Hold, please: Is the call center industry good for the Treasure Valley?

zkyle@idahostatesman.comAugust 20, 2013 

This is the headset kingdom, the place where DirecTV's 20 million U.S. customers call when they want to change or cancel their satellite TV packages.

About 1,200 employees work in the glass-fronted, 155,000-square-foot stronghold at 5800 N. Meeker Drive, west of the Hewlett-Packard campus on Chinden Boulevard. Call centers for Bodybuilding.com and Idaho Power Co. are across the street. Thousands of workers staff about 30 other call centers around the Valley, handling "inbound" customer-service calls and "outbound" sales calls for companies across the nation.

As a group, the centers keep a low profile. They don't promote themselves locally except to recruit for job openings. They operate in nondescript office buildings on Emerald Street and elsewhere, with parking lots still packed with dozens or hundreds of cars long after 5 p.m. as employees work the phones for Apple, Verizon, AT&T and other companies.

Agents at DirecTV handle an average of nearly 7,000 incoming calls a day. Agents on half of the production floor upsell customers on package upgrades. Agents on the other half work in retention, either matching offers for customers wanting to jump to other TV providers or offering deals to persuade them not to cancel.

Chatter fills the air. Mock traffic signs posted around the open room read, "STOP! Customers from leaving," and, "YIELD to the customer."

The atmosphere is loose. One agent stands as he talks to a customer about upgrade options. Another has his feet on his desk. A third wears a Green Bay Packers jersey.

A security guard at the front desk shares the large lobby with fountains, flora and palm trees.

IDAHO ANSWERS THE CALL

Originally built in 1996, the DirecTV office was one of the first large call centers in the Valley. The industry has grown rapidly since, with 34 call centers employing nearly 5,600 in the Treasure Valley in 2012 and 8,495 employees working in 78 call centers statewide, according to the Idaho Department of Labor.

Since 2001, the call industry has grown about 200 percent in Idaho and 750 percent in the Treasure Valley, according to Moscow research firm Economic Modeling Specialists International, or EMSI. Idaho's growth, which dipped in 2012, has been the second-fastest in the nation behind Vermont, where employment has nearly quadrupled.

CHECK OUT THIS MAP AND HELP US FINISH IT

We could find no publicly available directory of call centers in the Treasure Valley, so we are compiling our own in an interactive map. We need your help to make it as complete as possible. If you have information about specific call centers, please email what you know to reporter Zach Kyle at zkyle@idahostatesman.com. We're looking as many of the following facts as we can confirm: each call center's name, address, phone number, companies or other entities served by the center, whether calls are inbound or outbound (or both), and the number of employees. Don't worry if you don't have all of those facts — just give us what you can. Please provide your phone number, too, so we may call you if needed.

Call centers brought $330 million in revenue to the Boise metro area last year and $177 million in payroll, according to EMSI estimates.

They're still coming. Maximus, a Virginia company specializing in call-center support of health and human services programs, plans to hire up to 1,800 Valley workers to field a deluge of calls expected to hit state health-insurance marketplaces known as exchanges, possibly including Idaho's, when it opens Oct. 1. Construction is underway to outfit a 180,000-square-foot building that had sat vacant for several years on HP's west Boise campus with telephony, fiber optics and backup generators.

EMSI estimates the industry will employ more than 12,000 Idahoans by 2022.

ECONOMIC IMPACT

Large call centers always need employees.

DirecTV has parking spaces just for applicants. Teleperformance, which provides customer service support for AT&T and Apple, has a sign in front of its West Emerald Street location offering jobs starting at $10.50 an hour.

The Boise Valley Economic Partnership wooed Maximus in an effort to bring jobs to the Valley, Executive Director Clark Krause says.

Call centers offer the kind of low-skill jobs that help reduce unemployment, which in June tallied at 5.8 percent in Ada County, 7.3 percent in Canyon County and 6.4 percent statewide.

BVEP usually targets tech and manufacturing companies that bring higher-paying jobs than call centers, Krause says, but Maximus was an exception.

"Having a job beats not having a job any day," he says. "We don't actively recruit customer-service centers. But, certainly, if you have a great opportunity such as Maximus, you're happy to have them here."

Call centers are attracted by Idaho's cheap workforce, says Hank Robison, EMSI chief economist.

Idaho call-center employees earned an average of nearly $31,000 a year in 2012, 15th lowest in the nation, according to government data compiled by EMSI. The Idaho Department of Labor reports a lower average: $25,307.55 (see chart). Most states fell between $23,600 and $55,300, according to EMSI. The company's dataset had one outlier on the low side (Hawaii at $18,500) and two on the high side (Connecticut at $65,600 and New Jersey at $80,400).

Donald Winiecki, a professor at Boise State University, spent time inside Treasure Valley call centers from 2002 to 2004 studying their operations. His research led to a book and academic papers examining the how the U.S. labor force has transitioned from manufacturing into service industries.

Winiecki says service jobs are a mixed bag.

"From a standpoint of putting ticks on a page and saying people are employed, call centers are a good thing," he says. "But they aren't the kind of thing where most (employees) will be able to save up and buy a house" unless there's a second wage earner in the household.

Every region would love to attract the Googles, Microsofts and other high-paying jobs with staying power, Robison says.

"But not every area is so fortunate," he says. "I suspect that Detroit would be delighted if call centers were flocking there. They do pay taxes. They do provide income for individuals that can provide a way out of poverty."

BELOW THE RADAR

Call centers' addresses and local phone numbers rarely show up in Google searches or phone books. About 10 call centers in the Valley either didn't return calls from the Idaho Statesman or had listed numbers no longer in service.

Tim Walsh, a former DirecTV employee, says call centers don't advertise their whereabouts to avoid confrontations with angry customers.

Nancy Lemas, director of KW Commercial's real estate office in Boise, has leased buildings to call center operations in Meridian, Albuquerque, N.M., Colorado Springs., Colo., and Henderson, Nev. She suggests a different reason.

"Call-center jobs tend to be lower on the pay scale," Lemas says. "It doesn't take much to move from one call center to another. That's why call centers want to fly under the radar - they don't want their employees poached by other call centers."

LIFE IN THE HEADSET

Some call centers treat employees better than others, but the work tends to be monotonous either way, Winiecki says.

Workers at inbound call centers, such as DirecTV, often deal with people who are angry about their service. Workers at outbound call centers solicit customers who are sometimes annoyed to be cold-called by a stranger.

Winiecki says an employee from a now-defunct package delivery company in the Valley was threatened several times by customers over the phone. The worker left the call center to take a job at a local emergency response call center.

"The former call-center worker said the 911 job was less stressful. And some pretty heavy stuff comes past 911," he says.

Tyla Midboe worked at the T-Mobile call center in Meridian from 2009 to 2010 and DirecTV from 2011 until January. She says dealing with angry and sometimes bizarre complaints is part of the job. Once, a father was angry that his daughter's replacement cellphone was striped. The design would "do bad things to her karma," the father said.

"I actually enjoyed that part of the job even though it was difficult," Midboe says. "I always felt like I was making a difference if I was able to help the customer who was upset, more so than helping the customer who was already satisfied."

Call centers try to make the work more interesting by holding performance-based contests between employees or teams and by offering rewards for reaching sales and retention targets.

Many call centers emphasize "handle time," or the time it takes for an employee to end each call.

Walsh, who worked at DirecTV from 2002 to 2011, says the job grew steadily worse as managers began threatening to fire employees whose average handle times exceeded targets. The targets became more difficult over the years. Many employees were fired, leaving the remaining agents paranoid they'd lose their jobs, he says.

Walsh says he held four positions over nearly a decade before he was fired.

"DirecTV used to be known as the Taj Majal of call centers," Walsh says. "It used to be a good place to work. It wasn't punitive. You didn't have to look over your shoulder to see the reasons why they'd fire employees."

Steve Redd, DirecTV director of operations in Boise, says the company "was wrong-headed then and knows it." Walsh is "exactly right," Redd says. "It progressively got to that point. But it doesn't need to be that way."

CHANGING INDUSTRY

DirecTV still tracks more than 100 metrics to gauge agent performance, including handle time, Redd says. However, handle time isn't the be-all statistic that it once was.

Stats such as sales, first-call resolution and customer loyalty can say as much or more about the customer experience. Redd says DirecTV management now encourages improvement through coaching call skills instead of threatening termination.

In 2011, more than 90 percent of the DirecTV employees and trainees in Boise either quit or were fired, Redd says. That number dropped to 42 percent in 2012. The company fired 184 fewer employees.

"It typically takes 12, 13 weeks (of training) before agents actually go out on a team or on their own," Redd says. "The drop in (turnover) saves a lot of money. If we have satisfied workers, everything else kind of falls into place."

Winiecki said attrition-rate percentages in the 80s or 90s are common. Workers average less than two years at call centers, though some jump from center to center, he says.

"The unfortunate fact is a lot of call centers use what they call a sacrificial HR strategy - get people in here, but don't expect them to stay long, so treat them (poorly), knowing somebody else is going to be knocking on the door."

Some call centers are implementing more worker-friendly tactics in efforts to stem turnover, Winiecki says. Employees who like call-center work say they enjoy camaraderie with their coworkers, Winiecki says.

"Instead of just dumping responsibility on employees to figure it out - which still often happens at call centers - there's a known effect of providing training, to update (agents) on services offered by the company," Winiecki says. "That helps them feel competent. That helps them feel confident."

Zach Kyle: 377-6464 @IDS_zachkyle

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