Southeastern regional telecom giant BellSouth knows that the more of its 16 million U.S. customers it can serve via Web page or e-mail, the more it can save on the most expensive element of its customer service: operators at its call center.
The Atlanta corporation for years has conducted follow-up phone surveys of customers to see if, and how well, call center operators solved their problems. But it had no way of polling those using its Web or e-mail customer help — a significant obstacle to its goal of pushing more than a third of all help requests from phone lines to online.
Keric Shanahan, who runs BellSouth’s e-care service center, wanted a system that would automatically send an anonymous e-mail survey to any customer making an online inquiry. Most of the dedicated Web survey companies Shanahan contacted required BellSouth to provide access to its e-mail files, after which the surveyors themselves would generate the e-mail poll, process the responses, and create reports.
Then, from an employee in another BellSouth department, he heard about Instantis, a Sunnyvale, Calif., startup. Instantis has developed SiteWand, a database system that automates a range of processes on business Web sites, from managing sales leads to sending personalized ads, from recruiting new employees to handling customer inquiries.
If a site has any kind of form asking visitors to “Submit” information, Instantis says, its system can capture and analyze the data. Beyond that, it allows managers to set up rules that can ship the data to appropriate departments and automate responses, such as sending an alert to a sales staffer or setting up further, personalized e-mail communication with a visitor.
Shanahan said, “We needed to generate a survey and have the responses tallied, and I didn’t want to do 100 percent of the data manipulation myself. Instantis looked nothing like the traditional survey companies we approached, but they were able to set up exactly what we wanted, very quickly and inexpensively. No one else even came close on the cost.”
SiteWand employs a sophisticated Java-based software platform that allows users to design custom forms in minutes. Working earlier this year with Instantis sales staff and engineers, BellSouth’s application was up and running in less than a week. Because Instantis hosts the survey database and runs it as a managed service, BellSouth needed no significant time from programmers or data administrators either to install or manage the application.
Shanahan, who estimates that Instantis’ price was 50 to 60 percent less than competitors, “The system is so well automated, you don’t need many human hands touching it, so that keeps the costs much lower.”
To date, a tiny fraction of BellSouth’s help requests come via its year-old e-mail and Web system. When customers use it for help, they get an automated e-mail asking seven general questions about the quality of customer service they received and whether they’d use the service again or recommend it to friends. So far between 500 and 600 users have responded each month, with e-mails shipped to BellSouth customer representatives while being added to a database that Instantis maintains.
Just three months into the survey, BellSouth noted that many users complained that while they’d received prompt responses via e-mail, they often got no answer to their specific questions. Shanahan then instructed staff to repeat customer questions in the first paragraph of their responses to ensure they were providing relevant answers.
Shanahan also gets a copy of each customer survey in real-time, so if the survey raises an issue he can address it with a supervisor immediately. He is also able to manipulate the data to build queries and develop reports.
“The surveys help validate or invalidate our assumptions, so we can target our policies more accurately,” he said. “They also help us uncover problems and drive down both response times and the number of repeat calls and e-mails. It’s been a useful tool. The more we can answer online questions right the first time, the more we can generate savings and satisfy customers.”
BellSouth wouldn’t discuss the cost of its Instantis system, but the startup charges a flat fee to set up the system, then anywhere from $100 to $5,000 a month for monthly hosting, depending on the system’s sophistication.
“For a large company like us, this is very inexpensive,” Shanahan said. “But we’ve had very good follow-up from the Instantis account director. They haven’t skimped on the service.”