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On the frontlines at the UC Customer Service Center

Imagine you’re at your desk and the phone rings. It’s a UC retiree calling, looking for help with his open enrollment form. As you patiently walk him through his health care options, you look at your phone and see a digital readout: 44 more callers are on the line, waiting for help.

Welcome to the front lines of the UC Customer Service Center during November’s open enrollment period, when the phone calls are unrelenting.
“You just handle it call by call,” said Trisilenia Smith, one of eleven customer service reps who handle the deluge of calls. “I don’t like to rush the person I’m on the phone with. I take my time with a client and make sure they understand everything,” she said.

UC’s customer service center is one of those rare places where callers still reach a live person. There is no push-button maze to navigate and you never have to speak to a voice-activated computer to get the help you need.
Which means every customer service rep needs to be able to handle any kind of call.

“The Retirement Association and others have said they really don’t want to push buttons,” said Director Joe Lewis. “It compels our people to be generalists. They deal with everything from someone who needs their password reset to a person who doesn’t understand his Blue Cross bill.”

The UC employees and retirees who call are often amazed to get a live person, said Eva Hom, who has worked in the customer service center for 13 years – longer than any other rep.

“They’re really grateful for it. They will say, ‘Is this a real person? Wow. That’s so nice.’”

Most, but not all callers, are retirees. Many of them have become hard of hearing. They often don’t know how to use a computer and have no way to go online to look at their benefit statements.

The customer service reps take their time, making sure the caller gets as much help as he or she needs, Hom said.

“Even if we have to repeat something ten times, that’s what we’ll do. We’ll explain things in several different ways. We treat them they way we’d like our parents to be treated,” she said.

Over the course of the last fiscal year, the customer service center fielded roughly 70,500 calls or walk-ins and another 12,500 emails. During Open Enrollment virtually all of the inquiries are about health and welfare benefits, but over the course of the year, they get calls as varied as people worrying about how health care reform might impact UC’s benefits to complaints from people who expected a larger pension check.

Of the messages that come in, a surprising number forget to leave a name or phone number.

“Would someone call and explain why they took all my money?” says one such caller, whose message Lewis keeps on his answering machine.

As frustrating as it is to not be able to return a call, however, one of the hardest parts of the job is handling the many calls that come in from frail, older seniors who are alone and have nobody to help them.

“You can hear or feel that there is no assistance around for them,” Smith said. “And there is only so much you can do for them by phone. You want to say can I bring (that form) over to you? I would do it if I could,” she said.

It’s not uncommon for the customer service representatives to find themselves being a sympathetic listener to the worries of their elderly callers or consoling someone who’s spouse has recently died, said Hom.

“They’re in an emotional state and there’s not a lot you can do. We always offer condolences,” she said. “People will say, ‘I’ve made ten calls today and you’re the first person to say that to me.”

The job can be emotionally taxing, and isn’t for everyone, Smith said, noting that in her dozen years on the job she’s seen quite a few customer service reps come and go.

“You have to be a people person to be in this job,” she said.

Hom agrees.

“Earlier today, I had a disabled member call. He was at the social security office and he couldn’t remember his new address. He was so upset with himself,” she said. “I had to calm him down and tell him that it was OK — that he could call us back when he got home,” Hom said. “I had to stay on the phone an extra 10 minutes with him to calm him down. You sometimes need to do some hand-holding.”

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