Eliminating the Middle Man

Web-based care aids telecom customers

In an era when customers can order books without speaking to a human, they are expecting — at least some of the time — the same level of automation from their communications service providers.

Do-it-yourself Web customer service has begun to arrive in the traditional telecom world. Carriers are increasingly offering their customers the ability to interact directly with their systems using a Web interface. The new links allow corporate information technology (IT) managers to order ser-vices; analyze, dispute and pay bills; and manage their networks.

"Any time you can take the middleman out of the process — thats good," says Michael McHenry, vice president of information technology at Phar-Mor, a Youngstown, Ohio, retail and online pharmacy with 139 brick-and-mortar locations. McHenry uses AT&Ts Interactive Advantage Web portal service primarily to send and track trouble tickets. "If I have a tool on the Web, then it is easier for me to take care of something the moment I need to, instead of making three phone calls and playing phone tag. If I can, Id rather use the Web."

McHenry is not alone. In this high-pressure world of scarce resources and rising bandwidth demands, many IT managers would like to skip the human customer-service agent and input directly into the systems that run their networks.

The carriers are listening. "The bulk of our customer relationship management [CRM] focus is moving to the Web," says Mike Marcellin, director of eCRM marketing at WorldCom. "We have heard from our customers from top to bottom. They want to deal with WorldCom on their own terms, in their own time frames and from their own desktop."

Long-distance carriers AT&T, Sprint and WorldCom already offer online customer service, and AT&T and WorldCom are preparing to expand their offerings. Local incumbent carriers Qwest Communications International and Verizon Communications also have plans to add to their online customer-service tools.

While the demand is clear for Web-based CRM, "today, there is uneven adoption within the communications industry," says Sanjay Mewada, director of telecom e-business at The Yankee Group. "Those markets with the most competition are offering much more robust features than those without competition."

In fact, newer competitive carriers were the first to offer customers online interaction tools. From their inception, DSL carriers offered customers the ability to check online to see if service was available in their area. Early on, Teligent, a Vienna, Va., start-up, rolled out e-magine, a Web-based billing service that provided customers with near real-time access to call detail, by categories such as accounting code, destination, employee and originating number. The service included a reverse lookup that would tell companies from whom their calls came. A year later, the company added ordering and trouble-ticket capabilities.

"When we first put this up, we werent sure if anyone would use it," says Phillip McKinney, who was the founding chief information officer at Teligent. "But we believed that we could change the customer experience. Users are so much more sophisticated today. They dont need or want to talk to customer-service representatives who cant translate what theyre saying.

Competitive Edge

Today, most local and long-distance carriers offer some sort of web-based CRM.

"It is universally accepted that customer care and CRM will be important to how carriers will compete," Mewada says. Historically, it costs carriers four times more to acquire a new customer than to maintain an existing one. "Since CRM exists to lower churn, it is ironic that, in the industry with 25 to 30 percent churn, more hasnt been done. It has been adopted at a much faster rate, and historically to a much larger extent, by other vertical industries, such as financial services."

But carriers are starting to offer more services. WorldCom customers, for example, can manage telecom and data networks online through the WorldCom Interact Portal. For starters, customers can view, download andanalyze their traffic problems. "We can analyze it pretty close to real-time," says Shawn McGovern, telecom analyst at HSN, formerly the Home Shopping Network, in St. Petersburg, Fla.

WorldCom voice customers can reroute calls to a new call center, open trouble tickets, pay their bills and order more services. On the data side, customers can open trouble tickets, and view their network usage of private line, frame relay and Asynchronous Transfer Mode services.

But customers dont always choose to interact online. When a problem exists, HSN calls a toll-free number for WorldComs larger customers. "They have a little more pull to say, Lets work on this right now, " McGovern says. "In a queue, it might be a half-hour before a person actually sees it." Plus, McGovern thinks its easier to discuss network issues in person. "All carriers use different lingo, and as a customer, I have a different lingo."

McGovern says she would consider trying to share that lingo over an online chat. In the next few months, WorldCom will enable customers to communicate with customer service reps using e-mail and online chat services.

Speed is important when it comes to e-mail; analysts warn that most customers expect an instant response to their messages. "They have to respond to e-mail within two hours," says Bob Chatman, an analyst at Forrester Research. "Customers expect several round-trips of e-mail a day so that they can get issues resolved."

AT&T is also focused on resolving customer issues quickly by providing Web-based customer care. "Customers are going right into the customer care or provisioning system," says Jim Hale, AT&Ts vice president of CRM. "It shortens the time from ordering service to installation."

Late last year, AT&T consolidated all CRM functions for large and midsize businesses into a single organization. In 1999, the telecom giant rolled out its Web-based Interactive Advantage CRM service that today handles 140,000 customers and performs 1.5 million transactions per month. The company is adding about 6 percent more customers each month, driving the transaction growth 3 percent higher each month.

With Interactive Advantage, customers can place an order, change or delete service, change network configuration by rerouting calls or service and view and dispute bills online in real-time. AT&T customers can even see trunk-group utilization for voice services to determine if they need to add or subtract network services for 1-800 calls.

"I think this is great. I just go in and fill out a couple of forms, and send the information in," says Sandy Stojsavljevic, telecommunications specialist at TravelCenters of America in Westlake, Ohio. She does about 20 adds and changes per month, usually two or three at a time, from her desktop Web interface. "Within 10 minutes, I get a confirmation that they received my order and within 10 days, a confirmation that theyve completed my order."

Easier to Report Trouble

AT&T customers say its easier to report outages online. "With the web, customers can get their problems to the expert who can fix them more quickly," says Phar-Mors McHenry. "Its a real advantage to see exactly where theyre putting it in their call log. If were not happy with it, we can go in and escalate it." For example, McHenry can see if AT&T has handed a network problem off to the local carrier. Then he can see how quickly the local carrier responds. "If it has been an hour and a half, and there has been no update from the LEC, we can say, Hey whats going on here? "

There are still times when it makes sense to deal with the account representative or project manager personally. "If Im rolling out 30 stores on frame relay, Im going to let them set it up," McHenry says. "But then Im going to go in and track it."

The AT&T service was initially for voice services, but is expanding into data services. AT&T recently added the ability to view frame relay, Internet Protocol and wireless bills online. By the end of the second quarter, AT&T customers will be able to dispute a bill for IP services online. This summer, AT&T will let customers examine how quickly they can bring up additional service on a network point of presence, enabling AT&T and the customer to plan better. AT&T plans to extend Interactive Advantage to local services "as soon as possible," a spokesman says.

The ability to manage customers will become more important for the Bells and the long-distance carriers as they move into each others markets. Thats especially true for the Bells moving into the more competitive long-distance market. Verizon, which was one of the first carriers to offer long-distance in its region in New York, now claims to be the fourth-largest long-distance carrier with 5 million customers. SBC Communications, which can offer service in Texas, has 2 million subscribers.

The Yankee Group expects that by years end, regional Bells will be eligible to sell long-distance in eight to 10 more states, including Oklahoma and Kansas, where SBC got permission to offer long-distance starting March 7.

How Incumbents Fare

Among the incumbent carriers, Verizon is focused on CRM as it moves into its next stage of competition. Verizon is making a major push for a Web CRM portal this year. "All the customers tell us they want a window to our operation," says Bill Stinson, senior vice president of the E-Business Group for Verizons Advanced Services and Enterprise Business Group.

The company is consolidating the Web portal services that Bell Atlantic and GTE offered before their merger. It is something for which customers are yearning . "It would be helpful if that same platform applied to the GTE services," says Brian Lem, senior analyst at Zephion Networks, a BroadBand Office affliate that provides network infrastructure. Lem uses Verizons online billing service to track BroadBand Office installations and billing charges.

Online billing and online repair are the first things that will be in the new Verizon-consolidated CRM platform during the second half of 2001. Next, Verizon will expand the portal, creating a collaboration environment for the customer and Verizons customer-service teams and its own internal business-to-business marketplace for acquiring, deploying and managing customer voice and data networks.

Customers will be able to order a private branch exchange or router online, and then manage the deployment of the equipment. Verizon is creating eXtensible Markup Language interfaces to allow companies to easily export data to Ariba, Commerce One and other procurement systems. "The Web doesnt replace face-to-face," Stinson says. "But this will make it easier to work on a big project together when people arent face-to-face."

The Verizon portal will include different access levels for different people within an organization. For example, a technician might have access to trouble tickets, a purchasing person to ordering services, and a CIO or telecom manager will have access to the entire site.

It also can provide access to consultants who work with clients.

"I used to wait a couple of days to a week to get bills from customers," says Michelle Taub, project manager at National Telephone Planning, a telephone consulting firm based in White Plains, N.Y. "Now, my clients dont even have to send me the bill. It takes me five minutes, and I often find errors before they get their bill."

Taub wants to see all carriers offer similar services. "Verizons service is good because they actually have it. It is easy to set up and easy to access." Taub has tried to get a similar service from SBC, but the company says it wont be able to offer Web access for four or five months. "Verizons was set up in two days," he says.

SBC says it will improve its offering. Currently customers can provision new phone lines, business phone equipment and systems, Internet access and DSL. SBC also lets customers order phone-line features such as call forwarding, call waiting, caller ID, calling cards, priority ring, speed dial, three-way calling, toll-free services and voice-mail. In Kansas, Oklahoma and Texas, customers can also order long-distance service online.

Though SBC does not yet let customers initiate trouble tickets, they can view their status online.

"The carriers are building the right interfaces to let customers do business in a richer way than they have in the past," Mewada says. "Does it mean they will be an innovator? I dont think so. They have a long way to go to catch up, and it will take awhile."