Easier to report trouble

There are still times when it makes sense to deal with the account representative or project manager personally, but with the web, customers can get their problems to the expert who can fix them more quickly.

AT&T customers say it's easier to report outages online.

"with the web, customers can get their problems to the expert who can fix them more quickly," says Phar-Mor's McHenry. "It's a real advantage to see exactly where they're putting it in their call log. If we're not happy with it, we can go in and escalate it." For example, McHenry can see if AT&T has handed a network problem off to the local carrier. Then he can see how quickly the local carrier responds. "If it has been an hour and a half, and there has been no update from the LEC, we can say, 'Hey what's going on here?' "

There are still times when it makes sense to deal with the account representative or project manager personally. "If I'm rolling out 30 stores on frame relay, I'm going to let them set it up," McHenry says. "But then I'm going to go in and track it."

Is Web based CRM a better customer service channel?YES

The AT&T service was initially for voice services, but is expanding into data services. AT&T recently added the ability to view frame relay, Internet Protocol and wireless bills online. By the end of the second quarter, AT&T customers will be able to dispute a bill for IP services online. This summer, AT&T will let customers examine how quickly they can bring up additional service on a network point of presence, enabling AT&T and the customer to plan better. AT&T plans to extend Interactive Advantage to local services "as soon as possible," a spokesman says.

The ability to manage customers will become more important for the Bells and the long-distance carriers as they move into each other's markets. That's especially true for the Bells moving into the more competitive long-distance market. Verizon, which was one of the first carriers to offer long-distance in its region in New York, now claims to be the fourth-largest long-distance carrier with 5 million customers. SBC Communications, which can offer service in Texas, has 2 million subscribers.

The Yankee Group expects that by year's end, regional Bells will be eligible to sell long-distance in eight to 10 more states, including Oklahoma and Kansas, where SBC got permission to offer long-distance starting March 7.

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