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First Line of Defence

First Line of Defence

At Pacific Bell, that day was Tuesday, January 12, 1999-the day the California subsidiary of SBC Communications announced it now offered residential asymmetric digital subscriber line service-high-speed Internet access-for only $39 a month ($49 if customers used PacBell as their ISP). According to news reports in the San Jose Mercury News, that same day, 3,000 residents of California, where 35 per cent of the nation's Internet traffic begins and ends, called to sign up. By the end of the week, PacBell call volume hit 5,000 calls a day. Soon, PacBell was fielding 7,000 calls a day, then 9,000 calls a day-finally peaking near 11,000 calls a day.

PacBell's customer-care people didn't know what hit them. That's because callers, frustrated with 45-minute hold times, began to play a sort of toll-free roulette, dialing any PacBell number they could find to get to a helpful human being. Never mind that callers contacted PacBell reps who didn't have anything to do with the digital subscriber line (DSL) operation. Customers just wanted someone-anyone-to take their orders.

"We definitely understood the pain the [DSL] folks were feeling, since my own call centers were ringing off the hook," says Judith Meskill, who, as executive director of technology and tools at SBC Internet Services, is responsible for customer relationship and knowledge management for all of SBC's Internet service provider (ISP) operations. (SBC Internet Services also does business in its various regions as Pacific Bell Internet Services, Nevada Bell Internet Services, Southwestern Bell Internet Services, Southern New England Bell Telephone Internet Services and, soon, Ameritech Internet Services.) "We'd get calls from people who weren't our customers, but they didn't care and we couldn't either," says Meskill. In other words, it didn't matter to Meskill that customer service reps in the ISP group were getting inundated with calls from people wanting DSL-related services; she felt her group had to help them.

In the Know

Fortunately, the ISP had an edge: a collection of Web-based support tools-including automated e-mail and knowledge-based systems-that allowed its agents to soothe the nerves of overwrought callers. Accessing screen-based cheat sheets, PacBell Internet Services' customer service reps could answer questions on DSL modems, line splitters and other elements outside the ISP's expertise. That information enabled PacBell Internet Services' reps to perform triage on the barrage of calls-sending customers to the people they needed to speak to and answering questions about service availability, installation and timing.

The tools continue to make life on the customer service desk a bit easier for employees. "Before, we'd have to transfer customers to another department, where they might be on hold a long time just to find out whether they qualify for a particular service or to find out how long they'll have to wait for installation," says Eleanor Flores, a customer service representative at Pacific Bell's residential division in San Francis "Now, we can answer most of their calls upfront, even for other divisions." Much of the credit for being able to provide that kind of service belongs to Meskill. That's because this red-haired dynamo with the propensity to call people "darlin'" had the foresight two years ago to apply information technology to a call-center culture. The resulting IT tool-chest allowed the folks within PacBell Internet Services to speak with a single voice-as PacBell representatives. That ability came in handy in January when ISP service reps had to field calls from DSL customers. "I encouraged agents not to finger-point, because that reflects badly on us," says Meskill. "We have to take the heat-it doesn't matter that it's a different entity that's handling DSL. We have to give one face to the customer."

Of course, the ISP's role in the New Year onslaught was merely a temporary salve. Ultimately, only DSL hookup and service could satisfy customers-and that was outside the purview of the Internet services division. Still, the IT connection did serve as a wake-up call for all of SBC, based in San Antonio. The realization: Customer service runs more smoothly when Web-based IT tools play a role. "I'd been stomping my view for a while, but I didn't get the type of attention I've gotten since January," admits Meskill. "Basically, they've decided to pay attention."

That wasn't always the case. Four years ago, when SBC launched Pacific Bell Internet Services (the first of the company's ISPs), Meskill couldn't convince her bosses that an ISP needed a way to handle e-mail. "I felt like Chicken Little saying, 'You don't understand, the customer will try to e-mail you,'" she says now. "These were call-center people, and they said, 'No, no, no, customers will call in.'" As it turned out, Meskill was right. Customers "e-mailed us by the thousands," she says.

To cope with the electronic blitz, Meskill tapped nearly 100 people to read and answer customers' messages. Not long after, PacBell Internet Services (and later, all of SBC Internet Services) implemented its automated e-mail system. Since then, SBC as a whole has viewed Web-based technologies with a more generous eye.

Helpful Tools

Truth be told, the SBC powers-that-be should have noticed PacBell Internet Services was doing something right by April 1998. That's when the now-defunct Washington Competitive Group, a small Washington D.C.-based research house, issued its report, "ISP Customer Care-Service Quality & Cost Benchmarking 1998." This in-depth study examined the best and worst practices of 13 leading Internet service providers. PacBell Internet Services came out on top in quality for customer-care service. When PacBell Internet Services touted the news, it cited its "full integration of the Web into its support center."

But what does that mean, exactly? As it turns out, it meant e-mail with (relatively simple) automated-response capabilities combined with still evolving knowledge-based systems. Since the report, the tools have become more plentiful-and their capabilities more sophisticated. But even from the beginning, the idea was to serve PacBell Internet Services' customer reps, not replace them. The distinction is critical, since most companies eye information technology as a means to cut costs by eliminating people. And while PacBell Internet Services is not averse to cutting costs, it spent $35.09 per call-hour of support time and paid its service reps up to $41,000 a year, according to that 1998 survey. That put PacBell Internet Services near the top in expenses as well.

If surveys are any indication, telcos won't be reducing their call-center operations anytime soon.

Take the recently released "1999 Residential Local Telephone Service Satisfaction Study" from J.D. Power and Associates of Agoura Hills, Calif. In a poll of 12,185 households subscribing to 14 local providers, Pacific Bell was among only four providers that ranked "significantly above national average" in customer satisfaction. (Intriguingly, sister company, SNET, tied for first place, while sibling Southwestern Bell came in at a dismal 12th.) How important was Web access to account information in overall contentment?

"We did ask respondents how they contact their telephone company, and only a small per centage across the industry use the Web," says Kirk Parsons, J.D. Power's director of telecommunications accounts. "That will change, but I don't think you'll ever get away from people contact," says Parsons. "How much can an automated system provide?"

Forward March

If Meskill has her way, automation can provide quite a lot. Her vision involves a collection of technologies that smoothly choreograph the appropriate forms of care to the person who needs it-be it a customer or a customer service rep. One example of that technology is the Intelligent Installer CD that SBC Internet Services already distributes to new dial-up customers, which automates an otherwise complex configuration process. That capability, combined with answers to frequently asked questions on a Web site has eliminated 40 per cent of customer calls, says Meskill.

The plan now is to beef up that CD with technology developed by either Motive Communications of Austin, Texas, or Logica Advantagekbs of Edison, N.J., that will perform preemptive care. That's right-preemptive-looking at users' log-on configurations, alerting them of any problems and (get this!) actually warning them before one of those snail-mail-clogging CDs from competing ISPs will slam their existing setup.

But wait, there's more. That's because Meskill foresees a truly collaborative environment that weaves invisible threads between SBC's customers and its customer reps. Deploying NEware (pronounced anywhere) from Net Effect of North Hollywood, Calif., and eService Web-based customer relationship management workflow software from Silknet Software in Manchester, N.H., customer service representatives could actually see users' every click, keystroke and screen image as they occur.

Yes, it does smack of Big Brother. "We trialed the technologies early on, and found that people get a little jumpy when you can see their desktops," says Meskill. "We decided not to turn on that collaborative environment just yet. We think we will but will have to come up with some way for the customers to really see and read the conditions they now agree to as a matter of course." In other words, PacBell Internet Services has to ensure that customers explicitly understand what they agree to when they accept the conditions of service.

Yet another customer-facing component in Meskill's grand scheme is Aptex Select Response e-mail, from eHNC Software of San Diego. Responding to simple English language queries, the system can handle an astounding 800 messages a minute, up to 1.152 million messages a day. Unfortunately, the answers it generates aren't always right-a situation acknowledged at the bottom of every response message, along with information on how to escalate the query to a human being. "That technology is one we've been bleeding more with, since e-mail as a channel has very low customer satisfaction," says Meskill, who adds that the application thus far has failed to live up to expectations. SBC Internet Services' own staff of knowledge engineers is working to beef up the system's ability to more accurately suss out customers' concerns.

Those knowledge engineers are also hard at work on prototyping systems that directly support the company's own staff. Using its size as clout, SBC Internet is partnering with vendors of off-the-shelf products to cook up a best-of-breed stew of knowledge bases and workflow systems that send information where it's needed, when it's needed. Working with Motive Communications, for example, the telco is fine-tuning Motive Duet, a Web-based technology, which will automatically examine customers' systems, diagnose problems and send customers to the proper department in the SBC Internet Service chain. Service professionals will be able to see that information-along with the problem's cause (be it downed phone line, choked Web page or a billing error). Other components making up this complex stew-in-process include Silknet's eService workflow and Web-based trouble ticketing software, and Logica Advantagekbs's IQ Web knowledge base. The hoped-for result: A system that will give customer care professionals a much clearer picture of the entire corporation and the customers it serves. "You can put the agent on the shoulder of giants, and they will know what's going on in the infrastructure, see the outage in an area and know the specifics about a customer's location," says Meskill.

That's the hope. And Meskill is working diligently to bring that vision across all of SBC's operating entities-not just the Internet operations.

The Limits of Technology

Meskill's plans have certainly won her admiration, although not everyone thinks she will be successful.

"She has always struck us as having the vision right," says Chris Selland, vice president of customer relationship management and Internet computer strategies at the Yankee Group in Boston. "The trouble is, she works at a company where implementing the vision might be fairly difficult. That's because SBC, like the rest of the telecommunications industry, has a pretty disjointed business that's organized around products rather than customers. That gets in the way of customer satisfaction. And if your business isn't set up to provide outstanding customer service, slapping technology on it won't magically solve the problem."

Meskill can't wave a wand to make SBC's operations suddenly behave more like the for-profit, unregulated businesses they are. But if she has her way, the various SBC entities can at least present a single corporate face to customers who want help-whether it be for Internet access, call-waiting or caller-ID, billing or repair. That's why the technologies she has her team weaving together are intended for all of SBC-not just its ISP arm. And while her knowledge engineers work on the prototype of a seamless service environment, Meskill strives to convince executives from California to New England of the merit of using Web-based tools for customer service. She says she's confident others will see as she does.

Ed Glotzbach already does. As the San Antonio-based executive vice president and CIO for all of SBC, Glotzbach has a lot of influence in the matter. "I'd say there's a 100 per cent likelihood of adopting those technologies," he says. "You wouldn't believe the variety of questions and issues people call into our offices with-and it's hard for our customer and repair reps to keep all of the answers nearby. Access to Web-based tools opens everything up, plus it improves customers' ability for self-help. That's why Judith's work with SBC Internet Services is helping the whole company."

Of course, no one expects these technology aids to be a panacea. Too many issues remain unsolved: issues like educating service reps on how best to use these tools, making customers feel comfortable with technologies that seem to peer over their shoulders and convincing call-center colleagues to make room for Web-based tools in the first place. Chances are, even with the sophistication already available, SBC will never achieve the nirvana of customer care that Meskill envisions. But she will try. And in the process, she could create the one dynamic that SBC needs most-a united voice.

"My whole strategy is providing one company face to our customers," says Meskill. "I'm completely optimistic that we'll succeed."

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