Podcast #5

Employee satisfaction
leads to better
customer service

Kevin Kvech
Director of Customer Care & Sales COE – AMTRAK

About this podcast

In this episode, we interviewed Kevin Kvech, Director of Customer Care & Sales COE of AMTRAK.

We chat about how AMTRAK is dealing with COVID-19 and how their customer service staff has staying power – with employee satisfaction comes better customer service.



Explore the power of AI and NLP
for your customers and agents

Interview Transcript

Welcome to the Future of Customer Service Podcast. I’m Andrea Palten, from Inbenta and I will be interviewing customer support and service professionals to see what is currently working well, what issues they’re trying to overcome, and the future success of customer service.

Andrea Palten
Today, we have Kevin Kvech from Amtrak. Thanks so much for being here. So, Kevin tell us exactly what do you do for Amtrak?

Kevin Kvech
So, I have basically the Reservation and Sales Center of Excellence and so our site is located in Philadelphia, a longstanding call center if you will. I’m responsible for reservations. So, customers call in not only for reservations but for Amtrak Guest Rewards. So, we have a rewards program. We don’t service the credit card, but we have a partnership with the lender in regard to the Guest Rewards Program. We have other special deals as well. We do group sales, refunds, escalations, and then again, the sales component, which is really we book a lot of revenue obviously for our travelers. So, I have all that, back office, phones, email chat, SMS, kind of all the typical channels that you might find.

Andrea Palten
So, you’ve got everything. Tell me how long has Amtrak been around?

Kevin Kvech
So, I believe since ’72. Amtrak was established and is funded by Congress. We’re a quasi-government agency so our funding comes from the government. This year it’s amazing because prior to COVID, this was the first year that Amtrak was going to turn a profit. So, our revenues were off the charts. This was a big year. Every other year of its existence Amtrak has posted a loss and in the span of 90 days with COVID our ridership was dropped and we’re obviously not going to post a profit this year. 

Andrea Palten
Oh, you were so close.

Kevin Kvech
So close. We’re hoping to come through this in a couple of years, but we’ll see.

Andrea Palten
Yeah. I think you will. I think people are going to be really interested in traveling really fast, really soon once everything is a little bit more with vaccines and a little bit more “normal again”.

Kevin Kvech
I agree. I agree.

Andrea Palten
So, tell me, Kevin, what have you done to promote great customer service in your organization?

Kevin Kvech
So that’s kind of a loaded question. I’m new to Amtrak and so you’re coming in from the outside and I’m not a legacy Amtrak employee. The average tenure for an agent in our call center is probably about 15 years which you don’t normally find. But in terms of promoting outstanding customer service, it’s a twofold kind of approach for me. First is communicating internally what people call the call center and we’ve rebranded to a certain extent using a center of excellence, which was a common term you would find, or customer experience center so that people internally understand what it is that we do. We don’t just take phone calls. It’s different channels, we’re serving internal customers as well, the office of the president, we’re servicing our conductors and people out in the field in addition to customers that are calling in and booking.

So, I think communication is key in order for people to understand, and to really drive outstanding customer service throughout the organization is important, but people have to understand what it is that you do. Then really to drive the experience I’m focused on and it’s a brand set philosophy, but I believe focusing on the employee experience. So, you need to make sure that your employees are happy. Other things kind of take care of themselves once you are tending to your employees. Their experience drives the customer experience and you’ve really got to be focused on that and that’s how you really drive service forward. 

Tools and technology are awesome but in terms of the one-to-one interaction, in terms of an agent, it’s important to focus on the employee experience. The technology and the other stuff depends on Gen X or millennials or whoever that you happen to be talking to in terms of the technology that they want to want to use. So, it’s a combination of still focusing on employees in the service and the interactions, the technology, and really staying close to your customers and giving them the things that they want in terms of how they want to interact with you.

Andrea Palten
Yeah. You said something interesting. When you first started answering this question, you said that some of your employees have been there, customer service employees for 15 years which is rare. The turnover is much faster and higher. So, you’re obviously doing a good job with what you just said you’re doing as employee satisfaction. What makes it so much nicer to work at Amtrak in the customer service department? Why are people staying for 15 years? Is there something specific that you guys do to make people excited about being at work?

Kevin Kvech
Well, I can explain, I don’t know if it’s being excited at work, but the reason the tenure is so high and we have had people that with 20, 30, close to 40-ears worth of tenure, and we give out the service awards. The reason being is that we are a union shop. So, out on the call center and predominantly throughout the entire organization, they’re agreement employees. So, there’s obviously a lot of benefits to being a union employee. Their raises are automatic, and they have a lot of perks and so people are working for their benefits and for the monetary gains that they get from the position. So, yeah, we have people that it’s the only job they’ve ever had and it’s the only job that they want. The perks there are significant for them.

Andrea Palten
That’s great. So, let’s talk a little bit about having limited resources. Almost all organizations do either have limited resources when it comes to time or resources, tech, that type of thing. How do you deal with that?

Kevin Kvech
So, I think that they’ve started the journey over the years in terms of enhancing the self-service tools so that things are more efficient. It takes less of what we would consider the typical agent and see taking the phone call. Again, I started talking about this, depending on if you’re Gen X or a millennial or what generation you come from. People like to blame everything on the millennials. You’ve got to have a digital journey and I find for the millennials, they just want to interact with you in the way that’s most convenient for them. I’m obviously not a millennial, but I’m the same way. If I’m at work I’d like to use chat because I can multitask. If I’m at home, I don’t mind picking up the phone and if I’m really lazy then I want to email. 

It depends, but that is part of also looking at your resources and how you fill in some gaps with automated tools, with AI leveraging a really good IVR and providing efficiency for some transactions that happen in bulk that don’t require a lot of attention or a lot of work to get those done. So, like I said, when I came to Amtrak, they had really started on a journey with the self-service tools. I look at the functional areas and how we are able to consolidate to get efficiency and better leverage resources because, in our shop, it’s very siloed within the call center by design because of the union agreement. So, for our different specialty desk, for example, it is very siloed. So, we look at that to try to get efficiency back by combining some of those functions.

Andrea Palten
Yeah. That makes sense. That makes sense. So, how do you measure success?

Kevin Kvech
So, yeah. That’s another loaded question, right? It’s the typical KPIs. We talked about contact centers, centers of excellence, people are looking at NPS or VOC, and then we’re looking at handle time, transfer rates, first call resolution. So, we look at all those typical things in terms of the success of the organization. For us also, because we take reservations, and we book travel we also look at revenue. So, we look at revenue, the agent’s revenue, reservations per hour, and normally we book millions of dollars of revenue every month. So, that is a big kind of a view in terms of success as revenue for us. But also, I mean, I think that the other part of success is really monitoring social media to see if your customers are happy.

So, looking at the data that you get from social media or from VOC and from NPS looking at verbatims. So, that data, getting your insights, and then developing an action plan to fix things or look at pain points for customers. A lot of that success is looking at the survey data down to the agent level to really look at agent behaviors and work to change them if you need to or modify agent behaviors really to drive the customer experience. So, for me, I gauge a lot of our success when I ride the train because I talk to customers. So, sitting next to somebody, I don’t always have my Amtrak lanyard on. I’ve had a couple of opportunities to speak to people at length about changes we’ve made and it’s the same thing.

We do a lot of typical surveys and NPS for the call center, but we also do it for onboard services. So, people that are riding the trains where they are happy with the accommodations and the linens and the towels and the food and the whole experience if it’s long-distance or if it’s a commuter run. We’re getting really more into the habit of getting that data almost real-time. So, we’re working on some of the strategies where we know that they’ve just gotten on the train and we may text them a survey. So, we’re getting more up-to-date information. So, it’s a whole compilation of what I would call legacy KPIs, and then really getting the direct customer feedback to really gauge your overall success, the same thing you look at. We look at complaints. Are we driving complaint data down, complaint volume down? Are we doing root cause to fix the customer issues? And just being responsive to really address the customer needs.

Andrea Palten
Yeah. That’s really interesting. You guys are doing quite a bit. I love that you can actually go on the train and talk to people and you can have that real-time, real conversation, which for most of us we send out Survey Monkey surveys, and everything’s online. There is no customer interaction when we get that feedback. So, that’s really valuable. That’s really interesting that you can do that.

Kevin Kvech
Yeah. I find it interesting. I mean, people hit me up on LinkedIn if they have an issue and I’m happy to figure out what the problem is and get it fixed for them. Again, I’ve been on the train a couple of times where just talking to the person sitting next to me and I’ve talked to this woman who had been riding the rails for 20 years and we’d made some food changes and she didn’t like it. It’s really great to give that kind of feedback because it really does give you an indication if you’re doing a good job on service all around because we have a lot of different components. It’s not just calling into the contact center. There are different things the customers are looking at.

Andrea Palten
So, Kevin, as a thought leader in customer service and customer care, tell me, what do you think is the future of artificial intelligence when it comes to customer service?

Kevin Kvech
So, I think that’s different for everyone. I was really surprised because I think if you think of a track and a train, you think of that as a legacy company. Some things were a little behind the times, but we have deployed some really good AI. So, our IVR can book your reservation for you and if our agents have questions our AI can answer questions for them and things like that. So, we have a good partner, and we have some robust AI in there. That was part of the self-service offering to get things to run automatically. 

I think AI provides really some dynamic problem-solving. So, obviously eliminates wait times and AI knows the answer. For if you identify your top 20 drivers or maybe even top 50 drivers, those answers are defined and AI can handle that, no question about it, 100%. Then a lot of it I think is the conversational process. AI can go deep and understand what customers are asking for. In some cases, they’re able to respond quicker, better, faster, and correctly versus an agent. So, a lot of that is the AI learns and it doesn’t forget. It learns trends. It learns characteristics that can be used in future interactions, so it gets better. It’s machine learning, a component of AI, it learns as it goes. 

So, I think for a lot of folks it’s really becoming comfortable with AI is not a robot. AI in a lot of cases is seamless to a customer and it can handle these repetitive interactions correctly, 100% track every time. The customer’s happy and can leave the more complicated stuff for an agent or it can transfer to an agent if you’re using a bot to complete it. So, I think the future of AI, I think it’s only going to continue to get better. I think people need to learn about it and figure out how it works in their organization. 

They have to evaluate their customers too. I say this all the time, my kids don’t want to talk to anybody. They don’t want to pick up the phone, but my dad, who’s now almost 80 is going to want to pick up the phone every time. So, know your customers and provide the channels and the things that they want, that they’re going to want to interact with you on and that if you’re using AI that it’s set up properly, that it doesn’t feel strange if someone’s going through the process.

Andrea Palten
Yeah. That’s so important and that natural language processing that we do at Inbenta, that’s something that’s just so different than when you have the robot mechanical sound. So, I love that, and I like that you really are paying attention to your customer and what age group and what their preference is. If you just want to do one thing, but your millennials are going to be left out or your seniors are going to be left out. That’s not good, especially for Amtrak, which, I mean, you guys have probably every single age group using it. 

Kevin Kvech
We do and the other thing that I caution people to is that if you’re looking at potential technology, please make sure that it’s AI and not branching. So, there are a lot of technologies that people would call AI and it’s not. It’s an if/then statement that’s running down, basically a decision tree. It’s not learning. It’s not true AI and so you have to evaluate your technology carefully, make sure it meets your needs, and make sure that it’s true AI. I think that some people fall into those pitfalls because it looks good and it seems simple, unexplainable, but it’s not really the technology that they need.

Andrea Palten
Yes. Oh, so true. So true. I love that you said that. All right. So, Kevin my last question for you. What is the number one advice that you have for customer service departments?

Kevin Kvech
So, I started talking about this at the beginning of our conversation and it really is to focus on the employee experience. So, employees in the call center, because, at least today still have agents taking phone calls but they need the best training. They need the best tools, the best work environment, best recognition programs to drive the employee experience, drive the customer experience. It is to drive the happy within the organization. You drive happy to your employees and that comes through to their customers and that also includes whoever’s programming your IVR or who’s implementing your technology, making sure that you’re recognizing efforts. We have done that. Since I’ve been there, we have relaunched some of the employee engagement programs, employee recognition programs.

I would say that for a customer service department, it is driving the employee experience and providing leadership. I think one of the things you see if you troll LinkedIn or you read some articles, especially in this age of COVID are the people that really provide leadership. So, even in a customer service organization, I think for any department or any place that you work, leadership becomes really critical. So, you have bosses, and you have people that do things, but we need people to step up and be leaders, COVID has really shown that. 

I’ve had some experiences this year that I never thought I would have to deal with and have really has been a focus within our building to make sure that we are using the right cleaning protocols, and we have the right cleaning supplies, and that we are enforcing social distancing. They’re the components of the work environment but really, again, what I’m trying back to be a leader. Lead your teams, communicate clearly and that’s part of driving the employee experience because today part of my responsibility is to make sure everyone is healthy and safe. So, it may have not necessarily been a focus in the past, but certainly is a focus today.

Andrea Palten
Yeah, that’s great. I really, really do like that, that employee experience is so important because that does directly translate to the customer experience, if the employees happy or not.

Kevin Kvech
It does, it really does. It’s key and I just find that again, if you provide your employee with everything they need to do a great job and you’re recognizing them then everything else takes care of itself. They are happy to deliver an outstanding experience for your customers. and they will always go the extra mile above and beyond because they’re proud of the job that they’re doing, but they’re proud of the organization that they work for. They’re proud of the leadership that they’re under and so if you provide all of that to them really you’ll have a loyal employee who’s doing a great job every time.

Andrea Palten
Yeah. Excellent. Well, thank you Kevin so much for being here. I really appreciate your time. 

Kevin Kvech
Yup, no problem, enjoyed it. 

Andrea Palten
All right. Have a good one. 

Kevin Kvech
Thanks.

Thanks so much for tuning in. This podcast was brought to you by Inbenta. Inbenta Symbolic AI implements natural language processing that requires no training data Inbentas extensive lexicon and patented algorithms. Check out this robust customer interaction platform for your AI needs. From chat, bots to search to knowledge centers and messenger platforms. Just go to our website to request a demo at inbenta.com, that’s I N B E N T A.com. If you liked what you heard today, please be sure to subscribe to this podcast and leave us a review. Thank you.