We have all experienced frustration and anger after placing a phone call to a company and receiving poor customer service. Maybe you’ve had to spend an excessive amount of time navigating through a company’s auto-prompts and self-help features before finally reaching a live person. And then you find out that he or she can’t handle your situation, so your call is forwarded through the system to someone else. And on and on it goes. At that point, any of us has the potential to become “The Killer Caller.”
Companies are building an increasing number of call centers to manage their customer relationships. In Charlotte alone, the top 30 call centers employ over 12,000 customer service agents. But even though call centers are an important part of the strategy for providing service to customers, many companies are missing a key element needed for achieving customer satisfaction. Research shows that companies spend most of their training time teaching their Customer Service Representatives (CSRs) to understand their products, policies, procedures, and technology systems. However, on average they spend less than 20 percent of their time and budget training CSRs on customer interaction skills.
Ulysses Learning of Mooresville, is carving out a special niche in the growing field of Web-based training, also known as e-learning, by developing training products that improve an individual’s judgment and skills.
For CSRs, this means improving their call handling and customer interaction skills. CallMentor,TM Ulysses’ award winning training product, is arming CSRs around the globe with the skills needed to avoid “The Killer Caller,” a term coined by Ulysses’ creative agency, Indievision, as a way to describe the result of poor customer service.
Mark W. Brodsky, president and CEO of Ulysses Learning, puts quality customer service at the heart of his company’s business.
“It is vital in today’s information-based economy, to provide CSRs with the judgment and skills to effectively take control of calls, helping them to quickly identify and solve customer problems,” he says. “The goal is to balance both quality and productivity during the call.”
Until recently, corporate training was mainly an instructor-led classroom style event. Statistics show, though, that trainees will only retain 20 percent of the information they learn in this manner, and will lose much of that within one week. Companies are finding that in some environments, e-learning is more effective than traditional training. Call centers are a perfect example. As call center reps are asked to keep up with more and more product information, introduced in increasingly rapid time frames, it becomes difficult to keep up with all of the latest information needed to do an effective job.
“Coordinating customer relationship training for 3,000 people in our organization demands a consistent and uniform approach, while providing individualized learning pathways,” says Nancee Cates, a customer relationship management learning consultant for AT&T. “Ulysses’ CallMentor is helping us achieve that goal.”
What makes CallMentor unique are the computer-based simulations designed around scientific behavioral models. The CSR/learner is presented with a variety of realistic simulated calls from computerized customers with different emotions, problems and dilemmas. The CSR addresses the customer by speaking into a computer microphone, where the entire call is recorded. The simulated customer then responds to the learner. As the learner attempts to help the customer, the customer may become angry or upset, just as in a real call. If the learner fails to provide the best response in handling the customer, the learner is “interrupted” by a computerized coach who explains what the learner did wrong, offers advice on how to get the call back on track, and then returns the learner to the simulation to continue. The learners’ scores are captured so a supervisor can measure their progression and coach them on improvements. “I wish I had Ulysses’ CallMentor program when I was director of training for CIGNA,” says Anne Nickerson, founder of Call Center Coach,TM one of the industry’s leading call center consultants. Nickerson, one of many experts consulted during development of the product, believes that “there is no other application that brings together the flexibility, ease of implementation, depth of content and measurable return on investment.”
The Birth of an Idea
An international private investment trust, led by an investor with a passion for education, training and technology founded Ulysses Training, later renamed, Ulysses Learning. In the mid 1990s the investor was searching the world for an expert in learning design and technology. He found Dr. Roger Schank, of Northwestern University’s Institute for Learning Sciences, one of the world’s recognized authorities on artificial intelligence and cognitive science.
Dr. Schank had been doing customized computer-based training projects for some of the world’s leading companies. The Trust then funded his development of one of the first commercially available simulation-based training products for call centers called 1-800-FOR SERVICE. The project was in development for over a year before being launched. In looking for a sales channel for distributing the new training program, the investor decided to form a new company dedicated to bringing this program and future developments to market. The investor engaged an executive recruiter in a nationwide search for an executive in the training industry who would help form and lead this effort.
This search lead to Mark Brodsky of The Forum Corporation, a Boston-based international training and consulting firm. With over 22 years in the business, Brodsky had moved to the Lake Norman area in 1991 to help Forum develop their southeastern region. When first contacted by the recruiter, Brodsky was intrigued that an investment firm out of Athens, Greece, which had made its fortune in international shipping, wanted to hire him to start a computer-based training firm. After months of phone calls and a fair amount of research, Brodsky became convinced that the venture offered an opportunity to revolutionize the way industry trains employees to gain peak performance.
With his decision to leave Forum, Ulysses Learning was born in 1997.
“The name Ulysses obviously represents the heritage of our Greek investor, but the mythical Ulysses was a problem solver, so the investor determined it was a fitting name given the unique mission of our business,” says Brodsky.
The investor wanted Brodsky to start the business in a port city, given the Trust’s background in international shipping. But the Brooklyn-born Brodsky, who had come to love lakefront living and North Carolina, had no inclination to move. Brodsky had become ensconced in community activities in Mooresville, especially with the Lake Norman YMCA, where he has served on the Executive Board and Board of Managers for the past seven years. “Mark is an incredible individual,” notes Georgia Harris, executive director of the Lake Norman Y. “Just last month he was awarded the George Williams Award, which nationally is the highest designation bestowed by the YMCA for volunteer leadership.”
Once on board with Ulysses, Brodsky and his assistant, Shari Thompson, who is now the director of client services, began setting up the business. “We have a tremendous advantage over other firms in the e-learning space who are backed by venture capitalists,” says Brodsky. “The first time I met with our investor, I asked about his commitment to this business. He said he was committed to it for ‘100 years.’ That doesn’t mean he wants to wait 100 years to be profitable, but it does signify the Trust’s willingness to invest toward long-term success.”
The Death of a Product
“I was hired with the idea of bringing 1-800-FOR SERVICE to market. Like any good marketer, the first thing I did was start asking questions about the product, its design and its marketability,” says Brodsky. He determined that while the product was attracting attention for its unique multimedia design, technology had changed since the early stages of development. “It was a classic case of wonderful R&D, and not enough market focus to ensure that the product remained commercially viable,” he says. Brodsky decided that before he could market the product, he needed to do some user acceptance testing.
As with many newly formed companies, cash flow was tight. “We once fell behind on our corporate American Express (AMEX) account and I placed a call to their customer service department, where I was extremely impressed with the CSR who handled my call,” said Brodsky. “I inquired about her training and asked to speak to her manager. After speaking to the manager and finding out that the operation was in Greensboro, I was invited to visit and show them my training program.” That opened the door for American Express to become one of Ulysses’ first clients, and they began testing the product.
At that point the Trust had invested roughly $1.5 million in the development of 1-800-FOR SERVICE. But after a year in development, and more than a year of testing the product with clients such as AMEX, Brodsky determined that the product was not as commercially viable as it could be. He understood the power of the simulation-based learning that the system pioneered, but he also knew that for the product to be accepted it needed to be built in a more flexible and dynamic fashion. He made the difficult decision to start from scratch and develop a new learning system, this time using the emerging technology of Web-based learning.
A New Beginning
Using a multi-disciplined, cross-functional team of experts from across the country Brodsky set out to develop a new product that would incorporate the effective learning methodologies of the old product, with new functions made possible through Web-enabled technology. “My challenge to our development team was to create a product that the market would crave, not just want,” he says. To build the leading product of its kind, Brodsky assembled leading experts in performance analysis and measurement, call center operations, technology, e-learning design, as well as client-partners from different industry segments.
In August of 2000, he introduced the CallMentor Suite. CallMentor provides three multimedia-training programs for CSRs and their coaches, supervisors and managers. The system can be accessed from a company’s intranet, over the Internet from Ulysses’ portal, The Ulysses Learning ChannelTM or on CD-ROM. The ServiceMentorTM program develops CSR call-handling skills through simulation-based calls with customers. The CoachingMentorTM program trains supervisors and managers how to coach agents, and SalesMentor,TM available by year’s end, develops CSR cross-selling and up-selling skills.
Julie Cochran, Ulysses’ director of marketing, observes that “while most companies, especially technology companies, say they listen to the market when they develop new products, my experience has been that few really do.” It was Ulysses’ market-driven approach, and obsession with quality and results measurement, that convinced Cochran to join the company earlier this year. “A quality product with proven results is a marketer’s dream come true,” says Cochran.
And the number of industry awards the product has garnered is pure satisfaction to Brodsky. The two leading publications for the call center industry, CallCenter Magazine and Customer Inter@ction Solutions magazine, have both selected CallMentor as “Product of the Year” in their most recent awards. “Few investors would have allowed an expensive new product to be scrapped, and then had the confidence to fund a completely new product from scratch,” muses Brodsky. “The support Ulysses has received is phenomenal.”
Partnering with world-class clients to develop CallMentor across different vertical spaces, Ulysses has launched products in financial services, insurance, telecommunications, technology and transportation/shipping. Its client-partners have included Fidelity Investments of Boston; Independence Blue Cross, a leading insurer headquartered in Philadelphia; Clarica, one of Canada’s leading healthcare insurance institutions; AT&T’s small business services division; Georgia-Pacific; and Central Piedmont Community College, one of the largest community colleges in the nation.
“Ulysses is interested in working with cutting edge companies, willing to challenge traditional methods of training, in order to define a new paradigm that improves judgment, skills and results,” says Tom LaBonte, Ulysses’ director of consulting, and author of the book Building A New Performance Vision.
Since the product’s release to rave reviews, Brodsky has concentrated his efforts on transforming the company from a development company to a customer-driven marketing organization. Within the past year Bob Meyerhoff, aseasoned veteran of the performance consulting industry, has joined as director of operations. “Our corporate mission is to help our clients create a culture of service excellence that provides them a competitive advantage,” says Meyerhoff.
Brodsky has taken extraordinary means to build a team dedicated to world-class service. Says Bob O’Connell, Ulysses manager of inside sales, “I was a telemarketing agent that happened to make a sales call to Mark’s home one Saturday morning. He evidently liked what he heard, because he stopped me halfway through my pitch and said, ‘I don’t want to buy your product, but I am interested in hiring you to work for my company.’ ”
Ulysses does have competitors, but none that approach the business in the same way. That is why Pam Gibson, interim associate dean of information technology at Central Piedmont Community College, recently selected Ulysses’ CallMentor over a competitive offering. “After detailed analysis, it was determined that Ulysses system was both richer, and more quickly deployable, as we prepare to launch a program this summer to train call center representatives for Charlotte area businesses.”
“We will not release any product before its time,” says Brodsky, who predicts achieving profitability in the fourth quarter. “We project our sales and financial growth to explode by the end of 2002.”
As Ulysses achieves its goals, The Killer Caller, like the 1950s horror movies it mimics, may cease to exist.