The Business: The Montana Power Company (Butte, MT) is a $2.9 billion energy and telecommunications company whose core utility business is providing electricity and natural gas throughout Montana.
Montana Power's call center, also located in Butte, MT, serves 322,000 utility customers. The center receives about 50,000 calls a month from customers who want to start receiving gas or electric service, have questions about their bills or are experiencing power outages. The center employs 22 part-time agents and 16 full-time agents. Dan Daly, Montana Power's call center manager, has organized the center into five teams, each supervised by an experienced agent who discusses their call evaluations with them.
The utility has a toll-free number that customers call for customer service. Agents answer customer service requests weekdays from 7 am to 8 pm Mountain Time. Callers to the customer service number first hear a greeting from IBM's (Armonk, NY) DirectTalk IVR system. They then have the option of speaking with an agent or using the IVR system to get information about account due dates, previous billing dates, meter readings and service orders. "If customers want to go to a rep immediately, they can; they don't have to go through IVR," says Jack Cossel, director of customer service for Montana Power.
The IVR system informs callers about their positions in queue and how long they can expect to wait to reach a live agent. It also offers customers the option of receiving a call back from a rep if they do not want to wait in queue.
The utility has two separate toll-free numbers for calls about gas and electrical emergencies. The center answers calls to these numbers 24 hours a day, seven days a week. From 8 pm to midnight, an agent is available to take emergency calls. Dispatchers handle any emergency calls that come into the center after midnight.
Customers can also visit Montana Power's Web site to find answers to frequently-asked questions and to send e-mail messages to the company.
Goals: Since November 1998, Montana Power has offered residential customers and small businesses the option of choosing other companies to supply electricity and natural gas. Although the prospect of competition from alternate suppliers wasn't the motivation behind the utility's original decision to open a call center three years ago, Cossel acknowledges that the call center is an important part of Montana Power's effort to distinguish itself in the way it serves customers.
Before Montana Power opened its call center, customers had to contact the nearest district office about gas or electricity services. These offices were scattered throughout the state. "Since opening the call center, we are now able to serve our customers better with a lot fewer employees," says Cossel. "We have developed more consistency in customer service."
Technology: The center uses Siemens' (Santa Clara, CA) Rolm 9571 phone switch to route calls to agents. IBM's CallPath computer telephony software generates screen pops that enable agents to view information about customers with every incoming call. Such information can include a caller's most recent transaction with the call center and whether the call is about a gas or electrical emergency. Screen pops also include information callers enter from the IVR system.
Agents view real-time ACD stats from two Spectrum (Houston, TX) electronic displays and from video monitors suspended from the ceiling. Among the stats agents see are the number of calls in queue and the longest amount of time a call has been in queue.
Besides observing stats, the utility also provides training for agents. New agents train for six weeks from a separate facility next door to the center. This facility replicates the phones, workstations and software that agents eventually use when they are ready to answer live calls. After six weeks, new agents answer calls while sitting next to more experienced colleagues until they are comfortable with taking calls on their own.
To ensure agents maintain their call handling skills, a quality assurance manager randomly monitors five calls a month for each agent. The center evaluates agents on 20 different criteria, including their greeting and tone of voice. If an agent's call receives a score below 90%, the utility forwards the recording of the call to a team leader, who reviews an evaluation of the call with the agent.
The center uses Nice Systems' (Secaucus, NJ) NiceLog to record every phone call that comes into the center. "We can store up to 2,048 minutes on our hard drive and we archive calls for up to three months," says John Thurmond, information analyst for Montana Power.
Since the center primarily employs part-time agents, the utility relies on workforce management software from Aspect Communications (San Jose CA) to generate accurate forecasts of call volumes and patterns. The center also uses Aspect's software to determine optimal schedules for meeting service levels.
In addition to making sure that agents are available and that they always provide good service over the phone, Montana Power provides agents with a comfortable working environment, which is evident in the type of workstations it sets up for them. Agents use split-level desktops to raise and lower the front portion of their desks with the push of a button. By doing so, they can work standing or sitting.
"This is a very popular feature among agents," says Thurmond. "They like to stand-up and work for a few hours and then sit down and work for a few hours. Plus, agents can make the adjustments themselves whenever they want," says Thurmond.
Results: The call center has made a great contribution to Montana Power's customer service. As Cossel points out, the center allows the company to extend its hours of service and enables it to prioritize customers' requests and calls concerning gas and electrical emergencies.
"Previously, we really didn't have a way to rate our quality of customer service," Cossel says. "We couldn't measure metrics such as average speed of answer and talk time because they were handled by many different individuals in many different offices. We also didn't have a way to benchmark ourselves against other companies."
Starting last September, the call center began the first of several major enhancements with the installation of Orcom's (Bend, OR) E-CIS Year 2000-compliant billing system. In accordance with Montana's plans for deregulation, the software generates bills that break out specific costs of electricity.
Montana Power plans to introduce skills-based routing into its center and intends to offer customers more options from its Web site. "We are currently in the process of adding electronic bill presentation, credit card payment and are looking at another vendor that will allow customers to write checks on-line," says Cossel.