Outsourced Help Desk Aids Abercrombie Managers

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In less than three months of using a newly-formed technical support team and a recreated database to troubleshoot systems-related problems at its 200 retail stores, Abercrombie & Fitch has seen a boost in satisfaction from store managers.


The Columbus, OH, company had been receiving technical support from its former parent company, The Limited, also based in Columbus, until April of this year. Under the terms of its 1998 spin-off from The Limited, the two companies had to separate their businesses by May of this year.


As a result, Abercrombie & Fitch contracted with Cyntergy, a division of Cyntercorp, Gaithersburg, MD, for level-one and level-two support of network operating systems, payroll and time attendance software, and all point-of-sale systems, including handheld scanners. The most basic support may involve a call to IBM if there is a broken printer, while higher level support will include assistance retrieving reports and data from a store's computer system, said Brandt Kerkhoff, network services manager for Abercrombie & Fitch.


Because all previous support had been handled by The Limited, Abercrombie & Fitch and Cyntergy collaborated to create a new decision-tree database that Cyntergy's agents would work from.


"Usually they take a lot of the data from the company, but we didn't have much and what we had was inadequate," said Kerkhoff.


Cyntergy was already familiar with the basic hardware Abercrombie & Fitch uses, a standard IBM retail platform. Abercrombie & Fitch technical staff also spent three days at Cyntergy training two teams in a series of half-day sessions to teach Cyntergy analysts about the intricacies of the company's system.


"We literally had someone taking minutes in the training sessions and then putting it into a readable format," said Kevin Taylor, Cyntergy help desk director.


Phone representatives and database builders on the project were sent to Abercrombie & Fitch stores to see the system in use.


Telephone agents on the project, called analysts by Cyntergy, have backgrounds in retail rather than computers.


"The premise is that a lot of help desks hire people with technical ability. We hire people with experience in our niche industries - food, retail, hospitality - and give them training on the system," said Taylor. "Often, when we hire retail people, some technical experience is included. We have managers who have worked on the point- of-sale systems, and we just give them a better understanding of the systems they used to work with."


Cyntergy anticipates that retail experience will help analysts better communicate with customers.


"They have an understanding of the critical issues of the stores. If there is a problem and there are 10 people on line, they know it's important to stay on the line, and calm the manager down. They also speak the retail lingo," Taylor said.


Kerkhoff also noted that Cyntergy conducted a comprehensive study of Abercrombie & Fitch's operations, including such details as what the company sold. While not as critical as other components of the project, Taylor said this evaluation was intended to help Cyntergy analysts better understand the company's working environment.


"For example, we check to see if it's a large-volume operation or if there are fewer sales of high-ticket items," Taylor said. "When they're doing a lot of volume, the register speed is up and if the system goes down, people are walking out of the store. With a high-ticket business, the manager might not want to stay on the phone. The manager can do a hand ticket and it might be more worthwhile for the manager to be out working the floor."


Kerkhoff estimates that complaints have dropped 75 percent since moving to the new system.


"We're measuring success by the complaints we didn't get. We're not getting any feedback and no news is good news. People only call us to complain," he said. "The complaints often used to be about people's attitudes. The two sides used to frazzle each other, but now it's a customer relationship so we don't have that problem anymore."


Abercrombie & Fitch had forecasted it would require 35 minutes of phone time per store, per month, said Kerkhoff, who did not have figures of how much phone time the company actually spent speaking with the help desk.


Cyntergy had been selected in part because its client list indicated it has the ability and capacity to handle Abercrombie & Fitch's type and volume of calls, Kerkhoff said.

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