August 20, 2006
Taking calls as a career
Seattle Times business reporter
MARK HARRISON / THE SEATTLE TIMES
Contrary to what many might think, customer-service representatives don't get yelled at by frustrated customers all day long.
Most calls that representatives in Bellevue's Verizon Wireless call center deal with concern less-emotional issues such as changing price plans, finding out how many minutes are used, asking about new products and how to add or remove functions.
"Most of it is really straightforward," said Michelle Rennie, 33, who's been with the company for six years.
Verizon Wireless customer-service representatives say they take as many as 80 calls 10 per hour. It is a career in which the upbeat employee holds the upper hand.
"I love talking to customers," said Kelly Shearer, 25, of Renton. "I get a lot of satisfaction when I can assist."
At a time when some U.S. companies are sending call-center jobs overseas or consolidating them at other locations, Verizon's Bellevue office is in a hiring mode, seeking more than 100 employees. (Go to www.verizonwireless.com/careers)
Verizon Wireless, based in Bedminton, N.J., has 57,000 employees nationwide, including 1,800 in Washington state.
The company is not alone in hiring call-center reps locally. Comcast recently said that it will open a new customer-service center in Lynnwood in June that will eventually have more than 500 customer-service agents, executives and support staff members.
Shearer said that call-center reps in foreign countries cannot provide the experience with products that helps them relate to customers.
Co-worker Bruce Wagner, 36, agreed. "If you can say 'I've been there, I've done that' it helps rapport with customers."
The Verizon Wireless call center in Bellevue, with its light brown desks, computers and short gray cubicles, looks like any other office except that practically every employee is wearing a headset and there are scores of conversations constantly taking place.
Amid the chatter, one woman raised her voice to tell a frustrated customer that she really was trying her best to help. Calm on that call was soon restored. Small red and white banners hang throughout the room. The "FCR" on them stands for First Call Resolution.
Each representative is encouraged to take ownership of a problem and solve it on the first call.
Qualifications for the job include one year of customer-service experience and good communication skills.
New employees must go through a rigorous seven weeks of training when they are introduced to products and resources. Two of those weeks are spent taking live calls.
Michele Kelley, 41, said it was "absolutely frightening" when she started out. Kelley and her co-workers receive updated training every few months.
While the customer service is a job, some say it helps them with their communication skills.
"I know how to listen to people," Rennie said. "I do use what I've learned here to help my friends or my family."
Kelley said she has learned about the business, technical and training aspects of the job during her 11 years with Verizon Wireless.
Customer-service representatives must be able to address questions and concerns about almost every product or service on the market.
The job calls for patience, good listening skills, a desire to help others and a great deal of empathy, the workers said.
The reps have plenty of resources at their fingertips. When they receive a call, they search on their computers for a solution. If they can't find one themselves, they have an online team to call for complex issues and supervisors who can assist.
When dealing with irate callers, Rennie said she steps in right away and repeats the problem back to the customer.
"For the majority of time, that calms them down because they've reached someone who's going to listen to them," she said.
Kelley agreed that listening is an incredibly valuable skill.
"I want to make sure that they feel like they're not a number," she said. "When you have grandmas in Iowa who want to take pictures of their grandchildren [with their cellphones], you have to be patient."
Kelley said she tries her best to make them feel like they're talking to their own granddaughter or getting help from a family member.
"You couldn't be in this business if you don't like people," she said.
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