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Call center at Virgin Mobile gets personal

Christine Cignoli

Nancy Tichbon, director of customer care at Virgin Mobile's Canadian division, once walked by one of her call center agents and overheard him singing Madonna's "Like a Virgin" during a call with

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a customer. She left him to the call. When the agent was asked about it afterwards, he had an interesting explanation.

"The agent asked the customer if he could put him on hold, [but] the customer said he would rather [he] not, so the agent offered to sing instead," Tichbon said. "He took it one step further and asked the customer what song he would like to hear."

Tichbon told this story during a presentation at October's International Contact Center Management (ICCM) conference in Toronto to illustrate Virgin Mobile's attitude toward its call center representatives.

Many of Virgin Mobile's agents -- as well as its customers -- are in their 20s and 30s. Tichbon pointed to generational differences that Virgin Mobile has built into its customer service practice. A global company, Virgin Mobile operates two call centers in Canada, one in Toronto and one in New Brunswick. The larger Toronto site employs about 100 agents and about 20% of their calls are in French.

We encourage our reps to be human, and not become robots.
Nancy Tichbon
Director of customer careVirgin Mobile's Canadian division

"I believe what Virgin customers look for is a personal experience," she said. "They actually want a little bit of fun when they call us up. [So we started] delivering individual service."

During a Virgin Mobile customer study, the company found that customers hated agents saying "I'm sorry to hear that." Instead, they found that Virgin customers preferred to hear, "Yeah, that would bug me too."

"The customers don't care if agents say "yeah" or "I don't know," said Tichbon. "Some centers don't let agents say the word 'can't.' But those details aren't what's important in customer service. We encourage our reps to be human, and not become robots."

Instead, she believes it's creating a rapport with the customer that matters. Virgin Mobile measures customer rapport on calls by looking for certain words that indicate rapport by the end of the call. They do not show agents individual statistics, but do measure average handle time (AHT) per agent for scheduling purposes.

"We had someone whose AHT was six or seven minutes, and we actually decided to let him keep his seven minutes [because it was worth the time spent]," said Tichbon.

Liz Roche, managing partner at Stamford, Conn.-based Customers Incorporated, a research and consulting firm, points out that customer rapport must be tied to revenue.

For more on measuring call center performance
See the call center metrics which are driving service

Learn whether AHT is a good metric for measuring agents

"The goal is not rapport in and of itself, the goal is a repeat customer," Roche said. "If your goals are cross selling and upselling, then [yes, the] talk time will be longer."

Roche also believes that metrics are key to agent performance in the call center.

"It's important to share metrics with agents so they know how they're doing, but the metrics you share with agents depend on the goals [of the organization]," said Roche.

Virgin's call center management style, along with their call center practice, puts the emphasis on individuality and managing by exception, Tichbon said.

"I think in call centers we spend too much time on 'police behavior,'" said Tichbon. "We spend more time on what agents have done wrong."

Instead, Virgin Mobile's call centers do not maintain a dress code. They trust agents to know what's right and wrong to wear to work, and then address the 5% who sometimes come in wearing the wrong thing, Tichbon said.

Tichbon says that throughout the company, Virgin puts its employees first.

"We believe that if agents are happy and smiling and motivated, our customers will naturally have a great experience," she said. "And then it goes without saying that our shareholders are going to be delighted."


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