Forecast Stormy

Companies respond to turbulent customer service conditions

Customer service is like the weather: everybody likes to talk about it, but nobody seems to be able to do anything about it.

Despite innovations in customer care and electronic billing and payment, most companies interact with their customer base just as they did 20 years ago. The customer calls to place an order, the provider mails a bill, the customer mails a check and, if problems crop up, the customer picks up the phone.

Stranger still, many companies set up online customer care channels, encourage users to try them — and then ignore them, says Dave Daniels, an analyst at Jupiter Media Metrix and author of a recent survey examining the state of business-to-business (B2B) customer service.

Jupiters research found that only 41 percent of B2B companies answered basic e-mail inquiries within six hours. Only half of those answered accurately, and 29 percent didnt bother to respond to e-mail at all.

In a slowing economy, why would anybody blow off an inquiry that could be a sales lead? Daniels has no idea. "Slow and nonresponsive companies are really not building trust in the online relationship," he says.

A quick cruise through the shoals and riptides of customer care found a few trends worth examining:

Service providers are asking vendors to help them cut the cost of their interactions with customers — without driving away customers.

The days of the flat rate and the freebie are gone. Getting people to pay for what they use — content, wireless minutes, downloads by the byte — will be the next big thing. And everyone that touches the content, including Web portals, service providers and hosting companies, will want a piece of the revenue.

Everything needs to be easier. "A lot of providers are constrained by their infrastructure," says Jennifer Fellows, director of strategic marketing of ADC Telecommunications software systems division. "Theyre looking at their back office and going, Dear God, what have I created? "

Give Customers the Tools They Need

Outside of gas stations and soda machines, self-service has a long way to go.

One-third of B2B companies fail to list a toll-free support number on their Web sites, the Jupiter survey found. While 65 percent say they offer online self-service, all but 2 percent are stagnant FAQ pages. Companies want customers to use the less-expensive online resources, but if those resources are thin, the message comes through loud and clear: Buzz off.

"They havent centralized their servicing operations. They havent invested in infrastructure — or only at the business unit level," Daniels says.

While the latest helpdesk and e-mail automation software is context-sensitive, collaborative and self-learning, many companies rely on "some form of Outlook on steroids" to answer e-mail. Text chat — more interactive than e-mail, but far less expensive than telephone support — is only being used by about 4 percent of companies, Daniels found. And this is in B2B — the land of sophisticated users and big-ticket transactions. "From a consumer perspective, it doesnt look very good," he says.

Netonomy put a new spin on the old customer relationship management cliché: the 360-degree view of the customer. Wouldnt it be great, the company said, if customers had a 360-degree view of the product or service?

Telecom Italia, Vodafone Group and other wireless companies in Europe and Latin America have signed up for Netonomys customer-managed relationship tools, says Eve Kowtko, vice president of customer-managed relationship services at the Boston company. Customers can manage their accounts on a variety of devices: PCs, personal digital assistants or any telephone through voice-response. Provisioning, trouble reporting, billing and service management are all included.

By pushing routine customer care traffic to the Web — 80 percent of inquiries involve things such as address changes — call centers can concentrate on trickier questions. "You can get a payback within three months," Kowtko says.

Englewood, Colo.-based Expanets just launched a contact center management system that uses speech recognition, intelligent routing and some clever tweaks to keep customers happy while cutting costs. "The most natural interface is talking," says John Cosgrove, Expanets vice president of strategic marketing.

Customers hate waiting, so Expanets Smart Connect product allows a customer to key in his or her phone number and retain the place in the queue, while taking the customer off the expensive toll-free connection. Companies can flag inbound inquiries from their most important customers and route them to their best representatives.

Research among midsize customers in 29 vertical markets told Expanets that companies knew they had contact-center problems, but didnt know how to fix them. A taxi company in San Diego had a 42 percent abandonment rate; a little research showed that when the call volume got too heavy for call center workers, "they solved the problem by disconnecting the customer," Cosgrove says. Both tools and training were called for.

Another approach, taken by San Francisco-based NetDive, is to track a customers movement around a Web site and proactively contact him or her through instant messaging, e-mail or even a phone call.

NetDive CEO B. Dean Ansari says that e-commerce companies havent taken advantage of their capacity to see how customers browse their sites. NetDives CallSite Enterprise with LiveTrax triggers alarms based on the movement of the customer, prompting a pop-up text window that invites questions, and perhaps a co-browse to other pages.

Ansari doesnt see his companys products as intrusive. He envisions them as being more like a retail salesperson who knows where and when to approach. "Some people like to go to a store and be left alone," he says. "But if youre ignored in Neiman Marcus, that is a horrible relationship to have with a customer. Its all about supporting and enabling and helping, not about spying on people."

Stop Giving Away the Store

As the internet business matures, access and transport are becoming commodities. Many in the telecom universe think that it wont be long before almost all providers will collect fees for content and services on a pay-per-use basis, whether the platform is a wireless device or a corporate Intranet.

"A year, year and a half ago, if you talked about paying for content, they would think youre from outer space or something," says Pablo Tapia, founder and CEO of Apogee Networks, a billing and settlement software company based in Saddle Brook, N.J.

The fee-for-content arena has focused on wireless, as carriers make plans to deploy a host of personalization options and data services. But nearly every segment of the communications business — from Web hosting to online news sites — must wrestle with the question of how to price and bill for what they sell.

The process involves unprecedented levels of negotiation — between networks, between applications and among partners. "Rating is a great area of discussion," says Darren McKinney, senior manager of mobile market development at Amdocs. Settlement is another overlooked area "where theres real risk for revenue leakage."

With its promise of massive bandwidth, third-generation (3G) wireless gets all the attention, but McKinney notes that 2-1/2G systems are where the real revolution is taking place. "Theyre bringing a packet-switched product into an existing circuit-switched environment," he explains. "They look to their incumbent support systems, and the answer is varying shades of no."

Bill Within the Enterprise

In times of economic uncertainty, businesses look for money in interesting places: headcount, bridge loans, even the snack budget. But viewing information technology (IT) as a revenue center has occurred to only a handful of people.

The expense of network connections, bandwidth and computing power tends to get lumped into the IT budget, without regard for who might actually be using those services. Tapia has a better idea: pay-as-you-go.

NetCountant Accountability, a module of Apogees flagship NetCountant billing and settlement product, allows an enterprise to bill and collect for Internet Protocol (IP) network usage by workgroup.

By assigning costs to internal departments, companies push accountability out to the department as well. When IT managers get a clear view of which departments are moving packets and when, they can manage network resources more efficiently, giving incentives to some departments to shift bandwidth-intensive tasks to slower times of day.

HighDeal, a Redwood Shores, Calif.-based division of France Télécom, focuses on a similar niche, but with a twist. Its product, Clickn Deal, generates and runs pricing models that enable service providers to charge fees based on many different variables — such as usage duration, specific content accessed, time of day, service levels and promotional offerings.

The product was developed as a rating, billing and revenue management tool for service providers, but HighDeal co-founder and CEO Serge Soudoplatoff sees charge-backs within the enterprise as a market niche that has barely been explored.

By using Clickn Deals pricing models, an enterprise can parcel out costs by division. For example, a companys little branch in Ohio pays for the five e-mail accounts it uses, while its marketing department pays for the Macromedia Flash graphics and streaming video.

France Télécom developed the technology in 1997, then spun it off into HighDeal. Clickn Deal users can create dynamic pricing plans within a drag-and-drop interface, test them in a simulation environment that forecasts revenue and margins, then activate or change the plans in real-time.

In Europe, Clickn Deal is used by application service providers, IP telephony companies and electronic media. In North America, where the flat-rate Internet pricing model is more deeply entrenched and the need to increase profits is acute, Soudoplatoff and his colleagues sense money to be made. "What is strategic is pricing, not billing," Soudoplatoff says.