Purolator set-up big `competitive advantage’

Late last year, a u.s. manufacturer of household electronic appliances asked Purolator Courier to help with recalling a faulty product.By using its state-of-the-art call centre operations, Purolator, based in Mississauga, Ont., was able to offer the client a timely solution to...

Late last year, a u.s. manufacturer of household electronic appliances asked Purolator Courier to help with recalling a faulty product.

By using its state-of-the-art call centre operations, Purolator, based in Mississauga, Ont., was able to offer the client a timely solution to its problem and pick up a not insignificant piece of business along the way.

8,000 transactions

After setting up a 1-800 number that was unique to the client, Purolator agents were able to accept calls on the client’s behalf, schedule about 8,000 pick-ups from across the country, provide the company detailed transaction reports and deliver the recalled product to the u.s. – all in a two-week period.

Maurice Levy, Purolator’s senior vice-president of sales and customer service, says this is just one example of how his company’s call centre operations have given Purolator what he terms ‘a huge competitive advantage’ in the Canadian marketplace.

The company operates a network of four call centres — in Toronto, Montreal, Vancouver and Moncton, n.b. – that employ roughly 400 agents and process about 45,000 calls each business day.

The centres are linked, so if there is a problem at one centre – if it is shut down due to bad weather, for example – or all agents there are busy, the call can be routed to the next available agent.

Levy says the idea is to distribute the calls so that 95% of the company’s agents are busy 95% of the time.

Peaks and valleys

‘It’s not as if your calls come in evenly all day,’ he says. ‘You have huge peaks and valleys, and you have to be able to accommodate that if you are going to maximize your productivity.

‘By having a centre in Moncton and Toronto, and by networking those centres, you get to treat the whole agent population as if it is in one place.’

Pick-ups

The vast majority of the calls, about 85%, are from customers wanting to schedule a package pick-up or obtain general information.

A further 1% to 2% of the calls are from customers who want to trace shipments, and the remainder fall into several categories – claims, billing, international shipments, and so on.

IVR system

Customers calling in are greeted by an interactive voice response (ivr) system that asks them to specify the language in which they would like to be served, and then presents them with a list of options – ‘If you are calling for a package pick-up, press `1′, if you are calling to trace a Purolator package, press`2′ ‘ – and so on.

There are seven options, or queues, in total.

Customers wanting to schedule a pick-up are immediately transferred to an agent, who gains access to customers’ files by keying in their telephone numbers on a computer terminal.

Similarly, customers wanting to send an international shipment are transferred to a specially trained group of agents, ones familiar with the labyrinth of international customs regulations.

So far, a simple process. But it is when customers are calling in to trace a shipment that the sophistication of the system comes into play.

Key in number

Callers are asked to key in the package’s 10-digit waybill number.

The system immediately sends an information request to the company’s mainframe computer, and, within seconds, a computer-generated voice tells the customer when the package was delivered.

It also asks callers whether they would like to know who signed for the delivery, and, if they respond positively, spells out the name of that individual.

Should there be no delivery information available, the call is transferred to a live agent.

Purotrakker

The call centre’s automated tracing feature works in conjunction with Purolator’s Purotrakker system, a scanning device that allows the company to know where the shipment is throughout the delivery process.

According to Levy, each barcode-labelled package is scanned five times – at the point of pick-up, at the terminal, at the hub, at the destination terminal, and, again, on delivery.

At that point, the courier also keys in the name of the person who signed for the package. When the courier returns to the terminal, all information is downloaded into the company’s mainframe computer.

Transfer data

While the current system allows the mainframe to be updated at one or more points throughout the day, Levy’s goal is to one day transfer that data as each delivery occurs.

More than 2,000 of the company’s high volume clients – those who ship more than 15 packages a day – have been supplied with Purolator’s Perfect Shipping System, in effect, a personal computer, scale and printer, that is preprogrammed with the client’s database.

The system allows the customer to automate much of the manual work associated with sending shipments, such as filling in waybills and printing labels.

While these clients do not have to call in for pick-ups – a courier stops by daily – they use the call centre for technical support.

Levy says should something not be working properly, a special group of call centre agents can go into the system while the customer is on the phone and try to solve the problem.

Calls answered quickly

He says Purolator agents answer 92% of incoming calls in 20 seconds or fewer, a figure considerably more efficient than the industry standard of 80% over the same time-frame.

He says although the system is capable of recognizing high volume shippers by their telephone number and assigning them priority in the calling sequence, Purolator has chosen not to exercise that option for a couple of reasons.

‘We don’t give [high volume] customers priority and part of the reason for that is, the more queues you create in your call centre, the more expensive and less productive you become,’ Levy says.

May wait longer

‘The smaller number of people you have in a queue, potentially, the longer a customer can wait for service,’ he says.

‘So, while you think you are solving the problem, in many cases, you are creating a problem.’

‘We have one standard of service, and that is excellent, for all customers. And I don’t mean that sarcastically.’

Levy says the next step in the evolution of the company’s call centres is to integrate all of the company’s various databases – tracing, billing, and so on – so a single agent can answer any enquiry.

‘As you get into this, it is not really a telecommunications issue as much as it becomes a data communications issue,’ he says.

Will handle everything

‘As we develop our platform and our workstations, our goal is to have a single agent who can handle virtually anything a customer may require, whether that is a billing enquiry or some other enquiry. But we are not there yet from a data standpoint.’

While the company’s current set-up is about as sophisticated as technology and its databases will allow, it is only recently that Purolator brought itself up to speed.

Three years ago, the company took calls at 80 local, non-networked phone rooms.

Levy says the decision to consolidate came about largely to improve the quality of customer service.

‘If we had a problem in the system somewhere, a late aircraft, for instance, how do we get information to 80 various locations?’ he asks.

Message boards

‘In our big call centres, we have electronic message boards, so if [Toronto's Lester B.] Pearson [International] Airport is closed, or we won’t be attempting deliveries because of the weather, we can let the agents know, and they can let the customers know. It’s very hard to be consistent when you are trying to manage that many small locations.’

‘And it’s also an expense issue. It becomes very expensive to maintain and do the necessary things in 80 small locations.’

The process of consolidation culminated in October 1992 with the opening of the Moncton call centre, established to take 1-800 calls from across the country.

The centres in Toronto, Vancouver and Montreal can also take these calls, but are mainly used to handle local calls that do not generate a long-distance charge.

Number-crunching

Once the company had set up local centres in Canada’s three largest cities, the choice of where to locate its 1-800 call centre became, in many respects, a question of number-crunching.

Levy says New Brunswick won out over other Canadian locations because its economic development department was willing to participate financially, the wage rates in New Brunswick are lower than in most other provinces, and the provincial government, like those in Alberta and Manitoba, does not charge tax on calls made to 1-800 lines.

‘When you are spending $6 million or $7 million a year, 8% [provincial sales tax] is a lot of money,’ Levy says.

As well, he says New Brunswick’s telephone system is fully digital and fully fibre, meaning the odds of the phone lines going out, even if the cable is cut, are slim. Calls are simply rerouted to another centre.

Flat rate

And, finally, Levy anticipates that 800-service in Canada will one day be billed at a flat rate per minute, just as it is in the u.s., rather than increase over distance.

This will further justify the company’s decision to locate its toll-free call centre outside of major urban centres.

‘Unequivocally’

While Levy declined for competitive reasons to reveal how much the call centres had cost, when asked whether the company had been able to justify the investment, he says, ‘Yes. Unequivocally.

‘We have had a dramatic increase in customer satisfaction over the last two years, vis-a-vis our competitors and vis-a-vis ourselves,’ he says.

One of the reasons Levy is so sure of the improvement is because Purolator has, for many years, carried out a twice-yearly customer satisfaction survey through Toronto-based public opinion and market research firm Goldfarb Consultants.

The survey asks Purolator users and customers of other courier services, how satisfied they are with their courier’s delivery process, the call for pick-up process, the tracing and tracking process and the quality of customer service, among other things.

Levy says, in each of these categories, customers have indicated increased satisfaction, and this has translated into increased business.

Improve service

Although he cannot say categorically that because Purolator has established call centres its business has increased – Levy says the call centres deal mainly with infrequent users of the service, which is a fairly small proportion of Purolator’s total business – they are a significant part of the company’s efforts to improve customer service.

Asked what advice he might offer marketers who wanted to establish their own call centres, Levy says the importance of employee training and information support cannot be overestimated.

‘Invest in people’

‘At the beginning and the end of the day, you have to invest in the people,’ he says. ‘You have to have good leaders and managers, because it is a very monotonous job.

‘Opening a small call centre is as easy as putting in a telephone switch, but making it perform, making sure your people have the information and the data to do the job appropriately and really improve customer service, that’s the difficult part.’