Teresa F. Lindeman - Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
It's Friday night and you crave a pizza. You call the corner shop and a guy
who sounds like he's tossing dough, slamming oven doors and in rush takes your
order for a large ham and green pepper with an order of wings on the side.
For the past half century, that has been the norm. But technology, efficiency
experts and a chronic shortage of willing teen employees is pushing pizza makers
to try solutions that are turning the transaction into something more akin to
ordering a swimsuit from Lands End.
With a growing number of pizza call centers setting up around the country,
customers dialing the local shop now may be placing orders with a person in
another state. A Domino's franchisee in eastern Pennsylvania uses a center in
Oklahoma. At Vocelli Pizza's call center in Scott, Pa., orders come in from
Virginia, Florida, even Dormont.
The call center concept is not new to banks, credit card companies, collection
agencies, even satellite TV companies that have set up cubicle-filled buildings
with banks of phones everywhere from McKeesport to India.
But it is still relatively fresh in the restaurant business, where interest
is growing - both Hardees and McDonald's hamburger chains are testing remote
systems to take drive-through fast-food orders.
For a restaurant operator buried in pizza dough during a Friday crush, a call
center can be invaluable, offering relief from the constant interruptions of
But the introduction of the centers is not coming without its share of ruined
orders and upset stomachs.
Call center staffs have been reported to send orders for Main Street in one
town to Main Street in a neighboring community or even another state, leaving
drivers lost and with a load of food. Some callers complain about listening
to recorded advertisements for 15 to 30 seconds before they hear a human voice.
Some restaurateurs report business has sizzled since they have addressed a
weak link in the industry's customer-service chain by using call centers to
answer more phone calls more quickly and more politely. But other franchisees
are resisting, arguing the call center programs cost too much except in very
busy stores, give franchisors too much control and may not be more efficient
if every order has to be checked at the store for accuracy.
Varol Ablak, president of Scott-based Vocelli, began moving his company into
the call-enter mode at least four years ago when a test of a few stores showed
a significant increase in sales. Now, the company has a 39-seat call center
in Scott Towne Center, with another 20 seats set up in its headquarters nearby.
Ablak estimates the company and its franchisees have invested more than $1
million in the call center and its technology.
During a recent tour on a late Friday afternoon, customer service representatives
at the center sat under a sign that said, "This week's focus item - Breadsticks,"
and repeatedly asked pizza customers, "Would you like breadsticks with
Upselling, or getting consumers to buy more by suggesting additional items,
is aimed at increasing sales, and call centers are expected to do that more
consistently than rushed in-store workers.
Meanwhile, a quality control staffer listened in on calls, while a row of supervisors
handled customers with complaints.
A colorful screen on the wall flashed like a stock market ticker, tallying
the number of calls in progress (15), the average duration of calls (2.11 minutes),
the day's total calls (1,565 ... 1,574 ... 1,585 ...).
The system is also set up to track when drivers depart with deliveries and
flash when orders still in the shop are getting dangerously close to the promised
delivery time. "It's a tremendous tool to see your entire operation,"
Ablak sees it as a good marketing tool, too. By moving all of Vocelli stores
in a market to a single 800 number, it becomes easier to streamline advertising
materials and easier for customers to remember where to call.
In the past several weeks, Vocelli - known as Pizza Outlet until 2003 - began
standardizing coupons and specials that its stores offer in part to reduce the
confusion at the call center. Each franchisee still sets his or her own prices.
Dan Davis, a Domino's pizza franchisee for the past nine years, began six months
ago using a call center in Oklahoma for his store in Ephrata, a community east
of Harrisburg. The call center he chose caters to Domino's restaurants although
it is not operated by the company.
Davis is generally pleased with the arrangement, but he sometimes has had to
remind call-center personnel that he offers salads, something not all the franchises
do, or that he is not accepting certain specials. The staff in Oklahoma also
can get confused in recording directions to help delivery drivers in Ephrata.
Davis' contract requires him to pay 4 percent of sales that come through the
call center. If the call center makes a mistake on an order, Davis does not
pay the fee.
That has not been the case at Vocelli. Some franchisees, none of whom wanted
to be quoted criticizing the company, said they get little redress for mistakes
made by customer service reps. They have to pay for pizzas that can not be delivered
and for make-good orders, plus pay phone fees that started at 60 cents per call
and now run about 75 cents per call.
Ablak defends the policy, arguing it is difficult to determine who made the
mistake - the customer, the call center or the store. "I do believe there's
less errors downstairs (in the call center) than the stores can make,"
Vocelli's goal is to keep mistakes at less than 1 percent. Ablak said the call
center handles about 30,000 calls a week, with an error rate of 0.4 percent.
Copyright Scripps Howard News Service 2005