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August 1, 1999
Carriers, Customers Connect Via ‘Click-Here’
By Susan Helen Moran
Under a spring agreement with Just In Time Solutions, San Francisco, AT&T Corp. is
poised to offer its 70 million residential customers web-based billing and customer care.
With this move, the long distance giant will transform what was once a differentiator for
smaller competitive service providers into an expectation. Laggards are officially on
notice that they must move quickly to embrace web-enabled customer care as a minimum ante.
Even early adopters must make plans to deploy newer, more sophisticated methods of web
care to maintain their value-added edge over larger carriers.
Many carriers have taken the leap and invested untold amounts of money in new Internet
bill presentment and payment (IBPP) technology, in which they can see the cost advantages
of eliminating paper and postage for thousands of monthly invoices (not to mention the
reduced cash float for receipt of payments). However, most have yet to install but the
simplest web-care capabilities.
As the Internet bill is an obvious entry point for web-based customer care inquiries,
experts predict it is only a matter of time before these Internet billers will deploy
web-care systems, which can range from frequently asked question (FAQ) databases and
e-mail response tools to proactive real-time text chat and even Internet telephony (see
Levels of Web Care
There are several levels of web care, from simple to sophisticated:
Self Care: Customers find answers to their questions themselves through
Push Care: Customers are sent information to their e-mail address by the
E-Mail Response: Customers use a pop-up e-mail screen at a company’s
Real-Time Text Chat Care: A customer types questions into the company’s
Call-Back Care: A customer keys in his or her phone number on the
Internet Protocol (IP) Tele-phony: A customer, equipped with a PC,
These tools will transform the traditional customer service models from a defensive
(reactive) to directed (proactive) approach, say analysts at Forrester Research,
Cambridge, Mass. (see table, below). Directed customer service, they say, is based on
Attacking customers’ uncertainty, not just their problems;
Weaving service into the sales and marketing cycle; and
Empowering customers to play an active role.
Web care potentially can reduce costs for carriers who use the new technology.
One carrier that has leveraged web-based technologies in its call center is PRIMUS
Telecommunications Group Inc., McLean, Va. In May, PRIMUS opened its new call center,
which supports 175 sales and service representatives and uses web-based technologies to
minimize customer care and acquisition costs, while providing high levels of customer
service. The center uses PRIMUS’ web-based provision and sales software, along with call
center software from Nortel Networks, Richardson, Texas.
New Commerce Site Customer Service Model
Providers must migrate from
Directed Customer Care
Service customers with human reps
Provide service with information systems
Phone, fax, e-mail
Monolithic: primarily customer-to-rep
Multifaceted: customer-to-site, customer-to-customer, customer-to-rep
High fixed, high variable; one rep for every X customers
High fixed, low variable; one rep for every 10X customers
Telephone and e-mail automatic call distributors (ACDs), interactive voice
Knowledge bases, wizards, proactive e-mail tools, e-mail auto-response
Source: ICT Group Langhorne, Pa.
"When business is growing fast, it is always a challenge to efficiently scale call
center needs. This new state-of-the-art call center allows us to better manage staff
requirements for our highly successful marketing campaigns," says Doug Weeks, general
manager of international consumer markets for Primus.
In fact, the new web-care model calls for considerable changes in call-center metrics.
Once carriers switch to web-based care, it is expected that the easier questions will be
handled through various e-care methods, and not by live customer service representatives
(CSRs), Forrester analysts predict. The calls handled by the live CSRs will be the most
complicated questions, the answers to which are not available on the carrier’s website or
easily explained through e-mail messages or even through real-time text chat.
While paying a live customer care representative is costly, investing in electronic
web-care methods can be equally, if not more, expensive, experts say. Even if the initial
software investment seems reasonable, integration with existing systems–such as billing
modules–from different vendors can drive the cost way up.
"The more customers you can get on the web, the more you will save in operations
costs," says Chris Tatem, vice president and chief e-commerce officer,
telecommunications industry group, AMS, a systems integrator based in Fairfax, Va.
"The problem is getting the software and hardware, the whole web presence,
operational. How much you can do it for and how much you can save depends on your customer
base. For some of the real small [carriers], it may not be cost- effective. Studies should
be conducted [by the carrier] to determine whether your customer base will accept
web-based customer care. A business-case analysis is necessary."
For example, a competitive local exchange carrier (CLEC) with a finite number of
business customers could approach its customers one-on-one and try to convince all of them
to use web-care tools to solve their problems before calling a CSR. "One business
model is for a carrier to provide only web-based billing and customer care," Tatem
says. The other is to gradually incorporate such functionality. "Your carrier may
decide that [opting to install the web billing and care functionality] is more of an
investment in the future for one-on-one marketing or e-commerce, in which case your
business case will change [to accommodate the] longer-term view," he says.
Another option to the high cost of web-enabling an internal call center is to outsource
the function. Large call-center operators, such as SITEL Corp., Baltimore, and ICT Group,
Langhorne, Pa., are among those that offer web-agent services as part of their repertoire.
ICT developed the web-based call-center service Net2tel.com in concert with Aspect
Telecommunications Corp., San Jose, Calif., and eFusion Inc., a Beaverton, Ore.-based
spinout of Intel Corp. The service allows customers of resellers and carriers several
web-care options. A "click-here" button on the ICT customer website connects the
end user in real time to one of ICT’s 5,000 CSRs in 36 call centers. ICT’s service
supports a callback function, which allows the CSR to call the end user back on a phone
line separate from the line the end user used to dial in on. Net2tel.com also has an
Internet telephony function, wherein the CSR and the customer are immediately connected in
a web session. Additionally, Net2tel.com allothat the CSR can guide the customer through
the site. Whiteboarding (highlighting of a web page) can be done by the customer or the
CSR (see diagram, below.)
"The Internet is a passive medium. It doesn’t deliver the same level of service as
walking into a brick-and-mortar business or even calling a CSR. Net2tel.com makes the web
a place where they can get that personal level of customer service," says Derrick
Vlad, senior vice president of marketing and corporate development.
Net2tel.com has been in beta testing for six months with Advanta Corp., Spring House,
Pa., a large financial services client. Rudy Dubay, senior vice president of
sales-telecommunications, says there are many applications for the product in the carrier
world, where websites proliferate. ICT Group says carriers and resellers can be up and
running with Net2tel.com in as little as two to three weeks, depending on the
sophistication of the application.
Contracts include a setup charge and a monthly fixed fee to be connected to the service
and to retain dedicated agents. The actual price varies by volume and functionality.
Susan Helen Moran is a writer and independent consultant based in Oakton, Va. She
can be reached via e-mail at [email protected]
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