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Call Center Spotlight: American Heart Association Site Tour

As part of ICMI's Call Center Demo & Conference, I had the privilege of attending one of the local site tours along with 23 contact center professionals. We visited the American Heart Association’s National Service Center in Richardson, Texas, which was one of the four sites selected to participate for this event. The NSC "Ranch" Ambassadors greeted our group at the site entrance dressed as cowgirls and boys. Each ICMI tour participant was presented with a bandanna and then escorted us - one by one - to the conference room. The entire service center was decorated with an old-west flair, right down to the "wanted" posters on the walls.

American Heart Association's National Service Center At A Glance

LOCATION: Richardson, Texas
HOURS OF OPERATION: 24/7, Closed on major holidays, on a rolling basis.
NUMBER OF AGENTS: 80 seats: 50 "front line", 35 multimedia, 10 donations, 5 professional customer services, 19 management and support staff.
SERVICES PROVIDED: Five core teams –comprised of 18 to 25 members each - provide Q&A services for those affected by heart disease, donation collections, provide support for medical/health care professionals.
CHANNELS HANDLED: inbound and outbound phone, email and scan cards. They are still at the beginning of their social media outreach.
NUMBER OF CONTACTS HANDLED: In 2011, the Q1 average was 65, 545 contacts. From July to September, handled approximately 196, 637 contacts.
NOTABLE: The NSC has a Customer Centric Culture model, which focuses on the making engagements enjoyable, easy and useful. The NSC is employee-centric, too - having maintained a six-percent attrition in recent years, which the staff credits to having a compelling and supportive workplace. In addition to 800 hours of initial training, the teams are receive about 200 hours of training per year, including webinars and "Just In Time" training, which focuses on teaching the representatives about changes or processes in the service center in a quick and thorough way.

"How was your customer service experience been so far today?" was the first question that Customer Service Manager, Patricia Bolivar, asked once our group had settled into the conference room. We all had to agree that it had been a great one – we were having fun, and we'd only just arrived. The NSC team - including Senior Manager Program and Operations, Danielle Henry, Project Manager, Robin McDonald, Training and Program consultant, Renee Smith, Multimedia Supervisors, Donna Johnson and Tracy Allen and Quality Assurance Team Lead, Arelene Lavaki - plus on-site specialists and staff offered us their hospitality, but provided a thorough and informative presentations of their operations management, technology, workforce management and customer engagement strategies.

The Transition from Inbound to Multi-Channel

In last eight years, the National Service Center has undergone numerous progressive transitions. These began back in 2003, when the American Heart Association moved their call center in-house to the Richardson facility. In 2006, the NSC became a service center, handling inbound calls and then in 2008, it transitioned again from service center to multi-channel format. Today, the NSC is not only handles multi-channels, but multimedia as well. In her introductory presentation Danielle Henry stated that they are "just getting their feet wet" and have only been pushing their social media channel interactions since February 2011. Though, Danielle noted that they have received a positive response from customers using the social media channels so far, which is particularly interesting because the NSC's main demographic are women between the ages of 50 and 60.

Customer Service is More Than Just A Department

No matter what the channel, the NSC team makes engaged customer service a priority. "Customer Service is not a department; it's a mindset." proclaimed a slide during Renee Smith's presentation on the customer experience. The NSC enforces a Customer Centric Culture model, promoting customer loyalty over revenue. The entire team is dedicated to enforcing their brand promise and mission of "Building healthier lives free of cardiovascular disease and stroke."

This customer centric model is carried through to the customers at all touch points, whether its phone, email or social media channels. The service center staff is trained to be courteous, patient and observant of individual customer needs. Sometimes, a customer calling in has recently lost a loved one to heart disease, so the staff is encouraged to take the time to offer condolences or words of comfort to the customer. This practice tends to make the NSC's calls a bit longer – in fact, their AHT is about seven minutes long – but in the long run, the team feels that the need for "quality over quantity" is worth it. Most engagements see a first-call resolution, and there is little need for customers to call back. This also ties in to the team's practice of Forrester's Customer Experience Index, which is based around how enjoyable, how easy and how useful a customer engagement is.

Voice of the Customer – and the Employee

The NSC team’s dedication to each and every customer does not go unrecognized. Supervisors and specialists frequently monitor calls for quality purposes, and conduct relaxed, side-by-side sessions with representatives to review their recent engagements. Very often, the reps are quite involved in feedback for their own calls and proactively find room for improvement along with their supervisors.

Customers are also very willing to participate in VOC phone and email surveys, where representatives are rated on a scale of 1 to 5, based of the Forrester Index. Team members are also individually recognized in their teams, and in the entire service center for their achievements. After the presentations were over for the afternoon, our group was taken around the center to see the NSC reps in action. Each team's area clearly displayed the photos and achievements of its members.

Patricia explained that when it comes to customers, the NSC considers its own employees to be their most important customers, and treats them as such. The concept here is very simple: By engaging their representatives with respect and consistent appreciation, they are creating an environment that nurtures the same habits in their reps, who will, in turn, carry this respect to the external customers. The team’s management puts a great deal of time and effort into engaging their employees every day as well as understanding their individual needs – like accommodating a shift change, or making sure representatives are properly trained on the latest medical topics and procedures.

Employee Recognition Counts

The NSC team also encourages their staff to get involved. Most staff members volunteer for AHA events on their own time. There are also plenty of activities and programs that the entire staff can participate in throughout the year for fun, including Customer Service Week celebrations, diversity celebrations, ambassador programs, peer monitoring, team fund-raising and recognition programs such as Employee of the Month.

The representatives also participate in an annual engagement climate survey, and the results are shared with the entire staff. Based on the feedback received from these surveys, there are Ambassador-led feedback sessions where any issues or ideas can be addressed, discussed and potentially taken action on.

The afternoon of presentations flew by - including a short break for snacks, raffles and a brief tour of the facilities - and before we knew it, it was time to return to the conference. The AHA's National Service Center is a phenomenal team and I am truly glad I had the opportunity to gain some insight into their customer service tactics and goals.

Christina Hammarberg is the former associate editor at ICMI.