CSRs: Your First Responders

Features - Cover Story

Customer service representatives are most often a pest management company’s first point of contact and set the tone for the customer experience. How is this role adapting to changing client needs and evolving technology?

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July 9, 2021

© Christine Balderas 2020 iStock

The role of customer service representative, or CSR, is one of the most important in pest management. Accountable for not only making a great first impression but also building and maintaining strong long-term relationships with customers, your CSRs project your company’s personality, commitment and professionalism every time they answer a call, engage in a chat or send a text or an email.

“This is a fully loaded position with multiple facets, ranging from communicating with customers through a variety of channels to coordinating with technicians,” says Travis Aggson, vice president and A.C.E. at American Pest Management in Manhattan, Kan. “Our CSRs are the first contact for about 80 percent of prospective customers who reach out to our company. They hold a critically important role.”

It’s a role that continues to evolve. As technology advances and their companies adopt new processes, CSRs must continually learn about new software, systems and protocols. This was true even before COVID-19. But once the pandemic struck and business continuity depended on making dramatic changes to the way things were being done, CSRs’ adaptability was truly put to the test.

“When everything hit, our folks were genuinely concerned with how we were going to continue taking great care of our customers,” shares Chuck Williams, director of Contact Center Operations at Kennewick, Wash.- Williams based Senske Services. “When we asked them to do out-of-the-ordinary things like work from home or modify their shifts, they were enthusiastic and collaborative, because they knew their efforts would directly impact the customer experience.”

In fact, pest management companies across the country had the opportunity to see the strength and stability of their customer service teams through their pandemic response. The widespread success of these teams has led to what may well become permanent changes to how customer service is done. Before we examine that, let’s look at some of the basics of identifying, engaging and developing great CSRs.

QUALITIES AND CAPABILITIES

Williams says that his team’s positive attitude about adapting in the face of COVID-19 is attributable to two things:

(1) Senske makes sure the people they hire have solid values that align with the company’s core values and culture, and (2) the leadership team treats employees the way they want the employees to treat customers — with empathy, understanding and a commitment to going the extra mile for them.

It’s all about having a “servant’s heart,” says Bobby Jenkins, president of Austin, Texas-based ABC Home & Commercial Services. He looks for CSRs who genuinely care about customers and prioritize their satisfaction. “Whether a person is on the phone or in the field, they need to have heart, a positive attitude and the ability to communicate effectively,” he says. “We rely on our CSRs to be articulate — able to explain what we we’re doing and why — and to answer questions to customers’ satisfaction.”

These conversations may happen by phone, but they are increasingly taking place through text, email and chat sessions. ABC has created a CSR chat team separate from the phone team to communicate with customers who choose these options. “The skillset of this group is a little different: They don’t need to be concerned about voice inflection, but Jenkins they have to be able to use excellent grammar and text quickly. Some people do better at one over the other, so we match their skill-set with the format they’re using,” Jenkins says. Critical to having meaningful conversations with customers, regardless of format, is possessing enough knowledge about pests and their control to ask the right questions and recommend appropriate solutions. Billy Blasingame says that a high level of pest control knowledge helps make his daughter-in-law, CarrieAnn Blasingame, exceptionally successful as a CSR. And as the only full-time CSR at Blasingame Pest Management in Locust Grove, Ga., she has a lot on her shoulders.

“CarrieAnn is personable, engaging and tech-savvy — all of which make her a strong CSR. But her industry knowledge is what really sets her apart,” says Billy. “When my son, Dylan, broke his ankle, she volunteered to help him out on his route. That experience, along with other hands-on learning opportunities, serves her well as she handles customer issues and makes decisions on our behalf. You need to be able to empower your people on the phone; you do that by ensuring they know as much as your technicians in the field.”

Aggson agrees that pest management knowledge is important to CSR success; in fact, he says that more than half of American Pest Management’s office team members are certified applicators. CSRs tend to become interested as they go on the ride-alongs that are part of CSR training for many companies and then seek more and more information as conversations with customers fuel their curiosity.

“Our new CSRs first learn about the company, the phone system and the soft-ware; then we turn to the target pests we treat,” says Scott Steckel, strategic development manager at Plunkett’s Pest Control in Fridley, Minn. “We operate in 21 central states covering roughly three different pest pressure regions, so our CSRs need to understand the various pests we work with in each area. As Plunkett’s primary direct sales representatives, they also need to be familiar with our general service models so they can recommend an appropriate solution for each customer. Over time, they acquire much more pest-specific knowledge as they have access to the same educational resources our technicians do.”

COVID-19 CHANGES

When pandemic shutdowns began in March 2020, business leaders were pressed to take immediate action. Keeping operations moving meant getting customer service people set up with the right technology at home. With no sense of how long shutdowns or restrictions might last or how employees might personally react to this dramatic change, company leaders held their collective breath to see how this new arrangement might affect performance and morale. Many were delighted to discover that CSRs who were working from home not only met but often exceeded their in-office performance levels.

“I had been concerned that being away from one another might have negative effects, but I found the opposite to be true,” says Aggson. “Communication across our team continued to be strong, thanks to videoconferencing capabilities and the interoffice communication system we already had in place. And people were so happy with the benefits of working from home, from eliminating the commute to being there for their kids, that they really committed to making their remote work arrangements successful.”

This sentiment has been echoed by many pest control operators, who had to make operational pivots themselves but managed to keep the transition fairly smooth for their CSR teams. Lean-ing on technology for not only communication but also performance measurement was key. “Prior to the Blasingame pandemic, we had moved to a new voice over IP system, which was a godsend for us, because it enabled us to keep everyone safe while continuing to do their jobs from home,” says Jenkins.

Because the system includes data col-lection and performance-monitoring capabilities, ABC was able to track metrics such as speed of answer and time spent on each call, as well as monitor conversations to evaluate everything from content to empathy and tone of voice. “These tools help us help our CSRs become better at what they do. When we can coach people to improve their performance, they create a better customer experience.”

 

POSTPANDEMIC MODEL

Going for ward, Aggson, Blasingame, Jenkins, Steckel and Williams all support a work model in which CSRs have some choice in where they work. Like corporations in many industries across the country, pest management companies have seen the advantages of a work-from-home or hybrid model.

“We want to enable the team to work wherever they feel they can do their best,” says Steckel. “What we’re seeing right now is that most of our team members are looking forward to being together again in the office setting as soon as possible, but for those who prefer working from home, we can offer flexible arrangements as long as quality and reliability aren’t adversely impacted.”

Aggson says that his employees will have one assigned day to be in the office but can choose where they’d like to work the rest of the week. Jenkins plans to have people come into the office two assigned days a week with the option to work from home the other three. And Blasingame says he can’t imagine why members of a small to mid-size pest management staff would ever need to come in every day. His CSR had worked from home for a year-and-a-half prior to COVID-19 with tremendous results.

“This experience has taught us so much,” Williams adds. “Our agents proved beyond a doubt that they are steadfastly committed to our customers, that their performance is not reliant on my standing over their shoulder and that we can trust them even more than we have in the past. So as long as people feel fulfilled and we’re able to connect with them in meaningful ways, we want them to work where they are most comfortable.”

The author is a frequent contributor to PCT.