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Vol. 28, No. 6

Bars answer the call for member service

by Kimberly Smith

In a separate room 25 feet or so from a hub of activity, Elizabeth Kramer can monitor her staff. She can know who is out to lunch and who is on the phone, and, while not something she does often, she can even listen in on their calls if she wants to. While it may sound “big-brotherish,” she is just doing her job.

Kramer is the director of member services for the Pennsylvania Bar Association. The monitoring system she uses, developed by Lucent Technologies, allows her to gauge the effectiveness of the bar’s Member Services Center (MSC), a one-stop shop designed to answer the inquiries of the bar’s members, as well as those from the public. “Our intent in creating the center is to have 90 percent of member inquiries answered by their first contact,” Kramer says.

Like the Pennsylvania bar, the bars of Connecticut, Ohio, and Los Angeles County, among others, have established call centers with common goals: to provide an immediate response to a member’s needs and to reduce the number of interruptions to critical bar staff for simple requests and frequently asked questions.

Initiated in 1997, the Pennsylvania bar’s MSC is a product of a reorganization of the bar’s structure. “It was the brainchild of our president, who was looking at our association as a whole, how to streamline it and how to better assist our members,” Kramer says.

Four full-time representatives answer two different phone lines. Two people, the bar’s receptionist and a staff member who transferred to the MSC from the meetings department, answer both the MSC phones and the bar’s lawyer referral service phones. Combined, the MSC reps have 28 years’ experience at the bar association.

The Ohio State Bar Association, whose call center has been up and running for four years now, uses the Televantage system from a company called Artisoft. The bar used to have a Lucent system, notes Colleen Buggy, director of membership services, but has found that the Televantage system, which has a computer interface, offers “a lot more flexibility.”

And it’s not just the software that’s flexible, Buggy says. The four call center reps rotate to cover the front desk as needed to accommodate the front-desk receptionist’s breaks, lunch, vacation, etc. The new phone system also lets the reps monitor the front desk calls from their own desks, Buggy adds. If there is a buildup of calls in the front desk queue, a rep can help by answering the front desk phone from his or her cubicle.

The call center as marketing tool

Software used by call centers generally allows staff to gather a variety of statistics, including the number of calls received for any given time period, average hold times, and the number of hang-ups of those callers put on hold, and also allows call center employees to “see” whom they’re talking to.

The Los Angeles County Bar Association, for example, has developed its own software that, once the employee types in the caller’s name, shows the caller’s full history, including current member status, events attended, committee or section memberships, and use of bar products. “From this information, the agent can provide better service, and many times, save the member or nonmember time and money,” says Michael T. Elliott, the Los Angeles bar’s director of member services, marketing, and sales.

The LACBA call center agents are geared not only to respond to inquiries, but to market the association and its products. In a typical month, when agents aren’t responding to more than 3,000 or so calls, they are placing them. The agents, six of them, are commissioned, and have quotas to meet. They sell an extensive product line, from LACBA memberships to CLE Plus Cards, which are passes for unlimited attendance at the bar’s CLE programs.

The agents also help maintain the accuracy of the bar’s databases. For example, if an envelope is returned to the LACBA as undeliverable, an agent will call that member to get an address update—providing not only an update to the member database, but an opportunity for that agent to meet his or her quota. In addition, the bar has 100,000 e-mail addresses—including 92 percent of all its members, plus nonmembers from around the state—which provides another area of opportunity.

Other bar associations are thinking along similar lines. “We think any time we have an opportunity to market the association to nonmembers, we should take advantage of it,” Buggy says. Right now, callers are prompted to enter their Ohio Supreme Court number, which then appears on the member service center rep’s computer monitor. The rep then enters that number in the membership database and pulls up the caller’s record. When nonmembers call to register for CLE or purchase a product, they are reminded that if they join the OSBA they can save considerably on whatever it is they are inquiring about.

The next step, Buggy says, is to add prompts that will alert the call center rep about related products or programs they can cross-sell to the caller. “For example,” she explains, “if someone calls and orders some of our pamphlets, a prompt would appear reminding the rep to mention that we sell a pamphlet rack.

“Or, if someone registers for a workers’ compensation seminar, a prompt would appear with other upcoming WC seminars.” That cross-selling mechanism is in the works, Buggy notes.
At the Connecticut bar, the call center has a marketing-friendly location: a reception area that displays the bar’s many publications, pamphlets, and CLE tapes available for purchase.

Let’s talk training

Many, like Kramer, feel fortunate to have their centers staffed mostly by long-time bar personnel who have in-depth knowledge of the association. Because of the complexity of the association and the inquiries received, Kramer thinks the call center would be too complex to consider outsourcing it. But because turnover is natural in any work environment, “it is extremely important to have regular training updates for our representatives,” Kramer notes.

When a new call center representative arrives, she says, one of the existing reps sits with him or her for the first week, wearing dual earphones to assist with calls and listen to how the new rep answers member questions.

Elliott uses similar training tactics. “Training is hard,” he says, adding that his staff is made up of “probably the most trained individuals at the association”—a necessity, he notes, because the LACBA call center employees are the first contact not just for members, but for the public and lawyer nonmembers, too.

Though he has six full-time agents, he cross-trains his staff in other departments to assist the center during high-volume times. “There are resources available to draw on for marketing support, from tape fulfillment to research,” he says.

At the Ohio bar, Buggy provides stand-up flip folders containing information that reps—particularly newer employees—can quickly look up. “Sixty people exchanging information can be a challenge,” she says, stressing the importance of having a good manager over the department. The bar’s member services manager, Colin Evans, serves as the liaison between the center and the rest of the bar’s departments and constantly updates the call center’s employees.

Kramer echoes the importance of proper dissemination of information. “First, have the right people staff it, who initially have a good understanding of the bar,” she advises. “And then make sure the departments keep member service people aware of meetings, events, CLE, etc.” She expresses the potential embarrassment a representative could face if queried about an event that he or she was unaware of.

Janis C. Jerman, director of administration and finance for the Connecticut Bar Association, emphasizes the importance of putting your best face forward when it comes to customer service by phone. When the Connecticut bar did its initial staff training a few years ago, it brought in people to teach telephone etiquette. “They even did mock scenarios,” she says.

What do members think?

Kramer says some members of the PBA, primarily older members, were at first opposed to hearing an automated message and being put on hold, which is how calls to a call center often begin. But aside from that, the bar has had very positive feedback and is pleased to have the system in place.

Many bars with call centers report that members love the service once they realize that once they do reach a live voice, it’s highly likely that that person—the rep—will be able to handle their call efficiently. “Our primary phone person has been doing this for more than 15 years and recognizes many members’ voices and remembers them,” Jerman says. “[Members] feel like they are truly getting personal service and they don’t get transferred around to different people and departments to get what they need.”

It’s not as if adding a call center necessarily means firing the receptionist. At the Ohio bar, for example, members who prefer to speak with the receptionist (who mostly handles calls from the public) still have two ways to do that—an (800) number and a local number both go to the front desk. But Buggy says most members are now perfectly happy to call one of the call center numbers—again, (800) and local—and wait in the queue until a rep is available.

“We have found this call center operation to be an invaluable service to our members,” Buggy says, noting that it’s also a well-publicized service. “We have marketed the call center numbers heavily to our members, and that is the number we use on the majority of our marketing pieces.” And that effort has paid off: On average, the call center handles 600 calls per week, she says, and the first quarter of 2004 saw an increase of 1,500 calls over the same time period in 2003. BL

Another option

Call centers aren’t for everyone, and aren’t the only way to provide great member service on the first call. Some, such as the Missouri Bar, find that all they really need is a direct inward dial (DID) number where each staff member can be reached. The Missouri bar considered adding a call center but concluded that its call volume may not be large enough to warrant it.

Instead, says Member Services Director Linda Oligschlaeger, “DID numbers for all departments and employees are listed on our letterhead, business cards, and Web site to encourage usage.”

Oligschlaeger says this has worked reasonably well. In addition to the DID numbers, the bar has two receptionists answering the incoming calls on the main number, “which should be more than sufficient given our size,” she says of 45 employees serving the needs of 26,000-plus members.