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High Priority!
November 2001

Rich Tehrani With A Little Help From The Telecom Industry

Group Editor-in-Chief, TMC

I have always taken great pride in being a part of the communications industry. I am fascinated by the technologies and services we have to offer and marvel at the enormous impact they have on the lives of individuals and corporations. Being on the publishing and trade show side of the communications industry, I have the advantage of being presented with so much information about the communications industry that I cannot help but be impressed. However, I have often wondered if the average person outside of the industry realizes just how much today's advanced communications technologies affect them.

I believe the tragic events of September 11, 2001 brought an answer to my question.

First, I was struck by the number of reports of cell phone calls placed by victims to their loved ones and emergency workers. I can only imagine how much those last phone calls meant to the survivors and victims alike.

In the days following the tragedy, I was once again proud of our industry, this time not for what it did, but for what it didn't do. Both at home and in the office, I realized that my phone hardly ever rang. Nonessential sales calls had virtually stopped. Friends and colleagues verified that they experienced the same thing. The sensitivity shown by marketers during that time was extremely heartening. Given our poor economy, I half expected some companies to go after business as usual, but that proved not to be the case.

Going forward, I hope we will all remember how important it is to be sensitive to our customers. Now, more than ever, we need to practice the principles of CRM both in outgoing and incoming communications. Our outbound marketing messages need to be reviewed and revised with a bent toward compassion, as we have no idea how the events of September 11th have affected those we are contacting. Likewise with inbound communications. Our world is unsettled now and those who contact our companies may need extra care from us.

It is also time to revisit some of the communications technologies we may not have paid as much attention to in the past because we did not see an urgent need for them. Some of the technologies that immediately come to mind are video conferencing, Web chat and distance learning, as they are great ways to communicate essential information without the need to travel.

Finally, I have to tell you that I was overwhelmed by the outpouring of generosity by corporations within our industry for the victims of the tragedy. Almost immediately following announcements of the attacks, we were informed via e-mail that companies within our industry were offering office space, technology resources and shelter to anyone affected by the incident. Shortly thereafter, we began to learn about many more thoughtful, generous companies in the communications industry that were providing not only huge monetary contributions, but much-needed communications technologies for rescue workers, victims' families and corporations that had lost their communications infrastructure. I believe these companies deserve recognition for their kind efforts and list here the names of the firms I am aware of (I apologize to those of you that I am unaware of).

  • Plantronics donated 5,000 headsets for the New York relief effort.
  • TracFone Wireless donated 100 prepaid wireless phones and thousands of minutes of air time to Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) to ensure clear communication among its network of on-site disaster relief workers.
  • ClickArray Networks donated integrated Web infrastructure appliances to highly congested Web sites to maintain flow of critical information.
  • SAP is providing free IT consulting services to businesses affected by the terrorist attacks.
  • Activate provided free Web casting services for public agencies and nonprofit groups that needed to communicate information.
  • PictureTel donated videoconferencing facilities.
  • Motorola Inc. brought communications gear to the disaster scene and shipped thousands of mobile radios, batteries, base stations and other communications equipment to New York and Washington D.C. and deployed crisis teams to New York.
  • Cisco Systems Inc. pledged to donate $6 million in cash to select aid groups.
  • Sprint is donating $500,000 to the American Red Cross and provided 2,300 wireless phones for disaster workers. In addition, its stores in New York provided free emergency calling and its pay phones in the city were programmed to allow free outgoing calls.
  • Call Sciences, Inc. offered its unified communications service free to firms affected by the disaster to help them quickly adapt to communicating in a mobile environment.
  • Verizon donated $5 million, pay phones and services.
  • ATABOK offered free secure Internet communication and distribution network to organizations that are rebuilding communications networks.
  • GraphOn Corporation has offered free Web-enabling software for displaced workers to run business-critical server-based UNIX applications from home or temporary workers using a dial-up connection or the Internet.

In addition to these companies, I also learned of the great efforts of our industry in the background of what CNN described as "an unprecedented cooperative and collaborative effort, 'America: A Tribute To Heroes,' a two-hour, commercial-free simulcast [telethon] to raise funds for the thousands and thousands of victims and their families who have suffered from this heinous assault on humanity."

Teleservices agency Convergys became an important participant in the "America: A Tribute To Heroes" telethon when Ron Schultz, president of Convergys' Customer Management Group, was contacted by ABC Television Network President Alex Wallau on Tuesday, September 18th, just three days before the telethon was to take place. Wallau told Schultz he had researched to find out which companies might be able to handle the job of taking what they hoped would be an extraordinary number of phone calls from donors. He decided Convergys was well qualified. Wallau told Schultz that the major networks, along with various cable and radio stations, had agreed to simulcast the telethon. Wallau said that Tom Hanks, Jack Nicholson, Cuba Gooding, Jr. and many other film and music stars had agreed to participate. Schultz said Convergys immediately signed on and mobilized its resources.

Convergys' management team immediately began planning the logistics for this unprecedented event. Convergys asked for 2,000 volunteers from its staff, and Schultz said that by the next day they had more than 3,000. Capital One immediately volunteered its services, and soon a major long-distance carrier said it would be able to provide the toll-free number. Upon discussion, the management at Convergys decided that the sheer scope of the venture would best be served by added capacity, so another carrier was recruited as well. IBM joined in for the logistics of setting up the Web page that would serve as an alternate channel to handle the expected flood of donations. Wallau had implied that there are no bigger egos to be found than in Hollywood, and if they were willing to lend themselves to the task, so should American businesses be able to put aside their rivalries for the sake of the nation. ABC, CBS, FOX and NBC have underwritten all costs surrounding the show and the United Way has underwritten all administration costs for the telethon fund. Schultz said that overall, the consortium that set up, produced and executed the telethon included 16 companies and 40 executives. Schultz explained that for three days, the executives held conference calls at 10, 1 and 4 o'clock (as Schultz humorously dubbed the "Dr. Pepper hours" in reference to the Dr. Pepper catchphrase, 10, 2 and 4) to make sure everyone was on the same page. Other companies that provided their in-house call center facilities to help handle the calls included AT&T, Verizon, WorldCom and Capitol One. In all, there were more than 20,000 workstations set up to take calls. All of the workstations required Web access, as all of the donor information was entered online to avoid dealing with different interfaces and systems. When setting up the donor information interface, Convergys had to take into account that calls were coming in not just from the U.S., but also from various other countries and territories, so some of the information fields would vary depending on from where the donor was calling.

Convergys' teleservices experience proved very beneficial in working with the carriers to set up the call-routing details, as well as setting up the credit card acceptance program, the script and the ongoing details about what to have on the screen to drive calls. The excitement and tensions were great as the clock ticked toward the Friday evening broadcast. Major concerns about the magnitude of the event included worries that the networks handling the calls would be overtaxed and come down, or interrupt services on 911 networks and local exchanges. By Friday afternoon, the call-handling and Web infrastructures were in place, which left precious few hours for testing before the scheduled start of the live broadcast at 9 p.m. Eastern time.

Schultz said that overall, 16 of Convergys' contact centers (15 in the U.S. and one in Winnipeg, Canada) were involved. Convergys' management also had to keep in mind that while they were engaged in this enormous effort (about a third of their resources were brought in on this project), they still had to tend to the needs of their 24/7 customers.

During the five hours calls were accepted (the broadcast was shown live in the Eastern and Central time zones and rebroadcast in the Mountain and Pacific time zones), AT&T and MCI worked together on load balancing and designating the routing of calls on their networks to the seats set up to handle them.

Once the program started, Schultz said there was a constant balancing act happening in the command center, as call spikes were expected when the toll-free number was on the screen (Schultz said that shortly into the program they changed it from alphabetical to numerical) so they had to alternate the phone number with the Web address. In all, Schultz reported, approximately 8 million calls were attempted across the network, and approximately 1.5 million were connected. Close to 125,000 calls were handled in the Convergys centers in just five hours.

While Convergys' Curt Stoll, vice president, Customer Management, was in the command center, Schultz was taking calls. Schultz said that the experience was both uplifting and stressful (handling that many calls). "It was very emotional, hearing the callers' stories, many of them crying as they related the details of where they were that day, how they felt about the attack or of friends and loved ones who were missing," he said, adding that the callers were from all walks of life, "even kids pledging their allowances." Schultz said that "a lot of people here had the feeling of 'What can I do to help?' but were unsure how to do so. This was a special event and it gave them something to focus on and a feeling that they were doing something useful. This went for the people calling in as well, a large percentage of whom were apologizing that that was all they could give." Schultz added, "The Monday after was interesting, talking with colleagues who participated; they all felt the experience was something that went beyond just Friday night."

I, and my colleagues at TMC, offer our admiration and thanks to those individuals and companies in our industry that offered their expertise and services during the U.S.'s time of need. We also salute the firefighters, police and emergency workers who have risked and lost so much for our country.

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