So it goes for the roughly 3,000 U.S. employees at Parsippany, New Jersey-based Newcourt Services—a leasing and asset-based financing company recently acquired by Livingston, New Jersey-based CIT Group.
To improve the efficiency of human resources services at the company’s headquarters and 50 satellite offices from Tennessee to Oregon, Newcourt designed a call center with enough computer firepower to manage its entire workforce. Now, if employees have questions about their 401(k) account, disability, or workers compensation, they just punch a few buttons on a telephone keypad and—presto!—they’re either connected to a voice-activated system, an HR specialist or transferred to a third-party service provider such as an insurance company or pension administrator.
The idea for a centralized call center came several years ago after the company redesigned its human resources department to cut costs and, at the same time, offer more management services. Newcourt went through the painstaking process of reclassifying all of its human resources services—separating the personnel-administration transactions from everything else.
"We weren’t even thinking about a call center in the beginning," says John Gillen, Newcourt’s vice president of employee services and HRIS. "We learned rather quickly, though, that a call center would enable us to take advantage of protocols that improved services to employees, while also reducing costs. It wasn’t so much a strategy, but a way to implement a strategy."
The so-called strategy focused on providing accurate, up-to-date employee information, and a higher level of service that could track cases and spot problems or trends. Newcourt already had a telecommunications hub that gathered phone lines and directed calls via an automatic call distribution switch. What it didn’t have was the knowledge to facilitate the process, so Gillen hired outside consultants from McLean, Virginia-based Talisman Technologies.
Through Talisman, Newcourt purchased computer software from which it built a knowledge-based system to help store answers to questions frequently asked about HR issues, and a case-management system to track calls coming into the service. All told, Newcourt spent roughly $150,000 for hardware, software, consulting services and employee communications tools. The project was funded slowly and over time.
"Newcourt has a number of sales people at different locations around the country," says Jane Paradiso, president of Talisman Technologies. "Above all else, it needed the appropriate software and hardware to provide employees with consistent, reliable data in one location to address HR-related issues."
Technology simplifies processes.
Newcourt went operational on October 12, 1997. The call center was promoted through the annual benefits sign-up and on every pay stub.
By centralizing most of the personnel-administration work at headquarters, the 12 offsite human resources managers at the 50 satellite offices can focus their attention strictly on people-management issues. Most of the questions that go to the call center are benefits and payroll-related. Employees use their social security number or employee identification number to access the call center via the phone with their requests.
Then an automatic call distributor picks up the call and transfers it to the appropriate HR agent, who pulls up the caller’s information on a computer screen to provide immediate help. One of the unique benefits of a call center is that it can be electronically updated and disseminated immediately, and accessed by employees when necessary. "It really has changed the role of HR management within our company," says Gillen.
And it took less than a year before Newcourt realized a return on its investment. "Our HR professionals are becoming better business partners, working more closely with the managers and supervisors at our 50 satellite offices."
Back at headquarters, the four in-house HR professionals are trained to more thoroughly understand the company’s policies and procedures. Calls coming into headquarters have gone from six calls per employee or an estimated 10,000 in 1998 to 10 calls per employee or an estimated 30,000 in 1999.
With technology comes change.
Of course, two years ago, most everyone wondered about the quality of service the call center would provide to individual employees. "We were almost afraid to answer the phones the first day," says Gillen. "It required a whole new way of looking at work."
The company’s biggest challenge was getting HR managers to overcome their reluctance to the program. They had a hard time accepting a call center as part of the HR process. Face-to-face encounters on personnel-administrative issues were virtually eliminated by offering one direct line to a personnel administrator at corporate headquarters. "We actually found that even though a lot of our HRpeople were accessible to employees, they didn’t always have the appropriate HR-related information," says Gillen. "They’d have to call corporate for the answer, then get back to the employee. We eliminated those phone calls."
Says Paradiso: "Personal ties are a concern for any HR professional. But for people who want quick answers to their questions, technology is the better choice. And unfortunately, it’s sometimes the HR staff who is most threatened. Call centers help upgrade the image of human resources professionals as being technology fluent, as opposed to a paper-shuffling, bureaucratic group."
As Gillen notes, however, Newcourt’s human resource professionals quickly realized that employees were receiving better and faster service. "Those HR managers whose strength was paperwork efficiency—and not HR strategy—got lost in the shuffle."
Since building the call center, Newcourt has realized about $250,000 in savings within the first year. Last year, the company conducted a survey-assessment of the call center by counting the number of people who used the service, and how many times they successfully got their questions answered on the first call. "HR has a bigger role now in the organization," adds Gillen. "It’s more involved in the business issues on a level we’ve never seen before."
Even though the high price of a call center can make it cost-prohibitive for many companies, Gillen says a company’s never too small to make management changes via technology. "A lot of companies don’t think they can have an HR call center because they’re too small. But it’s not just about reducing costs. It’s also about focusing HR people on strategic business issues. They’re no longer bogged down by endless questions about personnel-administrative issues—which means they’re better focused on people-management issues."
Workforce, June 1999, Vol. 78, No. 6, pp. 126-128.