Portmann, president and CEO of Stream, an inbound call center company offering technical support and customer service, needed to accommodate the growing demands of her client, Sirius Satellite Radio. To do that, she needed to hire several thousand people and have them trained and ready to handle calls on Christmas Day.
Sirius anticipated correctly that many people would receive a Sirius radio and its service as a holiday gift, largely thanks to popular shock jock Howard Stern’s move to the service from traditional broadcast radio beginning in January 2006.
Many of these new customers would pick up the phone immediately to ask questions about how to operate the system, and even though it was Christmas Day, it was important to make sure someone was there to help them.
Portmann had four call centers ready to go and all of the workers lined up; she even hired 18 percent above projections just to make sure Stream had enough people on hand. But she wanted to do something else to encourage people to show up, so she decided to have all of the company’s top management answer calls themselves that day. They trained on the same script as other workers, and she dispersed them among the four call centers.
On Christmas Day, the centers handling the Sirius calls had absentee rates of about 11 percent, which made Portmann ecstatic. Calls were answered, Sirius was happy, and Portmann had proactively solved what could have been a crisis.
And yes, Portmann herself was one of those workers taking calls from gift recipients on Christmas morning. The company even set up a Web camera to show workers in other locations that their president and CEO was working in her cubicle. Portmann says the experience provided a bonus for the executives, as well, giving them great insight into how the company operates from the ground up.
“It was so wonderful because a lot of us had never known what the real job was like and to sit there for eight hours,” Portmann says. “We all work hard, but we don’t sit still for eight hours slammed with volume.”
Action, not reaction
Portmann uses proactive thinking to look at problems, and her solutions to the most pressing issues don’t necessarily focus on what someone else should be doing or who to blame when things go wrong. She prefers to think about what she can do to ensure that a situation turns out the best way possible.
In the case of the Christmas Day dilemma, she thought about potential problems such as a high absentee rate, and then led by example by manning a phone.
That sort of thinking has brought the company phenomenal growth since Portmann became president and CEO of Stream’s predecessor, ECE Holdings, in 2002, and is a big part of what has made Stream a $400 million company today.
Under Portmann, ECE blossomed due in part to a merger with the much-larger Stream in 2004. Portmann’s philosophy on growth is to buy companies that have what her company needs rather than try to build from the ground up. It’s faster and easier to do it that way, Portmann says.
“We had a grand vision at the time,” Portmann says. “(ECE) had four centers in the U.S. and one in Dublin, and that was it. We said, if we’re going to make it, we have to be international and global. We had this vision of what we needed if we could have an open checkbook. We shared that with our equity owner, and lo and behold, Stream comes on the market.”
Running inbound call centers is challenging because of high turnover rates, but Portmann takes a proactive approach to recruiting and retention issues, too. Some jobs require technical knowledge to support a client’s product or service, but hiring the smartest person isn’t always the smartest move.
“The very best techies are sometimes the very worst for our company,” says Portmann. “They hate dumb customers, they hate answering the same questions five times, so we always say, ‘Hire heart and train to technical.’”
She also thinks ahead when it comes to call center employees.
“You have entry level jobs, so you’d better have really good processes,” says Portmann. “When a person comes in and interviews, what I want to do is train her, get her on the phone and milk her and get her productive for as long as possible. We have built models that say we plan for attrition.
“We know that the average tenure in Dallas, Texas, is nine months, so we know that when we get to six months, we’d better start building another class. ... You can’t be nave about it. You have to plan for it and accommodate it.”
Rebuilding the spirit
To build the new Stream, company leaders started by re-energizing the company with a new mission statement, colors and other things designed to give the company its spirit back. The work was done by Portmann and two key executives no consultants involved.
“We literally rebranded, remissioned, reimaged, remessaged the entire company, and we did that within the first 90 days,” Portmann says. “We called it the new Stream, and our whole mantra was, let’s put the spirit back in.”
Portmann’s goals after that were to create new processes to make sure that no matter where in the world a call was answered, it would be handled the same way, mostly in terms of the attitude of the person handling the call. One large client, Portmann says, has calls answered at 12 call centers around the globe, and Stream needs to handle all of those the same way.
“Wherever you go in the globe, if Stream is the one doing the support, it’s the exact same support model, whether it’s India or France or Italy or Spain or Germany or Canada or the U.S.,” Portmann says.
Stream created a list of 18 specific behaviors and practices it wants to see modeled in those who answer phone calls. The company looks for those behaviors during the hiring process but also spends considerable time and energy on ongoing training on those behaviors.
Managers listen in on calls and give feedback to employees, focusing on those traits. Also, Stream requires each of its 24 call centers in 14 countries to spend 15 minutes every week discussing one of the core behaviors the company wants to see in employees, and employees are invited to share experiences as to how they’ve implemented the behavior on the job.
After standardizing the way the company handles calls, Portmann began thinking of ways to differentiate Stream from its competitors. With some 4,500 companies offering tech support services, Portmann wanted a way to draw companies to Stream and help the company grow.
One avenue that’s helping Stream bond to its existing customers and lure new ones is a program Portmann calls “The Voice of the Support Professional.” Once a year, she asks all of the agents in the call centers what feedback they would give to their clients about their products. Those comments are passed back to the client for evaluation.
“It’s so cool,” Portmann says. “The clients now say, ‘When are you going to do the Voice of the Support Professional? We’re going to fly people in for that.’ If you think about it, we talk to their most important constituent every day, and that’s their customer.”
Another strategy is a program called RGM, or Revenue Generation Management. Portmann says it is changing the way her clients are thinking about their tech support operations.
“When you call for help, you come into my store,” Portmann says. “We have programs, at the end of any technical support call or customer service call that cross-sell, upsell or pitch something that might generate revenue. ... It has transformed the call center from an expense to a revenue-generating channel.”
The program also generates revenue for Stream.
“Americans love to buy,” says Portmann. “It works better with the Americans than anyone in the U.K. We’ve done correlation of the data, and customer satisfaction is higher when I ask you to buy something. It’s amazing.”
For the future, Portmann sees chat support growing, even more so than e-mail support, as chat is instantaneous. Right now, chat and e-mail support comprise about 15 percent of the company’s business.
“It’s starting to get its own rhythm,” Portmann says. “We are literally starting to staff chat like we do voice. ... I think there will be continuous movement in chat.”
Portmann’s proactive strategies are working. In 2004, before the merger with Stream, ECE had about 1,500 people employees and $70 million in revenue. Today, Stream projects 2006 revenue of $400 million and 12,000 employees. Portmann anticipates revenue growth of 20 percent a year as the company hones its focus, bonds with clients and uses new tools to bring in new technology-related clients.
Asked for five-year revenue goals, Portmann says that’s too far down the road to project in the technology business. But she’s always looking for growth opportunities, both through new clients and through buying other call centers.
“The additional opportunity for us is expansion into geographic markets and finding better, faster, cheaper ways to do things so that we can eke out higher levels of profitability,” Portmann says.
How to contact: Stream, www.stream.com