By RICHARD MULLINS
The Tampa Tribune
Published: April 8, 2008
Updated: 04/08/2008 09:49 am
TAMPA - Anthony Girit has won thousands of dollars in Wal-Mart gift cards, digital cameras and other prizes for his performance since joining Verizon's downtown customer call center seven months ago.
Last month he won $2, 140 in bonuses, he says, but none of those perks came from answering customers' questions or untangling their bills.
"All that came from pushing customers to buy things, " Girit said. "I understand every company says, 'Let's make money.' But that's the job of a marketing department, not service. I'm supposed to be there to help them, the customer."
Once, he said, he was disciplined for not selling broadband Internet service to someone with no computer. Managers try to keep customer calls short, he said, listen in on calls and send pop-up messages onto his computer screen such as "Why aren't you selling them? Get off the phone."
Customers may be calling Verizon for help, but Girit and more than a dozen other Verizon employees interviewed describe conflicting pressures at work. On one side, customers call to have problems fixed. On the other side, managers can discipline employees who can't quickly transform those calls into sales.
Pressure from both sources seems to rise monthly, they said, as do sales "threshold" quotas employees must meet to receive bonuses and avoid discipline.
This kind of pressure is becoming more common, say call center experts, especially in markets such as telecommunications and banking, two industries that have recently deregulated and can cross-promote more services.
Verizon executives said they aim to fix customer problems first with each call, then sell new products, and they do compensate workers for selling well.
"Customer service means a tremendous amount to me, personally, " said Suri Surinder, Verizon's regional president. "One of my first jobs was as a taxi driver in New York City, so I learned service from the ground up."
In such a competitive environment, any company must meet profit goals and shareholder expectations, Surinder said.
The risk, customer service experts say, is the fate of Verizon's massive investment across the Tampa Bay region. Verizon will spend $1 billion in this area by the time it completes a state-of-the-art FiOS fiber-optic network.
Tampa and Dallas suburb Keller, Texas, are the first cities in the nation to receive FiOS from Verizon, so many eyes in the telecommunications world watch what happens here.
Verizon has won top marks from organizations, such as Consumer Reports, for its technology and service. That goodwill with customers can flourish or evaporate quickly, say service experts, and it can hinge on a company's ability to fix customer problems well enough to prompt a recommendation to a friend.
Prizes Only For 'Great Sales'
In its call centers, where Verizon fields customer issues of any sort, Verizon is clear about the rewards for selling well. It has handed out dozens of gift cards and has online catalogs where employees can redeem reward points for prizes like fondue makers. Verizon often has daily contests to see who can sell the most DSL lines in an hour. This year, a top prize is a trip to the Atlantis resort in the Bahamas.
Dawn Livingston, a shop steward with the IBEW local union at Verizon, said she has won trips, including one to the Mall of America near Minneapolis. "It was very cool, " she said. "Verizon got us a hotel room right there so we could drop off our shopping bags and rest."
"But that stuff is only for people who get great sales, " not for fixing customer problems, she said. "I could have 15 customers in a row say 'She's doing a great job, ' and not get a trip anywhere."
The company is also clear about disciplining workers who don't sell enough.
For example, employees said customer calls are timed and count toward an employee's average call handling time, regardless of the customer's issues. Employees said they need to average no more than 11 minutes with a customer. Managers dispatch "coaches" to stand behind poor-selling workers and issue disciplinary "Work Sheets."
Girit said managers disciplined him 13 times in 7 months for not trying to sell a long list of Verizon products.
"I once got written up for not trying to sell TV to an 80-something-year-old woman who called to change her phone number, " Girit said. "And she was in a nursing home, moving from one room to another, and couldn't even get our TV. I'm not going to offer something like that."
Even more frustrating, he said, is that he can't get his own Verizon bill fixed. "I'm a FiOS customer myself, and I have to call every month because the bill is wrong. I'm on the phone with these people for an hour every time I call - and I am 'these people.'"
Frank Leonetti, an 8-month employee at Verizon, said that "even if people are calling, trying to lower their bills, I get in trouble for not trying to sell them more things and make their bill higher. People call me crying with problems they couldn't get fixed in six, seven months. ... Then managers will sit down next to you, plug into your line to listen, and say, 'Why aren't you offering them this, that?'"
Kevin Bailey, a two-year call center employee, said, "Even if people call with a $1, 500 messed-up bill trying to cancel, I have to try selling them more things. If I don't, I can get fired."
Complaints Are Few, Surinder Says
Verizon workers and customers picketed many of the company's locations across the area Monday, claiming Verizon is putting excessive pressure on call center workers to sell products, rather than fix customer problems.
Surinder acknowledges that sales quotas, or "thresholds, " have been rising recently, and ultimately, "this is a business and we have to deliver growth in earnings per share."
Surinder said he feels bad that any customer would have a poor experience, but he said the vast majority of customers are satisfied.
Verizon has received just 50 complaints to a FiOS problem hot line, Surinder said, and 69 billing complaints in January and February. That's out of several hundred thousand new FiOS customers. Out of 100, 000 monthly customer calls, about 80 percent are resolved in that first call, he said.
During the same time period, 66 people filed complaints with Florida's attorney general, according to state data.
Some of the customer frustration, Surinder said, is a result of not using Verizon's computer systems properly. About 50 percent now hit "0, " rather than enter a "phone tree" that routes calls to workers with the right skills, Surinder said. Hitting "0" puts the call into circulation for any worker.
Verizon Adding Call Center Workers
To improve service in Tampa, the company is adding 78 call center workers to its ranks of 460, extending weekday hours and adding hours on Saturdays, and live screeners who answer calls early and direct them to experts. A new system will call customers back, rather than keep them on hold.
Verizon also is rolling out new "Personal Account Managers, " a designated advocate that FiOS customers can call directly to get help.
Recently, Verizon has been dealing with customer complaints such as too-elusive discounts, shortages of HDTV set-top boxes and the free televisions the company offered as an incentive to enroll. Also, the time Verizon is taking to fix traditional copper phone lines has lengthened.
Those problems illustrate the risk to Verizon, said Christine Kozlosky, vice president of The Ascent Group, a management consulting firm in Kite, Ga., that studies customer service.
Traditional phone companies used to separate sales and service; now more companies merge them, she said.
Companies need to monitor things like average customer call time to identify any employees who may need more training, she said. But it's a delicate balance, she said, that each employee should judge on each call - fixing a customer's problem, then selling new products if appropriate.
"There are many areas, like Tampa, that have companies moving in to markets with a lot of competition, " she said. "They may be trying to blend service and sales and economize, but people who don't like that are going to go someplace else, another cable or telephone provider."
Reporter Richard Mullins can be reached at (813) 259-7919 or firstname.lastname@example.org.