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Telcos to Consumers: Help Yourself

Like virtually every other business with retail operations, telecom service providers are investing heavily in self-service programs that enable consumers to place orders, pay bills, troubleshoot basic problems, and comment or complain.

The motivation for self-service programs is universal: They represent a way to cut costs by limiting human customer service, while also streamlining cumbersome processes to allegedly improve the level of service.

But self-service can also mean more frustration for consumers and, in a competitive market, the service provider that does it badly risks an increased churn rate. During the past year, some telecom service providers have taken a closer look at their self-service programs, to see how they can improve what the industry now loosely terms "the customer experience." (See SPIT Week Focus: Customer Experience Management.)

"We are looking at this, not only from a cost-savings perspective, but also trying to do everything we can to enhance the customer’s experience," says Karlyn Oberg, vice president of administration for SureWest Communications (Nasdaq: SURW). "If we can provide the tools the customer is looking for, we can give them a better quality of service and better information than they’ll get by having to be on a phone call with us."

This is the time for service providers to be looking at Service Provider Information Technology (SPIT), such as virtual agents, to provide customer service, says Diane Clarkson, an analyst at Forrester Research Inc.

In a research report issued in late 2009, Clarkson noted that more than one-third of consumers surveyed prefer to be self-reliant and use online tools to manage their own services.

"People want to do it themselves, and they don’t want to be on the phone," Clarkson says. "They want to fly in and get the answers they need and not have to listen to things that are not related to their issue."

Technological advances have made all forms of self-service more customer-friendly, Clarkson notes, and most consumers are now quite accustomed to using self-help tools to do banking, buy airline tickets, and more.

Verizon tools up
Verizon Communications Inc. (NYSE: VZ) completed a major overhaul of its self-service tools for residential customers and, in January this year, unveiled five tools, including a support section on Verizon.com, online ordering for existing and new customers, a FiOS TV Interactive Media Guide, In-Home Agent Software, and a telephone line response system.

"This is a key strategic initiative for us," says Patrick Smith, director of customer care for Verizon. "It has always been important, but it is growing in importance."

Verizon FiOS customers can use the Interactive Media Guide to order new channels, movies, or premium services, but they can also troubleshoot problems with their set-top box or service, or program their remote control devices to control a new TV, sound system, or digital recorder. There are videos available that provide additional help, according to Smith.

"We’ve added some new capabilities that improve the shopping experience for customers, so they can make more important decisions on what they want to purchase."

For example, a TV equipment "wizard" walks customers through the decision-making process with a series of questions about the number of TVs in the home, recording habits, high-definition preferences, and more, to help them determine the types of TV service they want to purchase.

The In-Home Agent software is downloaded by Verizon technicians at installation or by a customer from the Web, and interfaces with the broadband home router. There are versions of the software for the PC or FiOS TV. Consumers have access to remedial tools that let them perform diagnostic and remedial functions that previously only customer service representatives could do.

That can include troubleshooting TV problems or generating "quick codes," which are specific error messages that a customer gets and can punch in when using the interactive voice response system via an 800 number.

"The 'quick code' brings them to the exact place in the IVR where troubleshooting for that specific problem is available," Smith says. "What we are doing is using the intelligence of one tool to simplify the experience of another."

SureWest conducted "a very significant initiative to reduce calls into our customer service center in 2009, while also improving customer satisfaction," says Oberg. Among the features it offers are: the online management of digital phone options, such as find-me, follow-me number changes; online videos that demonstrate common TV functions, such as programming a DVR or using a remote control; and a new Internet chat feature that allows consumers to reach tech support directly.

In addition to launching new features, SureWest changed vendors on its online bill paying system, to make it easier for consumers to authenticate their accounts and pay bills online, whether setting up a regular monthly payment schedule or doing a one-time payment.

The operator doesn't yet know if the platform change will encourage greater use of the services. "We don't know... [if] this is just not the kind of service people want to order online, or if we need to do more customer education," Oberg says. "That is something we are working on."

Proactive care
Qwest Communications International Inc. (NYSE: Q) also invested heavily in upgrading its self-service systems in 2009, according to Travis Leo, director of product management for Qwest High-Speed Internet. One of its initiatives is use of "proactive" help for consumers, which involves alerting them to problems they don’t know they have.

Leo says the infestation of customers' PCs with viruses, malware, and bots is one of the biggest drivers of proactive care: "So many customers don’t even recognize their computer is affected, and many of them think they have security when they don't."

Qwest can detect malicious traffic and essentially wall-off the affected customer from the network, then send a message alerting her to the condition of her computer and giving her a link to where she can download software that will clean up her PC and optimize its performance in the process.

"It's been a great customer experience," Leo asserts. "We've gotten a lot of positive customer response. Some consumers may get upset at first, but when you show them their computer is infected, they understand."

Qwest customers can also get firmware upgrades via either Qwest.com or the IVR system, which also offers an immediate option for password resets, which still generates a high volume of calls, according to Leo. Consumers who call into the IVR trouble reporting system repeatedly are also identified by their dial-in number and put into a special queue to address recurring problems.

"Over the course of 2009, we have brought online a lot of the functionality that used to only exist in the network. Qwest.com used to be a very static site, and if you weren't lucky enough to have a problem that was answered in the top 10 FAQs, you had to call in. That's not the case anymore."

Since all Qwest broadband customers now get home routers with WiFi capabilities, the installation process now includes capturing the wireless network setup, so that can be backed up in the network. Customers can then reset their own wireless networks from Qwest.com.

In late 2008, Qwest added customer forums to its site, and those have become popular during the past year, Leo adds. The forums enable consumers to post questions or problems, and either a Qwest representative or other consumers provide answers.

SureWest's Oberg admits the next major challenge is getting consumers to use the tools provided. Currently, for example, SureWest is adding thousands of new customers a month, but finding only about 150 consumers are ordering its voice/data/video bundles online.

Just as consumers adapted to ATMs and ordering plane tickets online, however, they will learn to do more of their own customer service, Oberg believes.

Verizon is trying to speed up that process by mailing consumers an interactive tool, the iKyp Webkey, which was developed by marketing specialist firm Kyp. Plugged into the USB port of a PC, it automatically launches Verizon's In-Home Agent and allows consumers to complete the setup with one click. The Webkey thus far has a 10 percent customer response rate, which exceeds the success rate of other Verizon direct-mail promotions, the company says.

— Carol Wilson, Chief Editor, Events, Light Reading

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