CRM Gets the Call

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Telecommunication companies have longer histories with more detail about their customers than companies in many other industries, according to David Pramer, global manager and partner of CRM for high-tech businesses at Accenture. But the information for customers of traditional services, which has been recorded for several years, is now being leveraged to sell new, value-added products and services, which is helping improve retention, upsells of services, and helping the expansions of young telecom providers. The sales of new services are important to new and older telecom companies for a couple of different reasons, according to Pramer. These services are more profitable for telecom companies. Traditional services are expensive to provide, and the pricing and revenues for such services are continuing to decline. Additionally, consumers and businesses alike are willing to pay premium prices for the newer services. According to Jay Fausch, senior director for broadband access for Alcatel, telecom service providers offering traditional voice services can earn $50 to $60 per month. By adding high-speed Internet access that figure doubles. By including video services, the revenue figure reaches $179 a month. But the old and new services are sometimes handled by different billing and customer management systems, so much of the focus among telecom companies in employing CRM today is to obtain complete customer information, Pramer says. "Telecom companies are trying to leverage their customer insight so that they know what services customers have, what they [don't have,] and how they can improve customer retention. They're trying to pull together all of the customer information under a single account structure." A growing practice that an increasing number of telecom companies are using to retain customers is bundling services for a discount. The idea is that the more services a customer has from a single provider, the less likely he is to go to another provider. Many telecom and cable providers have bundled together telephone (analog or VoIP), video (cable or satellite TV), and broadband Internet (cable or digital subscriber line) services for the past year or so, and are starting to expand from primary into secondary markets. Some are also adding a fourth service--wireless telecom--as the industry moves from the triple play to the grand slam in service offerings. This and other customer retention efforts require top-notch customer relationship practices. Read on for coverage of how three telecom companies are improving their people, process, and technology efforts. Aiding VoIP Growth Voice over Internet Protocol is one of the fastest growing areas of telecommunications sales, but the increasing sales have also brought increasing competition, so CRM is critical for companies wanting to maintain a competitive edge. Covad Communications Group, a provider of high-speed Internet access, was enjoying good growth in selling its IP PBX and other VoIP products, but sales support was a cumbersome process, according to Gay Thorne, Covad's director of sales, support, and engineering. The paperwork for the orders, including the order itself, requisition forms, and credit checks--collectively called a booking package--was going to one of four different company support centers, depending on the field customer service representative handling the transaction. But there was no way to track the progress of the orders to see if they were moving on schedule, or to determine if the field personnel were collecting all of the necessary paperwork and following up on items on time. So the company decided to centralize those processes earlier this year, with all of the order booking information going into Covad's Herndon, VA, office. Covad hired three people to handle the orders, and took those responsibilities away from the field representative so that they could have more customer "face time," Thorne says. But to get the full efficiency from the centralization the company needed software to automatically track sales from start to finish, and to connect with other departments within the company (provisioning, payments) to facilitate the purchase-to-payment process, according to Thorne. Covad selected Salesforce.com's SFA solution, Salesforce. Through the software's case feature Covad tracks the sales from the time a requisition comes in through final disposition via a Web link. The software includes check boxes for the three field salespeople to mark as each portion of the order process is completed. Once the salesperson completes the details on the order online, the software triggers the provisioning request (handled in another part of the company). When the equipment is delivered, the sales rep marks another check box, which alerts the finance department to record the transaction as a sale. Other Covad executives can also access the system to track progress, check on orders, or get other sales-related information. "It's a true CRM platform," Thorne says. Though the software was installed in mid-March, Covad has already enjoyed positive results, according to Thorne. In the first six weeks of using the software, the three salespeople handled 300 orders, about 20 percent more than four other salespeople handled in the same time period before Covad installed the technology. Additionally, order-processing time was slashed from 19 days to 10. Thorne envisions further reduction in processing down to five days. "We also have greater confidence in the quality control of the orders on the front end," Thorne says. "When finance gets the information, the data is cleaner than it was before. We have a better paper trail on who signed off on what." Better Training Provides Time for Sales
NTELOS provides wireless, Internet, and broadband service throughout much of Virginia, West Virginia, and in small portions of neighboring states. The company wanted more customer service issues to be handled in one call, but to do so, training of the company's 250 customer service representatives had to be improved, according to David Coats, vice president of customer service. One of the best ways to improve the reps' performance is to monitor and to play back recordings of calls to help agents learn the best way to handle them. The company installed such a system early in the decade, but technical problems meant that calls weren't monitored or recorded enough to provide the training aids that Coats desired. The company took the issue up with the legacy provider more than once, but to no avail, according to Coats. Even so, NTELOS looked at an RFP from the vendor and from a couple of other call center--monitoring providers in 2003, eventually selecting and installing the Witness Systems' Customer Interaction Recording, Performance Evaluation and Workforce Management software packages in December of that year. "We thought their product would be more reliable and that the company would be attentive to our needs," Coats says. "We talked to some of their other customers and they told us that [Witness Systems] would be attentive to our needs even though we're a small company." The technology has worked as promised, enabling NTELOS to improve its monitoring and training, major factors in increasing the amount of first resolution calls from about 75 percent to about 85 percent, according to Coats. "It's a great tool for evaluating our training processes and how well we communicate to our customer care reps," Coats says. "It's a great way to measure the service we give to our customers." With more calls handled the first time, rather than requiring a return call and a repeated explanation of the problem and steps already taken in attempting a resolution, the customer care reps had much more time on their hands, even though the total number of FTEs was reduced by 25 percent. NTELOS officials didn't let that time go to rest. The reps had always concentrated on problem resolutions and only sold products if the incoming caller asked for them or during infrequent sales campaigns, according to Coats. That changed in September 2004, as the company's customer care centers transitioned to sales and service centers. The customer care reps, who were making an insignificant number of sales before, are now making more than 7,000 sales a month. Coats says, "That far exceeded our expectations." Coats also gives Witness Systems credit for the success on the sales side, saying that the same monitoring capabilities help trainers point out cross-sales tips in monitored conversations. For example, if a broadband customer says he's often on the road, it's an indication he's a good candidate for wireless service. Improving Internal CRM In addition to retaining external customers, telecom companies find it important to retain their internal customers--their employees--who comprise a large percentage of the sales effort. U.S. Cellular, in Chicago, which provides wireless service in the central United States, took this to heart when designing a new call center that opened in west suburban Chicago in May. Company CEO Jack Rooney has said in several interviews that the most important people the company selects are the ones who work with U.S. Cellular's customers. Rather than rows and rows of agent seats with a coach/supervisor at the end of a team of 15 to 18 people--the telecom industry call center average (the average across all industries is 25)--the teams sit in a square formation, with the coach/supervisor in the middle of 12 agents. That way, the coach/supervisor is no closer or farther away from one team member than another, according to Asish Bisaria, director of customer service operations. Separate touch cubes--two three-person sectioned-off areas are in the middle of the floor plan--allow quick additional coaching sessions. More detailed coaching/training is conducted before the agent steps on the floor. "We designed the call center so they could get to [the touch cubes] and back to their desk quickly," Bisaria says. "That way they're more likely to retain the information. And it's a more relaxed atmosphere than scheduling formal [follow-up] training sessions." Adding to the relaxed atmosphere and aiding the business of the call center is a Wi-Fi cafe, where employees can surf the Internet and answer and send emails when they are on break or at lunch. Rather than a sparse coffee room or just a coffee pot or two in a corner somewhere, the call center includes a juice bar complete with cushioned seats and a sofa, much like a living room setting. Bisaria is quick to add that the coffee pots are still there, but some people don't drink coffee. "We wanted to provide a level of personalization," Bisaria says. "Providing a coffee pot doesn't say that you care anything about the employees. Providing a juice bar is more personal." By providing employees this access the company helps ensure they can handle the personal emails and Web areas of interest on their own time, and use the time at their desks to actually be on task, according to Bisaria. By being more personal U.S. Cellular is getting more production from its personnel and is doing a better job of retaining them. In the two months since the call center has been open, the company has had only two of 250 agents leave, compared to a company-wide call center attrition rate of 25 percent and a telecom industry-wide rate of more than 50 percent, according to Bisaria. Additionally, agents are handling calls in an average of 351 seconds, 49 seconds quicker than expected. The company had expected to get the call-resolution rate down to 320 seconds in six to eight months, but it now that goal will be reached much more quickly. Phillip Britt is a freelance writer based in Chicago.
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