A "call center,' where companies like Matrixx make and take calls, is a fascinating blend of sweatshop and reference library, where anonymity affords callers a certain intimacy and where relentless intimacy becomes a form of numbing anonymity. It is a place of mystery, misdirection, charm and a little pathos. The call center world can be secretive, even paranoid. You think a call has been completed, but it hasn't. You think you've reached the party to whom you are speaking, but you haven't. They ask for your phone number, but they already know it. Matrixx's call centers look like most modern office settings--a maze of identical cubicles, most not wide enough to extend your arms, each equipped with a computer and a phone. But what plays out over the phones is a strange, richly American tapestry: people talking about their breast cancer or about why their doll's arm came off. Both kinds of callers have taken a leap of faith: They believe the stranger who answers the toll-free line will actually be able to help them.
Very little gets by Judie Blankshan, who takes calls for the baby formula company (which didn't want to be identified for this story). She's talking to Cathy, a mom from Simi Valley. Cathy has called to get her regular allotment of 50-cents-off coupons for the formula her son, Alex, drinks. As Blankshan calls up Cathy's records from previous calls, Cathy chats merrily away. "I really love the formula,' she says. "Do you have a line of baby foods?' "We do have a cereal,' says Blankshan, as she types. "It's not out yet, it's being test-marketed. It's going to be very delicious; I've even tasted it.'
"You know,' says Cathy, "I thought my baby was [developing] an allergy to the formula.' Blankshan stops typing and looks up, alert. "He was having a wet cough. But I think he's just sick.'
There is no change in Blankshan's tone, but she points the conversation in a new direction. "How old is your baby?' she asks. "Four-and-a-half months,' Cathy answers. "I breast-fed three months, then started him on the formula. He got sick last week, and he still has the cough. My daughter had an allergy to the formula, but it doesn't look like that's what this is. The doctor says he's just sick.'
Blankshan nods, her instincts working. Formula and a sick baby is usually nothing but a sick baby on formula. But sometimes the formula is making the baby sick. "What's the number on the can of formula you are using now? And the expiration date?' she asks. Cathy returns with the can and reads off the 12-digit lot number on the bottom and the expiration date. "OK, I'll send you the coupons,' says Blankshan, "and we'll have someone call you in a couple days to make sure the baby is getting better.'
After Cathy hangs up, Blankshan dispatches the coupons, then fills out a special screen noting Alex's "wet cough' and illness, his sister's baby formula allergy, the batch number of Cathy's can of formula, encoding the record so that it will pop up in a couple days to remind another phone rep to call Cathy back to make sure Alex is getting better.
So a routine call to an 800 number to ask for some coupons--a call that could have been handled by an automated system--turns into something more. Probably Alex just has a cold. Maybe he can't tolerate lactose. Maybe the batch of baby formula is bad. In any case, the baby formula company learned a lot--an early flag to a problem for a customer, perhaps for the company. It also learned that Cathy is so dedicated a customer that although her last baby was allergic to the formula, she was willing to try again. The brief call did three more things. When Cathy gets a call back from the baby formula company asking how Alex is feeling, mom will feel good about the people who make her baby's food. (Heck, most pediatricians don't call back to find out if the baby is better.) Cathy will be watching for the debut of the company's cereal. And finally, the baby formula company learned that in Judie Blankshan, it has an attentive customer service representative.
Except, of course, Blankshan doesn't work for the baby formula company. She works for Matrixx.
Matrixx's baby formula call center is small--the DirecTV group takes more calls in a day than the baby formula group takes in a month. But it's an example of the science and sleight-of-hand involved in caring for someone else's customers. Matrixx's baby formula center is staffed by 20 women (they had a man, once), available 12 hours a day, Monday through Friday. A framed picture of the baby formula maker's corporate headquarters in California hangs in their office, and the company has requested that reps tell callers who ask that they are in California, so parents won't think the company isn't taking their calls itself.
For a group that answers the phone for a living--normally a high-turnover job--the women are unusually stable and devoted. Their average tenure is four years.