Behind the Curtain: A Look Inside an MSN Call Center

By "Rick"

At the time of this writing I have been working as a customer service rep for ten months. Believe it or not that makes me an old man in terms of customer service. The average for the industry is four months. During these months I have worked in technical support, customer service, and billing. I have also been a supervisor on calls. In the course of this time I have seen a lot of mistakes and misunderstandings that have led to disasters and frustrations on both ends of the phone. The purpose of this is to help you, the customer, get the best help from your internet service provider (ISP for short) with the least amount of frustration.

The facts that will be outlined here may be difficult and frustrating to some readers. I do not attempt to make excuses for the industry or criticize it, just explain how it works in terms of customer service. The internet, and e-business in general, are growing at fantastic lengths and customer service call centers are going through the growing pains trying to keep up with that growth. More and more of these centers are competing for the business that the internet provides.

The ISP that I represent is MSN internet access. Much of what follows is standard throughout the industry. My experience with the different support areas of MSN hopefully will help you to get a broader understanding about how customer support works.

I don't know how my employer or MSN will respond to this but I feel it's important to the consumer to know what goes on behind the scenes. It's a different world than what the average consumer is conditioned for. It's not like Wal-Mart where you can talk to the manager and get what you want.

I feel that the most important thing to remember when you call for MSN customer support is that the representative on the other end does NOT work for MSN. Call centers are private companies who contract their services out to the internet service providers and other companies that provide customer service. When you call MSN none of their customer service call centers, tech support, or specialty numbers dealing with their internet access is manned by an MSN employee. The call center hires the worker, provides the benefits (if there are any) while the MSN provides the training for the product they are going to support. The training that the representatives get is narrowly focused within the support boundaries of that department. I'll go into support boundaries later.

The Air Boss

Picture a large open building -- roughly 20,000 square feet. From end to end of this building are rows of two-foot by four-foot cubicles numbering in the hundreds. Most of these cubes are filled with agents talking on the phones. Sitting high above these cubes is an "Air Boss" who monitors each agent and directs the flow of calls. Every second the agents are on the phones ie counted and the seconds they are off the phones are counted against them.

The representative who takes your call is under strict guidelines. They have to maintain a specific call time. For MSN the average time a CSR (customer service representative) is supposed to maintain for each call is 4.5 to 5.5 minutes. Technical support is 9 to 10 minutes. That means out of the 40 to 100 calls each agent handles every day that is the average they have to meet. There are other time requirements that each call center demands from each CSR on top of that. Some call centers (like the one where I work) have internal call monitoring to ensure quality of the call. Other call centers do not and leave the monitoring up to the ISP. It's a game of numbers and most, if not all, of the pay raises, promotions, layoffs and special assignments given to the CSR's are based on those numbers. This is how the call center makes its money. The more calls taken at the quickest time makes more money. Simple. CSR's are paid very little (roughly $6 to $8 dollars an hour) and the stress level is so high the average turnaround is about four months.

In all fairness there is a strong focus on customer service. MSN wants to satisfy its customers and so do the call centers. Nearly every CSR sincerely does want to help the customer. In the end though, it's the game of numbers that wins the day. It is possible to to maintain good customer service and still get volume and call times required. However this is accomplished by requiring 95 to 100 percent productivity from each CSR every minute they are on the job every day of the week. Hence the stress and burnout. Call centers have been called high-tech sweat shops and for good reason.

By the way, MSN makes use of different call centers for the same support. MSN has three or four different call centers that provide customer service, technical support, and billing. This creates intense competition between the individual call centers to have better call times and service levels so that they can receive more call volume from MSN than their competition.

What Happens When You Call

Now that we have an understanding of call centers, let's take a look at what happens when you call the MSN customer service number. Usually a call to customer service is related to information, billing issues, payment changes, password resets and referral information. This is what MSN's support boundries are and the customer service agents are trained only in these areas. When you call MSN support the phone system is routed through a major switching station and calls are distributed around the country. If you get the Maine call center, that's Envisionet. The Oregon Call center is owned by Cyberrep and the Kentucky call center is Sykes. There are also other call centers depending on which number you call.

Technical support agents are given a two-week training course on MSN internet access software and basic operating system functions that support that software. It's important to remember they are NOT computer technicians, they are internet access software technicians. Their support boundries basically consist of connection to MSN internet access and email issues. That also includes connection settings within the Windows operating system and email settings in the Microsoft email programs such as Outlook and Outlook Express. Some of these are actual technicians but are not allowed to go beyond their boundaries. Most, however, are not.

There is a great deal of overlap. Many customers get frustrated because they are constantly being referred to other phone numbers and getting bounced around. This is for a couple of reasons. The support boundaries are often so narrow that when an issue arises that isn't part of the MSN software, the agent has to refer the customer to a number that has agents trained for that issue. For example, the customer can't connect. She gets an error saying that no dial tone is detected. After determining that the correct modem is installed and set up with the MSN dialer and that the phone line is plugged into the computer correctly, the only other issue has to be the modem or the phone line itself. Modems are not covered within MSN support boundaries because they support, but are not part of, the MSN software. So the agent refers the customer to her computer manufacturer.

Another reason for getting referred to another number is a little more frustrating for the customer -- call times. When on a call, an agent has to listen to the customer, enter information in at least two different databases and keep an eye on the time all at once. If their call times are getting high and service level is dropping, there will be enormous pressure on the agent by the call center management and supervisors to correct that. When in doubt, refer. This is a statement I've heard often. A call center would rather have a customer with a difficult issue call back four times with each call lasting five minutes than one time at twenty minutes. The times, service level and call volume looks better to MSN, more money is made and it doesn't affect the overall customer satisfaction scores since the customers who have difficult issues are upset to begin with. There are a lot of inhouse tricks to end a call when the call times start rising. The problem is that the average customer doesn't know what is true and what is not.

"Get Me a Supervisor!"

When you ask for a supervisor to handle your call I will tell you that you most likely will never speak to an actual supervisor. Agents who have maintained good call times and quality assurance scores and have a knowledge of MSN policy are usually given the task of taking supervisor calls. This is because there is NO ONE at these call centers who has any authority to make exceptions to MSN policy. So if you are angry because there is a penalty fee for early cancellation of a contract plan and you don't want to pay it, there is a procedure to follow to contest it. Asking for a supervisor will do no good because the agents cannot, and are not allowed, to make exceptions. The actual supervisors at call centers spend most of their time doing paperwork keeping track of the thousands of calls per day and crunching numbers.

Many times I have given a call over to an agent who acts as supervisor and while I'm waiting I'll take a supervisor call from another agent.

Call centers are buffers between the customer and actual MSN employees and management. There are over six million customers signed up with MSN and just at my call center alone we receive tens of thousands of calls per month for customer service and technical support. MSN spends their time going through numbers and percentages to affect its service on a mass scale and seldom deals with individual customer issues. There are exceptions to that of course but as a general rule the support numbers are the only place to go.

Individual agents do not have phone numbers and addresses to MSN executives or managers. There is only one switchboard operator number that some of us have access to but we've been instructed not to give it out to the public as no one there can help with individual issues.

There is so much more that can be said but basically MSN is not alone in this game. There is nothing illegal about pretending to work for a company we don't actually work for and skirting issues that leave false or misleading assumptions on the customer's part. It's part of the mass marketing game most major companies engage in. For example a manufacturer downsizes a product but not the price to make more money, then a few months later increases the product size and announces 20% MORE FREE!!! Individually we can see right through that but the technique works.

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