Cross-Border Customer Care
By Denise Culver
When Internet protocol (IP) telephony was introduced a scant few years ago, the handful
of companies that were utilizing the technology weren’t too concerned about how they would
bill for the service or whether their customer service would be up to par. After all, they
had just mastered a new form of telecommunications service that enabled them to provide
cheap international long distance rates over a network that was vastly less expensive to
install and maintain.
"We spent the first several months patting ourselves on the back because we were
able to connect a call and make it sound as good as a traditional call at a much cheaper
rate," says Fara Hain, associate vice president of public relations with
Jerusalem-based Delta Three Inc. "But we’ve quickly come to realize that it doesn’t
matter whether we can connect a call if we can’t offer the basic programs and services
that traditional telecommunications providers offer."
That’s exactly why Delta Three recently forged a relationship with St. Louis-based
Amdocs Ltd., an international company that develops customer care and billing (CC&B)
software solutions for all U.S. regional Bell operating companies (RBOCs), Korean Telecom,
Deutsche Telekom and numerous other telecom carriers.
"Before the Amdocs system, we didn’t have in place the basic essentials of running
a telecommunications company, because we didn’t have any systems in place that addressed
billing and customer management," she says. "We now have those systems in place,
and we’re grooming ourselves to become true competitors in terms of connecting calls, as
well as addressing the issues of customer care and billing."
Indeed, statistics show that many telecommunications carriers–circuit- and
packet-switched–are investing heavily in the CC&B market, especially as they expand
into multiple service offerings and international business plans. According to Nehemia
Lemelbaum, senior vice president of Amdocs, the CC&B industry is growing between 35
percent and 55 percent each year. In 1998, the U.S. CC&B industry accounted for $404
million in revenue alone. By 2002, the worldwide market for the CC&B industry is
expected to be at $10 billion.
According to Lemelbaum, CC&B software enables companies to customize their
telecommunications products, build data centers, better train their customer service
representatives (CSRs) and, in general, develop mission-critical systems that address all
aspects of customer service.
"Anything that deals with customer service is mission-critical," he says.
"The interaction between the carrier and the customer is extremely important, because
companies know that it is much more cost-effective to keep an existing customer than to
try to win new customers."
This hand-holding approach to customer service becomes especially trying, however, when
a company does business in locales in which it doesn’t necessarily have a customer service
presence. When this happens, issues of language, culture, currency, taxes, time
differences and other factors make it doubly challenging for carriers to ensure that their
customer service and billing procedures are up to par.
For instance, Delta Three’s IP telephony business has 37 points of presence (POPs) in
29 countries, so it’s extremely important for the company to have a CC&B system that
enables it to offer country-specific promotions and empowers its international partners to
rate independently of one another.
"We’ve also had to give consideration to issues like language and currency
differences," Hain explains. "For instance, the system we now use will enable me
to make a rate table for an agent in Japan, so that I’m entering the rates in [U.S.]
dollars, and he’s seeing them in yen."
IDT Corp., Hackensack, N.J., another provider of IP telephony services, continues to
use its own proprietary CC&B system, explains Mordy Rothberg, executive vice president
of strategic development. "At the time we determined it was necessary to develop a
system for customer care and billing, there simply was no one out there who was developing
such systems for the IP marketplace," he says. "We had a prepaid platform that
we integrated into the system, and we had a heads-up on a lot of the issues we’d be
facing, because they’re issues we’ve addressed in our other business offerings."
Despite his confidence in the company’s in-house systems, however, Rothberg says that
IDT has developed a network of in-country partners with whom it works to ensure that
language and cultural differences are being addressed.
"Every country has its own nuances and individual marketing needs," he says.
"What works in one country doesn’t necessarily work in another. We feel the best way
to supply support is to have local people in place who are multilingual and who understand
the language and culture better than any random CSR on the other side of the world
CC&B specialists say that such partnership networks can be costly and depend upon a
carrier trying to find partners that are honest and reliable. On the other hand, software
solutions that are integrated into a company’s existing customer service department can
address those same needs without relying on outside individuals, says Mike Robbins, chief
operating officer of Indianapolis-based Corepoint Technologies, an IBM-backed software
solutions company that specializes in CC&B.
"Our software is designed to interpret up to 25 languages throughout the world,
and it can be localized for each individual client," he says. "We also offer
around-the-world support, so if it’s 9 p.m. in France and a request comes in, someone on
the network is going to answer that request. The customer doesn’t know if the help is
coming from down the street or around the world, because he gets immediate assistance in
his language. All he knows is that the carrier is providing 24/7 customer service, which
is what he wants."
Robbins scoffs at the suggestion that international partners are better able to explain
complex issues or communicate with customers than a CSR on a CC&B system.
"We build all types of failsafes into our system to ensure that this doesn’t
happen," he says. "For instance, if one of our U.S. carriers has a resale
customer in Japan who is having problems, a CSR in the United States can click a button on
the computer that enables him to draw pictures on the screen that the Japanese customer
can see. This web collaboration, which is a lot like a John Madden drawing, enables them
to communicate like they were sitting right across from one another."
Like Corepoint’s software, Amdocs’ software is designed to take into account various
factors that once were thought to be addressable only in a personal relationship. For
instance, the Amdocs system has been designed to take into account cultural differences,
"We know that different countries have different credit policies and collection
policies," he says. "So we designed the system to understand these differences.
For instance, in one country, the system might be designed to just send a warning letter
to a customer who misses a single payment. In another country, missing a payment might
mean immediate termination of service.
"It all depends upon the country. Instead of expecting the carriers to know all of
these characteristics, our software is programmed to do it for them," he adds.
Another CC&B challenge that Burlington, Mass.-based Saville Systems PLC is
addressing is the difference in currency and taxation rates between countries, says Martin
Morgan, European marketing manager. His company has developed its systems to bill in
multiple languages and currencies that enable CSRs to pull up customer information with
"Our biggest challenge has been with the European Monetary Union, which has
introduced new currency," he says. "They are scheduled to have new currency in
place in 11 countries throughout Europe by 2002 and, until then, they will have one, two
or dual currencies in various countries. In order to make sure that we’re meeting all of
our European customers’ needs, we’ve had to design our customer care systems to track
which customers are using which currency, and we’re going to have to continue to track it
until the single currency is in place."
Perhaps the biggest challenge faced by all CC&B system developers, however, is the
move toward e-commerce and online billing. Hain says authentication of international
credit cards is a "huge issue" that Delta Three is trying to work out in its
"How do you verify addresses of people who live halfway around the world?"
she asks. "How do you verify whether a credit card that isn’t backed by a U.S. bank
is a valid card? Right now, our only answer is to refuse credit cards from anyone who
isn’t backed by a U.S. bank.
"We’re working on the development of some other solutions, but the whole concept
of e-commerce is still in its infancy, so it’s a real challenge."
Morgan says the benefits of web commerce are many: Customers can view their bills,
examine new rate plans, e-mail questions and, in some cases, even talk through their
computers to a live CSR.
"There is no question that the majority of customer service still takes place
through traditional lines, primarily through phone conversations," he says. "But
the rapid increase of Internet usage will mean a growing customer base that wants to do
Denise Culver is a telecommunications freelance writer based in Spring, Texas. She
can be reached at email@example.com.