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Iridium's satellite telephone network delivers communications and customer service to A-list customers in some of the most remote spots on earth.

Like a lot of other cutting-edge electronics consumers worldwide, Ronald Naar spent last summer tracking the progress and availability of Iridium, the new satellite telephone service that promises to deliver communications capabilities to the four corners of the globe. Nine years in the making, the satellite network was only then getting into place. And handsets, which run about $US 3,000, were (and at press time still are) in short supply.

But Naar was a man quite literally on a mission. He wanted - make that needed - an Iridium phone to help him and his partner, Coen Hofstede, communicate with the unfrozen world as they embarked on a 75-day trek and parasail across the continent of Antarctica. Naar's first move was to call Iridium's brand-new Global Customer Care center (at 800 628-4910) to inquire about getting a handset in time for the expedition's departure.

"We started [trying] in May and got a phone only two hours before we were leaving [in November]," says Naar, speaking over the Iridium handset on day 32 of the expedition, when he and Hofstede were virtually becalmed in windless conditions and temperatures of minus 34 degrees Celsius. "We got just the phone. There were no instructions and no time for training," Naar recalls. "I just took the whole thing and ran to the airport." Preoccupied as he was with anemometers, aluminum fuel cylinders and para-wings, Naar most likely didn't give much thought to the details of Iridium's customer-support plan. But behind his initial phone call is a vast customer-support web that's nearly as complex and ambitious as the satellite network it aims to support. And as Naar eventually learned, it can even advise Antarctic travelers to properly warm their batteries before dialing.

Washington, D.C.-based Iridium LLC's Global Customer Care (GCC) program offers 24-by-7-by-365 telephone support in 13 languages to customers literally anywhere in the world. Iridium customers, who use one telephone handset and are reached at one telephone number regardless of their location on the globe, call a single number from any country to reach GCC and, after keying in a short code, are routed to an operator who speaks their preferred language.

For times when the phone itself isn't working, users can reach GCC via a toll-free or low-cost local phone number from 70 countries. And GCC even promises delivery of new handsets within three business days to those who have damaged or lost theirs, in some cases navigating customs, sensitive borders and other geographic vagaries to do so.

Behind the scenes, a virtual private network links the three physical locations - Maitland, Fla.; Zoetermeer, Netherlands; and Sydney, Australia - that make up the call center. Data is instantly and constantly replicated among the three sites, so customer files are always live regardless of which physical location has fielded the phone call. Calls are automatically routed depending upon time of day and the availability of an operator who speaks the caller's language. A SIMM card inserted into the Iridium handset transmits subscription information to authenticate the subscriber and determine access rights when a call is placed to the GCC center.

If all that sounds expensive and complicated, it is. Iridium officials and Booz, Allen & Hamilton Inc.'s consultants who worked with the company to develop GCC strategy and bring the GCC online all declined to put a price on the program's development costs. But according to Mark Gercenstein, Iridium's senior vice president of business operations, the company plans to spend between $US 50 million and $US 100 million on customer care over the next two years. "Of course," he points out wryly, "if we have no troubles and nobody calls us, that number could be a lot lower." Money aside, the development team had to clear multiple hurdles in its quest for a truly global customer service program, including overcoming language barriers, negotiating business agreements with telephone providers worldwide and maintaining relationships with both customers and business partners without alienating either group.

Given the time and trouble involved, why did Iridium bother? The company has no alternative if it hopes to woo and win the attention of the top-flight customers who are likely to be its early adopters, says Jack Gold, a senior program director at Meta Group Inc., a Stamford, Conn., research firm. "At $US 3,000 a handset and 3 or 4 bucks a minute, you'd better make sure people are happy. You're not just talking about dropping a dime into a phone here," says Gold, who emphasizes that an entirely new technology like Iridium is more likely to fail occasionally, so "solving problems quickly and effectively is of major importance." (For a cautionary look at the author's high-priced call to Naar, see "No Price Cap to the Icecap?") While Iridium officials say the per-minute price of the company's satellite service can be as low as a dollar or two depending upon where and when a customer is calling, they don't dispute that cutting-edge technology needs a high level of customer service, particularly among the diplomats, high-volume business travelers, and maritime, construction and oil and gas workers who have thus far been the earliest adopters of Iridium technology.

"You get only one chance to do it right," says Global Customer Operations Director Lynn Williamson of Iridium's decision to come right out of the gate with a blue-chip customer service operation. "If we want to put a premier tag on this service, we have to be there with a premier support product at the beginning." In addition, a fully realized customer-support center raises the bar for potential competitors down the road.

"Highly mobile customers basically need a very different type of customer service," says Patrick Zerbib, vice president in Booz, Allen's Communications, Media and Technology group in New York City. "If you've contracted [for Iridium service] in Italy and you're traveling in China, you might not even know how to dial Telecom Italia from where you are." A single worldwide phone number solves that problem for the user and protects the integrity of the Iridium brand name, Zerbib says. Moreover, there are varying customer-support standards in different countries. Because Iridium service is offered by local mobile telephone providers, the company might have chosen to leave customer care to the individual providers. But, outside the United States and Japan, 24/7 support is far from being the norm.

Given the need for truly global customer service, Iridium and Booz Allen set out to make that vision a reality. The project involved more than a few unique challenges. Language, for example, was one large stumbling block. "We can put 56 satellites up in the air, but we can't get everyone to speak the same language," Williamson says.

Iridium's solution was to establish its call centers in three locations where bilingual and trilingual employees are more readily available. The Florida center handles primarily Spanish and English, the Netherlands center handles European languages and English, and Australia covers Asian languages and English.

Such requirements make staffing the call centers a challenge, says Kathy Eisenhart, Iridium's executive director for global customer care. In addition to their language skills - which in some cases are tested by an outside translation service - applicants must demonstrate proficiency on the computer, be able to type and talk at the same time, and pass basic listening comprehension and grammar tests, which are administered as part of an interactive PC-based program.

The decision to support 13 languages (plus a separate language line for other dialects not covered) caused a particular headache for the people charged with setting up terrestrial backup lines for customers to call when they have problems with their Iridium phones. "The easy 800 number was a big challenge," recalls Peter Grambs, a principal with Booz Allen's IT group. "It had to be done country by country, and each time we needed 14 different numbers, one for each language plus the language line." There was no alternative to simply slogging through, striking agreements with local service providers one at a time for toll-free numbers or, where those weren't available, low-cost local phone lines. That same principle applied when it came to building a network of delivery companies that would be able to make good on Iridium's promise to replace broken or lost handsets.

For all the preparation and problem-solving, the concept of Global Customer Care as a strategic selling point is still an unproven and expensive gamble.

The Iridium network itself was officially launched Nov. 1, 1998; but with handsets still in short supply, it's difficult to guess when customer numbers will ramp up, Iridium officials concede.

So far, calls to the GCC have been primarily informational - the phone center doubles as a sales support and inquiry line - or have been from first-time users anxious to get going without reading their manuals, according to Lisa Smith, global client process consultant for Sprint Telecenters Inc., which is contracted to run Iridium's Florida call center. "People are just getting their hands on the handsets, and they want to know how to dial and how to use the phones," Smith says. The most common themes are what am I doing wrong and how come I can't make a call? More exotic problems such as Naar's difficulties with frozen batteries aren't yet the norm, Smith says. Local service providers that have just begun to offer Iridium to their most-valued customers tend to treat them with kid gloves. As a result, questions that may one day wind up at the GCC are being handled on a local level for now. For example, Naar's local carrier, the Netherlands-based Glocall, which has been aggressive in both supporting and promoting him, solved his battery problem by suggesting he first warm the battery unit (via solar panels placed on top of his tent) before placing it in the handset.

At this early stage of the game, the GCC staff remains convinced that the global call center makes good business sense. "Consistency of service across the world is going to be a significant contributor [to satellite market growth]," declares Eisenhart. "This service has to work to meet your expectations, and we think a one call, one phone number will be a big attraction." No Price Cap to the Icecap? Wherein our reporter learns that the sky's the limit in billing for satellite services With estimates ranging from $US 1 to $US 4 a minute for Iridium service, high-quality satellite phone links to remote locations seem merely pricey - not outrageous. But my experience teaches that the escalator can rise to unimagined heights, even if only temporarily. When billing for service passes through multiple carriers, funny things can happen to the cost profile, for which no one seems able to take responsibility.

My eight-minute, direct-dial call to Ronald Naar in Antarctica (note to editors: I know, I know, next time he calls me) appeared on a domestic AT&T Corp. account as a $US 520 charge. At those prices, you don't chitchat about the weather on the ice cap.

Since $US 520 was more than 10 times what I'd expected, I called my long-distance provider. After six operators and an aggregate two-plus hours of time on hold, I concluded that AT&T seems scarcely to have heard of Iridium and apparently has no earthly idea how its satellite charges are computed.

One customer service representative offered to strike the charge altogether if I promised not to make any more phone calls "like that." What a deal! But in the interests of journalism, I declined (editor's note: Thanks, Tracy!).

Another offered to cut the bill a hefty decimal point to $US 52, but only after I volunteered that most Iridium calls didn't go higher than $US 4 or $US 5 a minute. The international operator guessed that the call was billed as a shore-to-ship communication (about 98 cents every six seconds), and indicated I'd have to pony up the full amount. Also no thanks.

Finally, a representative within AT&T's loftily named high seas adjustments investigative department said she had in fact heard of Iridium (kind of), that the charge came directly from Iridium with no markup from AT&T (really?) and that I'd have to call Iridium myself to straighten out the matter. This seemed odd. Shouldn't AT&T be willing to sort out the complex particulars of its own bills? This was how I became an Iridium Global Customer Care customer. And I can report that the folks on the phones live up to their top-notch billing - even if it turns out they can't do anything about my billing. After dutifully reminding me that local carriers, and not Iridium itself, handle bills, each of the three representatives I spoke with went on to gather information, offered to call AT&T and Glocall (the corresponding long-distance carrier in the Netherlands), and generally behaved in a manner that was simultaneously proactive and sympathetic.

But the company still couldn't fix the bill. It took a phone call to Kathy Eisenhart, Iridium LLC's executive director for global customer care in Washington, D.C., to straighten out the mess. Long-distance carriers like AT&T treat calls to Iridium phones as if Iridium were a country. Just as Italy's country code is 39, Iridium's is 881 (all calls to users of the satellite service start with 881). Those rates are tariffed, in this case at $US 6.50 per minute, which means that my call, in fact, was miscalculated by a decimal point. Simple enough.

But if the charge originated entirely within AT&T, which it did, why did the company tell me to go figure it out myself? Eisenhart advised tolerance.

"Don't slam AT&T too hard," she counsels. "They knew they had a billing problem with 881 numbers, and it's supposed to be fixed. But you can fix it one place and not fix it everywhere. It takes time to get that information out to the customer care force." Finally, Eisenhart says, if you're ever worried about the cost of any call, check it out in advance. "There's a rate, and it's been set beforehand. Just call up the carrier and ask for a rate quote." So the next time an Iridium-using buddy asks, "Hey, can you call me back?" tell him he'll have to wait a sec.

Tracy Mayor is a freelance writer and editor based in Beverly, Mass. She can be reached at tmayor@shore.net.

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