Auto dealer Tony Chapman harbors no illusions. Chapman, the general manager of Toyota Scion Lincoln Mercury of Hollywood -- part of a chain of eight Los Angeles dealers -- knows that most people consider car salesmen pushy, obnoxious, and not particularly trustworthy. Still, he is convinced his dealership is different -- and he spends about $100,000 a month in advertising to spread that message. In addition to generating foot traffic, the ads drive some 70 calls a day to the dealership's sales and maintenance departments.

A couple of years ago, Chapman started recording those calls to see how his employees were performing. He got an earful. He heard sales reps who mumbled, used bad English, and were just plain inept. He realized his team needed an intervention. He hired professional eavesdroppers from the recording service he was using -- a monitoring firm based in Kirkland, Wash., called Who's Calling -- to do further snooping. On top of bad grammar, they heard reps who missed sales opportunities and lacked basic knowledge about cars on the lot. Chapman was dismayed. "If a potential customer has a bad call," he says, "98% of them just hang up and go elsewhere."

Phone reps are a fact of doing business, and in many cases represent the first contact a customer has with your company. Indeed, in a cluttered world where one company's product can be nearly identical to another's, quality service is often the deciding factor for finicky customers. But do you really know how your operators are behaving? Hiring a professional snoop is a good way to find out. "We have no agenda other than making sure they're providing quality service," says Cheryl Thibault of At Random Communications, a call-monitoring firm in West Cornwall, Conn.

Only about 2% of customer calls are monitored by an outside auditor, according to experts, and all of it's done without a monitor ever stepping foot inside a client's office. Software is set up to tap the phone line and even capture what's on an operator's computer screen during a call. As long as they have an Internet connection to access the digital files, outside monitors can work anywhere, even on another continent.

Dissect a three-minute phone call, and there's a good chance you'll find loads of glaring mistakes, says Mike Schrider, president of J. Lodge, a monitoring service in Hammonton, N.J. Schrider's 40 analysts have heard it all -- from drunk callers serenading agents to reps belching in midcall (and not excusing themselves). Operators are awarded points based on factors such as how they verify their identities, how they greet callers, and how often they repeat a customer's name. They also get points for qualities like empathy and patience. A snippy comment like, "If you were listening to me, you would have heard..." results in a red flag on a rep's report card. So does yelling, swearing, or hanging up -- by either the agent or the customer. Even typing too loud can earn a deduction.

Monitors also get a daily dose of domestic life. Screaming kids, barking dogs, heated arguments between husbands and wives -- it all comes through over the receiver, says Signe Aguirre, an analyst with BPA International, a monitoring firm in Cedarhurst, N.Y. "I don't think people realize how much we can hear," she says. Some calls take on a soap-opera quality, with agents and customers flirting and exchanging phone numbers. (Depending on the client, Aguirre may alert the rep's supervisor.)

Companies typically sign an ongoing contract with an outside monitor, though in some cases they can arrange a one-time audit. After collecting and evaluating evidence, monitors help clients fine-tune their operations. At Chapman's auto dealership, for example, a SWAT team of customer service pros from Who's Calling swept in and, in several training sessions, taught employees proper phone etiquette. They showed them how to promote the dealership's reputation and how to overcome sales obstacles. The strategy worked: Today, six months after beginning the monitoring, Chapman says staffers speak more clearly, are more polite, and know how to convert a phone call into a face-to-face meeting. "It's not perfection yet," he says. "But it's significantly improved."

All this snooping doesn't come cheap. Monthly charges depend on how many calls are monitored, the length of each one, and the complexity of the analysis. Steven Mangino, director of customer service for HealthCare Partners, a management services firm in Garden City, N.Y., expects to pay about $1,400 a month for a monitor to critique 10 calls from each of his 14 agents. That's a bargain, he says, considering it could cost as much as $100,000 in software and equipment to do the monitoring in-house. Plus, a monitor can store recordings and evaluations in a database, making it a snap to track an agent's performance over time. "The data is at your fingertips," Mangino says.

Chapman is particularly fond of that aspect. Every day he logs on to Who's Calling's website to listen to audio files of recent calls. When he stumbles on one that's a standout, he e-mails a copy to his staff. He saves some of the duds, too, and uses them for training. Who's Calling's technology also allows him to assign different toll-free numbers to each ad campaign, so he can track which ones generate the most calls. The dealership's bill from Who's Calling comes to $1,500 a month.

Recently, Chapman tracked the success of a promotional flier about a weekend sales event. Not only could he see that about 50 calls came in because of the flier, he could also listen to how his agents handled them. Did they talk up the event or treat it like just another call? The good news: Chapman's staff hyped the sale and landed 17 appointments. The even better news: Six new cars rolled off the lot that weekend -- and, Chapman hopes, the reputation of auto dealers got a boost. "It's not just about selling cars," he says. "It's about selling the business and how well we take care of people."

Call Center Etiquette

Faster Isn't Always Better

Customers are willing to wait as long as 60 seconds to have their calls answered, as long as reps can respond competently to their questions, according to research by TARP, a customer service consulting firm based in Arlington, Va. Just don't keep them waiting more than 90 seconds -- that's when satisfaction starts to decline significantly.

Follow Through

Your call center is only as good as your back-end operation. If a rep tells a customer that a package will be shipped in two days, make sure your distribution center fulfills that promise.

Go Off-Script

Many call center workers rely on scripts. Be sure your reps are also prepared to answer a variety of reasonable questions about your company's product or service. If they don't know the answer, it's better to put a caller on hold briefly than to give an inaccurate or vague response.