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Chatham’s Discover call center earns top marks from company customers

For Aaron Curtis, getting a job coaching at Discover Financial Services’ new call center in his Chatham neighborhood cut his commute from an hour to 10 minutes.

That means more time for the husband and father of two to spend with his 9-year-old son and 2-year-old daughter. He rarely saw them as he commuted to his job as a call center supervisor at a downtown telecommunications company for the past three and a half years.

“In the morning, I rushed to get to work on time. And in bad traffic, the trip was an hour and a half. Add that to an eight to ten hour shift, and it’s your whole day,” Curtis said.

“When I got home, it was either bedtime or the family was already in bed,” said the 30-something, who holds an associate’s degree in computer science.

Curtis is among 100 employees hired — so far — by the Fortune 500 company in its new office, which last week surpassed the 100-day mark. The milestone isn’t the only thing her staff celebrates.

Employees are predominantly black and Latino, and 79% of them live within 5 miles of the call center at 8560 S. Cottage Grove. This office is a bit of a unicorn, set in a disinvested community, but it’s also a big hit.

The Chatham center beats all other Discover call centers nationally in customer satisfaction, as measured in surveys, and is also at the top in staff retention.

“That tells me we made a great decision,” Discover CEO and President Roger Hochschild told the Chicago Sun-Times. These notes are based on the first data coming from the office.

His business moved into a closed Target store as part of Mayor Lori Lightfoot’s Invest South/West initiative.

The community and many local officials protested when Target announced it would close its Chatham store (left).  But the facility is now a call center for Discover which has the highest customer ratings in the business.

The community and many local officials protested when Target announced it would close its Chatham store (left). But the facility is now a call center for Discover which has the highest customer ratings in the business.

Anthony Vazquez/Sun-Times; Simon Cotton/provided

“It’s no secret that opportunities have not been evenly distributed in our country. Companies have played a role in this,” noted Hochschild.

“We said, ‘Let’s reverse this.’ And it worked even better than we thought.

The company, 223rd on the Fortune 500, has 17,600 employees, mostly located in call centers in Arizona, Delaware, Ohio and Utah.

Discover’s first new customer service center in 20 years, the Chatham office also exceeded expectations with a tsunami of job applications. More than 1,000 were received in 72 hours for 20 management positions. More than 3,500 were received for 120 agent jobs.

For Aaron Curtis, getting a job coaching the newly opened Discover call center in Chatham cut his commute from an hour to 10 minutes, meaning more time for Chatham's elderly father 30 years old, to spend with her 9 years old.  his eldest son and 2-year-old daughter, whom he has rarely seen, on his way to work downtown for the past 3 1⁄2 years.

Aaron Curtis’ hour-long commute to work was cut to 10 minutes when he was hired as a coach at the new Discover call center in Chatham.

Construction continues on the 126,500 square foot facility. Discover, based in Riverwood, plans to have 1,000 employees in Chatham by 2024.

“How many stories are you hearing about how hard it is to find people right now? These numbers of applicants reinforce that the people are out there. You just have to bring them the jobs – and look what you find when you do,” Hochschild said.

“When you give great talent an opportunity, that’s the kind of performance you can see.”

Discover’s bold bet on economic equity is being watched.

“I’ve had other business leaders approach me to see how we’ve done it. A real magnifying glass for us will be to inspire other companies,” said the 56-year-old CEO, who took the reins in October 2018 after 14 years as deputy chief executive.

The commercial bank and financial services company has also increased spending on minority and women-owned businesses, creating a new model at the Chatham office that is now being exported to other locations.

Three-quarters of its construction contracts have gone to minority or women-owned businesses – as have nearly all of the facility’s operating expenses.

At its 100-day mark, the Discover call center in Chatham beats all other Discover offices nationwide in customer satisfaction, as measured by surveys, and staff retention.

“It tells me we’ve made a great decision,” Discover CEO Roger Hochschild said of Chatham’s call center customer satisfaction ratings.

This required significant outreach from a company that made $12.9 billion in revenue last year.

Training on supplier opportunities was organized jointly with Ald. Roderick Sawyer (6th).

“Vendor diversity is important,” Hochschild said.

“We’ve learned to break our offerings into smaller chunks because these companies are smaller. That way they could actually bid,” he said. “We can now implement some of these best practices in our other centers and hopefully improve minority-owned business spend across the business.”

Local businesses receiving support include nearby restaurants like Harold’s Chicken in Chatham and El Ranchito Tacos in Englewood, which held a festive celebration at the office on Wednesday.

Shamika Jackson, like her colleague Curtis, is grateful that her work as an associate training specialist is close to home. It’s 10 minutes from her home in Jackson Park – compared to her previous one-hour drive downtown, where she worked 10 years as a trainer and registration specialist for a national association.

The 37-year-old single mother, who holds a master’s degree in data analysis, now comes home in time to cook dinner for her 14-year-old daughter and help her with her homework.

“In my previous position, I was the subject matter expert. If there was a need within the company regarding my area of ​​work, they would come to me, but I was in a position where I had hit a ceiling,” Jackson said.

Shamika Jackson of Jackson Park is grateful that her work as an associate training specialist at the recently opened Discover call center in Chatham provides opportunities for advancement.  The 37-year-old single mother, who holds a master's degree in data analysis, says in her previous job:

Shamika Jackson, of Jackson Park, is a training specialist associated with the Discover call center in Chatham.

“For me, it was an opportunity to grow. There’s this stigma that African Americans in low-income communities don’t want business opportunities. If opportunities are given to us, we will excel.

Invest South/West aims to create more such opportunities in 10 of the city’s most deprived neighborhoods: 40% of Chatham families live below poverty; its unemployment rate of 15.7% is almost double the city’s average.

It is struggling with an increase in crime, as are many neighborhoods in Chicago.

Tax incentives helped attract Discover to Chatham. Now it offers jobs with starting salaries of $17.25 an hour. Comprehensive health insurance, a 401(k), and free tuition are available for full-time hires.

Eventually, the center should process 10 million calls per year. So far, the centre’s first team scores 93.9% in customer surveys, compared to 89.7% at other centres.

“It’s the highest in the business,” boasted regional operations manager Juatise Gathings, a Roseland native whose family fled Chicago for better opportunities when she was a teenager. The 31-year-old has moved from Utah to lead the new office.

“I started with the company as a frontline customer service agent while attending college to become a teacher. It was to be a temporary job while I finished my studies,” she said.

Juatise Gathings, Regional Operations Manager, is proud of her staff at Discover's newly opened call center.

“Our agents here in Chatham have the highest scores of our five call centers,” said Juatise Gathings, regional operations manager for Discover.

“But I fell in love with the culture and the people. I started working all the way to management and never left,” Gathings said. “But you know, there was always an urge to go home and do more work in black and brown communities, especially after George Floyd and the whole racial justice movement last year.”

One of his hires said landing a job there was like grabbing a lifeline after being laid off due to the coronavirus pandemic. Account specialist Brock Thurman, 24, lost his job as a sales specialist at a Northwest Side bank in November.

“I applied for the very first class of hires here, but it was too full. Didn’t get it initially, but reapplied. In my previous job, I was in the top 1% of sales, so I knew I was qualified to succeed and even excel in this job,” Thurman said.

Thurman, who attended college for two and a half years, is optimistic about his future.

In August, he moved from his mother’s house to a two-bedroom apartment in Lincoln Park.

“It’s only been good for me since I got this job. It reassures me that I’m fine, that I’m making the right choices in my life. It also showed me that I can create the life I want for myself. I don’t have to look for how – I’m able to do it,” he said.

“And I absolutely plan to take advantage of the tuition.”

Brock Thurman, 24, from Austin, was able to secure his own apartment in Lincoln Park, after being hired as an account specialist at Discover's new Chatham office in June.  The somewhat unicorn office, located in a disinvested southern community, beats other Discover offices nationwide in customer satisfaction and loyalty surveys.

Brock Thurman, 24, from Austin, was able to secure his own apartment in Lincoln Park, after being hired as an account specialist at Discover’s new office in Chatham in June.

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