The reps wear ID badges that include the logo of the baby formula company and, for simplicity, many tell acquaintances they work for the baby formula company, not Matrixx. Most of them have tasted the formula, so when worried parents call and ask if that's how it should taste, they can reassure them: It's supposed to taste yucky. If any of the women should have a baby of her own, her first year's formula is free. The baby formula company is so happy with the Matrixx reps that it routinely takes several of them to baby trade shows to talk up the formula, and the reps sit down every few weeks with baby formula executives to discuss what the parents are saying. The call center is considered so important a connection to customers that both the baby formula's ad agency and its laboratory are tapped into Matrixx's computers so they can get real-time access to the information the reps gather.
A couple years ago, the women became so concerned that no advice was offered after hours or over the weekend--the 800 number played a recording that offered a second 800 number in case of emergency--they asked to be put on beepers. Now, 24 hours a day, the nation's parents are never more than a toll-free call away from the reassurance of Blankshan and her colleagues.
It's just before 7 p.m., mountain time, on the day Dennis Rodman is rejoining the Chicago Bulls for a game against the Charlotte Hornets. In Matrixx's DirecTV call center west of the Salt Lake City airport, this is prime time: Every chair is filled and dozens of TVs slung from the ceiling are in use as agents with remote controls flash through 175 channels, trying to help frustrated couch potatoes get their evening entertainment. Agents on a call have a vacant look in their eyes, listening, envisioning the problem. DirecTV's satellite service offers 60 cable channels, 55 pay-per-view channels and dozens of regional sports channels. The agents are young--some are high school students--and they are well dressed, because Matrixx requires shirts and ties for men and nice blouses or dresses for women. ("And you have to wear underwear,' says one agent.)
This is sweet, grease-free employment: getting paid $6 to $7 per hour to do nothing but talk on the phone about TV. There are 520 DirecTV cubicles in this one center, divided between two floors. The facility is staffed around the clock because "people call us when they are watching TV'--including the middle of the night, says Renee Kuwahara, the Matrixx vice president responsible for the DirecTV operation.
Kuwahara, who came from Fidelity Investments, presides over a remarkable example of corporate outsourcing. When DirecTV started service in June 1994, Matrixx had 25 agents handling calls about DirecTV. Now it deploys 2,500-- more than double the number of people DirecTV itself employs. "When we turned the service on,' says Kuwahara, "we had people who cried. Rural folks who had never seen TV before, suddenly they have 100 channels.' Others inexplicably bonded with the Matrixx agents. Near dawn on an overnight shift, Mark Jarvis, a 30-year-old rep in the DirecTV group, took a call "from a guy named Nicolas. He'd been up all night watching TV, you could tell, he sounded kind of blurry. I like to imagine people's faces when I talk to them on the phone, and he's a big guy, I think. He has a big-guy voice. And he says, 'I haven't gotten my NBA welcome kit yet.' He's signed up for the package of NBA games [on DirecTV], but he hasn't gotten his welcome kit. He says, 'I go out with my friends, they've all got their NBA jackets, I don't have mine. I've got my DirecTV hat on now. But I want my NBA jacket.' So I sent it out. Now he calls me up about once a week just to talk.'
On this evening, 18-year-old Calvin Wilkerson sits in his cubicle talking to Andrew in West Frankfort, Ill., a Chicago suburb. Andrew can't find the Bulls-Hornets game on his TV. Wilkerson quietly talks to the man as he fires through channels, looking for the game. There it is on one channel, but Wilkerson knows that broadcast is blacked out in Chicago. "Sir,' he says, "I can't find that game on any other
channel. But let me at least see if I can find out why it's blacked out.'
He puts Andrew on hold and starts flashing through schedules and blackout restrictions. He makes a quick in-house call to someone he thinks might know. No luck. Finally, having been on the phone with Andrew for nine minutes and 50 seconds, Wilkerson discovers that the Bulls game is being broadcast on a Chicago-area TV station. "It's shown over the air,' Wilkerson tells the man. "That's the reason it's blacked out. You may want to check your local listings for a channel in your area showing it'--the old-fashioned way, through rabbit ears.