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The Executive Spotlight this month is on Bill Whearty, Vice President of Telecommunications and Vice President Sales, Consumer Electronics Group, with Sennheiser Communications.

CIS: Nearly every time I visit a call center, the floor supervisors and managers tell me their No.1 headache happens because of headsets: breakage, lack of a warranty/replacement program, headsets that don’t suit the call center’s needs, etc. What has Sennheiser been doing to address the traditional problems of call centers’ headset needs?

BW: We hear similar comments in our visits to call centers. Additionally, we hear complaints about poor sound quality and limited noise-canceling capability. Sennheiser Communication headsets are designed and engineered to address many of these concerns, including Kevlar in our microphone booms for the highest durability; Teflon in the speaker capsule so that the mic boom can be adjusted more than 100,000 times without losing tension; and metal alloy supports to hold the speakers to the headset, which reduces the breakage normally seen in products that use less expensive materials.

We utilize a Sennheiser microphone that reduces more background noise in the call center than others available. Sennheiser has been the leader in the audio acoustic field for 60 years and we make the world’s best headphones for consumers, DJs, recording studios and the aviation industry. We apply that vast experience to our headsets, providing optimal sound quality that reduces mistakes and repeat calls to a center, while also alleviating stress for call center agents who have been using a headset that does not provide our audio capability. The warranty offered matches that of our competitors, with return policies that match customer needs: call-in for a RMA, or create a RMA on our Web site. Alternatively, call centers can choose to have advance replacements, or simply send the product to our service department and we will assign a RMA.

We offer a program that allows a potential customer the ability to try our products and compare them to what they may be using now. We firmly believe that the best method to determine if a headset is right for your center is to try it for a week or two. This allows the staff members who will actually use the product to confirm that it does perform “on the floor.”

CIS: What are the top three things companies should keep in mind as they buy headsets for their call centers?

BW: You must view a headset as the last link to your customer. Companies will spend their money to buy a better computer for their agents, the best phone system they can afford, etc., and then look at a headset as a commodity item. There are very significant differences between available products, and it would seem logical to extend those same criteria to headset selection. This is a piece of equipment your employee has to wear, it has to be comfortable, have great sound quality to hear and be heard, and in larger offices, be able to reduce conversations that may be occurring elsewhere in the office from being transmitted out to the customer. A headset will be in use for several years. Companies trying to save $10 on the initial purchase — compared to the effect of having a product that does not meet the true needs of the office or call center — will spend many times that amount in time spent on returns, mistakes and frustration. Headsets are a technology product, and the review and purchase should be undertaken with the same rigor you apply to any technology purchase.

Understand the relationship the headset vendor has with the headset company they are promoting. There are several large ACD manufacturers that have a contract to sell one type of headset or another — guess whose best interest is being served. The reseller’s or the customer’s? There are headset dealers that have aligned themselves with one manufacturer, and the customer needs to be cognizant of that and make a determination of what is best for their needs, versus what pays their headset dealer the highest commission.

Does the company have the financial strength and track record to be there for you in coming years? Do they have a track record for innovation? Will they be able to meet the demands of call centers in the future? We see companies that try to break into the market offering lower-priced headsets — they come and go often, leaving customers owning products they cannot repair or replace. Sennheiser has a 60-year track record; our view is that there are only a handful of companies with track records that show commitment to the industry for many years.

CIS: Lately, there has been some prominence for safety issues regarding headsets. Can you explain what these issues are, and how Sennheiser addresses them?

BW: Acoustic shock has been referred to in recent studies as a growing issue worldwide. Acoustic shock is caused by a number of factors outside of the control of the call center: fax bursts, lightning strikes, loud noises from the other caller, etc. Sennheiser Communications builds into every headset — and this is critical, every headset — our patented ActiveGard protection that minimizes the possibility of acoustic shock by driving down the volume and the sound pressure to 103db. This is well under OSHA standards in milliseconds, well before the human ear registers that an acoustic spike occurred. We build the protection into the actual headset, even though it increases our costs, because we see this as a mandatory feature to achieve the safest and best possible direct connect solution. Many phone systems today bypass the need for an amplifier; typically, most headset manufacturers build acoustic protection into the amplifier. The Sennheiser Communications headset protects the agents even when they are using our products connected directly to the phone system.

CIS: How important are noise-canceling technologies to the enterprise headset marketplace, particularly the call center?

BW: Think about a conversation you are having with your doctor’s office, your insurance agent or your banker. How would you feel if whatever you were being told was also being broadcast out to a stranger? Most offices, and call centers, have very limited space between desks, and without noise-canceling technology, whatever is being said in proximity to the headset is being broadcast. We all have experienced a call from someone in a loud office that enabled us to hear whatever else was going on around the caller. A good noise-canceling microphone reduces the amount of ambient sound being broadcast out of an office or call center — improving reliability, professionalism and, in some cases, security for the call center. CIS: What kinds of things are we going to see in the future from Sennheiser Communications?

BW: More wireless products, Bluetooth products, office headsets and mobile headsets are all in either the development stage or final testing stage. We will be releasing additional products to expand our business in the PC headset arena: gaming, VoIP and portable headsets capable of being placed in a briefcase and used by people on the road via soundcard or USB port. The Sennheiser Communications home office in Denmark has hired many engineers, and has been utilizing engineering support from both Sennheiser in Germany, as well as William Demant in Copenhagen. Demant is the world’s second largest manufacturer of hearing aids, and specializes in miniaturization of speakers.

CIS: Thanks, Bill.

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