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Fortis brings jobs home to Burnaby

Utility company employs 200 people at new call centre in Willingdon Park

An employee waving a red flag would be cause for alarm at many companies but not at FortisBC.

The utility company opened call centres in Burnaby and Prince George in January and has been training its new staff to answer calls from clients.

The red flag means a customer service representative is unsure how to best answer a question from a caller and needs a manager to clarify the best response, explains centre manager Martyn Yarwood.

Opening the in-house call centres was a challenging undertaking, one that took about two years to implement.

Terasen Gas Inc. - which took on the FortisBC name last March after it was combined with FortisBC's other holdings - outsourced its customer service through Accenture from 2002 until the end of 2011.

This meant the company didn't have its own framework or protocols for running the in-province call centres and has spent the last two years preparing a plan.

The plan has included intensive training at the newly opened centres, according to Yarwood, with customer service representatives spending two weeks in the classroom for every two weeks working on the floor.

Aside from the occasional red flag, the call centre in Burnaby is a calm sea of neutral colours and soft blues, with images of employees decorating the walls along with positive feedback from customers.

The centre was built to LEED gold energy and environmental standards.

The background noise is kept at a low hum, due primarily to the well designed, state-of-the-art dividing walls, Yarwood says.

The call centre also provides desks that can be adjusted for sitting or standing, chairs specially designed for comfort, seating and rooms for taking a rest or checking personal email, gyms in the lower part of the building, and large lunch rooms.

As the Burnaby call centre is located in the Willingdon Park complex, employees can use the park shuttle to get to and from the Gilmore SkyTrain station and Brentwood Town Centre, Yarwood says.

The call centre, which employs about 200 people, has been well received by customers, many of whom had told FortisBC they were tired of calling customer service representatives outside the country.

"Customers that have talked to us are very pleased with this work being done in the province, bringing it back in-house," Tom Loski, vice-president of customer service, says.

"We in fact even had one customer who told us she waited to call us on Jan. 3 just so she could speak to a FortisBC employee here in the province," he adds.

The centre started accepting emergency calls at midnight on Jan. 1 and started accepting general inquiry calls at 7 a.m. on Jan. 3.

"By bringing this work back in-house and back to the province, we're hoping that we're going to better meet the expectations of our customers," Loski says, "and we really think we're going to be able to achieve that by having this work back in-house.

"Things have been going quite well," Loski adds.

The company picked Burnaby for its call centre in the Lower Mainland primarily because it is so accessible, he says.

"We're no strangers to having operations here in Burnaby," he points out. "We have a longstanding operations centre on the corner of Boundary and Second (Avenue), and we've got about 200 employees there, as well."

The company received about 13,000 applications for the 300 or so positions at the two call centres, Loski says, with about 10,000 of those for the centre in Burnaby.

He attributes the interest to FortisBC's reputation as a good corporate citizen and a good employer, he adds.