Holding the line on call-centre sprawl

Customer service had mushroomed out of control at IBM Corp.: sixty call centres, 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 centres 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,” said 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 centre 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 Inc. 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 AG 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 U.S. Defense Department – can now be accessed through the portal. IBM gets roughly 80 per cent of its income from 350 major accounts.

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, Ga. 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,” said Fassman, who notes that this also includes local dialects.

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.

The e-commerce focus is lessening IBM’s historic dependence on face-to-face sales. The “flying wing-tip brigade” has been clipped to about 25,000 employees from a high of 200,000. The IBM.com Web site received 99 million visits last year just for self-service and support. This helped IBM avoid about US$2 billion in costs.

But the IBM.com Centers still remain a place of high-volume calls. Around the world, the centres log 95 sales calls and register US$63,000 in sales every minute.

A visit to the IBM.com Center in Smyrna offers a glimpse into the new Big Blue. The facility – a 156,000-square-foot converted warehouse with high ceilings and modern interior – houses just under 1,000 sales and technical support personnel in hundreds of well-appointed cubicles. Miles of snaking LAN cabling are hidden underneath the flooring.

It’s a place where managers, far from walling themselves off in fancy offices, seem more likely to be sitting in the most open area of all, while their sales representatives – all college-educated – work the phones and the Web. Oddly, sound here is muted.

Network bandwidth needs are not, however. IBM, which had been using 12 T-3 lines at the Smyrna facility, just converted to a high-speed metropolitan area network for access, said Jack Joyner, a senior sales operations specialist. “You’ve got to commit for quite a lot of bandwidth for this,” he notes.

But don’t think this is home for some oversized dot-com company where spike-haired employees make things up as they go along. The centre operates more like a football team, where sales representatives know how to pass the ball in formation to minimize disputes about sales turf or who owns an account. If a customer has technical questions that go beyond a sales representative’s expertise, the representative never passes the customer over to the technical department. Instead, the technical expert is conferenced in to the customer call.

“We have direct access to the field force and the technical reps, and everyone will remain on one call,” said Kenneth Vail, a sales agent.

In addition to the Siebel CRM software, Vail has more than a dozen applications on his desktop to interact with customers on the Web or gain access to a customer history database. Another agent, Randy Haight, said IBM strives not to usurp accounts owned by IBM business partners.

These business partners, such as systems integrators, distributors and resellers, constitute an important customer segment for IBM. Therefore, IBM doesn’t want to sell directly into a company where it knows a business partner is the first sales contact.

To help coordinate, all customer data can be presented to the IBM.com sales agent through IBM’s own computer telephony integration product CallPath, which provides a customer history screen-pop when an incoming customer number is transferred to an available agent’s phone.

There are challenges to making it all work smoothly, said Jim Hardee, vice-president of teleweb sales.

The IBM.com Web site, which includes a “configurator” tool IBM fashioned to help users design systems, may have pages changing every day. IBM has a policy that Web material has to be reviewed and every new application certified at the corporate level in IBM headquarters in Armonk, N.Y.

Once that’s done, the new product information needs to be uploaded to the IBM.com server farm for view. Different IBM divisions use a variety of content distribution tools, but Hardee said IBM is considering standardizing on a single one if tests prove it can scale to IBM’s needs: several tens of thousands of concurrent users.