Readers Digest Upgrades Call Centers

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After replacing its archaic mainframe system with new client/server technology, Reader's Digest has slashed training time for customer service representatives in half and cut the length of customer service calls by 15 percent, at the same time increasing the effectiveness of each call.


Reader's Digest works with two call center providers, MCI and Gage Marketing Group, and two correspondence providers, Kable Fulfillment Services and ETC Data Services Inc., to field about 20,000 calls and letters from customers each day.


Previously, the 350 representatives, who work out of six different sites, used dumb terminals or PCs that linked to the mainframe at Reader's Digest's headquarters in Pleasantville, NY. The reps were not typically interconnected and didn't have access to customers' previous calls and letters.


"If a customer called and asked a question, our prior system had no way of capturing that information," said Diane Brown, director of customer service at Reader's Digest. "That hurt us from a statistical standpoint, because we had no way of getting a full picture of what our customers were contacting us about."


The old system forced reps to memorize lists of codes to perform transactions or flip through a hefty manual lying on their desk. Reps underwent about three weeks of training before handling customer calls and letters.


"We felt the system was jeopardizing their accuracy, because we were dependent on them to remember so much," Brown said.


In July 1996, Reader's Digest tapped into the services of Andersen Consulting, a Dallas -based consultant, to create a new backbone for its customer service operations. Andersen and a Reader's Digest team, which included members from operations, customer service and information technology, performed a 12-week evaluation to assess the needs of customers as well as the needs of the call and mail centers.


"We were looking for simplicity and the ability to show the rep more information than they could see in their former system -- more information about customers and more information about promotions," Brown said.


After the evaluation, a team from Andersen Consulting's division in Minneapolis created the system's front-end, which would be used by the customer service reps. Another Andersen team at Pleasantville implemented the application's back-end, which Reader's Digest would use to capture customer data. Andersen used its proprietary technology, Customer Service Direct (CSD), as the foundation for the new system.


The technology has been up and running since September of last year, but Reader's Digest's is planning to add new functions to the system. Still, Brown can tick off a list of tasks the customer service representatives can now perform that were impossible with the old system.


When customers call the reps working on the new system to change their mailing address, the reps are automatically prompted to remind the caller that promotions are created months in advance so mail may still go to the old address. If a customer calls again, the rep can pull up the account and note that it is the second call on the same subject. The old system offered no prompts for reps or accounts of previous calls.


If customers ask the rep working on the new system about a specific product, the rep can simply click on the product in question and a message will pop up regarding its availability. In the past if a product was unavailable, Reader's Digest would have to send a note to all 350 representatives. If reps received a call about the product three weeks later, they had to shuffle through the innumerable messages they received in the meantime.


Eventually when a customer calls about a specific publication, reps will be able to pull up an actual image of the product and flip to certain pages.


"We also are going to expand our cross-selling program, but our initial focus is on serving customer needs," Brown said.
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