVR applications, call routing, customer queuing and screen pops, has generated tremendous improvements in customer service. Information technology has transformed the company’s customer call center from a traditional 8-hour telephone service to a 24-hour, multimedia contact center. In addition, the introduction of TVD has improved our customer response rate during major power outages from one percent to more than 99 percent.
Automation of Manual Processes: While the technology transformation has improved the level of service customers experience, it also has improved employee productivity by making it possible to reduce or eliminate manual processes and to introduce improved and streamlined processes. For instance, with the introduction of PCs into the contact center, employees are now able to answer calls, perform desktop faxing and access all customer data without leaving their workstations. We also have developed many of our own timesaving desktop applications including a bill calculator, consumption estimation program, literature request application and automated customer forms such as our “Application for Service,” “Returned Cheque” and “Request for Refund” forms.
Cross-trained Agents: All contact center agents have been trained to respond effectively to all types of inbound inquiries, outbound credit management calls and various types of “off-phone” work. Not only has this practice provided the contact center management team with maximum flexibility, but also has improved employee morale by provided the agents with development opportunities and a variety of duties. However, the company continues to take advantage of its call routing technology through which calls are routed by up to 99 categories (such as residential customer, commercial customer or service inquiries) to allow key customers, sensitive customers or large commercial customers to be routed to more senior, experienced agents.
Low Staff Turnover: Newfoundland Power experiences an extremely low employee turnover rate. The contact center specifically has lost only three temporary employees in the past four years. This stability ensures our investment in training is retained, resulting in more experienced and more efficient agents. Since 1999, the average length of calls has dropped from 4.09 minutes to 3.20 minutes in 2002 leading to more timely, consistent customer service and fewer labor costs.
Team-based Approach: The contact center staff is structured into three teams, each led by a Team Leader and a Senior Agent. The Senior Agent acts as mentor and completes more complicated or time-consuming tasks escalated from the agents on their team. This approach allows the Team Leaders to devote more time to performance management, coaching and monitoring. Three volunteer teams were also created to guide operations of the center, including a “Spirit Team” whose members generate ideas and initiatives that improve motivation and the general atmosphere; a “Pathfinders Team” which assists management through the introduction of new technologies or procedures; and a “Marketing Team” whose members develop programs related to the marketing of the company’s products and services. Agents also are encouraged to pursue development opportunities such as job shadowing, education or facilitation of training sessions.
Newfoundland Power continues its commitment to leveraging technology and employee training to provide efficient customer service solutions. Our focus on listening to customers and delivering results has also been part of the reason for this achievement. However, our employees’ dedication to provide customers with superior service has truly defined our company’s success in this area.
Customer account representatives at Newfoundland Power have benefited greatly from improved use of customer service technology.
As a result of its innovative use of technology and focus on employee development to create customer service solutions, Newfoundland Power was proud to receive a Canadian Information Productivity Award (CIPA) of Excellence for Customer Care and a CIPA premier Best of Category Award in 2001. These national awards recognize Newfoundland Power as having the best customer care solution in Canada. Newfoundland Power was the first Newfoundland company to be presented with these prestigious national awards.
Karen Hancock is director of customer systems at Newfoundland Power.