From Small Operator to Smooth Operator

FOR LONG-DISTANCE RESELLERS, CLECs and smaller telecom operators, the wolves are prowling the perimeter in the form of squeezed margins, ubiquitous brand messaging fallout from the great cable-ILEC triple-play battle, and nontraditional competitors. Its not easy being small today, and carving out a successful niche means knowing your existing and potential customers.

Thus, customer relationship management is moving into position as a centerpiece of brand positioning, extending beyond the call center into sales and marketing. Good CRM processes tell the customer, We like you, we really like you! And, it becomes a differentiating factor.

CRM actually falls into about five different areas, says Randy Minervino, vice president of marketing at outsourced billing provider Profitec Inc. Customer support tools, client and margin analysis, business management, billing utility and special treatment, he says. Good billing and nice call center people are not a differentiator anymore; thats table stakes. You need a bigger viewpoint.

A bigger viewpoint means catering to your customers, maintaining high-value relationships and finding new, appropriate sales opportunities. At the same time, resellers need to be efficient, and often have limited resources to spend on big CRM strategies. Thus, many resellers face a dilemma: the economics say to automate all customer contact to take costs out, since an IVR transaction is a tenth of the cost of a live conversation; and yet the marketplace perception is that a live person offers a better customer experience, which is critical to hanging onto the base.

Service quality has the highest impact on customer decisions to stay or leave, says Bill Andrews, general manager at billing and CRM vendor Convergys Corp. It dictates how long a customer stays and gives you revenue, which needs to be for a while to be profitable. Yet many smaller players cant afford the high-touch route.

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Fortunately, there is a middle ground, says Andrews. You can create an integrated solution of self-care, IVR and live people, within an approved call structure, with automation where necessary. For smaller customers, the cost for deployment of such systems has come down, so they can now take advantage of the economic solutions that still cover customer experience. Convergys for one offers the SpeechPort Open Hosted Environment, which is hosted by Convergys but gives control of the application layer to the customer, which can control voice prompts and workflow routing.

Increasingly, information is the key to leveraging both sides of the customer care coin reducing churn while being frugal. For instance, knowing who needs handholding is one way to endear oneself to the customer while offering efficiencies. Profitec offers resellers a way to segment their markets, assigning every customer contact a score. Someone who needs more care has a higher number than someone whos just checking a balance, says Minervino. This means the reseller can determine the actual profitability of a client interaction, allowing them to put more resources into a highervalue transaction, while also treating customers who need more help accordingly.

CRM isnt only about inbound customer contact; crafting loyalty and incentive programs is another key for resellers. I can send specific messages early payment discounts, affiliation code branding for special membership rate codes and so on to the right people at the right time,Minervino says. So Im not wasting resources and people get relevant offers.

UDP Inc., a billing provider, offers the capability to build loyalty programs within the call center. If the customer spends more than $40 on long-distance, the CSR is prompted to offer them the all-you-caneat plan, for instance. Also, it offers tools for online upselling and outbound campaigns. UDP can create in real-time customer hit-list record transactions, and prompt follow-ups or contacts within specific time frames.

CRM needs to be proactive, says Joel Daniels, CIO at UDP. If you wait for a customer to call, unfortunately it may be to disconnect service. Companies, especially smaller companies, need to focus on relationship-building, because theres more competition than ever and you need more than a cheap offer.

UDP offers logic to prompt CSRs to wish customers a happy birthday or thank them for being a customer for X number of years. Managing portfolios is another important tool. Resellers have to be as competitive and as responsive as they can be, says Daniels. That means they need to look at client usage and make sure they are on the most economic plan. They should proactively call and help customers save money.

In order to do this effectively, service providers have to understand the services, the programs and the promotions that are available to offer any customer at any time. There are two ends of the market there are still nontechnical people leasing a phone from the ILEC, says Daniels. Others are technical and aware of the options, but have no customer loyalty. Then theres everything in between. CRM helps companies manage those relationships from both ends of the spectrum.

CRM also extends tools the salespeople can use to control the base, police opportunities and maintain profitable end users. For instance, knowing what offers to upsell and cross-sell to existing customers, based on a thorough knowledge of their communications portfolios, can drive efficiencies and more revenue.

The customer feels taken care of, but it also helps the service provider avoid margin-killing activities, Minervino explains. For instance, if a reseller has a carrier with an unattractive rate, the Profitec system wont offer the salesperson that rate to sell. It also performs geographic lookups to restrict the product offerings available to the salesperson if they cant be installed at that location.

Greg Smith, president and CEO at Accudata Technologies Inc., which performs data validation, says prospecting blind is the No. 1 way to spin ones wheels and make customers think youre out of your league. The company helps resellers gather information on a phone number, such as who the provider is, LNP information or current name and address. This is intelligent prospect management, says Smith. Some CLECs are looking to win over folks and they want to know who they are with now, and basic details, and a simple 10-digit query can answer that. The query costs 10 cents a look and is delivered in a second and a half. So a reseller can bring up the info and launch the phone number over the Internet, to help with prospecting. We can also clean Internet leads before salespeople waste their time calling bum numbers.

Accudata also can tell if the number is wireless. This is key since there is an $11,000 fine for calling a cell phone and playing a recorded message, not to mention the fact that wireless customers dont like to be called by anyone they dont know.

Salespeople need to stop wasting time, says Geary Broadnax, chairman and CEO at Dovarri Inc., which sells sales force automation and CRM software. In telecom, you need to know when, if and who about the sale, but you also need after-sales analysis to make sure the installation goes smoothly and to bump up customer satisfaction. But too many of them do this manually.

Dovarris hosted, Web-based software offers sales prospecting information, a proposal writer, a system manager to incorporate specific business needs and customizable reports.

Kansys Inc., a customer care and billing services organization focused on Tier 2 CLECs and resellers, takes existing systems a telecom operator has in place, mines the data, and presents it in a Web-delivered overlay for CRM purposes. We take what they have and enhance it, says Joe Simmons, director of account services at Kansys. A lot of systems have everything you need just not packaged together to create a marketing machine. We can do that.

These customers want to understand who the customer is and how to target new offers, and they dont have millions to spend on developing a CRM system, adds Simmons. It used to be that the smaller guys would not be able to afford CRM because it cost hundreds of thousands of dollars to get something to fit your needs. Now there are options out there that let these guys take care of their leads and customers in a big-company way.

Accudata Technologies Inc.
Convergys Corp.
Dovarri Inc.
Kansys Inc.
Profitec Inc.
UDP Inc.

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