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Tracey E.Schelmetic

[October 17, 2001]

Dot Com Commerce

By Tracey E. Schelmetic
Managing Editor, CUSTOMER [email protected] Solutions

Undertrained, Underpaid And On The Front Lines

News junkie that I am, I've been closely following the emerging fiasco that is U.S. and worldwide airport security. Over the past few weeks, we've discovered that the individuals who check you and your carry-on bags before you get on an airplane are mostly untrained and paid minimum wage. As if that were not bad enough, a recent probe discovered that a private firm responsible for employing security personnel has not even been bothering to conduct employee background checks, which led to the revelation that many of the people responsible for gate security at several busy U.S. airports had rap sheets that included theft, prostitution and drug busts. National Public Radio recently revealed that one major U.S. airport regularly reports an annual turnover of 400 percent among gate security employees.

Your own personal experience likely confirms these findings. My single most blood-pressure raising moments occur while waiting to pass through these checkpoints, as the line builds up behind me and the person ostensibly watching the X-ray screen and the one listlessly waving the metal detector baton chat about their weekends.

On a recent trip to Canada I had a new experience. While on my way to the airplane, I was stopped and made to wait in line with the other passengers. When I got to the head of the line, I was confronted by a small beagle wearing a doggie jacket bearing the Canadian maple leaf. The beagle looked at me, sized me up, walked around me and my bags once and then moved on to the person behind me, indicating his approval for me to pass. I find it ironic to report that I had more confidence in the ability of that little beagle to spot trouble than the security employees at all of the New York airports. But then I realized that in exchange for doing his job, the beagle received shelter, training, food and healthcare. At minimum wage (particularly in the pricey Northeast), the person looking for suspect items in passengers' carry-on bags can probably scant afford a minimum of any of those things. There is a reason that the dog seemed more enthusiastic about his job than his human colleagues. He was better paid and better trained.

During a recent spate of frustrating personal interactions with both the airline I regularly use and my health insurance company, it struck me that the unenthusiastic individuals at the other end of the chat session and the telephone had a lot in common with the underpaid, undertrained and disinterested airport security checkpoint employees. These are the employees that man the front lines of an organization, and while contact center agents' failure to do their jobs properly seldom risks bodily harm to your customers -- as it does in the case of airport workers -- their lack of skill and enthusiasm will cause your customers to question whether to continue to do business with your company.

I regularly receive a string of press releases for new and better types of collaboration software, knowledge base systems, e-commerce software, e-mail management systems, etc., all of which promise to allow your customers to contact your company any time, anywhere, by whichever medium they choose. How convenient! But what happens when the person at the other end of the medium I choose cannot even pronounce the company's name correctly? What happens when I fax a copy of my airline ticket receipt to the frequent flyer department of my airline and the employee on the other end cannot find the ticket number, even while she holds the copy of the ticket in her hand? Sure the fax channel and the e-mail channel were well integrated. The representative had access to my dual communiqus. But she didn't know or didn't care how to solve my problem. The upshot was that not only did I leave the customer experience frustrated, I left the customer experience frustrated in an enterprise-wide, multimedia sort of way.

Knowing as I do the costs of implementing the kind of state-of-the-art CRM systems that integrate all your company's information and communications into one great data entity and theoretically enable your workforce to share a collective consciousness, it takes my breath away to realize that such platinum technologies are being put into the hands of people who frequently make less per hour than the cost of a latte and a biscotti at Starbucks. In some cases, they make less than that: it is not unheard of for companies to use prison-based contact centers in which inmates -- sometimes maximum-security inmates -- process mail, take telephone calls and conduct chat sessions. (Insert here a mental image of Charlie Manson in a headset, politely inquiring, "May I have your name and account number please?")

The good news is that things are slowly getting better, and we may have the Web to thank for that. Many, if not most, agents need to be computer-savvy nowadays, and companies have realized that they are unlikely to find computer-literate agents willing to operate under the old "sweatshop" rules. The companies that haven't caught on yet are still trying to figure out the source of their woes, and stubbornly look away from their front lines, blaming all other factors. They have yet to admit that there is little benefit in implementing CRM systems designed to form a collective company consciousness when half of their front line workers are semi-conscious themselves. I challenge the upper management of all consumer-facing companies to once a month anonymously communicate with their contact centers and see for themselves what kind of job is being done. Some of these members of the ranks of upper management of consumer companies owe me an apology for inflicting on me an agent who was rude, uninformative, incoherent or just plain clueless.

So, having conquered airport security and contact centers, maybe we can start on the large pharmacy chains next. The next time you find that a 17-year-old high school kid with chartreuse hair and the word "Anarchy" tattooed on his forehead is counting out your pills and filling your prescription, ask to see the pharmacist.

The author may be contacted at tschelmetic@tmcnet.com.

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