Holding the line on call-center sprawl

Network World |  Networking

Customer service had mushroomed out of control at IBM: Sixty call centers, thousands of 800 numbers and a mish-mash of Web sites were making too many customers see red as they tried doing business with Big Blue.

Thus began a radical consolidation and transformation of the company's call centers a few years back that continues today with a goal of ensuring that IBM sales and support staff can use the Web, e-mail and telephone simultaneously to service customers.

"We're really at the beginning of exploring how to merge telesales and the Web," says Fred Fassman, vice president of IBM call centers, who's responsible for overseeing the reorganization of dozens of IBM sales and customer support centers around the globe.

While few companies have call center operations of this magnitude, the tale of how IBM is tackling its challenges may prove illustrative for others looking to tame their own.

Inside IBM it's called the "teleweb" strategy. A key element is the company's move to put customer relationship management software from Siebel Systems on every salesperson's desktop to keep a centralized customer history database of purchasing and engineer support through all channels. This has made IBM Siebel's biggest customer.

In addition, IBM is about to open up its back-end SAP R/3 enterprise resource planning application so customers can access order history, shipment schedules and other business data without having to phone a sales representative. The IBM.com Web site -- based on IBM's WebSphere product, not surprisingly -- is the portal for all this, with separate IBM Web sites such as ShopIBM.com folded in. Specialized secured extranets for large customers -- such as Progress Energy, the state of North Carolina and the Defense Department -- can now be accessed through the portal. IBM gets roughly 80% of its income from 350 major accounts.

What has consolidation accomplished?

The North American sales support staff for all of this, 7,000 strong, now congregates in four large facilities called IBM.com Centers in Toronto, Dallas, Phoenix and Smyrna, Georgia. There are only seven 800 numbers instead of thousands. Similar consolidation is under way in South America, Europe and Asia, with megacenters scheduled to open soon in Sydney, Australia and Okinawa, Japan.

The logistics are daunting.

"We do 28 languages in Toronto alone," says Fassman, who notes that this also includes local dialects.

Half-million messages

Last May IBM.com instituted a "call-back button" next to products so Web customers could input their phone number and have a sales representative call them within seconds. Web e-mail with customers is soaring. IBM last year got about a half million messages, prompting the company to set guidelines requiring a response to each sender within four hours.

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