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Growing Pains Of VoIP: Managing Customer Care

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The Growing Pains Of VoIP: Managing Customer Care

January 21, 2005

By Michelle L. Hankins

With the emergence of VoIP, several customer care challenges must be addressed if service rollout is to be successful. Today there is no common way in which providers are offering VoIP. Instead, as these providers roll out Voip services, they are doing so with different products, different marketing messages and different OSS in the background. What exists in the back office ultimately affects the customer service representatives and the quality of customer care, says Yaron Raps, Voip practice lead at Business Edge.

"You have to involve customer care from day one," Raps advises. From the moment a provider thinks about rolling out Voip services, it should be considering how customer care fits into the equation. He has witnessed big carriers leaving customer care to the last minute and paying the price. "They're almost on the way out the door and they say, 'We have to involve customer care.' That's a disaster," he says.

Voip more closely follows the Dell model of self-service. A customer who wants Voip must get a telephone adapter, which is subsidized or highly rebated in a retail scenario. To obtain this adapter, the customer can self-order via the Web, receive the necessary equipment within days from a provider and then begin using the new connection. "It is a self-service product," says AT&T's Catherine Bagin, vice president of marketing and product for CallVantage.

Finding and Training the CSR

One facet of Voip customer care that providers have had to deal with is how to train the customer service representative (CSR). It has been a new experience for the customer and, likewise, for the CSR. To effectively mange Voip customer care, CSRs need a background in the Internet as well as in traditional phone service. Vonage's Mike Tribolet, executive vice president of operations, says it was more difficult to hire CSRs when advertising openings for Voip positions, but preparing them to handle Voip calls didn't necessarily translate into longer training times. The company was able to take advantage of the number of CSRs looking for new positions as other providers trimmed employees in their call centers.

Vonage educated its CSRs through intense training, and it regularly tests them to see just how much they are retaining.

Raps says giving the CSR visibility into the service for customer accounts is a challenge for most providers. How does a provider explain to its subscribers that its CSRs do not have a full view into customer information to handle incoming calls? The customers don't care, Raps explains—they just want quality service.

One of the main challenges is providing CSRs with the information to mimic the current user experience so the CSR can truly educate and assist the customer.

Verizon chose to have representatives trained specifically for its VoiceWing service separate from those for its DSL service. Both types of representatives receive some minimal cross-training, says Verizon's Michelle Minus Swittenberg, executive director for consumer VoIP.

"We spent a lot of time developing processes across Verizon for all the systems that VoiceWing would touch," she says. Verizon had to develop new scripts for CSRs for the service and employ new desktop tools to give CSRs the ability to tweak the coder/decoder (CODEC), if a customer has bad service associated with packet loss, for example.

Swittenberg says one of the most common calls Verizon receives from new customers is simply to test that the service is working. The customers are checking their voice quality via Verizon's call center—a pain point for the provider, since this represents an unnecessary cost.

Swittenberg believes that, since many questions to traditional call centers are billing-related, the fact that VoiceWing has flat-rate billing may relieve the company of some of these types of calls. When the company does receive billing-related calls, they are generally related to taxes.

Because Voip is a completely new service, AT&T's Bagin says, there was a great deal of uncertainly about what to expect when rolling it out. "We didn't know what we were going to find when we went to market," she says. The company didn't know to what level of support customer care calls would escalate.

Right now, Bagin estimates, greater than 90 percent of the calls AT&T receives regarding CallVantage can be handled by entry-level CSRs, but she says that number was only achieved because of the company's tests to work out the kinks with the service, as well as day-to-day learning.

Vonage sees itself as being at an advantage when it comes to customer care. As a new provider, the company was able to develop one system to manage one service, versus traditional providers, which often wrangle with multiple, disparate systems for product silos. Having one system, Tribolet admits, was more cost-effective and is ultimately easier for the CSRs, as well. He says Vonage spent a lot of time in the beginning developing this system. Altogether, the company conducted a year of research and development to build out its back-office systems. "It's really paid off tenfold as we sit here today," Tribolet says.

In building out its customer care system, Vonage wanted to enable CSRs to manage customer needs without having to escalate the calls to higher level representatives. The company strived for as much automation as possible. Each quarter, Vonage conducts sessions among its various internal departments to determine how to make customer care better.

Systems Integration in a Converged Network

Systems integration is an issue no matter what service providers are delivering, and the evolution of Voip has proven to be no different. In environment with legacy systems, the key is not to do a wholesale replacement of customer care but instead to leverage the existing investments, according to Matt McFerrin, director of product marketing within the Infinys line at Convergys.

Amdocs' Neil Philpott, director of solutions strategy, believes that the cost of running concurrent systems to mange both PSTN and Voip customer care is costly. Many providers are already seeking to consolidate to a smaller number of systems to manage these functions; however, this means fewer systems will have to handle higher volumes and information related to more applications, making flexibility and scalability even more important.

Most providers are asking themselves whether they should build Voip into existing systems or run separate platforms.

AT&T chose to leverage the business support systems it built for local service and ride Voip over that. Its goal is to make the network smarter, to self-correct when customers make mistakes.

Ultimately, says Rodopi Chief Executive Officer Todd Benjamin, "time to market wins out."

Time to market was of the essence for Verizon, so building stand-alone systems to support VoiceWing made sense. But the company was also virtually forced to go this route, because Voip is a new technology that challenges the old paradigm of the company's existing systems. Voip service can go outside Verizon's traditional footprint, and hence Swittenberg explains that Voip numbers "are relatively meaningless to our current billing system."

Verizon did employ some legacy systems for functions such as trouble ticketing. The company's goal is to leverage its existing systems for new services as much as possible, Swittenberg explains; however, its platforms for Voip billing and customer care are not integrated with legacy systems. Today, Verizon works with an underlying third-party system to handle a portion of billing for VoiceWing. The system performs the rating and then sends that information back to Verizon's stand-alone Voip billing system, which packages the data for billing. DeltaThree is one of the partners Verizon is working with to bill for VoiceWing.

One system integration challenge, Rodopi's Benjamin says, is that feature data may reside in one database but customer data in another database. There is a need to synchronize this data to be presented to the customer. If a provider decides to charge $1 per month for find-me, follow-me service, what would be the customer's purchase path for this? Would the customer's request somehow have to interact with the billing system to turn on this feature?

In a converged network, providers will be managing so many network elements that they will need good diagnostic tools to have accurate insight into which customers are affected by network components and outages, for example. This will require creating the necessary metrics and measurements to ensure service quality. For example, if a line goes down, the provider must know how it affects both voice and data customers.

Business Edge's Raps says that today, "Those [diagnostic] products do not exist." Further, he says, this type of analysis might have to be born of home-grown systems, since measurements may be so individualized among companies and because each company has different network elements. Raps says providers need a dashboard that is "concise and crisp."

Order Management and LNP

Order fallout has thus far plagued some Voip providers, often because of incorrect information in the order management system. RBOCs and IXCs have been dealing with this issue for years, but many of the new entrant Voip providers that lack the same robustness in their ordering process need to make this a priority, says Thor Johnson, Vitria's director for telecommunications.

Swittenberg says that, without a doubt, local number portability has been one of the greatest challenges for Verizon. With LNP, she explains, "we've had to do some catch-up." She believes the wireless industry, in which customers can port a number within a couple of hours, has set a high expectation among subscribers for LNP. But with Voip service, Swittenberg explains, "it is a very manual process." Verizon quotes a 15-day lag to port a number. A customer has to fill out a form, and the information has to be verified by the local exchange carrier. It may be rejected because of data issues, such as a street being named "road" versus "drive." "We're all looking for ways to smooth the LEC porting process," Swittenberg says.

During the porting process, Verizon will provision Voip service to the customer and the customer can use the service immediately; however, Verizon has to provision a temporary number for the customer while the desired number is being ported. Some customers will keep their traditional phone line plugged in so they can still receive inbound calls via the old number. "For a while, they're in this dual mode," Swittenberg explains.

AT&T's Bagin says that, because Voip is a new service, "you just had no history, no rear view mirror." Before rolling out VoIP, the company wondered if consumers would use Voip as a secondary line or the primary one. As for LNP, well over half of CallVantage customers wanted to port their existing numbers to their Voip service. Right now, the company does not offer LNP everywhere, but does provide porting in nearly 170 markets.

The Installation Hiccup

For many new Voip customers, problems often begin with service installation. Although installation is largely self-service, Bagin says 80 percent of customers will go through installation without any problems, but 20 percent will be affected by what are specialized or custom situations.

"Easing customers through the installation process is critical," says Kate Griffin, senior analyst at The Yankee Group. But today, not all customers are easing through this very critical first step.

If you expect people to do more than just plug in a phone, they just will not move to VoIP, asserts Raps. "Invention to regular people is something that scares them," he says, and the general public will abandon technology that they see as "scary."

"Some strategies are to do [installation] with as much hand holding as possible in the beginning," Griffin says, and then move to automating the process more. But she notes, "There have been hiccups with various Voip platforms."

Raps explains that one major U.S. provider had a failure rate of 50 percent in the provisioning process. The customers would get the equipment, plug it in, and then half of the company's subscribers would not have a dial tone. Basically, the provider did not develop a provisioning fallout process before launching the service. BusinessEdge walked the operator through its process to identify any fallout reasons. Providers "have to make the provisioning bulletproof," Raps says.

To combat the installation barrier, Vonage has teamed with retail outlets like Best Buy and third parties to send out the Geek Squad, an on-site computer support task force that assists customers with Voip installation, among other things. However, providers must do everything in their power to make installation as easy as possible, especially without truck rolls. "The very thought of having to have a truck roll will kill the service right away," says Amdocs' Philpott. "I don't think there's enough money in it. For [VoIP] to be really mass market successful, it has to be plug and play."

Rodopi's Benjamin says installation is an issue that challenges the customers' "zone of patience."

Verizon has created a movie that customers can view during installation that walks them through the process. Swittenberg maintains that, at least for Verizon, "we're not getting a lot of calls from customers that can't install."

Often, if customers do have installation problems, Verizon has found that they need to download the latest firmware—an update to its router. Another installation issue that arises is that certain broadband providers may have blocked ports, which may impede Voip transmission. When asked if providers are doing this on purpose, Swittenberg says, "I don't know if it's specifically aimed at that, because that's a little blatantly anti-competitive." Often, providers will block ports for security reasons. Verizon has begun shipping new telephone adapters that are more intelligent and will attempt various means of activating the device so customers do not have to configure ports on their router. Instead, the telephone adapter will do this for them.

At AT&T, in most instances where customers call in to report that they cannot achieve a dial tone with their Voip service, Bagin says the customer did not read the instructions when trying to install the equipment. Many times, the customer does not shut down the computer, even though it's the first step in the instructions. Typically, Bagin says, if AT&T CSRs simply reiterate the packaged instructions to the customer, it solves the problem.

AT&T relies on customer feedback to improve the service. "We've probably changed our installation guide three times in the last 6 months," Bagin notes.

No paper Bill

Some Voip providers are pushing the envelope with Voip quite literally: They are not offering paper bills. While many in the traditional telephone world may have looked toward electronic bill presentment and payment simply for cost savings, in Voip the reasons are much more significant.

"Because Voip isn't associated with a physical address, we wanted to have a credit card associated with it to mitigate fraud and bad debt," Verizon's Swittenberg says. The company also bills one month in advance so that if the credit card doesn't work, Verizon can have several possible attempts to tap the credit card for funds prior to actual use of the service for that month.

Because VoiceWing is credit card billing only, Verizon does not offer a single bill. If a customer chooses Verizon DSL and VoiceWing, the customer would still receive two bills versus one. Likewise, AT&T only offers an electronic bill for its CallVantage service.

Multiple providers

How does a Voip provider offer quality of service and high customer satisfaction when it is dependent on a separate broadband provider?

Vonage's Tribolet says bandwidth restraints of broadband providers for its Voip customers can often be a hurdle the company must overcome. The company extends the ability to allow the customer to change the CODEC on its online site.

Because so many possible providers and configurations can impact Voip service, Swittenberg explains, Verizon has tested VoiceWing in a lab scenario against the most common types of routers and configurations. The company launched the service in July 2004 and tested almost daily; now the testing is more periodic. Its strategy involved testing anomalies to determine whether problems were due to technology or lack of customer education.

AT&T rolled out its Voip CallVantage service for the consumer market in March 2004, and began national marketing for it in August 2004. The company performed an alpha trial in 2003 with employees for three or four months. Then, AT&T performed a beta trial with about 1,500 customers testing various Voip scenarios, including using VPNs and wrestling with firewalls, using wireless routers and Wi-Fi connections, having Game Boys attached to their personal computers, and various other scenarios. AT&T tried to test for every possibility, but Bagin says, "We can't solve for every customized view."

By Bagin's account, Voip service tends to work better with cable than with DSL, because DSL networks each are so different. DSL upstream paths are so varied, she says, that service all depends on the region in which the customer lives. On the flip side, cable providers have invested a lot in the last two to five years in digital cable and high-speed connections. Today's percentage split of DSL to cable broadband subscribers, she says, is about 40-60, respectively.

Technological Glitches

As a replacement for traditional landline telephone service, Voip may have to mature significantly before some customers will switch.

One potential subscriber wanted to switch to Voip when it was first being rolled out. However, upon further investigation, he learned that he would be unable to employ Voip to completely replace his previous service, because his home security system requires a landline phone connection—and why have both? "As a consumer, I can say that kept me from getting the service," the landline customer explains. On its Web site, Vonage does not recommend using Voip services with a home alarm system.

Griffin cites this as just one example of a "barrier to landline displacement."

Yet, Amdocs' Philpott says that, although something like this could be a barrier in the United States, that may not necessarily be the case in markets like Europe, where the voice service model is different and subscribers pay for all local calls by the minute. In Europe, having two lines—one traditional line for a home security system and one Voip line for local and long-distance calls—still may make more financial sense.

Even when security systems are not involved, power outages or problems with the broadband provider's network may require subscribers to reset their router and phone adapter by briefly unplugging it from the outlet. With customers so used to the high-reliability and instant dial tone with PSTN service, it remains to be seen whether customers will accept these aspects of the technology.

Interestingly, Raps at Business Edge says that providers get more complaints when a service is marketed as a Voip service; when a provider offers the same service with the same quality but does not market it as VoIP, it generates fewer complaints. "As soon as customers know it's VoIP, they are looking with a flashlight for problems," Raps says. "It's about perception."

Customer Self-Care

Most believe today's Voip user tends to be someone who wants to mange his or her account. Some believe it is an outright expectation of Voip customers to have self-care functionality with the service. "Consumers are becoming more online-savvy," Vonage's Tribolet says.

AT&T's Bagin believes Voip represents a "self-care revolution." Customers are being given the ability to self-order and manage their own accounts, from turning features on and off to paying their bill to self-help through online knowledge bases.

According to Yankee's Griffin, "Some of the smaller [VoIP providers] don't even have telephone support." Instead, they drive all their traffic and customer queries to the Web.

One of the challenges facing Voip providers, says Mike Dimperio, vice president of Infinys product management at Convergys, is exposing billing and customer information not only to the CSR, but also to the customer via a self-care application on a Web site.

Quite simply, the burden of account management is being shifted from the provider to the customer in the Voip world, Rodopi's Benjamin contends, thus making the customer interface even more important. This increases the need for providers to have good data and to be able to offer that data to customers in real time.

Although Vonage CSRs cannot see the exact same view a customer sees on a Web self-care site, information is driven to both the call center desktop and the Web by the same back-office systems.

At its site, Vonage offers an extensive knowledge base to help customers take care of the many troubles that can arise, and they can chat online with a CSR. Subscribers can also lodge trouble tickets online. The customer submits the complaint and receives a ticket number for following up. Tribolet says the most common trouble tickets lodged involve installation questions, such as how to deal with a firewall setting that will not allow access or other applications that interfere.

Another self-care issue causing problems involves directing 911 calls. "We're in a very early stage of consumer awareness," Griffin explains. She believes that in general customers have only a vague understanding of the 911 issue when it comes to VoIP.

With VoiceWing, Verizon requires customers to agree to separate terms of service with 911, and the company presents various disclaimers in the ordering process to alert customers to this issue. The company is looking at ways to verify that the service address is correct to ensure that 911 calls are routed properly.

Customer Care for the Masses

Today, 25 percent of the U.S. market accounts for broadband subscribers, according to The Yankee Group. In contrast, significantly less than 1 percent of the U.S market makes up Voip customers, but rapid growth is on the horizon. At the end of 2003, there were 131,000 Voip subscribers; just one year later, that number was expected to be around 980,000. The Yankee Group projects that by 2008, Voip subscribers will add up to about 17.5 million.

Tribolet estimates that Vonage's first 10,000 to 20,000 subscribers were the true early adopters, but he says the company is now beginning to reach more mainstream customers. As Voip penetrates the mass market, Griffin expects the industry will face many more customer care issues.

"The last thing you want to do is have huge overhead in customer care," Raps says. The industry is already witnessing Voip providers doing all that they can online to prevent some of these costs and educate the consumer.

AT&T's Bagin says that the wireless industry has influenced the quality expectation for consumer voice services. "The convenience of cell phones outweighs the idiosyncrasies of its quality." She believes subscribers will accept Voip in the same manner. "It is not circuit-switched technology," Bagin says. "Is it for everybody? Probably not." She estimates that some 20 to 30 percent of households will not employ VoIP.

"There's a whole lot that's unanswered in VoIP," Convergys' McFerrin says. Carriers are asking themselves how much investment they should actually put into certain systems to support VoIP. "It's holding some providers back from really truly embracing Voip as much as they could," he adds.

Issues like 911, CALEA and convergence may make billing and customer care seem like a drop in the bucket, but Amdocs' Philpott says, "It won't be a drop in the bucket later on, if they don't pay attention to it now. It's better to solve it before it becomes a big problem."

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