Eliminating the middleman

Telecom companies are increasingly offering customers the ability to interact directly with their systems using a Web interface. The new links allow IT managers to order services; analyze, dispute and pay bills all by themselves.

In an era when customers can order books without speaking to a human, they are expecting - at least some of the time - the same level of automation from their communications service providers.

Do-it-yourself Web customer service has begun to arrive in the traditional telecom world. Carriers are increasingly offering their customers the ability to interact directly with their systems using a Web interface. The new links allow corporate information technology (IT) managers to order services; analyze, dispute and pay bills; and manage their networks.

"Any time you can take the middleman out of the process - that's good," says Michael McHenry, vice president of information technology at Phar-Mor, a Youngstown, Ohio, retail and online pharmacy with 139 brick-and-mortar locations. McHenry uses AT&T's Interactive Advantage Web portal service primarily to send and track trouble tickets. "If I have a tool on the Web, then it is easier for me to take care of something the moment I need to, instead of making three phone calls and playing phone tag. If I can, I'd rather use the Web."

Is Web based CRM a better customer service channel?YES

McHenry is not alone. In this high-pressure world of scarce resources and rising bandwidth demands, many IT managers would like to skip the human customer-service agent and input directly into the systems that run their networks.

The carriers are listening. "The bulk of our customer relationship management [CRM] focus is moving to the Web," says Mike Marcellin, director of eCRM marketing at WorldCom. "We have heard from our customers from top to bottom. They want to deal with WorldCom on their own terms, in their own time frames and from their own desktop."

Long-distance carriers AT&T, Sprint and WorldCom already offer online customer service, and AT&T and WorldCom are preparing to expand their offerings. Local incumbent carriers Qwest Communications International and Verizon Communications also have plans to add to their online customer-service tools.

While the demand is clear for Web-based CRM, "today, there is uneven adoption within the communications industry," says Sanjay Mewada, director of telecom e-business at The Yankee Group. "Those markets with the most competition are offering much more robust features than those without competition."

In fact, newer competitive carriers were the first to offer customers online interaction tools. From their inception, DSL carriers offered customers the ability to check online to see if service was available in their area. Early on, Teligent, a Vienna, Va., start-up, rolled out e-magine, a Web-based billing service that provided customers with near real-time access to call detail, by categories such as accounting code, destination, employee and originating number. The service included a reverse lookup that would tell companies from whom their calls came. A year later, the company added ordering and trouble-ticket capabilities.

"When we first put this up, we weren't sure if anyone would use it," says Phillip McKinney, who was the founding chief information officer at Teligent. "But we believed that we could change the customer experience. Users are so much more sophisticated today. They don't need or want to talk to customer-service representatives who can't translate what they're saying.