Online Manual

Background: I was employed as a Customer Service Representative at TalkAmerica (now Cavalier) for a couple of years. The online manual (that is, the infamous “scripts” that CSRs use) was so poorly designed that my technical background compelled me to do something about it. Thus, the following letter:

Proposal for Improving the Online Manual

I am currently employed at TalkAmerica as a Customer Service Representative (Inbound Local/Long Distance) in the Palm Harbor facility. However, I have for the majority of my professional life worked as a technician and, since such experience has certainly not proven necessary for my current position, I feel I am being greatly under-utilized. Moreover, I cannot help but make observations from the critical, troubleshooting technician’s point of view. Therefore I would like to present to you some elements of the day-to-day operations of the call center which I consider to be problems, as well as a solution to these problems.

These elements can be divided into two categories: 1) the online manual, and maintenance thereof; and 2) interdepartmental communication.

The current online manual, WebView, is quite superior to the FTL manual we had been using when I started here in November of 2000. So poorly thought-out was the FTL manual to my mind that I was compelled to design a working model for a replacement of the FTL manual, in the form of web pages which were uploaded to my personal webspace on America Online. However, shortly before I was ready to present the model, a meeting was held in which we were informed of the new WebView manual. I was quite surprised to learn that the new manual was strikingly similar to my re-design (I was also somewhat gratified, seeing that someone responsible for the new design was thinking in essentially the same direction as was I). Nonetheless, much room for improvement remains. For example:

1) Inbound Customer Service Reps must constantly flip back and forth between the CS-Inbound and Local rebuttal guides. This is currently a two-step operation in which the Rep must first click on the Home Page icon of the manual’s toolbar, which brings up a panel of all the available guides, then click on the appropriate link. This method is not only unnecessary but also time-consuming, as it takes several seconds for the home page to re-load; a better approach would be to simply have both these guides under a single link; the Rep could then flip between the various guides via a simple frame at the top of the page. Note that a similar frame currently exists in the Local guide, offering links to the Inbound Local, Inbound Long Distance and Specialized Departments portions of the manual. (The Specialized Departments link brings up rebuttals completely unrelated to the Inbound Rep’s tasks, and so is another example of the poor layout still remaining in the manual.)

2) The most-often used Billing rebuttal is I canceled; why am I still being billed?; thus it ought to be at the top of the Billing rebuttal list. Currently, it’s in the 13th position on the list, and the Rep must scroll the window to access it. Moreover, it was recently moved to the 13th position from the 12th position without notification or explanation.

3) The Wrong Billing Telephone Number rebuttal, its closing in particular, takes an approach fully 180 degrees from what is needed. This rebuttal clearly presumes that the caller is someone who, by personal intent, is in fact our customer and is supposed to be billed for our services; however, the vast majority of callers on this issue find themselves, through either error or fraudulent intent, being billed for services they’ve neither requested nor received. Yet, the WBTN rebuttal only gives such a caller an abrupt statement regarding “your next invoice.” Logically, this must mean the TalkAmerica invoice, but the caller isn’t interested in an invoice; he wants to know that the erroneous billing will be stopped, possibly refunded, and would like some idea when.

These are but a few of the more obvious areas where the current online manual could stand some improvement. Of course, I realize that such a manual can never cover literally every possible customer need in an absolutely perfect manner. What I am concerned with here is a continuous fine-tuning and tweaking of the manual; bringing the relatively weak parts of the manual up to par with those areas that work well. The first step in accomplishing this is of course determining which parts are weak and in what manner. For this, regular feedback from the floor is needed, which brings me to my second category for discussion: interdepartmental communication.

In particular, I am referring to communication between those who are responsible for maintenance of the online manual, and those who use it daily. What I see as the problem here is, to be completely blunt, a complete lack of opportunity for feedback from the users of the manual regarding both its verbiage and its structure and layout. I have been informed that Quality is the department responsible for the maintenance of the online manual. I find it very odd that this department does not seek to learn from the users of the manual what changes need to made, nor whether made changes are in fact improvements. Again, I admit I am viewing this with a technician’s eye (and, perhaps, a technician’s bias), but I am accustomed to a work environment in which the various departments meet on a regular basis for input and feedback on the tasks at hand.

Thus we now come to my solution: I am interested in heading a new team, separate from Quality and in fact taking over full responsibility for the online manual; and by full I mean not only the feedback issue I’ve discussed but the physical maintenance of the manual itself, the actual coding of the online documents, thus enabling the team to immediately implement proposed changes, rather than merely suggest them to another entity and so adding yet another delay into the improvement process.

This team would on a regular basis interview small groups from the various floor departments. These interviews would be conducted over two to three days, to ensure that the majority of employees had an opportunity to voice their concerns. These interviews would take place every two months; I think a one-month cycle would be too short to adequately judge the effectiveness of changes. This new team would then review & examine the input from the interviews to first determine which data are legitimate concerns and which are mere gripes, then create test models of the changes. These test models would be used by randomly-selected members of each floor team, so that the usefulness of the changes could be measured against the standard manual.

The staff of this “Manual Group” would consist of personnel who, like me, are members from regular floor departments, thereby ensuring that those now responsible for the manual’s upkeep are those most familiar with it through daily use. Each department would be represented by at least two members (with the possibility of three or more for any given department that is significantly larger than the others); the need for representation from each department is obvious, as I could not expect, for example, an Outbound Sales member to fully understand concerns regarding the Collections portion of the manual.

The sinlgemost important qualification of the members of the new team would be an analytical and critical mind; the ability to not only form his or her own rational and logical opinion regarding a perceived weakness in a given rebuttal, but also to determine whether a suggestion offered during an interview is reasonable and can be practically implemented. A secondary qualification — secondary in that it not necessary for all of the members to possess it — is at least a basic level of skill with HTML, so that the team would of course be capable of actually maintaining and updating the manual. Experience with full-powered software is not truly needed, but members should be able to build a moderately complex page, featuring such elements as frames and tables, using a simple text editor such as Notepad.

One further detail regarding the operations of this Manual Group is that its members would actively maintain their familiarity with the manual by using it on a regular basis. In conjunction with the interviews described above, the team members would also spend a minimum of two to three days each month back in their former floor departments. This will ensure that, along with the necessary analytical approach, each team member would thus retain that important “user’s point of view” so as to reliably understand forthcoming complaints and suggestions in future interviews. It would also give the opportunity to test the model changes in a live usage environment.

In summation, the current online manual, while notably superior to the version used in November of 2000, still contains many weaknesses, the greatest of which being the lack of communication between those who use the manual and those who maintain it. It is suggested that maintenance of the online manual be transferred to a new group, staffed by members from various floor departments, who demonstrate sufficient knowledge of HTML, and who would bring much-needed user experience to the task.

Original document written in 2001; this online version copyright © 2016 Designs by Gus