article

CustomerService, Contracts and Equity

Posted: 02/1999

Customer
Service, Contracts and Equity

An Agent Roundtable
–Part Two

PHONE+ recently hosted an editorial roundtable with several members of the now-infamous
20 Group, a band of independent agents that frequently assembles to share experiences and
insights on the business of selling telecommunications services independently.

As every agent manager knows, independent agents won’t hesitate to speak their mind.
This dialogue was no different, but some of it was not for attribution. In those
instances, we utilized a fictitious character named "Fat Pipe." The discourse
was so compelling that we’ve decided to publish it all–in three parts. Last month in the
first installment, our esteemed panelists discussed agent equity programs. This month, we
pick up the conversation as they discuss customer service, and in March we will hear what
they have to say about contracts.

Roundtable Participants

Moderator:
Bob Titsch Jr., Group Editor, Telecom Division, Virgo Publishing, Phoenix
Panelists:

Ronald Bohm, Principal, King Communications, Hoffman
Estates, Ill.

Jim Butler, Principal, TeleCHOICE, Vista, Calif.

Jim Gledhill, President, National Telecommunications Consultants Inc., Sandy, Utah

Gene Foster, President, Communications Management Services (CMS), San Diego

Ben Humphries, President, COMTEL Communications Services, Whitestone, Va.

Barbara Kubarych, Principal, Network Carrier Consultants, Del Mar, Calif.

Jay Lewis, President, VISIONCOM, West Bloomfield, Mich.

J.M. Neale, III, President, COMTEL Communications Services, Whitestone, Va.

Michael Parizanski, President, RepCom, Wheaton, Ill.

Greg Praske, CEO, Association Resource Group (ARG), Washington

Bill Power, President, ARG, Washington

Ladd Richland, CEO, SourceONE Communications, Long Beach, Calif.

Bill Stevens, Master Agent, Mayfair Group Inc., Chicago

Kenny Wilder, Senior Consultant, ECT Telecommunications for Less, Birmingham, Ala.

Bob Titsch Jr.: Let’s start with a subject that none of you care about:
commissions.

Kenny Wilder: Agents care about three things: commissions, customer satisfaction
and commissions.

Titsch: Do all of you agree with that?

Ben Humphries: I don’t agree because the degradation of customer service in the
industry is getting so bad that we have to employ more people to make up the difference. I
think we’re approaching a point where customer service is equally important as
commissions, maybe even higher. That’s back-office support, billing, the whole nine yards.

Titsch: Where do carriers need to improve most?

Ronald Bohm: When I call any carrier, whether it be one that I sell for or one
that the customer is using, it’s almost impossible to get a live person on the phone
within 10 minutes. That may not address the issue of the quality of customer service, but
a lot of my customers are very aggravated when they have to wait a long time and punch a
lot of digits on an auto-attendant system just to get to somebody real. When they finally
get through that process, they better get good service from somebody who understands their
problem and doesn’t give them the runaround because they’ve just been frazzled, and
they’ve wasted their time.

Ben Humphries
"Online capabilities with the carrier/reseller is the No. 1 thing
we’re looking for in a new contract. It supersedes commissions."

-Ben Humphries, Presdent, COMTEL Communications Services

Greg Praske: We’re very frustrated with that situation. After waiting on hold,
it’s rare to get good, quality customer service from somebody who cares. And truly it
seems like customer service people don’t care. We’ve had to totally change our whole
approach as a result. We’ve hired our own customer service people, we’ve trained our
customers to call us first, just to keep our customers away from that experience.

Bill Power: Ideally, what we would like to have is the ability to take care of
the issues online with the vendor’s system. As we’re looking at new vendors, that’s one of
the primary considerations. As customers call us to do moves, adds and changes, we don’t
want to have to turn around and get in line to speak with a reseller who typically has to
call its underlying carrier to actually effect the change. It just seems absurd.

If we can take the request, get online and enter the request and have it done,
everybody benefits. Yet it’s amazing how many resellers we talk to say, "Yeah, it’s
coming, it’s coming, we’ll have that soon." But very few, if any, have a system in
place.

Barbara Kubarych: We’ve been hearing that for years: "It’s coming next
week."

Humphries: I’ll go a step further. Online capabilities with the carrier/reseller
is the No. 1 thing we’re looking for in a new contract. It supersedes commissions. We’re
handling most of the customer service. If we can get online, we can be more efficient, and
be more efficient for the customer. If we can be more efficient, we can spend more time
selling.

Titsch: Does anybody around the table have online access for moves, adds and
changes? (A few agents begin to raise their hands.)

Power: That works? (Hands lower. LAUGHTER.) If it’s not going to work, I’d
rather not mess with it.

Jay Lewis: I haven’t found a customer service center yet that can actually tell
you what rate plan a customer is on. If you ask a question regarding a bill, whether it’s
your own customer that you’re calling for or whether you’re trying to get information on
another customer, customer service reps have no clue about the rate your customer should
be paying. Nothing is more frustrating for a customer who’s trying to get a credit for
something that’s wrong when the customer service person says you have to call somebody
else to get that information.

Barbara Kubarych
"Another thing that would be very desirable online [is] access to the
system to look at your customers’ bills. I get customers’ bills faxed to me on a daily
basis for one reason or another. I don’t want to have to ask a customer to fax me a bill.
I should be able to access that."

-Barbara Kubarych, Principal, Network Carrier Consultants

Kubarych: That’s another thing that would be very desirable online: access to
the system to look at your customers’ bills. I get customers’ bills faxed to me on a daily
basis for one reason or another. I don’t want to have to ask a customer to fax me a bill.
I should be able to access that.

Ladd Richland: We simply assume the customer service is going to be
poor–whomever we’re dealing with. It’s our responsibility to make sure that what needs to
get done for our customer gets done. Ultimately, we don’t even rely on the carrier to
affirm that something got done. We actually go back to the customer and make sure that it
was taken care of, because carriers sometimes say that something was done, and it wasn’t.
That could be anything from billing issues to changing ANIs (automatic number
identifications) to routing instructions to accounting codes, whatever.

Jim Butler: We’ve found that the level of competence in customer service
departments has gone down considerably. Because of the growth and the changes in the
bureaucracy within some of the larger carriers, a very real wall has been raised.

Mike Parizanski: I’m a small business owner like everybody else in this room. I
don’t really have the time to deal with 1,900 customer complaints on a daily basis. It
seems to me that resellers have a distinct advantage over carriers in that you can pick up
the phone and speak to a live person, and that person will actually do some of the things
that you request. With Qwest [Communications Inter-national Inc.], or formerly LCI
[International Inc.], I’ll call customer service directly and if I’m not the customer, in
a lot of cases, they won’t be responsive to me. They tell me I’ve got to get the customer
on the line, and that doesn’t make any good business sense.

Furthermore, when a customer calls and speaks to a representative from a larger
carrier, that rep doesn’t even know who the agent is or what the agent does or what the
agent channel is all about. Well, it’s supporting that rep’s position and salary. So I
think that needs to be addressed.

Richland: Mike, there’s another channel through Qwest/LCI where we use a
dedicated service person who actually talks to us.

Parizanski: A lot of times you’re going to get voice mail, though. And customers
want things done quicker than that.

Richland: They’ve actually given us pagers and home phone numbers …

Parizanski: But you’re dealing with larger customers. I’m dealing with switched
customers in the $200 and $300 range.

Richland: But your aggregate is worth something.

Parizanski: My aggregate’s worth something but I’m not getting a like level of
service. Maybe it’s not universal. You’re in California and I’m in the Midwest.

Humphries: A carrier that can give us an online program and give us online
access to customer service and give us all of the things we’ve outlined is going to get a
pile of business in the next several months.

Fat Pipe: This is Fat Pipe (LAUGHTER). Four years ago, if we had a dedicated
customer with WorldCom (MCI WorldCom Inc.), we could call the switch, have the hunt group
changed, have international calling added … we could have any kind of changes made
within two minutes. Now WorldCom tells us it’s five days, when actually it’s 10 days to
make a simple 20- or 30-second change for a dedicated customer.

Power: And the customer is simply unwilling to accept that.

Kubarych: It’s the same thing with something as simple as turning up 800 numbers
with one vendor some of us have a lot of business with. We used to be able to call and get
a customer a toll-free number very quickly–certainly within 24 hours. Now it’s maybe five
days, more likely 10 days. The response level has severely deteriorated.

Praske: What we’re all talking about is the value of an agent. I can’t imagine a
company going out and having to deal with these carriers directly. As frustrating as it is
to us … these customers don’t know how to navigate through the system. We’ve all built
companies based on our ability to do that. If the timeline is five days, we can sometimes
get it down to two. The poor customers are being told five, and that’s if they can get
through to customer service in five days. And it takes another 10 [days].

And the large carriers are absolutely ridiculous in this regard. If one of our
customers is also working with AT&T [Corp.] or MCI, we’ll often end up helping to
resolve a problem. Just last week, on behalf of one of our customers, we were in queue for
57 minutes with AT&T, and we got somebody who said we needed to speak with an account
rep. We were transferred to that rep and, of course, we got voice mail. Three days later,
someone returned our call. That’s what the customer is encountering. We don’t want that to
change (LAUGHTER).

Titsch: So despite the fact that carriers and resellers are injecting millions
and millions of dollars into customer care systems and processes, every one of you has
seen a huge degradation in customer service. (Everyone nods "yes.")

Praske: They’re injecting the millions into ACD (automatic call distributor)
systems.

Bohm: Yeah, customer avoidance (LAUGHTER).

"Essentially, I need a carrier that can cut down on my
maintenance."

-Kenny Wilder, Senior
Consultant, ECT Telecommunications for Less

Wilder: I know that a lot of the carriers are misdirected and all that, but
there’s one carrier out there that, in my opinion, is doing a great job. That’s Cable
& Wireless [Inc. (C&W)]. With C&W, you have access to the customer’s invoice
on the Internet. You can pull up your account and see the same invoice that customer
service looks at. If some ANIs were added one or two days ago, you can go in there and see
if the ANIs got added.

Jim Gledhill: You can also check notes on the account.

Power: Can you add ANIs via the Internet or that online system?

Wilder: It’s coming (LAUGHTER).

Parizanski: Can you add accounting codes and things like that?

Wilder: Well, you can send an e-mail message. And C&W’s response is pretty
quick on 800 numbers. Usually, with most carriers, you don’t find out about a problem for
two or three months, until a customer calls in and says, "Hey, I’m still being billed
by AT&T. I thought you switched me over." Essentially, I need a carrier that can
cut down on my maintenance. I don’t have the personnel that some of you have.

Fat Pipe: In terms of, "It’s coming," Qwest is releasing a product
called Q Partner, which is an extranet that operates over the Internet, but it’s closed
and password-protected. Soon, I’m told, agents will have the ability to put in a customer
account number or name and pull down information about that customer. And in February,
you’ll be able to enter your orders online, without having to go through the Internet
bulletin board process. That’s a hopeful sign.


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