Email a colleague    

November 2010

Bricks, Mortar & Well-Trained Reps Make a Comeback in Customer Management

Bricks, Mortar & Well-Trained Reps Make a Comeback in Customer Management

Remember those heady times in the early 2000s when it seemed that most of the world’s commerce would move online?

Ah, those days of Internet innocence.  I remember them as if it were yesterday. eBay’s stock price was climbing � Cisco was miraculously closing its financial books on-line the last day of every quarter � and Wired magazine columnist Nicholas Negroponte was the sexiest man alive.

With a decade of hindsight, I’d say the Internet evangelists were mostly right about the online experience.  I would just a few minor caveats:

  • eBay was an awesome experience till the day we needed to ship back something that didn‘t work;
  • Virtual commerce is wonderful, but only when it’s supported by real people we can call and complain to;
  • We love eCare and paying bills on line as long as our printed bill is kept safely on file; and,
  • Ordering on-line is a marvelously efficient way of leaving your current service provider.

All of which is a roundabout way of saying that the Internet — the better, cooler, faster, and more efficient communication medium that it is — is of little value unless a correspondingly high quality of customer experience and support goes along with it.

And yet, it’s ironic how things have evolved.  Even as the technology of communicating with customers — Internet, IVR, broadband, wireless Web, and call center systems — has greatly improved, delivering superior customer support is arguably tougher than it’s ever been.  Why?  Because the bar has been raised through greater industry competition, explosive volume in new services, and faster employee turnover.

Well, here to lend us his insights on the proper care and support of telecom customers is a true veteran of the business, Scott Kolman, director of Product Marketing at Amdocs‘ Customer Management Division.

Black Swan: Scott, before we discuss the trends you’re seeing in customer management, I wonder if you could please explain what’s meant by the term “customer management.” As for me, I always thought it was just a fancy name for CRM.

Scott Kolman: Well, CRM was in my blood when Amdocs acquired the Clarify business that I was a part of 10 years ago.

I’d say the word “customer management” took hold for a couple of reasons.  First, at service providers, CRM is strongly associated with contact management and dealing with sales territories.  But there are other areas such as sales and fulfillment of the order that were considered to be outside of CRM.

Customer management also implies managing the relationship between the customer and the service provider.  So, what are the key business processes that a service provider uses to support with the customer?  They are ordering, trouble ticketing, e-commerce, billing inquiries and adjustments, and even credit issues.  Now a number of these functions are critical yet they fall beyond how CRM is usually positioned.

And think about CRM in the extreme for a moment.  Say you’re signing up a Fortune 500 enterprise who has thousands of users.  As a service provider, this is very complex to manage.  You have many devices and individual configurations involved, and yet you have to manage that entire process.  It is not just taking the order in and throwing it over the fence.  For example, how can I be sure that the service provider is going to generate revenue quickly if he takes on that big customer?  You obviously don‘t want to have a big gap between your income stream and procuring equipment for that customer.

So it’s really this broader notion of CRM that we mean by customer management.

Take me back if you could to those early days and briefly how you merged the Amdocs and Clarify product lines and set the stage for the future.  What were the most important enhancements you made?

Well, when Amdocs acquired Clarify, one of the first things we did was integrate our CRM system with billing, and that made sense since the vast majority of incoming calls were billing inquiries anyway.

Another important area was to provide a unified agent desktop.  The backend systems are quite complex at a large carrier.  They’ve gone through several mergers and acquisitions, for example, and they’ve had to consolidate their lines of business and so on.  So providing an overlay application on top of their operations is quite valuable.

If I’m an AT&T, I want to be able to support customers across many services — U-verse, wireless, broadband, and residential phone so I can better manage that.  There may be many legacy billing and ordering systems in the background, and you’d like to manage those in an integrated way.  So that was another key initiative of ours: pulling back-end data together so people have that  information at their disposal.

From a technical standpoint, what’s involved in setting up one of these unified desktops?

The technical key to it all is having an agent online using a multi-tabbed portal that launches multiple applications within it.  For example, my opening home tab might show basic information about the customer — where she lives and how long she’s been a customer.

Now if the customer calls to complain about her service, you need to open up a case, so you then need to open another application on a tab within the screen.  And maybe the customer wants to change his service plan, in which case, you open an order process on yet another tabbed page.

The agent is probably using multiple applications even in that one interaction, but they are using it without leaving their home page �  it’s all a click of the mouse away.  What’s more, the information is being pre-populated so you don‘t have to ask them again: “What’s your name or what’s your address?”  That’s a particularly frustrating issue for both customers and agents.

The idea here is to apply a veneer over legacy systems.  People aren‘t going to throw out those old systems overnight — they may never throw them out.  They want to be able to leverage systems they’ve already invested in, yet have a single view of the customer above it all.

OK, we’ve talked about call center technology, but is the training and knowledge required by reps able to keep up with all the industry change?

Actually, many of the old applications haven‘t taken advantage of new technology in terms of training and guidance of the agent.  So we’ve put a lot of energy in not only providing a desktop �  a physical a screen — but also the guidance an agent needs to be productive in using it and interfacing with customers.

You know, the CIO of a telco taught me a key rule of thumb called the 20-20-20 rule: The average person in your call center is 20 years old, is making $20,000 dollars a year, and is going to work for you for 20 weeks.

Now obviously there are many veteran call center agents at a telco, especially at the tier 2 level of support, who have been around for a long time and have great knowledge on troubleshooting and can intuitively navigate your system.  But at the Tier 1 level, the 20-20-20 rule has more than a kernel of truth to it.  In other words, a person who doesn‘t know what to do needs to be guided in a continuous and consistent customer experience.

And don‘t forget, carriers are also rolling out new services faster than they ever have before, so the product catalog is getting bigger.  And that’s a change: Telecoms are not used to rolling up services in high volume.  They are more accustomed to having services that are up and running for a long time.

It’s no surprise that the smart phones are having a huge impact on customer support.  What are you seeing out there?

Dan, the operator is literally becoming an IT Help Desk and these complex devices are putting a huge burden on them.  You not only need to know that Jill Doe has service but that she’s using a Blackberry, model XYZ, and what version of software is sitting on this.  It is akin to HP providing support for its servers.

Call center usage spikes particularly around new product introductions.  One company released a study saying that 30 percent of new smart phone owners will call the contact center within a month of their purchase to address some issue.  And the average call in many of those situations is 30 minutes, which is quite high.  So, you are quickly eroding your profit margins when they do that.

You need to really arm the agent with the right information to support all this.  And that’s one reason we recently introduced a new support solution for smart devices to help telecoms identify those issues and download the correct settings over the air.

The phones are generally quite reliable.  It is just that people don‘t know how to use them and so they sometimes return them out of frustration.

Now if you’re like my 19-year-old daughter, you can figure out how the Blackberry Storm works before you get home.  Not everyone is so swift to understand these gadgets.  Meanwhile, carriers are facing very high return rates, and when they get those devices back, they’re discovering there’s often nothing wrong with half or a third of those returned.

Another issue is higher knowledge expectations for call center reps.  Before smart phones arrived, carriers had been doing device care and management through a dedicated group of call center experts.  And when you called in, you would be transferred to those experts.  But today, you’re expected to provide that knowledge at the lowest tiers of the customer chain — at the initial point of interaction.

So this is a good example of the changing dynamics in the contact center.  Yes, you can do more with your handset and allow self-service over the handset or web device.  But when you call the contact center, the interactions are becoming more lengthy and more complex.

Understand that brick and mortar storefronts are coming back for telecoms.  In fact, AT&T just opened up a large store in my neighborhood.  What’s behind this trend, Scott?

Who would have thought that a service provider would move back into the retail channel with a gusto, but that’s exactly what’s happening.  When you think about this, it only makes sense.  You are trying to get into a mass market with a highly complex product.

Now there will always be early adopters who are comfortable buying an expensive phone on the Internet.  There are also things that they will and won‘t buy online.  If I am going to buy an airline ticket, I would personally do that over the Internet.

When it comes to a smart phone, I may use the Web to narrow my choices down, but I want to make the final decision by actually seeing the device in action.  In any case, we are seeing the retail side growing.  Some people actually need to physically see, touch, and feel the device before they make a purchase of an expensive handset.  In addition, if a problem occurs, they want the comfort level of going to a store to have it fixed or asking questions of an expert on the device in person.

But there’s another factor driving people to the retail channel: a greater ability to sell services such as video.

Here’s the issue: It’s tough to have a 25-yard old kid go door-to-door to sell a Verizon FiOS or AT&T U-verse.  It’s partly because consumers haven‘t fully bought into the concept that my phone company knows how to give me video services.  So how are you different from DirecTV and Comcast? — it’s a typical tough question.

However, inside a company store, the operator can show you exactly what the U-verse service looks like.  So, it’s the complexity of the devices, complexity of the service offering, and an opportunity to have a more powerful selling experience.  Finally, some people just prefer to buy retail anyway.

Another important area is customer self-service.  What’s happening in self-service?  And in what markets is it growing?

If you think about some of the content-based services that are being introduced, the only way you can cost-effectively sell that is through self service.  If you are selling a 99-cent music video, and your customer calls the call center, you’ve just completely blown away any gross profits.

So, doing that kind of thing over the device has become critical.  The other one is enabling the corporate user to get far more information on their usage.  So, if you are a corporate customer of say, AT&T, Sprint, Verizon, you want lots of detail on usage patterns.  And they need that broken out by up department, work groups and so on.

Self-service is a very big focus of our work on the corporate side.  For instance, we have a customer at Vodafone who uses our self-service application for their many dealers around the country.  And remember that you don‘t want your dealers to have full access to customer information.  They need information only on the customers they signed up and they need to be restricted on the activities they can do with those customers.

If people are signing up for bundled offerings, self-service has become very convenient for that because having all the plans laid out on the Web makes it easy to compare those plans.  So they can pick and choose their video services and options that go with that.

We’d be amiss if we didn‘t touch on order management.  How does that play in self-service?

Actually, we regard order management as pivotal to self-service.  A classic example of that is a person signing up for high-speed DSL service.  When they do that on the Web, we give them the ability to walk through various steps in placing an order because we need to establish whether we have facilities close enough to fulfill a DSL order.

Today we find customers less likely to stick to one consistent channel.  Five years ago, everybody figured that once people went to the Web channel, they would stay there.  But now we find that people who are regular self-service users still want to reach out to somebody in the call center.  In many case, they try to do both channels at once.  For instance, if they are waiting in the call center queue for 10 minutes and try to get their order started on the Web, this can lead to big confusion.  So, this is why the ordering solution is key.  You have to define an ordering process.  But then you need to make sure that process is consistent, no matter what channel you use.

If I go on the Web, there is this certain number of steps I need to take such as 1) selecting my preferred plan; 2) accepting an offer; 3) being verified for credit; 4) fulfilling the service.  Those four steps should be the same whether I call in or I go on the Web.  So first you have to define the process and then invoke it through the various channels — whether it’s B-to-B, sales force automation, or a mass market quick order.  It’s this critical area of ensuring consistency that we’ve spent so much time and effort on here at Amdocs.

Finally, Scott, I’m curious about the trends you’re seeing in how customers are treated.  We all know there’s great pressure to reward profitable customers, for example.

There are different schools of thought here.  Some service providers want the ability to gain insight so when Scott Kolman is on the phone, they want to know that he’s been a customer since 1996 and is a platinum customer based on criteria the carrier establishes.  Some operators, in turn, may want to take that information and route that particular call to a particular agent so the IVR system could recognize that and route a high-value customer to the premium desk.

In a similar vein, if a customer has a high risk of churn, or his plan ends in two months, or his usage has suddenly gone down or whatever the indicator may be, that customer may be awarded various freebies.  So if Scott calls in and complains about his bill, we are going to credit him $10 dollars per complaint if he is a high-value customer.  However, if unprofitable Bob calls in, he doesn‘t get that special treatment because we’re not worried about losing him.

At the same time, some operators don‘t want to give special treatment.  They don’t want agents to treat certain people differently.

Many times, though, I think the policy is a reflection of who’s running the contact center or who’s running the channel.  Some telecom businesses look at the call center as a cost and try to get the person off the phone quickly.  Conversely, others want to nurture that call.  One thing’s clear: Where there’s a customer experience executive in control, then you can be sure there’s an emphasis on the quality of each interaction �  what steps should I take to reinforce and build my brand?

This article first appeared in Billing and OSS World.

Copyright 2010 Black Swan Telecom Journal


About the Expert

Scott Kohlman

Scott Kohlman

Scott Kolman is a marketing professional specializing in the communications industry.  Scott is currently responsible for defining the market strategy and direction, creating awareness, positioning, and bringing to market Amdocs’ customer management products and solutions.

Amdocs is the largest B/OSS software and services company worldwide.

Related Stories

  • Are Cloud-Based Call Centers the Next Hot Product for the SMB Market? interview with Doron Dovrat — Quality customer service can improve a company’s corporate identity and drive business growth.  But many SMBs are priced out of acquiring modern call center technology.  This article explains the benefits of affordable and flexible cloud-based call centers.
  • Driving Customer Care Results & Cost Savings from Big Data Facts interview with Brian Jurutka — Mobile broadband and today’s dizzying array of app and network technology present a big challenge to customer care.  In fact, care agents have a hard time staying one step ahead of customers who call to report problems.  But network analytics comes to the rescue with advanced mobile handset troubleshooting and an ability to put greater intelligence at the fingertips of highly trained reps.
  • Achieving Revenue Maximization in the Telecom Contact Center interview with Robert Lamb — Optimizing the contact center offers one of the greatest returns on investment for a CSP.  The director of AT&T’s contact center services business explains how telecoms can strike an “artful balance” between contact center investment and cost savings.  The discussion draws from AT&T’s consulting with world class customers like Ford, Dell, Discover Financial, DISH Network, and General Motors.
  • Bricks, Mortar & Well-Trained Reps Make a Comeback in Customer Management interview with Scott Kohlman — Greater industry competition, service complexity, and employee turnover have raised the bar in the customer support.  Indeed, complex services are putting an emphasis on quality care interactions in the store, on the web, and through the call center.  In this article you’ll learn about innovations in CRM, multi-tabbed agent portals,  call center agent training, customer treatment philosophies, and the impact of  self-service.

Related Articles