Fluent phone crew ready with answers Diversity: The Visa credit card staff at Owings Mills says hello worldwide in 20 languages.

December 03, 1997|By Liz Atwood | Liz Atwood,SUN STAFF

Need a doctor in Dublin? Lost your credit card in Cairo? Want money in Montenegro?

Distressed Visa cardholders can call for help any time from anywhere and the Visa International Service Center in Owings Mills will answer.

Here in an office building of Owings Mills Corporate Center are the people behind the plastic. For them, the start of the worldwide holiday shopping season means a flurry of lost, stolen or mutilated Visa cards, and up to 15,000 calls a day for help.

Sitting in low-walled cubicles, the Visa customer service associates tap on computer keyboards and speak into telephone headsets, enveloped in a multilingual murmur.

Conversing in 20 languages, they are a lifeline for Visa cardholders around the world. They order replacement cards, send cash, give directions to the closest money machine and answer questions about perks such as rental car insurance.

All the while, electronic message boards blink the hour in Greenwich Mean Time, and a bank of clocks on the wall records the time in countries throughout the world.

"You never know what you are going to get next," said Natasha Pupko, a customer service associate who speaks Ukrainian, Russian, French and English.

Pupko, who moved to Baltimore from Kiev about a year ago, said the most challenging part of the job is being able to juggle several problems at once. A service representative may handle 100 calls a shift, answering questions in two or three languages.

"It requires an ability to handle multiple tasks," she said. "You may plan 10 times but you never know what will happen."

She has fielded calls from a French tourist in New York seeking directions to the Metropolitan Museum of Art and an auto enthusiast wanting to know where to buy a Ferrari.

More typical of the 9 million calls handled by the service each year is the one from the French tourist who left her card in Bloomingdale's in New York and needed a replacement card sent to her in Washington within two days.

"It can be very interesting," said Beth Waters, a customer service associate who speaks English, Portuguese and Spanish, and who had just finished helping a British tourist who lost his card in Phoenix.

Her customers have included a man who broke his card while using it as an ice scraper and an American tourist seeking medical help for a friend injured in an automobile accident in Nepal.

With 600 million cards and a trillion dollars in sales, Visa has more than half of the world credit card market, said company spokesman Roseann M. Clavelli.

Besides being able to issue temporary replacement cards and arrange emergency cash transfers, the 400-person staff also supports many of the "enhancement" services offered by member banks. They answer questions about auto rental insurance, help cardholders find doctors and give directions to automated teller machines.

The service center has provided support to Visa cardholders for 20 years, but two years ago the operation was acquired from a bank by Visa International and expanded to offer help to callers around the world.

Employees, who usually start out as temporary workers, receive six weeks of training, but need three to six months to become proficient on the job, said Dean T. Fischer, vice president of the center.

Representatives who speak English, French, German, Italian, Japanese and Spanish are on the phones around the clock. Arabic, Cantonese, Farsi, Russian, Turkish and other languages are spoken as well, on a more limited schedule.

"When we had diversity training, the professor who came in from UMBC [University of Maryland, Baltimore County] said he learned a lot from us," Fischer said.

Kulondi Tshimanga, a native of the Democratic Republic of Congo, said she enjoys the diversity of the workplace. "I've met a lot of different people here," she said. "It is rewarding because you speak to people in need, and you can feel it when they're satisfied."

Will Garrido, a native of the Dominican Republic who has been at Visa five years, likes the international flavor of the work, as well.

"You get to talk with a lot of international people in Spain, South America and Asia," he said.

But sometimes, he noted, the callers who reach him are a bit confused.

"They sometimes mistake us for the travel visas," Garrido said. "I had a woman call to say her son needed a passport."

That was one problem the Visa center couldn't solve.

Pub Date: 12/03/97

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