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Providing Stellar Service

The days are "intense" with "little downtime" for Caroline Mowen, senior manager of customer service, which includes store communications and systems support, but that's part of what makes her job so exciting. Mowen oversees a team that serves as a help desk to Valero Corner Stores, manages a customer service group and sends out internal store communications.

She begins a typical day between 6 a.m. and 8 a.m., and ends her day between 6 p.m. and 8 p.m., depending on the deadlines she faces. At the start of her day, she tackles any "fires," such as systems problems, which she noted have reduced in frequency as Valero Retail adds more stable software systems.

Mowen speaks with vendors to ensure any issues brought to the help desk by Valero stores are addressed, and talks with area managers to solve customer service issues. She also e-mails memos to stores from a dedicated e-mail address.

One recent memo included information on the pistachio recall, detailing which SKUs needed to be pulled from the stores, while another alerted stores of a potential gift card scam discovered by a store manager and relayed to the store support system.

As senior manager of systems support, Mowen also oversees and meets weekly with two supervisors who directly manage the agents who answer and troubleshoot phone calls from the more than 1,000 Corner Stores located west of the Mississippi River. The team works staggered shifts covering 18 hours a day, 365 days a year.

The help desk division uses a software system to create digital tickets detailing stores' problems to be solved by the team. Agents then use the Compass knowledge base to find solutions to the problems in those stores.

Customer calls are initially received by the company's eight-person pricebook team, which follows guidelines in the Compass knowledge base to provide answers to callers. If needed, a ticket is escalated to area managers when it involves a store experience, requiring immediate attention, or the call will be handled by the two members of the customer relations team. The customer relations team addresses product concerns and corporate related issues, like fuel prices and fuel availability. This team also addresses any fuel quality concerns with customers. Several years ago, Mowen put a fuel claim process in place which holds mechanics accountable for any claims about fuel causing needed repairs. Through this claim process, most of the claims are never returned and the customer will call back indicating that it was not a fuel related issue.

As part of her position, Mowen works to make software programs more efficient, consistent and simple, so agents can rapidly troubleshoot calls, provide consistent answers and not be hampered by cumbersome technology or confusing instructions.

"My job is truly to ask 'How can we do it better?'" she said. "I love challenging myself to figure out how to do things another way." She views providing a "higher level of service to stores" as her job responsibility, and her favorite part of the job is facing challenges.
To make sure consistent answers are given, Mowen and her supervisors evaluate call center agent performance. Through monitoring performance, improved troubleshooting can be identified. This process is facilitated by the Quality Monitoring system, which records all calls placed to the support center and the actions taken on the agents' computers when responding to calls. If inconsistencies in answers arise or new problems are discovered, Mowen can create a simpler guideline for agents to follow, add instructions for new issues, or even get a vendor involved in the solution.

To make agents' jobs easier, Mowen is currently working with her systems specialist to coordinate the implementation of a new ticketing system that relies less on agents typing in tickets manually, and instead dynamically creates support tickets based on buttons and drop-down boxes, along with automating processes currently done manually. That system is awaiting the final stages of approval by Valero, and once OK'd, can be rolled out by the vendor in 30 days. The system will first go to customer service, and then be implemented with the help desk team. She expects it to be fully operational by October.
The new system will also organize customer service records by customers, rather than stores. Under the current system, there is no efficient way to determine if a customer has made multiple calls to the call center. By organizing the tickets by customer, it will allow Valero to pinpoint a caller's needs and address them regardless of which stores they visit.

One of Mowen's goals is to move call center agents to other parts of the company. "My promise is to give them the tools needed to move up," she said, adding such tools may be education or skills training. She views her store support department as an entry point for a career in Valero Retail. Seven of her 15 help desk agents are currently in school, and the majority of them also work full time.

-- Joined Valero as a customer service agent in 2002 after 23 years working with another retailer.
-- Helped change perception of the customer service in the stores by focusing on the positive; grew complimentary calls grow from 1 percent up to 50 percent.
-- In April 2007, took on oversight of the help desk, restructured the team to improve efficiencies, change vendor response time and reduce unnecessary call volume.
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