By Biff Matthews
As ISOs and merchant level salespeople, you work hard to acquire business; however, help desk performance determines whether you retain it. In essence, your help desk is you. Period.
A well-known business maxim says you can only expect what you inspect. Yet many people practice far too little due diligence in choosing and retaining a help desk.
A help desk's work starts with an incoming call answered by a person or an automated call distributor (ACD). It is essential that you call your help desk periodically. It's equally important that you have someone who is unfamiliar with the workings of the payments industry do the same.
The purpose of this exercise is to ensure that all callers have a satisfactory experience. You, as the industry insider, can pose difficult issues and expertly evaluate responses. But your desire for the process to work properly makes you less than objective.
A coached teenager, for example, can be an excellent mimic for a major segment of the merchant population: young and often technically savvy (at least in his or her own mind) but often not clear on terms, troubleshooting, processes or policies.
So, call your help desk a minimum of twice a year, and fine-tune as needed. If there's an ACD, make sure the "3 x 3" rule is followed: three choices, each with three options, and always a way to "zero-out" by hitting zero to reach an operator. Customers do not want to be manipulated. Don't deny them an operator when they seek one.
If the help desk you use (or are considering) forces callers into a system in which they cannot reach an operator, dump them. They have no clue what customer service means. (If you encounter this mistreatment elsewhere, visit www.gethuman.com. This Web site provides instructions for short-circuiting the irritating closed-loop menus of hundreds of companies.)
Evaluate help desk responses during your check-up calls. Answers must be understandable, and instructions must be easy for a lay person to execute with speed and accuracy.
Does each help desk rep have a pleasant voice, speak English fluently and use correct grammar? Do reps use appropriate terminology and avoid industry jargon?
Listen for tone of voice (enthusiastic, not giddy). Notice exactly what reps say _ and how they say it. The best customer service agents have a voice of gentle authority that allows them to manage conversations, bringing calls to satisfying resolutions.
They also speak from a nonconfrontational, flexible position. They say "Here's what I'm hearing" and offer "Here's what I can do" rather than rasp "You need to."
It's wise to round out your research by surveying customers about their help desk experience. Not only will this yield important insights, but it will also demonstrate the exceptional level of your quality control.
As a provider of help desk services, I evaluated the overall effectiveness of several ACDs. I found that types of help desk calls run the gamut: terminal calls versus order calls versus simple inquiries.
To be most effective, a help desk must route calls very carefully. This is difficult to do with an ACD.
In addition to call routing, evaluation of talk time _ a common matrix _ must take into account that order calls ("I need a roll of paper and my account balance") can often be completed in a minute or two.
However, a technical issue ("Help! My printer's down.") can require half an hour to resolve.
You can't combine these differing types of calls for analysis, and there's no relevant industry standard to help: The banking industry does not provide technical assistance with hardware and software issues.
So, if you want to evaluate your help desk performance on technical issues, you need to look elsewhere for an applicable standard.
Troubleshooters for computer systems, copiers or other products with technical content are good choices.
Consider, too, whether you have empowered your help desk with sufficient authority to be effective. This involves relinquishing control.
At what point does the help desk's authority end? Is your help desk allowed to spend $15 to resolve a major issue? $100?
Also, whom does the help desk contact when a call moves outside the parameters you've established? An example of this is a merchant demanding a free terminal when the policy calls for a swap-out.
Exactly who is authorized to do what should be stated in writing, leaving nothing vague. It can be fluid, and the rules can change.
But the core responsibilities must be clearly spelled out. For most companies, the document setting forth outsourced help desk guidelines is called a service level agreement.
In addition to levels of authority, the agreement typically covers "time to answer" and other operational issues which, frankly, are not based on anything other than what will fly. The point here is that customer expectations, rather than industry standards, are what matter.
At CardWare International, we survey 20% of our help desk inquiries. For each call studied, we ask if the phone was answered in a timely manner and if the problem was resolved satisfactorily.
We understand that customers _ not our expectations, and certainly not some standard _ are what matter.
Another help desk evaluation matrix is tenure. Is the help desk position merely a steppingstone at your provider? If it is, turnover will be constant and levels of expertise will be lower than you'd like.
Also, information, particularly complex information, may not be immediately on-hand at the help desk. What's important is that it be quickly accessible, as well as accurate from call to call and rep to rep.
OK, so your help desk is on-track: well-trained, motivated and knowledgeable. Regular reporting will keep it that way. Whether your preference is weekly, monthly or daily, secure an itemization by client - merchant by merchant.
If one merchant calls three times in one month, you'll want to know why.
You'll also want a database you can query. It should be able to produce a list of customers and dates they called, as well as the time each call was taken, the reason for the call and the time it ended.
It should flag all calls longer than 15 minutes and provide a record of who took each call.
All of this can be achieved with simple coding. The nomenclature must be consistent, so you can look at all the printer issues together, for example, and also drill down for a particular printer model, if needed.
Finally, you'll want to know how each call was resolved: programming of the terminal, replacement of equipment, a call to the processor and so forth.
A good report identifies trends quickly. For instance, a new problem with a specific terminal may indicate a looming hardware issue.
That information will enable you to both resolve the immediate issue and plan for future equipment purchases - and recommendations.
Calls from new merchants within a few days of their start-up could mean you have a training issue. This is important because good training reduces help desk costs.
If there's little or no investment in merchant training, the help desk will be more critical and more involved _ all the time.
Remember, you can't manage what you don't know, so regularly measure performance to get maximum value from your help desk. Even if everything is great, your help desk will know you are listening and that you care.
Help desks are like nursing homes: Without monitoring, quality declines over time. With a little attention, service stays where everyone wants and needs it to be.
Biff Matthews is President of Thirteen Inc., the parent company of CardWare International, based in Heath, Ohio. He is one of 12 founding members of the Electronic Transactions Association, serving on its board, advisory board and committees. Call him at 740-522-2150 or e-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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