By Rizwan Kheraj
|Consumers drive the market changes in today’s
competitive telecommunications industry. To acquire and
retain customers in this environment, telecommunications
service providers must fully understand and exceed their
customers’ expectations. Quality customer care systems
As the battle for market share heats
There are three main ways telecommunications service providers
can differentiate themselves in a competitive market: through
product and service offerings, price cuts, and customer care.
It’s difficult to differentiate product and service offerings
in the consumer’s mind. Most offerings from different service
providers have similar functionality, and complex packages can be
confusing few companies attempt to compete solely in this arena.
Some will compete on price in the short term, but this isn’t
sustainable in the long run as profit margins narrow. And complex
pricing packages make it difficult for consumers to evaluate what
they’re getting from one service provider vs. another. With many
companies offering similar products and pricing plans, the key
differentiator in a competitive market is quality customer care.
Long distance companies, the first to exist in a competitive
market following the 1984 breakup of Ma Bell, led the way in
customer care. The MCI "Friends and Family" flexible
billing platform was unveiled in March 1991, biting into
AT&T’s market share in the early 1990s. This was a
significant change from the rounds of price cutting that had
occurred previously in efforts to attract and retain customers.
MCI placed emphasis on service differentiation and used its
database as a tool to accumulate customers.
Customer care systems give telecommunications service
providers the means to effectively implement sales, marketing and
customer service initiatives. Service providers use these systems
to identify customers, build relationships with those customers
and anticipate their needs.
Essentially, excellent customer care means providing a
positive experience each time there is contact with a customer.
This comes about when sales and service representatives are able
to sell the right products and services, respond rapidly to
customer needs and offer courteous service. Excellent customer
care means meeting these objectives in all "customer
touch" situations, including marketing, sales, ordering and
provisioning, billing, fulfillment and repair.
A system that can provide information on calling patterns is
essential when it comes to offering customers the right package
for their particular needs. Customer care systems enable service
providers to target propositions to those customers most likely
to be interested.
Service representatives must be equipped to provision
services, adjust billing records, diagnose and repair problems,
send out fulfillment packages, etc., rapidly and be able to tell
the customer when commitments will be met. A system that
interfaces smoothly to legacy systems and databases bringing all
required information to one place and minimizes the number of
touches necessary to do a task is invaluable when it comes to the
timely delivery of products and services.
When the system takes care of routine and administrative
tasks, service representatives have more time to spend offering
courteous service to customers. They should be able to assess
customer needs, close sales, proactively solve problems and
gather information to update databases all without a heavy
workload or having to remember a lot of details.
When seeking a customer care solution, service providers
should look for a system with the functionality and flexibility
necessary to meet their changing needs. It should be easy to use,
include decision support tools, support customer self-service, be
able to evolve toward convergence, and support interaction with
other carriers essential requirements which enable service
providers to remain competitive.
High staff turnover in call centers means it’s imperative that
customer care software is designed with the end user in mind.
This will result in a system that’s easy to learn and easy to
use, substantially reducing training costs. And with such a
system, users will be more efficient, make fewer errors, be able
to focus on interacting with customers and experience greater job
Customer care systems containing decision support tools enable
CSRs to more effectively meet customer needs. Decision support
can range from simple information support to data mining, and can
turn CSRs into effective sales agents and problem solvers. The
right tools equip them to easily recommend appropriate products
and services, close orders, diagnose and repair problems,
schedule callbacks and add to customer profiles in the database.
Decision support not only reduces workload, but ensures each CSR
is being used to the best advantage even new staff members can be
effective when customer care software fully supports them
throughout customer contact.
One way to win in the marketplace is to provide customers with
choice. By providing cost-effective self-service channels
Internet, interactive voice response (IVR) or kiosks service
providers increase opportunities for customers to make contact,
promoting loyalty, stimulating revenue, and gathering
information. Customers can use these channels to activate, move
or deactivate service, view and order new products, request
fulfillment materials, make bill inquiries and payments, report
problems for repair or request a callback.
To acquire and retain customers to be competitive service
providers in a convergent market need customer care systems that
can accommodate a range of services. It’s important to invest in
a flexible system, even if significant additions or changes to
service offerings are not expected; business processes should
define the systems, not vice versa. Different services sometimes
mean a different focus or marketing strategy, and customer care
systems should support that.
One of the requirements of the 1996 Telecommunications Act is
that ILECs unbundle their operations support systems (OSSs), and
provide competitors with electronic access to provisioning,
ordering, billing, maintenance, and repair systems. Electronic
bonding a way of interconnecting telecommunications information
systems for on-line, real time communications is a high priority.
It’s designed to be fully interoperable between network elements
and to communicate with other compatible systems in a global
multivendor environment. Some standards for electronic bonding
are still being defined.
Customer care software should support the requirements for
electronic bonding. It should be able to work with incomplete
information received from other service providers, it should be
able to keep information partitioned so only some of it is
visible to other service providers, and it should provide one
unified, simple view to CSRs.
Players in the customer care market include information
technology (IT) groups, systems integrators and product vendors.
Each has its strengths and weaknesses.
In-house IT groups, operating in most large incumbent telcos,
have the advantage of a thorough knowledge of the company’s
particular needs and business processes and can develop a
completely custom-built solution. However, their systems tend to
have a long deployment time, development can be very expensive
and IT groups may lack knowledge of leading-edge technologies.
Systems integrators tend to be large and have extensive
industry experience, offering a range of services which can be
customized as necessary. When developing a solution, they
sometimes pull together a variety of vendors to contribute to the
project. These systems, however, can have the disadvantage of a
long deployment time.
Product vendors often have an established installed base and
offer off- the-shelf products that are quick to deploy. Many are
coming up with modular customer care solutions that can be
"dropped in" to the system. Generally, vendors do not
do extensive customization work and their solutions can be less
flexible; in some cases, customization is taken care of by an IT
group or systems integrator contributing to the project. Customer
care product vendors are rarely exclusively focused on
As well as supporting telecommunications service providers
through all "customer-touch" situations, a customer
care system should be flexible and cost-effective. It’s important
the system is fully configurable, so it can be tailored to a
particular business environment and continue to meet company
needs as the market evolves. It should be simple to make changes
and additions to user interfaces, add new products and services,
change business processes or add new back-office systems. Other
requirements: The system should integrate tightly with CTI
equipment; be independent from platforms, operating systems and
databases; support third-party applications; be scalable and
robust; and support the requirements for electronic bonding.
The business API is developed on an open standard, ensuring
the system permits communication with diverse applications. A
domain model common to the IVR, graphical and Web user interfaces
enables the system to communicate with diverse CTI equipment and
back-office systems and supports all business tasks including
marketing, sales, billing and repair. Some business functionality
is implemented within the software, while some soft-coded and
easily configurable functionality is loaded from an external
database. From the perspective of the applications using the
business API, there is no difference between hard- and soft-
coded functionality. A purpose-built data server shields the
application from details of diverse back-office systems and
facilitates interaction with multiple legacy systems and
When seeking a customer care system from a software vendor,
telecommunications service providers need to take into account
many factors, including stability and history. How long has the
vendor been around? How many systems has the vendor deployed?
What partnerships does the vendor have with other vendors that
could affect the completeness of the solution? Answers to these
questions will help narrow the field of vendors offering customer
Most importantly, however, telecommunications service
providers should seek a customer care vendor with experience in
their industry. The telecommunications domain is a complex one,
and a vendor with a telecommunications-specific solution will
reduce the need for costly customization work and minimize
Deregulation in telecommunications has brought about the need
for technology to support customer-centered businesses. And a
well-designed customer care system is the key to high-quality
customer service. It enables telecommunications service providers
to engage in activities previously not thought possible each
contact with a customer can be a chance to offer quality service,
gather information and close sales. Inbound calls can be viewed
not as potential problems, but as opportunities to broaden
When selecting a customer care system, service providers need
to ensure it meets their needs for flexibility and extensibility.
And if seeking a vendor solution, service providers should seek
an established vendor with a track record of successful
deployments who can offer a quality telecommunications-specific
|*range from total to
|*little or no custom|
|*relative size and
|*usually quick to deploy
* often more cost-effective
* established installed base
|Weaknesses||* long deployment time
* often go over budget
* lack advanced technologies
|* long deployment time||* can be less flexible
* often not vertically focused
Dr. Rizwan Kheraj, vice president, product management and
marketing for MPR Extensys, Inc., can be reached at (888)
204-0111 or http://www.mprextensys.com.
MPR Extensys Inc. designs, develops and sells customer care
systems for the telecom industry worldwide.