Session Offers Tips on How to Get, Keep Customers

Know your customers and serve them well. First impressions count. Be proactive with customer relations to reduce churn. Those are three cornerstones to "Reducing Churn & Attracting New Customers," say three telco executives who will be on the Cisco Systems-hosted panel this afternoon. Other Cisco-sponsored panels address OSS solutions, multiservice edge technologies and deployment strategies at the edge.

Panelist Janice Aune, president and CEO of Onvoy, a service provider in the upper Midwest that sells retail voice, video and data services to business customers as well as wholesale services, says her company caters to multisite companies with specific communities of interest. To do that, Onvoy looks at customers’ and potential customers’ key partners and applications and figures out how best to address them, she says.

Health care is the first vertical market Onvoy is addressing as part of that strategy. The company has created a specialized team to work with rural health care systems, hospitals and related organizations to identify their needs. "We have brought radiologists on our network and connect health care clinics to them for no additional fee," she says. "Clinics can videoconference them just like they’re calling them."

Aune says offering this kind of service has been "a big success" for Onvoy, which expects to target other verticals in the future. "We have had zero churn," she says. "Customers that signed up for one-year contracts now are signing up for three-plus year contracts.

"It’s how we’re trying to address their ecosystem needs" that builds customer loyalty, she says.

Brooks Robinson, chief marketing officer at IP-based integrated communications provider Cbeyond Communications, says it won over small business customers by offering them affordable broadband Internet service at a time when pricing for such services from other providers was typically out of their reach. "We packaged local, long distance and Internet to give businesses all of it for the price they’d paid in the past for just long distance," he says.

Of course, once a service provider has won over customers, it needs to figure out how to keep them.

"Winning customers and keeping customers is the name of the game," says panelist Drew Walker, president of business services at ITC^DeltaCom, a large CLEC in the southeast targeting small and medium businesses with regional communications requirements.

To win and retain customers, a service provider first should listen to customer needs and address how its services can meet those needs, Walker says, noting that ITC^DeltaCom believes in a "consultative sales process." The next step, he says, is fulfilling or exceeding customer expectations during the installation process.

The company’s high-touch mindset extends to ongoing customer relations. For example, an ITC^DeltaCom customer representative hand-delivers a customer’s first invoice and reviews that information with the appropriate contact at that business, he says. That way, if there’s a billing problem, ITC^DeltaCom "gets it nipped in the bud, so it doesn’t fester."

ITC^DeltaCom also sends every customer a letter with its "our word guarantee" that says if the company’s service is deemed unsatisfactory in the first 90 days, the customer can — without question — terminate service without penalty, says Walker. In addition, if at any time during the life of the contract ITC^DeltaCom can’t resolve a problem within 20 days, the company offers the customer that same ability to pull out of the contract, he says. "I am notified every time someone takes advantage of that guarantee, and I can tell you it is very few," he says.

"First impressions remain important over the years as long as you deliver what you promise," continues Walker.

Cbeyond’s Robinson agrees that first impressions count. "We think customer loyalty is really built in the first 60 days," says Robinson, whose company delivers VoIP and data services to businesses in Atlanta, the Dallas area and Denver.

Like ITC^DeltaCom, Cbeyond (in most cases) uses a direct sales force to explain the value of its services and make sure customers are buying the services that best meet their needs. And to ensure customers get off to a good start, Robinson adds, Cbeyond dedicates an individual to coordinate the installation date and make sure customers receives the features and functionality they require.

Walter adds ITC^DeltaCom also ensures that a customer service representative from one of its 40 branch offices contacts each customer in person every 90 days. "That’s a requirement," says Walter. "This really minimizes access by competitors" to ITC^DeltaCom’s customers, he says. ITC^DeltaCom also employs its own technical field force who wear the company logo and has a technical consultant-sales engineer in each of its branches available to serve customers as their business needs change, Walter adds.

To get a jump on the contract renewal process, ITC^DeltaCom has an automated system that alerts it service representatives six months before contracts expire. That way, Walter says, the representative and the customer can discuss contract renewal and what are the best products for that customer well before the contract is due to expire. "Where you run into trouble is if a rep who sold the customer leaves the company and the account doesn’t get reassigned to a new client rep. Things like that are very costly," says Walker, explaining the automated system helps alert representatives to expiring accounts.

"This industry is really tough because Internet, private line, other services have been commoditized," says Aune of Onvoy. "So we’ve realized that you almost have to do an eat your own strategy."

That means that before contracts expire, Onvoy actively works with customers to offer better price plans or something along those lines. "As a rule, you’re going to take a revenue hit," she says, "but you’re going to keep those customers" get good word of mouth and better volume.

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