The February 2012 Issue of TAS Trader

Certification Ten Years Later

TAS industry certification recently passed the ten-year mark since its inauguration. The founders of the certification program – Chris Bell, Beth Cooper, Gary Cooper, Dirk Moeller, and Tom Sheridan – along with logistical support from Dan L’Heureux, shared their insights into certification from a ten-year perspective and discussed where they might be headed in the future.

Looking Back Ten Years: “When we originally started the program,” said Chris Bell, “telephone answering service was essentially a standard-less industry. The industry also had a bad reputation in terms of the quality of service it provided to customers and its pay scale. I think the industry has vastly improved its service levels, quality, personnel, and run-time. While it is true that consolidation has eliminated many of the smaller, marginal services, the remaining ones are more professionally run and managed. Certification has played a significant role in this.”

The Current Status: “June marked the tenth year that Site Certification programs were first introduced,” added Dan L’Heureux. “The Site Certification program was followed by Agent, Supervisor, and more recently, Advanced Agent (formerly Dispatch) Certification. These programs are available on most platforms and are offered through ATSI; the programs are administered by SNUG.

“In overall terms, the Agent Certification has been the most well received. At last count, we have administered over 1,000 Agent Certifications, with 363 in the last three years. The Advanced Agent (formerly called Dispatcher) Certification has seventy-four. There are under 200 Supervisor Certifications. This program was assisted by CAM-X, who dubbed 2008 the ‘Year of the Supervisor.’ In that year alone, they completed 100 Supervisor Certifications. Finally, there is the Site Certification program. We currently have twenty-four [TAS sites] certified under ATSI and four under CAM-X.

“Since this has been a cooperative project – after SNUG wrote the initial program specifics – most of the TAS platform user groups and vendors have provided volunteers to adapt and test the new programs for their specific platform. [However,] not all are available, as it definitely requires constant work to keep the programs up-to-date, but as of today, there is a Site Certification Program for the Alston Tascom, Amtelco, PInnacle, Startel, and Telescan systems. There was one done for the old CadCom system, which would require just a little work to adapt it for OnviSource.

“Agent and Supervisor certifications are available for all the major TAS platforms that have Site programs, as well as for Szeto [Technologies]. The Advanced Agent has taken a little more work, as we know dispatching a call requires a higher level of training. This is currently available for Startel, with the Pinnacle, Amtelco, and Telescan programs under development,” concluded Dan.

Benefits of Certification: Regarding the benefits of being certified, Beth Cooper interjected, “I would say without a doubt that for us, certification has been a triple play. The service wins because they end up with immediate operational improvement. The staff wins because they now have a pathway within their organization for advancement. Finally, the customer or prospect wins because they have selected a service that has embraced one of the TAS industry’s ‘best practices’ programs.”

When asked about the marketing angle to certification, Beth added, “I can tell you that Mr. Bell sells certification to every prospect, and to a degree it does steer the conversation away from price and move it to QOS [quality of service] metrics.”

“Last year I was president of CAM-X,” said Tom Sheridan. “I learned that Telelink, in Newfoundland, had undergone ISO 9001 Certification. They spent upwards of $100,000, and to my knowledge they are the only service in the industry to have achieved this. They are also ATSI Gold Site Certified. They would tell you that dollar for dollar, the Site Certification was a bargain.”

“The 99.99 percent (four-nines) objective means that the service is aiming to achieve less than fifty-two minutes per year of unplanned downtime,” added Chris. “Many sites, including those who [follow] the requirements, but have not undertaken the certification, have benefited from the program. What is different now from ten years ago is that platform users are looking to identify any single points of failure and mitigate the consequences. We believe that the longer a service can be up and running, the greater chance it has to retain clients, reduce stress, and remain profitable.”

Dirk Moeller gave an example. “The Startel 5700 and CMC users have learned the lesson that their digital bank, which is normally very stable, has a hard drive that can fail. For only about $600, these users were able to purchase from Startel a spare digital bank drive, then mirror it and save it for a rainy day. Also, cloning hard disk drives on all systems (servers, switch, and workstations) can be a lifesaver in getting any of your systems back to operational mode in the event of data corruption, human error, or hard drive failure. Many systems can be running again in thirty minutes or less.”

An Evolving Program: In additional to addressing and mitigating the effects of single points of failure, Beth adds, “There have been numerous revisions to the programs, especially in the area of Site Certification.”

Gary Cooper offered additional details on these changes. “Several of the platforms have moved one or two generations from the original specification. For example, in 2001, SNUG users were being certified on the 5700 switch. By 2004, Startel had released the CMC. Then last year, we [AnswerQuick] became the first to be certified on the Startel softswitch. Also, since 2001, an entire industry, the disaster recovery or DR industry, has come into the market.”

“If I could add to the answer,” said Tom, “another big area of technological advance since 2001 has been in the build out of network security and virtualization. The Internet has become in many cases as important to a site as the telephony.”

How It All Started: Dan recalled the impetus for the certification. “At the 2001 SNUG planning meeting in Phoenix, Arizona, Terri Paffile of Answer-1 attended as a member guest. She brought a question for the board. A customer wanted to know what certification programs the industry had. It took about three months for a group of six individuals to cobble together the outline of a program. Initially, we delineated site certification, agent, and supervisor. Gary Cooper, who was very familiar with the alarm business and their certification requirements, and Beth suggested that the site certification program have more components than just equipment and run-time requirements. They were the ones who saw the benefit from adding life safety, licenses, memberships, education, and training requirements to the overall program.”

Advanced Agent Certification Added: “Agent Certification was always about testing the front end of taking a call,” said Dan. “It became obvious that many services were reticent to go to the dispatcher level because they were not running their operations with dedicated dispatchers. So what we’ve done is rename the [Dispatcher] program to account for the fact that Advanced Agent is designed to test the back end of the call (what to do with it after you’ve taken it). After all, every call that comes in must also go out, and with this clarification we think there will be more interest in the certification.”

The Future of Certification: “These programs will continue to evolve, test, and credential the various disciplines within the TAS,” continued Dan. “Technology will continue to change the requirements of the IT portion of the TAS. Each one of the certification programs pertains to specific areas of a telephone answering service. It is for the betterment of our industry that each should require professional examination and credentialing.

“We have a surprise announcement,” Chris interjected. “We will soon be testing and then offering a two-tiered Spanish Certification program. The initial tier will be very basic. It will attempt to train and test the agent for getting very basic information from a Spanish caller. Tier II will test fluency in communicating with a Spanish-speaking person.

“There are lots of opportunities for TASs to try to fill the niche of the many Spanish-speaking entrepreneurs in our country. I recently signed on an account from the Miami, Florida, area. Keep in mind, my service is based in Levittown, Pennsylvania. What was the deciding factor for the business owner? They informed me that they would have Spanish-speaking callers. They wanted to know what could I do to help them. He was delighted to learn that we had some Spanish-speaking agents and that we were running in-house Spanish training with our other agents. For this customer, it was the fact that we were trying to accommodate their need and breach the language barrier that helped close the sale.”

For More Info: “Anyone interested in certification,” concluded Beth, “should contact Dan L’Heureux at 800-317-8529 or check out the ATSI website at www.atsi.org.”

News

Answer Midwest, Inc. Voted Best Customer Service in St. Louis Metro
Answer Midwest was selected as one of the top twenty customer service providers in St. Louis by St. Louis Small Business Monthly magazine. “Our staff earned this ranking. As a company, we are continuously improving our customer services for small businesses located in the St. Louis metropolitan area,” said Gary Tedrick, president of Answer Midwest, Inc., headquartered in Alton, Illinois. “Our customers know that we improve their productivity and help their businesses enhance their customer service at the same time.” Answer Midwest provides 24/7 live operator call-handling to small and large businesses nationwide.

A Better Answer Earns Gold Call Center Re-Certification
A Better Answer, Inc., of Plano, Texas, has been awarded the gold 24/7 call center certification by the Association of Teleservices International (ATSI) for the second time, originally qualifying in 2009, the first in Texas. A Better Answer Call Centers (ABA), founded in 1971 by Dee Hawkins and now in its fortieth year, is an award-winning bilingual telephone answering service, earning the Award of Excellence annually for the past fourteen years for excellence in response time, accuracy, courtesy, and customer service. This certification indicates that ABA has met or exceeded high operational standards.

FCC Mandates Paging Migration to Narrowbanding
For years, answering services have provided paging to healthcare providers and clients, but many paging systems may soon be out of compliance with the FCC’s narrowband mandate. On January 1, 2013, all public safety and business industrial land mobile radio systems using the 150-174 and 421-512 MHz bands must cease operating with 25 kHz efficiency technology and must use at least 12.5 kHz efficiency technology. Many hospitals use these frequencies for in-house paging. Violators will be subject to FCC enforcement action. This FCC mandate is a great opportunity for telephone answering services to introduce alternatives, such as miSecureMessages from Amtelco.

STA’s Customer-Centric Webinar Series
Southern Telemessaging Association (STA) is hosting a webinar series entitled Eight Steps to Building a Customer Service Juggernaut, presented by Jamey Hopper. The program focuses on building and implementing a best-practice module for customer service. The introductory session, entitled “The Most Important Lesson of Customer Service,” will be held February 28 at 2:00 p.m. CST. There is no cost for the first webinar; subsequent ones are $20 each or $149 for the series for members; the nonmember rate is $69 each or $549 for the series. Non-members are encouraged to join STA and take advantage of the discounted rates. For more info, contact dan@callconsult.net or 800-475-0857.

PInnacle Analytic Reports
Professional Teledata added PInnacle Analytics reporting to its PInnacle system. Developed by their technical support department, along with close customer involvement, the reports address many areas, including monitoring key metrics such as payroll validation of agent hours, agent adherence, abandonment rate, average speed of answer, agent utilization, and over- or understaffing. The reports can be viewed on-screen or exported as PDF or Excel files. PInnacle and PInnacle Freedom customers can download these reports from Professional Teledata’s online forum. Pat Kalik, president of Professional Teledata, noted, “PInnacle Analytics is an important tool to develop an efficient agent schedule based on past performance.”

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[Posted by Peter DeHaan for TAS Trader, a telephone answering service e-publication from Peter DeHaan Publishing Inc.]