How the incumbents fare

Carriers have a long way to go to catch up, and it will take a while, but they are building the right interfaces to let customers do business in a richer way than they have in the past.

Among the incumbent carriers, Verizon is focused on CRM as it moves into its next stage of competition.

Verizon is making a major push for a Web CRM portal this year. "All the customers tell us they want a window to our operation," says Bill Stinson, senior vice president of the E-Business Group for Verizon's Advanced Services and Enterprise Business Group.

The company is consolidating the Web portal services that Bell Atlantic and GTE offered before their merger. It is something for which customers are yearning . "It would be helpful if that same platform applied to the GTE services," says Brian Lem, senior analyst at Zephion Networks, a BroadBand Office affliate that provides network infrastructure. Lem uses Verizon's online billing service to track BroadBand Office installations and billing charges.

Is CRM a better customer service channel? YES

Online billing and online repair are the first things that will be in the new Verizon-consolidated CRM platform during the second half of 2001. Next, Verizon will expand the portal, creating a collaboration environment for the customer and Verizon's customer-service teams and its own internal business-to-business marketplace for acquiring, deploying and managing customer voice and data networks.

Customers will be able to order a private branch exchange or router online, and then manage the deployment of the equipment. Verizon is creating eXtensible Markup Language interfaces to allow companies to easily export data to Ariba, Commerce One and other procurement systems. "The Web doesn't replace face-to-face," Stinson says. "But this will make it easier to work on a big project together when people aren't face-to-face."

The Verizon portal will include different access levels for different people within an organization. For example, a technician might have access to trouble tickets, a purchasing person to ordering services, and a CIO or telecom manager will have access to the entire site.

It also can provide access to consultants who work with clients.

"I used to wait a couple of days to a week to get bills from customers," says Michelle Taub, project manager at National Telephone Planning, a telephone consulting firm based in White Plains, N.Y. "Now, my clients don't even have to send me the bill. It takes me five minutes, and I often find errors before they get their bill."

Taub wants to see all carriers offer similar services. "Verizon's service is good because they actually have it. It is easy to set up and easy to access." Taub has tried to get a similar service from SBC, but the company says it won't be able to offer Web access for four or five months. "Verizon's was set up in two days," he says.

SBC says it will improve its offering. Currently customers can provision new phone lines, business phone equipment and systems, Internet access and DSL. SBC also lets customers order phone-line features such as call forwarding, call waiting, caller ID, calling cards, priority ring, speed dial, three-way calling, toll-free services and voice-mail. In Kansas, Oklahoma and Texas, customers can also order long-distance service online.

Though SBC does not yet let customers initiate trouble tickets, they can view their status online.

"The carriers are building the right interfaces to let customers do business in a richer way than they have in the past," Mewada says. "Does it mean they will be an innovator? I don't think so. They have a long way to go to catch up, and it will take awhile."