Dwayne Tucker, executive vice president, human resources, and president, transaction services, Alliance DataPhotographer: Dan BryantDwayne Tucker, executive vice president, human resources, and president, transaction services, Alliance Data

In tough economic times, managing relationships and strengthening bonds of customer loyalty become more important than ever. Dallas-based Alliance Data knows this well. One of the leading providers of loyalty and marketing solutions, Alliance Data helps clients develop profitable, loyal relationships with their customers by capturing, analyzing and using consumer transaction data.

The company strives for the same kind of high-quality relationships with its own business partners, including Towers Watson.

"We worked with Watson Wyatt (now Towers Watson) over nearly a decade of projects in the areas of health and welfare, investment consulting, communications and more," says Dwayne Tucker, executive vice president, human resources, and president, transaction services, at Alliance Data. "These strong relationship ties were top-of-mind when we chose an administrator for our health and welfare benefits. We wanted an organization that could help us from a strategic standpoint in managing our broader human capital needs."

Technology and people

After a full-blown vendor search, Alliance Data chose Towers Watson primarily on the strength of both its technology platform — BenefitConnect — and the customer service level in its call center.

Alliance Data runs its own call centers for its private-label card service clients. If a retail customer has a question about her store-branded credit card, she phones a call center operated by Alliance Data. "Given that call centers are part of our business, we wanted our own associates to have a world-class experience if they needed to call for help with a health and welfare benefits question," explains Tucker.

Calvin Hilton, Alliance Data's vice president for benefits and HR services, knew from his company's own customer service work that the typical, noisy call center filled with monitoring boards wouldn't suffice. "We wanted to ensure there would be a quiet environment where customer service representatives (CSRs) would have meaningful conversations with clients," says Hilton.

Watson Wyatt senior consultant Scott Burnett (left) with Dwayne Tucker and Alliance Data vice president for benefits and HR services, Calvin HiltonTowers Watson senior consultant Scott Burnett (left) with Dwayne Tucker and Alliance Data vice president for benefits and HR services, Calvin Hilton

"The call center had to hire associates at a higher level than some competitors," agrees benefits manager Kim Berdinsky. "That was important for us. We were looking for a call center that could provide thorough resolution of any associate questions, performing callbacks as necessary to completely take care of our associates' needs."

While call center quality was a key component, Towers Watson managing consultant Scott Burnett also notes the importance of technological expertise. "Alliance Data wanted to drive a lot of benefit traffic to the Web. Our BenefitConnect tool offered a Web interface that was a lot easier to use and more intuitive than their legacy system," says Burnett. "One good way to reduce the cost of administering health and welfare benefits is to provide Internet-based tools, educational content and technologies that solve associate concerns before they even get to the call center."

Towers Watson project manager Robert Merriman says one of Alliance Data's biggest challenges was streamlining communication within the organization. "They needed a customized approach to ensure all parties could be connected, but also wanted a time-tested tool. BenefitConnect has modules that can be added or eliminated, so in this case it was the ideal solution. It works not only for health and welfare, but also for pensions and other administrative functions."

Alliance Data has several protocols in place to ensure that the call center would perform at a high level. "We couldn't do what we do without the real-time capabilities," says call center manager Mavis Smith. "If a CSR makes an election for an associate on the phone, the associate can see the change in real time. And if the associate does something on the Web, the CSRs can see those selections immediately."

Berdinsky cites the e-mail capabilities of the service center as another winning element. Alliance Data associates who are too busy to make a phone call during the day can send off a question by e-mail and get a response in one business day — generally within hours and sometimes even within minutes.

If an associate uses different channels of communicating — first e-mailing and then later calling the service center, for example — any CSR can pull up the e-mail and see what actions were taken. "Everything is visible," says Smith, "and everything is in real time."

Quiet phones

When Towers Watson consultants first began implementing BenefitConnect in preparation for the open enrollment period, Hilton challenged the consulting team members. He told them he'd measure the success of the project by the number of phone calls from bewildered or confused associates during the enrollment process.

"At the end of the first day of open enrollment, I hadn't received even one call from an associate or an executive," says Hilton. "That is a real bellwether for me. Any time you convert from one system to another, there's a lot of risk. When the phone is not ringing, it's a good sign that everything is going well."

(Left to right) Watson Wyatt consultant Robert Merriman; Kim Berdinsky, benefits manager, Alliance Data; Calvin Hilton, vice president for benefits and HR services, Alliance Data; and Watson Wyatt call center manager Mavis Smith(Left to right) Towers Watson consultant Robert Merriman; Kim Berdinsky, benefits manager, Alliance Data; Calvin Hilton, vice president for benefits and HR services, Alliance Data; and Towers Watson call center manager Mavis Smith

Berdinsky agrees that months of preparation paid off in a flawless implementation. “This was the calmest open enrollment season we’ve ever had,” she says. “The tool worked smoothly, people got enrolled efficiently and the call center handled associates’ questions thoroughly.”

It's still too early to gauge how much the company can save over the long term by switching to BenefitConnect. However, Alliance Data executives say preliminary data shows transaction costs have dropped by more than 10 percent.

But cost saving was never the primary motivating factor. The goal was to improve service and provide more transparency, better technology and a superior call center experience. In all these areas, BenefitConnect is meeting expectations. In a phone survey, more than 97 percent of Alliance Data associates reported satisfaction with the new system. A built-in feedback tool within BenefitConnect has yielded comments such as "This was much easier than last year. Thanks for the great improvement," and "Much quicker. Thanks for making it so easy for us."

The ease with which associates have adapted to the new system has been especially helpful during the current economic downturn, allowing Alliance Data executives to focus on strategy rather than troubleshooting transactions. Says Tucker: "Having such success allows us to focus and deploy our resources toward HR initiatives that drive more value to our internal business customers."

How to Run a Great Call Center

"The most important part of running a call center is having the right high-caliber people on staff," says Mavis Smith, who manages Towers Watson's San Diego-based call center for Alliance Data. "Look for educated people who have good analytical skills. Then train them on the particular culture and benefits of the organization."

Smith says great call center employees are tech-savvy and able to handle robust tools that place a vast amount of information at their fingertips. But being smart is not enough: The job also requires a passion for delivering stellar customer service from day one.

Ensuring superior phone service means training call center staff in the culture of the organization they represent. Alliance Data benefits manager Kim Berdinsky traveled to San Diego to make sure the CSRs had a deep understanding of her company's values, especially a commitment to open and honest communication. Small giveaways of Alliance Data merchandise helped energize and engage the call center staff.

Finally, create a work environment that is conducive to meaningful exchanges with clients and the resolution of questions and problems. Despite their reputation, call centers need not be frantic, stressful places. A calm, relaxing workspace encourages customer service representatives to take the time they need to address callers' concerns.

With careful hiring policies and a congenial work environment, call centers can see admirable staff retention ratios. When turnover stays low, call center staff members develop expertise in the culture and systems of their clients, creating a virtuous feedback loop that raises service levels even higher.