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JCPenney Direct Marketing Services Goes Interactive to Improve Efficiency

JCPenney Direct Marketing Services has made its customer service call center more efficient by installing interactive voice response technology, which has freed up its agents to handle more complicated customer inquiries while preserving customers’ satisfaction levels.

The wholly owned subsidiary of retailer JCPenney Co. Inc., Plano, TX, markets supplemental insurance products and membership clubs through telemarketing, direct mail and direct response advertising. The inbound call centers that have installed the IVR technology – most of the outbound calls are handled through a different department – field 10 million calls a year, 75 percent of which are customer service inquiries from insurance policyholders.

The facilities, located in Plano, Corpus Christi, TX, and Oklahoma City, also handle a growing volume of calls related to the company’s membership-club businesses.

A few of the 850 agents who staff the call centers also are responsible for a small volume of e-mail communications, but the amount is expected to grow.

When the company decided to use IVR technology to divert some calls away from its agents, it consulted its customers to determine if they would sacrifice the personal service associated with live agents to have some simple processes done more quickly, according to Jeff Camp, vice president of customer service at JCPenney DMS.

“We talked to some consumers and at the same time did an assessment of our IVR environment and decided that IVR would work in some cases,” Camp said.

Last year, after installing a network-to-desktop platform from Cisco Systems Inc., San Jose, CA, the company began using IVR on a limited basis. It also recently purchased the Cisco eMail Manager to help handle the growth of that response medium. In the six months since, Camp said the company polled its customers again about the use of the technology and found their satisfaction levels are just as high as if they had gone through a live agent.

The IVR technology, made by Periphonics Corp., Bohemia, NY, and integrated as part of the Cisco platform, relies on a system in which customers are identified by their home telephone numbers. When customers call from their homes, the automatic number identification system recognizes the origin of the call and immediately fetches the policy history of the person making the call. If the caller is not calling from home or if the ANI for some reason does not recognize the caller then the caller is asked to enter his home phone number on the keypad.

The system then employs some intelligent decisioning. Based on the knowledge JCPenney has garnered about the nature of its customers’ calls at certain times in their life cycle as policyholders, the company can determine whether the person is likely to have a question that will require an agent. If the decisioning process determines that the caller is likely to have one of a handful of simple questions which can be answered using the keypad on the caller’s telephone, the call is routed into the IVR.

Customers in the IVR system can request a list of providers covered by their policy, for example, or they can have a product discontinued.

“We were able to offload a small percentage of calls that had been going to our [customer service representatives] and free them up to handle more complex calls,” Camp said. “At the same time, this gave our customers a quick and convenient way of getting the information they needed.”

The IVR now handles 30,000 calls per month. Although that is still a relatively small percentage of the total calls the division receives, the technology is helping the company keep its costs down as the service centers grow. Camp said JCPenney planned to expand the use of the IVR in the center to handle even more calls.

“We study our environment regularly to see what types of things might be done in an IVR platform,” he said. “Unlike banks, we don’t have many simple, routine transactions.”

Camp said some banks can automate as many as 50 percent to 70 percent of their calls because most of the calls are inquiries, such as determining account balances that can easily be accomplished through IVR.

Whenever a JCPenney customer has to transfer to a live agent from the IVR, the interactions that have taken place using the IVR get routed to the agent along with the customer’s account history so the agent can pick up where the IVR left off.

“That’s a lot easier on the customer, so they don’t have to repeat themselves or start over,” Camp said. “The reason we went with the Cisco integration was to enable that capability.”

The screen pops themselves, which were installed earlier last year, also have helped make the call centers more efficient. Camp said the agents’ average talk times have decreased by about 15 seconds per call since the screen pops were installed. Average talk times are between four and five minutes.

“We do find that customers very much appreciate not having to give us the extra information, and it does save us some time,” he said.

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