E-Channel - E-business Strategies Hinge on Customer Relations

August 1, 2001

8 Min Read
E-Channel - E-business Strategies Hinge on Customer Relations

By Tara Seals

Posted: 08/2001


E-business Strategies Hinge on Customer Relations
By Tara Seals

E-business is finding a kinder, gentler face as strategies evolve to encompass all parts of the value chain. The underlying theory in this trend is that vendor, channel partner and customer derive value from online tools meant to foster relationships rather than relegate them to numbers in cyberspace.

Efficiency was king in old-school

e-marketing. Service providers, telcos and dot-com companies living and dead implemented order-entry sites, online help and product stores to streamline things for the vendor. That usually meant the benefits to the customer or channel partner were a secondary concern.

No more. With 99 percent of respondents in a recent IDC (www.idc.com) survey saying they conduct online marketing activities, are in the process of initiating them or will implement them within the next year, service providers need to differentiate their e-marketing strategies. That means putting much greater focus on customer benefits than before.

“If you look at what you can do with pricing and product configurators, e-marketing is enhancing the experience for customers, and we can add value to their companies,” says Sprint Corp. (www.sprint.com) wholesale director of marketing Jim Steffans.

He says customer focus is a key component the dot-com craze missed.

“We’re now focused on making it more efficient to buy the service, not just sell the service” he explains. “If you go for the low-hanging fruit, your customers will be aware of that and realize that it may be a cost savings to you but you haven’t provided value to them, and they’ll migrate to someone who will provide value to their proposition.”

For example, e-billing, was touted as a killer efficiency tool for service providers, particularly in a wholesale arena. While industry players expected customers to leap at the opportunity to pay online, the average adoption rate for electronic bill presentment and payment (EBPP) languishes at 2 percent, according to analysts.

E-billing reduces a telco’s costs for mailing and printing paper bills, but the stumbling block has been in making the process easier for customers than writing a check.

Bucking the trend, ezTel LLC (www.eztelcorp.net) enjoys a 78-percent uptake among its channel partners for its e-billing option. In its online strategy, the company brands services, billing and individual online customer service portals for its strategic marketing partners, including banks, savings and loans, insurance companies, electric companies, network marketing companies, resellers, ISPs and agents.

“We provide enough of an incentive for people; we take credit, debit, check by phone, fax or e-mail, and it’s all on a secure link,” says ezTel president and CEO Patric Boggs. “We are using the tools and the technology that allow us to handle large amounts of customers and large databases in the most streamlined and cost-effective manner, and yet we do it in a way that’s not cold and aloof to people.”

One way ezTel adds value is in its reporting site, which disseminates information on an hourly basis to partners and customers, from the number of accounts to monitoring the revenue generated on an ongoing basis. Customers can change the billing method at will, add services or refer a page to a friend.

“We also produce a newsletter, and that’s not a blatant sales pitch–it’s more what to look out for, billing issues, scams and slamming–those kinds of educational things,” adds Boggs.

Not to be outdone, in June Sprint won the Frost & Sullivan “2001 Market Engineering Award” for its wholesale e-marketing strategy. Sprint boasts a 70-percent online participation rate among its wholesale customers.

Steffans says, “We do try and make it as easy as possible for the customer to do business with Sprint. You do things in a real-time environment, which starts the revenue flowing sooner for the customer.”

Sprint’s site for its wholesale customers includes product information for prospective and current customers, and a new desktop manager gives the capability to self-service, enter Sprint’s order-entry system, turn in trouble tickets and validate ANIs. A tariff calculator prices routes in real time. Customers can send orders electronically and use these tools to check on accounts. Sprint will focus next on bringing multiple systems together from a platform perspective and for legacy integration, so that there are common data stores for all actions, from the initial sale and order entry, to management, provisioning and billing issues.

“There’s the Nirvana state that everyone would like to be at, but no one is there yet, where you completely have service from end to end,” says Steffans. “The time frame on that is difficult because the technology is changing every day. Getting there even in a year is a pretty tall order for anyone.”

Another long-term vision, according to Art McDowell, vice president of the Sprint wholesale services group, is full and automatic integration with customer order entry and purchasing systems. So if someone places an order with a reseller, the order is entered once and it updates all systems. The reseller’s order-entry tool would place orders automatically with Sprint via the Internet, and service tickets for the reseller’s customer service automatically ports over to Sprint’s system.

“In the early to mid-1990’s, that was electronic data interchange [EDI], but the problem is that we didn’t have a common language the Internet provides,” adds Steffans. “So when we’re trying to do that, it’s a lot easier than it was 10 years ago because you had to build a proprietary connection with every customer. The probability that we can do this is so much higher and at much less cost, it’s definitely a reality.”

In creating value for the supply chain, online marketing in turn benefits the vendor. For example, in the 60 days before publication of this issue, ezTel closed nearly 240 new accounts.

“Companies that have successfully leveraged the Internet medium for marketing activities stand to gain broader customer reach and insight through enhanced interaction than those companies neglecting Internet media, [and this is] forcing all businesses to examine their e-marketing strategies,” says Liz Leonard, senior analyst for IDC’s eMarketing Services research program. “Today, the question is not whether to embrace multichannel marketing; rather, it’s do we build, buy or borrow online marketing expertise?”

Approximately 53 percent of respondents to the IDC survey said they would outsource some or all of their online marketing activities.

Vendors such as ChannelWave Software Inc. (www.channelwave.com) are leading that particular charge with collaborative CRM software, which addresses the needs of the entire enterprise. It becomes a customer-management tool, in addition to a marketing tool.

“Customer-facing business organizations invest tremendous resources to acquire and retain customers,” says Matt Cain,

vice president of web and collaboration strategies at META Group Inc. (www.metagroup.com). “To achieve greater ROI on these investments, companies need to increase the profitability of these relationships.

“To do this, companies must enable consistent collaboration between customers, employees and business partners to promote intimacy, increase switching barriers and drive continuous innovation across the customer life cycle.”

ChannelWave recently announced its online web collaboration and partner lead generation package for Qwest Communications
International Inc. (www.qwest.com), called Q.Market-place. It allows an online “meet and greet” environment for channel partners of all types.

“Collaborative CRM is good for customers and good for the people who talk to customers,” says Jim Pflaging, president and CEO of Intraspect Software Inc. (www.intraspect.com).

Intraspect, together with Onyx Software Corp. (www.onyx.com), in June also announced a collaborative customer relationship management (CRM) solution.

“The Intraspect-Onyx partnership brings customer relationship management full circle by integrating the knowledge gained by employees, partners and customers throughout the entire customer life cycle,” Pflaging says.

The Intraspect-Onyx solution delivers multichannel online collaboration via documents, e-mail, and presentations, along with sales, marketing and support interaction data. Sales teams can respond to customer opportunities more efficiently by managing sales information and pipelines, the companies say. Marketing teams can create, manage and analyze targeted marketing campaigns more effectively. Customer service teams can seamlessly manage service queues and monitor customer satisfaction. Companies work with customers and partners by sharing sales and marketing materials and developing customized programs and solutions.

Nonetheless, executives are quick to point out that the online presence is not a replacement for human interaction.

“One critical point is that online is not the end-all and be-all,” says Tim Donahue, assistant vice president of e-business and alternate channels for Sprint Business. “Online is another mechanism to make it easier for us to do business with, so it augments the human interaction.”

Boggs calls his approach high-tech, but adds that it’s high-touch as well.

“To be successful, you must be consumer-oriented,” he says. “It’s not good when people just feel like they’re talking to a machine. You can’t get them lost in voice mail or online hell where you can’t reach a live person.

“If you only look from an efficiency standpoint, [e-marketing] can really help you out, but for effectiveness, if you don’t have that hands-on effect with the end user, you isolate yourself and it defeats the purpose. So if you don’t combine the strategies there in terms of high-tech, high-touch you’re going to be in trouble.”

Read more about:

Free Newsletters for the Channel
Register for Your Free Newsletter Now

You May Also Like