Online Edition - January 2000
Tackling the Downside of Upsizing
--In a world where companies keep getting bigger, the challenge is to stay small in your customer's eyes.
-- The scene is 1989, daytime.
--A phone rings in a typical office with several women sitting at desks in cubicles. Hillary answers the phone.
--"Thank you for calling Roberts Express. How may I help you?"
-- On the other end of the line, a man's voice, "Yes, this is Bob calling from Ford. I need to talk with Alice. She's the one I spoke with before."
--"Bob, I'm sorry but Alice is on the other line. How can I help?"
--"I really don't have time to go through the whole thing again. Can you tell Alice it's me calling? She'll know it's extremely urgent. I have a truck full of parts stuck in Pittsburgh and they've got to arrive in Detroit by 3 a.m. tomorrow or my whole line is going to shut down."
-- "Hold on Bob. I'll tell her." As Bob waits on the phone for Alice, precious time is being lost for Ford, and Alice and Hillary's company, Roberts Express, might lose a customer.
--In the urgent and specialneeds transportation business, staff must provide their customers with service so personalized, customers won't have to tell their story twice.
--Bob didn't always have this problem with Roberts Express; when he'd needed them in the past, Roberts Express turned on a dime. But their good reputation must have gotten out, because now there was always another new person answering the phone.
--"I'm glad they're doing good business," Bob grumbled to no one in particular, "but I want the Roberts Express from before, when they knew me, I knew them and I didn't have to go through this rigmarole."
--Revenue soared from 3 million in 1982 to 100 million in 1989. But as the company grew, they started picking up warning signals from customers and employees. Special-needs are, in a way, counter to a big company, and nobody knows this better than Jack Pickard, vice president of service for Roberts Express, and Joseph Gruelich, director of management information systems. "We had to make some major changes," says Pickard, "from the way we answered the phone to how we were structured as a company."
--First, Pickard says, Roberts Express surveyed its customer service and dispatching staff, plus customers and independently contracted drivers. The surveys, handled by a consulting firm, told Pickard where Roberts needed to go.
--"Our customer service and dispatching staff wanted more responsibility. They felt they weren't using all their talents and it left them feeling dissatisfied." Handling only one part of the whole process not only gave them a lack of control, it made them feel like they didn't have the power to solve problems.
-- Drivers also voiced concerns about the growing size of Roberts Express; they were beginning to feel like "just a number." Based on survey results, Roberts Express decided to switch to a team-based organization. Customer service reps, dispatchers and drivers were reorganized to work on one team serving a geographic area.
--Hillary, for example, could cover the Eastern seaboard, along with a dispatcher and drivers who operate in that area. Alice, a dispatcher, and local drivers would handle the Midwest. This new team structure, called Customer Assistance Teams (CATs), tackled some of the problem, says Pickard. "Team members could now troubleshoot together and follow a customer through from the beginning phone call to the end delivery."
--Employees and contractors were more satisfied and customers regularly dealt with the same Roberts Express staff. Roberts achieved a greater sense of intimacy, but according to Pickard, "It wasn't enough."
High Tech Trickery
--The trick was to combine this database with teams and telecommunications to process information about the customer and shave precious seconds off the length of a phone call.
information retrieval system looks like
-- "The system has other benefits as well," says Gruelich. "By tying telephone technology with the extensive computer database, we route calls to the CAT member who handled the caller previously."
--The system gives callers the impression that they're dealing with Roberts Express on an intimate, sometimes first name, basis.
--Not only does this enable drivers to accept a delivery straight from their cab, drivers and CAT members are alerted if the shipment is running even 15 minutes late. So what has happened to Roberts Express since Bob sat tapping his fingers, waiting for Alice in 1989? They've hiked up their mileage by 1O percent, slashed the number of phone calls needed to arrange each shipment by 50 percent, increased driver retention by 50 percent and improved dispatcher efficiency by 60 percent.
-- And since tackling the downside of upsizing, revenues have doubled. The scene is 1999, at night.
--A phone rings in a centralized office space at one of a small group of low-walled cubicles.
--Alice answers the phone. "Thank you for calling Roberts Express. Hello Bob, this is Alice. Are you calling to follow up on the shipment you're expecting tonight in Detroit?"
--A man's voice, surprised. "Alice? Well . . . yes, as a matter of fact . . "I can see from our GPS system that the shipment is due to arrive at 1: 57 am, which appears to be on time. Does that sound right to you?"
--"Sounds good. I just wanted to check, before I leave for the night."
--"Bob, we've got you covered. Good night."
-- "Good night."