News | Aug. 28, 2016

More than a Help Desk

By Beth Reece

Michaele Mathews answers on the first ring, thanking her caller for dialing into the Defense Logistics Agency Customer Interaction Center. Within 30 seconds, she gets the first and last name, unit and contact information of the Air Force staff sergeant calling from Joint Base Langley-Eustis in Virginia. He needs a repair part for a grounded aircraft.

Mathews, who’s helped DLA customers order parts and check on delivery status for more than nine years, recognizes the sergeant’s voice and guesses correctly that the part will go to Tinker Air Force Base, Oklahoma. She gets the stock number, quantity needed, priority code and other details needed to complete a service ticket.

“Ok, let me look up the information and see where we can get it from,” Mathews says, scanning logistics systems on the two computer screens before her while asking the sergeant about his plans for the upcoming holiday weekend. She completes the order as he talks about taking his family to an amusement park. 

“Our agents are multitaskers who like working with people. They have excellent computer, research and communication skills, and the ability to stay calm and collected, even on difficult calls,” said CIC Chief Penny Young. 

Located at Battle Creek, Michigan, the CIC is DLA’s “one-call resolution center.” About 80 percent of the 1,200 to 1,600 contacts that come in daily are related to supply and transportation. One caller may need to place an order; another may need help using the Department of Defense’s electronic procurement site, known as DoD EMALL. The rest include inquiries about excess equipment managed by DLA Disposition Services or questions from vendors wanting to do business with the government.

For many customers, the CIC — at 1-877-DLA-CALL — is a fast way to reach a human operator and avoid being routed through an automated system with numerous and often frustrating prompts. Agents answer calls in less than 30 seconds, and call-handle time rarely exceeds 13 minutes.

“We’re very proud of the fact that about 70 percent of our calls are resolved immediately,” said Raymond Zingaretti, director of DLA Information Operations’ Logistics Information Services Division, which oversees the CIC. Calls about more complex matters like contractual issues and backlogs are escalated to DLA field activities, and a response describing how they’re being processed is sent to customers within 24 hours.

Matthew Badger, research specialist, is one of about 110 agents at the CIC. He considers it more of a help desk than a call center and said agents avoid saying “I can’t” or “I don’t know.”

Calls from troops in Iraq and Afghanistan have proved to Badger the importance of placing customers’ orders correctly and quickly. He’s heard bombs explode and sirens wail while looking up information about critical repair parts needed on the battlefield.

“I was helping a gentleman a few years back when, all of a sudden, I heard mortar rounds going off. You could hear the desperation in his voice, but he had to stay on the phone to get his order in and make sure his unit got the necessary parts,” Badger said.

The CIC is a consolidation of what was once several help centers with different phone numbers operated by each of DLA’s supply chains. It became a 24/7 operation the day of the 9/11 terrorist attacks. Shamon Pratt remembers the phone lines being eerily quiet for a couple of days; then they rang nonstop, and management hired more agents to the handle the influx of calls. The staff understood that troops needed supplies fast as they readied for deployment, Pratt said. Troops weren’t the only ones calling.

“We got calls from people in the Middle East saying unkind things and tying up the lines so customers couldn’t call in and get support. In a way, the war came to us,” Pratt said, adding that CIC officials quickly found a way to block such calls.

While most calls are from service members in the supply field, agents occasionally hear from callers with odd requests. One recent caller asked to be issued an up-armored vehicle because he was going to run for president. It sounded like a prank call, but the agent calmly explained that DLA doesn’t issue up-armored vehicles to the general population.

“DLA Disposition Services does, however, make excess equipment available to other federal agencies and some equipment like Humvees available to the public through commercial ventures like govplanet.com. There are other agencies that will handle these types of questions, and we actually go out of our way to find somewhere to direct callers,” said Darrin Costello, a customer support team lead.

The call could have also posed a security threat, depending on the caller’s intentions.

“You have to take all threats seriously and report them to the appropriate agencies. In those situations, we capture the information the caller provides, try to end the call as quickly as possible and turn the issue over to security,” Costello said.

Agents like Sara Gorham, also serve as examples for handling difficult callers. Although she and other agents admit to being nervous about taking their first calls, Gorham said agent training, which lasts five to six weeks, prepared her well. The training familiarizes new agents with DLA’s business portfolio, as well as requisition types, and the automated systems needed to place and track orders.

After training, new agents spend about three months taking calls alongside a seasoned agent. Gorham assisted callers with such authority and speed in her first weeks working solo that her supervisor asked her to join the mentoring team. While not working alongside new agents, she takes about 20-30 calls  on busy days and eight on holidays.

Gorham recognizes the effects good customer service can have on DLA’s reputation and service members’ success. During a recent call from a Marine corporal asking for the whereabouts of his order, Gorham scanned several logistics systems but couldn’t find the answer. She knew the corporal would have to wait at least 24 hours for a response if she forwarded the service ticket to DLA Distribution for resolution. Instead, she gave him the shipper’s name and phone number and a bill of lading number, indicating the particular vehicle the goods were placed on.

“If you don’t get an answer from the carrier, call us right back and we’ll escalate your ticket to DLA Distribution. But I think you’ll have some luck and probably get a faster response by calling the shipper directly,” she told him.

Data collected during calls is also analyzed by Logistics Information Services’ Customer Outreach Branch to identify areas where customers may need informal or hands-on training, such as when DLA assumed logistics support for the Forest Service in 2014.

“We had to teach them to know what information was needed on EMALL and in what format. We also created a spreadsheet that matches the data they use for their supply system with the information we need,” said Tracy Nance, a lead customer support specialist. CIC personnel continue teaching firefighters how to use EMALL and will train them, or any customer, via phone, she added.

The war in Iraq is over and fewer troops are deployed to Afghanistan, but the CIC continues 24/7 operations with agents split among three shifts.

“We have folks all over the world who need assistance, so we can’t just check out at 5 p.m. What time is it in Korea or Germany? Even when it’s Thanksgiving or New Year’s, there’s still somebody in harm’s way who might need us,” Costello said.

And customers value the service, according to automated surveys. Satisfaction rates are at 90-100 percent, with agents’ knowledge and willingness to go out of their way to help being among the most complimented features of the CIC.

Young, who’s worked at the center since 1998, said she heads to the office each morning confident that she and those who work for her play a meaningful role in supporting America’s military and other federal customers. Even Gorham, with just one year on the job, said she can’t imagine working anywhere else. She takes calls with a wide smile callers can’t see, but the warmth in her voice can be heard. Most of her calls end with the customer saying “Thank you.”

“You’re welcome; it’s my pleasure,” she always replies.