AT&T virtualizes customer service

Nationwide virtual contact center offloads service calls while retaining regional flavor

So you think merging nine regional call centers into one nationwide virtual contact center is work enough? Now imagine doing so while navigating hundreds of regional regulations and myriad regional back-end systems in a 24/7 environment with carrier-class fault tolerance and no installation window.

That’s what AT&T Services, formerly SBC Communications, accomplished with its Network Customer Service Center (NCSC) program between January 2004 and February 2007.

And thanks to this complex undertaking, AT&T was able to deliver services responsively during the recent California fires, load balancing the deluge of service and repair calls across its nationwide call center network with minimal increases in customer wait times while also enabling customers to track repairs remotely online.

The NCSC program started in the SBC Communications days after the acquisitions of Pacific Telesis, SNET, and Ameritech.

“We could see that our customers needed a more common call experience,” says Mark Cottrell, executive director of network service program management at AT&T Services. “And with our increasing call volumes it made sense to share calls across multiple regions so that if there was an ice storm in Michigan, we could hand off calls to agents sitting in our call center in California.”

To do this, AT&T undertook a massive software and systems consolidation, merging three regional IVR systems, three call center routing systems, and three agent desktop systems into one of each nationwide and integrating them with more than 50 different existing regional back-end legacy systems via a middleware services layer.

To cope with myriad regional regulations, AT&T devised hundreds of regional customer call scripts that could be called automatically nationwide as screen pop-ups based on the requirements and origin of the customer call. All this was combined with a universal call queue and common, nationwide workforce management, trouble ticket and repair, and skills-based call routing systems.

The solution is a complex soup of internally developed applications, COTS (commercial off the shelf) software, third-party solutions, and legacy back-end systems that allows customer information to be passed to agents across nine locations.

“If there’s a bad storm in the Midwest and calls are not being answered in a timely manner, the system can look across the entire country to see which agent has the right skills to take the next call,” Cottrell says, “and then transfer the call and all relevant customer and regulatory information so that the customer doesn’t have to answer the same questions many times.” The agent or the IVR system can generate line tests and schedule local repairs that customers can track or change online.

As a result, according to AT&T, call wait times have been cut in half. Moreover, the company expects to save $88 million over six years, thanks to reduced resource requirements.

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