Speed Dial By Dana Coffield Also looking to compress time are the communications services companies.Russ McGuire, a strategist at TeleChoice, a communications consultancy in Tulsa, Okla., says getting services turned on in a timely manner is among the most critical issues for communications companies today. Because it can take months for some services to be provisioned, worried customers often place orders with several carriers. "When one delivers, all the other orders are canceled. The problem is multifaceted, but e-commerce is at the core of the solution," McGuire says."Customers order the service and track the status of the orders through a Web interface. That order is translated into automated provisioning activities within the carriers own network, and usually results in e-commerce orders being placed with other carriers for portions of the service that are off-Net," he says. "Success - resulting in rapid delivery - increases revenue and, perhaps more importantly, speeds up the cycle time between when an order is received and when the customer begins paying." WorldCom CEO Bernie Ebbers has made the carrier the top communications company on this years Interactive 500 list, with $6 billion in online revenue. Until two years ago, WorldCom focused its e-commerce strategy toward the consumer market. But in April 1998, the telecom giant began rolling out online tools for commercial customers through its WorldCom Interact portal. WorldCom Interact at first offered online account management, and added electronic billing late last year. Later this fall, the company will begin beta testing an online ordering system that will allow customers to track orders from start to finish and help large operations to decentralize telecom management and order on the fly. "As customers need to add capacity, they can do it in a proactive, aggressive manner," says Michael Tusa, WorldComs executive manager of product marketing. "We are confident its going to be a big hit. "I think customers have really turned the corner in their Internet awareness, to the point where a lot of our development is being driven by customer-specific visions," Tusa says. "The number of online IDs within Interact has more than doubled in the last 12 months." At Qwest Communications International, another top Interactive 500 company, the number of online orders has doubled in 2000, according to Hal Wolf, vice president for e-commerce. Qwest, which reports a combined $250 million in online sales from "classic Qwest" and its merger partner, U S West, offers services such as ordering, change of service and repair ticket initiation, as well as such basic convenience services as online directory assistance. Wolf says the issue is customer convenience and the payoff is customer retention. "Its very simple: We provide the services the customer needs on their schedule, at their convenience, using any method practical for them." Wolf says the merged Qwest is carefully selecting "best-of-class" features from the old Qwest and U S West sites to help improve Web-based services for both residential and commercial customers. The more difficult part of that effort is to develop effective tools for commercial customers. "Residential customers . . . are easier to undertake than business customers, which may have tens of thousands of lines across many states," Wolf says. "Its not as easy to put them online as you would like." Indeed, ISPs have complained recently about Qwest services. But dealing with businesses is work worth doing, says Beth Gage, a strategist at TeleChoice. "There is so much room for improvement, and there are a lot of different benefits," Gage says. "Some may result in direct savings on installation; others may generate customer good will, making them feel like a valued customer, not a second-class citizen."