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A Day in The Life of: Contact Center Service Representatives
SUMMARY:
They wear headsets for a living and are on the front lines every day, providing customer service, taking feedback, and ultimately helping to create new and improved Intuit offerings.

Tucson, Ariz. — 5:45 a.m.

Niccola Thomas, a support engineer for Master Builder, arrives for work. Her shift starts at 6 a.m. and is one of the earliest at the Tucson site. She likes the early morning hours — Tucson offices are at their quietest and the 17 Master Builder support team members have quality time together. “We have the luxury to talk to each other, compare notes, and help each other out with issues” she explains. Then the headsets go on.

Tucson is Intuit’s largest contact center, with more than1,300 employees, approximately half of whom are customer-facing. It provides sales and solutions for customers with questions about or wishing to purchase TurboTax, QuickBooks, Quicken, Retail Solutions, ItsDeductible and other Intuit products.

Paul Kraus

Employees work in five foot-square cubicles, four to a cluster. Ceilings are high, cubicle walls are low and numerous voices bounce off every surface.  Besides two 15-minute breaks and a 30-minute or one-hour lunch, support engineers wear headsets throughout their shifts and their focus is strictly on the customers on the other end of the phone.

Thomas’ biggest challenge with her physical surroundings is low cubicle walls that allow other support engineers’ conversations to float into her ears. Luckily, it doesn’t happen often. “Many new employees talk loud because of all the conversations going on around them,” she said, “but we’ll just coach them to soften their voices, lower their tones.”

There are other challenges to working in a call center environment, as well. T.C. Younger, a support engineer for QuickBooks Enterprise Solutions, jokes about the ‘Intuit 20,’ the inevitable pounds support engineers gain when they start the job. “I gained 50 pounds,” he said. “That’s one physical aspect of spending the work day in a small area.”

“One of our goals as management is to constantly improve the environment here for Intuit employees,” said Linda Kern, communication manager in Tucson. “We choose an initiative every year based on feedback from the annual employee survey. It may be related to the work environment or amenities; it involves improving our tools or reducing the complexity of our support processes.” 

Several recent efforts have focused on employees’ physical and emotional well-being. Chair massages are now available inexpensively on-site two days a week. Intuit Tucson launched an award-winning employee Wellness Partnership, which includes an indoor walking-track, free cholesterol screenings and other efforts targeted at helping make Intuit a great place to work.

Thomas has worked in other call center environments, but agrees that Intuit stands head and shoulders above the rest. “It can be stressful enough being on the phone, but our entire environment is designed so as not to put any more weight on our shoulders,” she said. “Intuit really invests in people to prevent them from feeling stressed.”

Tucson — 9:30 a.m.

Ruby Erkkinen also arrives early for work. Her shift is from 11 a.m. to 7:30 p.m., but she is usually at her workstation well before then. “It gives me an opportunity to log onto my computer, get the applications set up and look at all my e-mails,” she says. 

A support engineer for the core QuickBooks team, Erkkinen says her daily call load covers a full spectrum of questions. One caller wants to check on an order, the next needs help downloading a tax table. Other calls focus on software installation, file conversion and configuration. “During tax season, there are a lot of calls about reports and forms not printing properly,” she says. “During product releases in the fall, calls are about shipments and backorders.”

Paul Martin

Support engineers come from varied backgrounds. Some have had years of experience in call centers; others came from sales, marketing and technical backgrounds. QuickBooks group sales and technical support gives new hires nine weeks of training, including courses in customer service skills, communication skills and product knowledge.

Erkkinen started in the call center last December. Before coming to work for Intuit, she traveled the world for 20 years as an information technology consultant. She moved to Tucson because she loved the desert, but had no intention of lounging in the sun.  One day she walked into Intuit’s Human Resources department, and expressed interest in how her skills might help the company. She was told technical support would be an ideal place to start, because it would provide a good way to look around Intuit and see which area she wanted to join.

The biggest transition so far has been the time clock — a necessary evil in her current position. “I’ve never punched into a time clock before,” Erkkinen said. Eventually she wants to move into a management position, but is happy with the skills she is learning now. “Coming into a call center was a great place to learn about the company and to understand the customer base.”

Edmonton, Alberta — 11 a.m.

Intuit Canada’s contact centre is in full gear as customers call about QuickTax, Taxwiz, Quicken and QuickBooks. When support representatives started getting hoarse voices, team leader Jeffrey Lin encouraged them to take a 15-minute break. “Answering 200 calls a day can be pretty hard on the throat,” he says.

Jeffrey Lin

The Edmonton contact centre averages 10,000 customer calls a day. Lin manages 15 support representatives and takes over calls that escalate. He said he looks forward to talking with irate customers. “Honestly, it’s one of my favorite things,” he says. “There’s always a solution we can provide them, it’s never a no-way-out situation.”

To be in customer service, one must want to help people, Lin said. “It’s about creating an experience when people call us. We try to build a rapport with customers, and sound animated instead of automated. We try to stress that they are driving the company and without them, we’re nowhere.”

Lin said products are often changed, and improved, because of feedback obtained by service representatives. “If customers find a software flaw or a problem in the help manual, they’re going to tell us,” he said. Support representatives track comments and alert managers to recurring ones, which are referred to business units. “If it’s small changes, like shipping procedures or Web site errors, we can make those right away,” said Lin.

Even though his job is a far cry from the double major he studied in fine arts and visual communications design, Lin has no desire to leave. “I’m the only artist I know who’s not in debt,” he said. “My experience with helping customers handle their taxes has been invaluable for me personally.”

Reno, Nev. — 12 p.m.

Stan Morrice starts his lunch break. He is a senior representative at Reno’s call center, where 150 employees take calls about Intuit’s payroll products. It was not too busy that day, since the year-end rush of clients needing answers about payroll taxes had subsided.

Morrice was previously a technical support supervisor but after company restructuring, he was offered a position as customer service representative. “I went from managing people who did it to actually doing it,” he says. “It was very different from what I expected.”

Stan Morris

In his new job, Morrice quickly learned the value of verbal communication skills. “It’s different than working in a store where you’re facing customers and reading their body language. Your resources are your ears. The challenge is to show callers through your voice instead of your hands what to do,” he said.

Because his shift began at 6 a.m., Morrice was ready to walk around and get some fresh air by noon. Besides lunch and break times, support engineers also attend regularly scheduled meetings to receive company announcements, updates, and most importantly, job motivation. Reno also offers its support engineers multiple fringe benefits, including free breakfast days, chair massages, lunch coupons, and happy hours on Friday afternoons. Those events bring a high level of camaraderie among support engineers, Morrice said. “There’s a lot of teamwork here.”

After four years in customer service, Morrice intends to keep moving upward. “To move to a higher position, it’s helpful to have been on the front lines,” he said. “We are the first exposure customers have to Intuit.”

Fredericksburg, Va. — 2 p.m.

Christin Williams is relieved as the 2003 tax season enters its final stages. As a customer service agent for ProAdvisor software over the last three years, she answers calls from accountants and tax advisors busily preparing their clients’ tax returns. Calls typically peak when new marketing material is mailed out, she says. And there was an added wrinkle this year. “The season started a little earlier this year, in November instead of January,” she says.

Christin Williams

It’s been a particularly busy year for Williams’ group. The shipment delays of QuickBooks and tax products produced a higher, earlier call volume than normal, as well as more irate calls.

“This is the time when tax pros make the most money,” she said. “We tried to help them through their frustrations, but it was very stressful because, call after call, every single customer was upset. Maybe one out of 20 calls was positive, but that one call would make my day.”

Luckily, agents can always voice their opinions. “If I had a bad call and needed somewhere to vent, I could go into my manager’s office, close the door and get it off my chest,” said Williams.

All call center sites have an open-door policy and encourage their staffs to go to their managers with any problems. One example is Tucson’s Opinions Count program, where employees can send their suggestions for change or express concerns via the intranet and receive a written reply within 48 hours.

The sites also provide support engineers with customer feedback on their performance, from post-contact surveys that give support engineers and their supervisors objective data they can use for development.  Working at a call center is one of Intuit’s most stressful jobs, but Williams said it has taught her empathy. “If a restaurant brings me a burger with onions that I specifically requested not to have, I just pick them off and go on with my life,” she said. “Mistakes will happen, no one is perfect.”

Tampa, Fla. — 4 p.m.

Bill Baerwalde’s day is winding down. Little more than an hour remains on his nine-to-five shift. As a senior technical support representative for Track-It!, he takes over escalated phone calls from businesses whose help desk technicians need assistance to keep their  networks running. Most of his day was spent recreating scenarios in his lab to understand clients’ situations, and then meeting on extended conference calls with clients to explain his findings. 

Bill Baerwalde

Tampa has a team of 19 agents focused mostly on technical support for Track-It! customers. They may have more serious issues than Quicken customers calling from home, but both calls are similar, said Baerwalde. “When it comes down to it, they are both customers who want to get their issues fixed,” he said.

Like many service representatives, Baerwalde has improved his communication skills. “When I’m in conversation with anyone, I’m able to get to the heart of the matter quicker,” he said. “I can identify the cause and symptoms when other people may overlook them.”

Baerwalde has been at Tampa for two years, joining Blue Ocean software as a contractor before Intuit bought the company. He likes Intuit and plans to move upward.

“This position is a good step in the door because you’re affected by all sides of the company,” he said. “You get so much experience that, if you want, you can move to marketing, development, support or sales. If you want to stay in this area, supervisors and managers are always needed here to keep this department running smoothly. There are always opportunities.”

Tucson — 5:45 p.m.

T.C. Younger is close to calling it a day. He’s finished answering calls from his dedicated client list. As a support engineer on the QuickBooks Enterprise Solutions team, he takes calls from 420 clients, the only ones to have assigned support engineers. 

Since moving to the Enterprise team from the main QuickBooks support group last December, Younger says he has developed a closer rapport with his customers. “I was in the QuickBooks core support team for four years, but I rarely talked to the same customer twice,” he says. “Now I can provide more strategic, efficient advice because I know my customers better.”

Younger has other projects to keep him busy, as well. One-fourth of his time is now spent on a process excellence project in order to become a Six Sigma green belt. His goal is to recover one-time support revenue. “We’re losing money due to the way calls get routed through the system, so customers are sometimes supported for free,” he said. “I’m looking for a way to prevent calls from getting through without a one-time support agreement plan.”

Younger also spent six weeks in India last fall to share best practices with Intuit’s global service affiliates. He was glad for the opportunity to help his fellow representatives improve their customer service. “I was able to identify system and workflow improvements that can be resolved in the short term or in future contract negotiations,” he said.

Younger has had opportunities to apply for management positions, but for now he is not interested. Working as a support engineer allows him to balance his work at Intuit with his life at home. “In this job, I don’t have to worry when I go home at the end of the day,” he said. “I can leave my work at work and that makes me happy, and my family especially happy.”

With his shift officially over, Younger takes off his headset, turns off his computer and calls it a day.

Contact the author: Vanessa Richardson
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