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May 1999


Windows-Based Terminals: Changing The Way Call Centers Attract And Retain Customers

BY JEFF MCNAUGHT, WYSE TECHNOLOGY

Many businesses today are relying on their call centers to distinguish themselves from their competition. By achieving the highest possible level of customer service, these companies are not only able to retain existing customers, they are using new technology in their call centers to attract new customers. One company that has used its call center to attract new business while retaining existing customers is Phase 2 Cellular. By deploying an emerging technology -- Windows-based terminals -- in its call center, Phase 2 has been able to increase productivity and deliver a higher level of customer service, while lowering costs and growing 400 percent in only two years.

The cellular market is one of the fastest-growing segments of the telecommunications industry. Phase 2, a cellular reseller located in Scottsdale, Arizona, is currently ranked number eight in the nation among resellers of wireless communication services, with more than 44,000 customers in 15 major metropolitan areas. It seems apparent that Phase 2 management has discovered some secrets to becoming successful in the fiercely competitive cellular industry.

Basic Objectives And Challenges
As a reseller of services vying for market share in the residential cellular market, Phase 2 is often asked, "Why should I buy my services from a reseller instead of going directly to a service provider?" The company's response is to use new technology based on Windows-based terminals to add value to distinguish itself from other service providers in two ways:

  1. By offering airtime at reduced rates, and
  2. By providing extraordinary customer service.

Phase 2 created a customer-centric environment by placing a premium on fast and efficient customer service. The company's Scottsdale-based call center became an integral part of its strategy for success. Phase 2 president Larry Willett explained, "Here at Phase 2, we take customer service seriously. Although it is rare for a customer to be on hold for a Phase 2 representative, extreme measures are taken when this happens. As soon as a caller has waited in queue for more than three minutes, approximately one dozen Phase 2 employees are immediately paged, including customer service representatives and myself. No customer should wait that long to speak to us. We even pay the caller for being on hold so long." This strategy has gone a long way in helping Phase 2 maintain customer loyalty and attract new business.

How did Phase 2 increase its customer base by more than 400 percent in two years, while maintaining excellent service levels? First, the sales group in its call center launched an aggressive outbound telemarketing campaign designed to attract new customers. Application software automatically dialed potential customers for the sales representatives. Second, the company's customer service call center group, aimed at retaining these new customers, was providing round-the-clock coverage for its growing base. The primary group of representatives working at the Scottsdale facility covered the hours from 6:30 a.m. to 9:00 p.m. A small group of representatives covered the remaining hours from their homes. Customer service representatives handled inquiries ranging from questions regarding the reprogramming of cellular phones (over 95 percent of phone reprogramming occurs over the phone) to queries concerning feature usage and phone functionality. Each call was carefully logged into the call tracking system for future reference.

To support this staff, Phase 2 initially had a base of 28 PCs, both local and remote, of different makes and models, running a variety of networking and applications software. As the customer base grew, and as more representatives were added, support of the PCs became more complex and time-consuming.

Anthony Rutter, Phase 2's network administrator, recalls, "Support of the PCs was a nightmare, especially the PCs that were located at the homes of our remote representatives. There were always problems. If we weren't busy repairing or replacing defective PCs, we were upgrading PC hardware and software to keep up with users' demands."

A full-time staff was needed just to keep the PC environment operating smoothly, requiring a large investment in money and resources. Whenever a remote PC had problems, a technician was dispatched to the representative's home. In some cases, it could take up to 24 hours to fix a problem, resulting in lost productivity for the representatives and lower service levels for customers.

Security also became a growing concern. Willett remarked, "Since employees were able to load any software onto their PCs, the potential for viruses to infect the network grew. In addition, with data stored on agents' local hard drives and sometimes in their homes, sensitive information could either be erased or copied, either deliberately or inadvertently, very easily."

The challenge facing Phase 2 was to maintain and surpass its level of customer service in a cost-effective way, yet still maintain the flexibility for future growth and the addition of new applications.

Using Technology To Achieve Corporate Vision
Phase 2 turned to ASA, a local Scottsdale-based custom solutions provider, for help. Phase 2 cautioned that a workable solution needed to address three concerns: cost-effectiveness, low maintenance and high security. The answers lay in transitioning Phase 2's call center to a multiuser Windows NT architecture, using Windows-based terminals as the desktop devices instead of PCs.

Since Phase 2's call center environment is very task-oriented, it lends itself to centralized access to applications and databases. This enabled Phase 2 to deploy a thin-client computing architecture. First, all call center applications were migrated to a centralized server-based environment. In addition to the outbound dialing and call tracking applications, the call center representatives used a variety of other Windows-based applications to perform their jobs, including spreadsheets, word processing and a contact management system. Second, each user was equipped with a Wyse Winterm Windows-based terminal.

Windows-based terminals are display devices that allow users to access applications and data that reside on a centralized server, using the standard Windows point and click interface. These terminals consist of a keyboard, monitor and enough processing power to communicate with the server by sending it commands and displaying the results. They connect to servers running on a multiuser Windows NT operating system, either WinFrame Citrex Systems or Microsoft Windows NT Server 4.0, Terminal Server Edition. The Windows-based terminals were installed seamlessly into Phase 2's existing network, both in the call center and in the homes of remote representatives, without the need for any type of specialized equipment or telecommunications lines.

The thin-client deployment proved highly advantageous in this environment in a number of ways:

  • Improved Call Center Productivity. Since troubleshooting of the representatives' Windows-based terminals is performed over the phone, rather than by dispatching a technician, problems are resolved faster. Many problems associated with PCs (e.g., failing drives or hard disk crashes) do not occur with the Windows-based terminals. Representatives experienced less downtime and, as a result, were more productive. Because of the low purchase cost, Phase 2 has supplied remote representatives with complete spare devices, reducing potential downtime due to hardware failures. Phase 2 installed three servers onto its network, each a duplicate of the others. If one server fails, users are connected to another server in less than one minute, without loss of functionality. Overall, user downtime has been cut in half.
  • Increased Flexibility. Instead of upgrading individual PC memory and disks to support new applications, Phase 2 simply upgrades its servers when needed. There is never a worry about whether the environment can handle the new applications. In addition, since all software resides on central servers, all call center representatives run the same version of applications software, ensuring compatibility and providing the most up-to-date release for each employee. New features or call handling procedures can be rolled out easily and efficiently.
  • Faster Response Time. Several different communications packages were evaluated for use in connecting the PCs of remote users to the network. Analysis has shown that the remote representatives experience a two to three times faster response time in retrieving information with the thin-client solution than with a PC and remote communications package. This results in faster service for Phase 2 customers.
  • Lower On-going Acquisition Costs. Each Windows-based terminal costs approximately $800 (with monitor) versus an average of $2,600 for a PC. The cost of adding additional desktop solutions as the call center grows is relatively low compared to the cost of adding PCs.
  • Reduced Maintenance Costs. Since all applications reside on a central server, Phase 2 has eliminated the update and maintenance issues it had with its PC network. New applications are rolled out to all users, including those working from remote locations, almost instantaneously. The first time a user logs onto the server after an upgrade, he or she has access to all the new applications. Since there are no individual PC memory or hard disk upgrades required, upgrading remote users is very cost-effective. The technicians no longer need visit remote users to upgrade their equipment. Phase 2 has reduced its ongoing maintenance costs by 50 to 60 percent and has not had to hire additional technicians to service its growing user base.
  • Increased Security. Since the desktop devices are sealed, users can not introduce viruses into the network. It is virtually impossible to copy or delete sensitive information because all data reside on the network. An added benefit of centralized data storage is that all data are available to every employee from any location at any time.

In this scenario, employees are free to do their jobs and focus on the business rather than the means of accomplishing the business. Larry Willett is pleased. "Now our technology department can concentrate on those aspects of the business that will take us into the future. We have less headaches, our representatives are a lot happier and our investment is protected as we continue to expand. With this solution, we're well-positioned for any changes we need to make for the next 7 to 10 years. This solution enables us to provide the level of service that our customers have come to rely upon."

The company's improved statistics are telling. The customer service group currently handles more than 14,000 calls per month, each averaging slightly more than three minutes in duration. Callers seldom wait to speak with an agent. Ninety-eight percent of all calls are answered in the first three rings and the average speed of answer has been cut to six seconds.

Unanticipated Benefits
Representatives' calls were routinely monitored for quality and correctness. After deploying the Winterm Windows-based terminal solution, call center managers were able to go one step further. They can now shadow their representatives and "see" how they translate their conversations into actual keystrokes. The call center managers discovered that some representatives were not always keying in the correct information based on their telephone conversations. This capability also allowed training for remote users to be performed over the phone. Unknowingly, Phase 2 was able to increase its level of training while decreasing training costs.

Step Two For Phase 2
Phase 2 continues to upgrade its servers as the company expands. Today, Phase 2 has more than 120 representatives in its call center with an additional 9 remote representatives working from home. Phase 2's customer base is growing at the rate of about 3,000 new customer per month. The company plans to deploy additional thin-client desktop devices as business grows.

Jeff McNaught is vice president of marketing for Wyse Technology. In 1995, he helped Wyse introduce Winterm, a Windows-based terminal, which has since been deployed worldwide by Fortune 500 companies.







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