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Turning Adversity Into Advantage at UPC: An Interview with Customer Care Director Andre Vermaat

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Andre Vermaat

Andrê Vermaat is proud to say that he works for UPC. Five years ago he might not have gloated. But the company, formerly in the customer service basement, has moved into the light. Vermaat knows "the golden rules" of customer service and delivered a Web presentation on "developing your webcare team to assist with customer-to-customer and employee-to-customer interaction" at the Customer Experience Exchange conference this October in Belgium. Vermaat is the Customer Care Operations Director at UPC, a provider of bundled cable television, internet and telephone services. The UPC provides services to the Netherlands, Ireland, Poland, Switzerland, Austria, Slovakia, Hungary and the Czech Republic. With the lack of popularity of cable service companies here in the states, we wanted to find out what UPC did to re-vamp its customer service offering and re-vamp its brand.

The theme of the Customer Experience Exchange was driving customer experience and business performance—the key to retention, loyalty and profit. Do you think driving the customer experience is the priority of UK based companies?

In the Netherlands the priority is customer experience. In the cable business it’s very difficult to differentiate your brand from the competition. We all offer the same products (digital) TV, internet and telephony, and the technical quality is almost equal.

The only difference we can offer is the customer service [or experience] in all the contact channels including the contact centers (mail/call), online and webcare. Customer Satisfaction is one of the main KPIs for the rewards and incentives program for employees at UPC.

Talk about some of the main take-aways from your presentation at the Customer Experience Exchange conference "The Golden Rules Of Developing Your Webcare Team To Assist With Customer-to-Customer And Employee-to-Customer Interaction."

There are three take aways from the exchange conference:

1. When your company starts active with on-line webcare, you've immediately reached the point of no return, when your company is "the public" at the Internet, there is no way back.

2. That is why the webcare team must empower your webcare team to work independently to make decisions. You must be sure how to report and where in the organization your team is based to act in this real-time world.

3. Make rules before you start which includes a "webcare charter" about the dos and don'ts on postings, use of language and the information you are willing to share on the Internet.

Where does the call center fit in your customer service end to end process?

The call center fits in the whole process, from start (sales, new users) to the retention desk (churn prevention).

UPC is continuously learning from the interactions we have with our customers including reasons for the call and drivers, customer satisfaction, product information and usage, exit reasons, Q&A on the Internet and the "tone of voice" in postings blogs, Twitter, fora comments etc. All this information has a feedback loop (in reports and meetings) to the various departments within UPC (marketing/sales/networks/collections/etc.).

What is the training and coaching process like for your customer service representatives?

The call center representatives must be trained for four weeks until they can work independently. After this the call center representatives follow a training roadmap for two years upgrading their skills.

Each phase the call center representative is coached by (different) supervisors, and the call center representatives receive only the calls within their capacity and skills.

UPC won the HRM award 2009 this spring at the National Contact Center Award Gala. In the day to day operation the traffic and planning department is managing the service levels and the call flow and call volume to the seven call centers which includes about 900 call center representatives.

Each call center is managed by a team including an Operations Manager, supervisors and six or seven quality management professionals. This call center team is (only) responsible for the performance of the call center representatives and the operation. The rest of the staff is central based (recruitment/reporting/training/etc.)

A handful of the well-known cable companies in the states are known for really poor customer service. What is the customer service culture like at UPC?

UPC was a poor performer four or five years ago. But the new focus is the customer experience. We are always working to improve the culture and the image in the Netherlands.

As a result UPC has won three awards and one nomination in the last four years at the National Contact Center Awards gala. We are constantly focused on improvement and we are willing to change to please the customer.

Interview by Blake Landau.