Competitive edge

With CRM, customers can place an order, change or delete service, change network configuration by rerouting calls or service and view and dispute bills online in real-time, gaining a competitive advantage.

Today, most local and long-distance carriers offer some sort of web-based CRM.

"It is universally accepted that customer care and CRM will be important to how carriers will compete," Mewada says. Historically, it costs carriers four times more to acquire a new customer than to maintain an existing one. "Since CRM exists to lower churn, it is ironic that, in the industry with 25 to 30 percent churn, more hasn't been done. It has been adopted at a much faster rate, and historically to a much larger extent, by other vertical industries, such as financial services."

But carriers are starting to offer more services. WorldCom customers, for example, can manage telecom and data networks online through the WorldCom Interact Portal. For starters, customers can view, download and analyze their traffic problems. "We can analyze it pretty close to real-time," says Shawn McGovern, telecom analyst at HSN, formerly the Home Shopping Network, in St. Petersburg, Fla.

Is Web based CRM better customer service channels? YES

WorldCom voice customers can reroute calls to a new call center, open trouble tickets, pay their bills and order more services. On the data side, customers can open trouble tickets, and view their network usage of private line, frame relay and Asynchronous Transfer Mode services.

But customers don't always choose to interact online. When a problem exists, HSN calls a toll-free number for WorldCom's larger customers. "They have a little more pull to say, 'Let's work on this right now,' " McGovern says. "In a queue, it might be a half-hour before a person actually sees it." Plus, McGovern thinks it's easier to discuss network issues in person. "All carriers use different lingo, and as a customer, I have a different lingo."

McGovern says she would consider trying to share that lingo over an online chat. In the next few months, WorldCom will enable customers to communicate with customer service reps using e-mail and online chat services.

Speed is important when it comes to e-mail; analysts warn that most customers expect an instant response to their messages. "They have to respond to e-mail within two hours," says Bob Chatman, an analyst at Forrester Research. "Customers expect several round-trips of e-mail a day so that they can get issues resolved."

AT&T is also focused on resolving customer issues quickly by providing Web-based customer care. "Customers are going right into the customer care or provisioning system," says Jim Hale, AT&T's vice president of CRM. "It shortens the time from ordering service to installation."

Late last year, AT&T consolidated all CRM functions for large and midsize businesses into a single organization. In 1999, the telecom giant rolled out its Web-based Interactive Advantage CRM service that today handles 140,000 customers and performs 1.5 million transactions per month. The company is adding about 6 percent more customers each month, driving the transaction growth 3 percent higher each month.

With Interactive Advantage, customers can place an order, change or delete service, change network configuration by rerouting calls or service and view and dispute bills online in real-time. AT&T customers can even see trunk-group utilization for voice services to determine if they need to add or subtract network services for 1-800 calls.

"I think this is great. I just go in and fill out a couple of forms, and send the information in," says Sandy Stojsavljevic, telecommunications specialist at TravelCenters of America in Westlake, Ohio. She does about 20 adds and changes per month, usually two or three at a time, from her desktop Web interface. "Within 10 minutes, I get a confirmation that they received my order and within 10 days, a confirmation that they've completed my order."