Finding the service in network services
The good news is many vendors are aware of the problem. What's the first step toward improvement? "They've got to create a single point of contact for customers, a single point of responsibility and support," says David Marshak, senior vice president of e-business strategies at Patricia Seybold Group, a Boston-based consultancy. "Customers need to have one place to go to make sure everything is up and running."
One company that's listening is Cable & Wireless USA, a subsidiary of Cable & Wireless plc. After acquiring an Internet business last year, C&W, a provider of data, voice, and video services, realized it needed to reengineer its business. C&W realigned its traditional product-oriented organization to focus mainly on customers, says Art Medici, senior vice president of marketing at the Vienna, Va.-based firm.
One analyst says: "Customers need to have one place to go to make sure everything is up and running."
GTE Internetworking responds: The company has launched a self-service system that allows customers to get information on utilization statistics in order to generate graphs and reports on how well their net services are performing. It also lets them see how a particular service request is progressing toward resolution.
C&W has several avenues for feedback from customers. For example, the Internet service provider portion of C&W's 1,100 customers meet in the ISP Advisory Council to advise C&W about their changing net services requirements. At one of these sessions, customers complained that C&W wasn't keeping them apprised of large-scale changes in service. So C&W brought customers into the loop by informing them of improvements such as a $670 million upgrade to the company's network infrastructure.
C&W also reaches out with a new program that pairs its own executives with executives from 50 top customer companies, such as The Weather Channel and bn.com (bookseller Barnes & Noble's Web site), for face-to-face talks. One result of these talks is a "public report card" on traffic.cwusa.com, which gives up-to-the-minute network deliverability statistics.
Lance Yedersberger, president of Lisco Inc., an ISP in Fairfield, Iowa, says his company recently called vendor C&W when a communications line went down. The problem was difficult to find because Lisco's traffic is routed through two other providers--Iowa Network, of Cedar Rapids, Iowa, and MCI WorldCom, based in Jackson, Miss.--on its way to C&W's backbone. "The line was back up within a day," says Yedersberger. "And the impressive part is that it wasn't even a C&W problem--it was an MCI problem. But C&W worked with the other two companies to identify and track the fix."
GTE Internetworking also listens to its clients. A case in point: The company has launched an online customer support system. According to Jim McLaughlin, director of customer care at GTE, in Burlington, Mass., this self-service system allows customers to get information on utilization statistics, in order to generate graphs and reports on how well their net services are performing, and to request changes in their service. In addition, customers can see how a particular service request is progressing toward resolution.
McLaughlin recognizes that customer service is an ongoing challenge, especially in the Web-hosting arena "where the technology changes every week," he says. It's not easy to make the shift from traditional customer care organizations segmented along product lines to the single-point-of-contact model. McLaughlin says.
"We think of it like the reception area in the hospital. If you've got a pain in your knee and the only doctor on call is a urologist, you're out of luck," he says. "In this business, we need more caring general practitioners to watch over our customers."
Seybold's Marshak says net services vendors that guarantee high availability must consider that promise not from their own point of view, or even from their customers', but from their customers' customers. "If you have 99.9% uptime, but an online shopper gets blocked when trying to buy something, that guarantee is meaningless," he says.
Experts note that the larger players--the IBMs and AT&Ts of the world--have the resources to provide excellent service, but many must change their thinking to keep customer service up to par.
"The big, established companies are very good at thinking about things like how big the delivery pipes should be or how much disk space is necessary, but they need to change how they think about the customer and the service," Marshak says. "The question for them has to be, 'Did the [customers'] transaction take place successfully?'" //
Stephanie Wilkinson is a freelance writer based in Lexington, Va. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.