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Bundled Service, Unbundled Customer Service

By Erika Morphy
Dec 30, 2008 4:00 AM PT

Memo to telecom service providers: "We never thanked you, but you did a great job offering us consolidated billing. It is hard to remember now, as for the last few years you have been so aggressive in promoting bundled services, but five years ago, this was a major pain point. Three bills for ISP, cable and telephone, and usually three different due dates as well.

Bundled Service, Unbundled Customer Service

"But to give you your rightful due, you streamlined your back end systems and added the appropriate hardware and software to give us what we were asking for: one consolidated bill.

"Now, could you possible see about bundling customer service? In other words, I would love to be able to just call my vendor's 1-800 number whenever I have a problem and not have to go through one thousand prompts to find the right person to speak to about my ISP that has just crashed. Ditto the phone and cable, both of which will require another series of complicated prompts. Most frustrating of all, when I am discussing the problem with cable, for example, and refer to the ISP issues I have also been having, I am greeted with blank silence from the rep -- followed by, of course, an offer to transfer me to the ISP customer service department."

New Pain Point

Telcos, service pain points and bottlenecks seem to go hand-in-hand. This particular one -- a segregated customer service apparatus -- is particularly maddening because many of the telcos have at least the IT foundation to build such an operation, thanks to their push of offering bundled services. Either because of cost, or perceived lack of demand -- or both -- they are not opting to do so.

"There has been an obvious competitive benefit for telcos promote bundled services, but they haven't figured out a way to bundle the customer service as well," Charles King, principal with Pund-IT, told CRM Buyer.

In fact, the gaps in customer service are widening, he added, as more providers offer new services or value-add services from third-party providers, such as video on demand or IT data services.

Certainly, much like the long-awaited single bill, one day vendors will have built up their back end infrastructures and developed their customer service processes to offer bundled customer service. But, much like the push to offer one bill, the telcos will need a good reason to make that shift.

That reason, simply put, is going to be market pressure, Greg Sterling, principal with Sterling Market Intelligence, told CRM Buyer. Right now, he said, customers' main focus is on pricing.

Once one of the big competitors offer streamlined, consolidated customer service, other others will follow suit, he added. The industry is competitive enough that when one big provider makes a shift, the others do follow.

"But pricing, especially right now, is trumping customer service in most cases." Another factor, he continued, is that few customers think ahead to what it will be like dealing with the vendor if there are problems. "If customers were fully aware going into the transaction with the telco of all the service problems they might experience, it is possible they might choose a vendor that had slightly higher prices but better service."

These transfers can be maddening, especially if you are calling about several issues, Sterling said. It is analogous to the problems people had with their computers and ISPs 10 or 15 years ago. "You would call the ISP, which would tell you it was a problem with your computer. The computer company's help line, of course, would refer you right back to the ISP."

An Intuitive Bill

That said, some telco providers are putting in place applications that can offer a reasonable approximation of continuous customer service, if not a perfectly seamless experience.

Billing systems are becoming more advanced, allowing telcos to communicate with customers more effectively, Chris Cherry told CRM Buyer. Cherry is director of communications for vertical strategy of Pitney Bowes Group 1 Software, a billing application.

Even little changes can help a great deal in customer relations, he said. "For instance, some systems do not format the bills the same way they format the information that is viewed by the customer service rep. So when a customer calls with a problem on a bill, the rep has a hard time following along."

However, such simple steps won't alleviate all of the customer frustrations that can arise in a service call, John Konczal, vice president with Sterling Commerce, an AT&T company and enterprise software provider, told CRM Buyer.

Digital Content Pushes Change

"A typical service provider has multiple back office systems. The customer doesn't understand that -- he thinks he is calling one branded company, such as AT&T."

More telcos are taking steps to address this problem with even more software investment, he said. Indeed, they have little choice as they add on multiple services -- particularly digital content -- to stay competitive.

Sterling Commerce, for instance, has developed a sales and order capture solution that aggregates information from multiple existing systems and puts it into a rules engine that allows the salesperson to guide the customer through every piece of a service bundle.

While telcos like to focus on the guided selling aspects of these systems -- sales, after all, are top-line growth -- Konczal says they can also be used to handle service complaints and questions.

Frontier deployed Sterling Commerce to handle customer change issues instead of selling to new customers, according to Konczal.

Indeed, this is probably a far bigger pain point than navigating a sales call. "Let's say a customer wants to make a change to her bundle. The question may be whether the bundle is still valid and what other changes have to be made to accommodate the customer's request."

Do It Yourself

The application handles these requests with a robust search capability on the front end of the order system, he explained. "A rep -- or a user, if he comes in through a self-service application -- can access a capability we provide called 'customer product search.' This will search by customer number or telephone number or address. This will pull up for the user a record of what services they have and an option for what changes can be made."

The application then uses the same guided selling principals to move the user through the process of modification or disconnect or some other change.

So when a user decides to opt out of Internet service from a bundle, for instance, the system will alert him or her that that will cost US$130 to cancel and that going forward, it will cost an additional $30 for cable and $10 for phone since he will be paying for a la carte services.

The customer likely won't be happy to receive this news. Indeed, telcos are increasingly levying early termination fees on customers that opt out of bundles, King noted. "I guess they are trying to get us to accept what they have trained us to swallow with the wireless services." Addressing that particular issue, though, is another story altogether.


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