Utility Links Four Facilities Into One Virtual Center

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Utility company American Electric Power, Columbus, OH, is combining its customer care centers into a virtual call center to improve customer service, use staff more efficiently and better cope with the inundation of calls that accompanies power outages.


The company, which supplies power to 3 million customers in seven states, has centers in Ohio, Indiana, Kentucky and West Virginia that handle calls from all seven states in which AEP provides service. However, because of variations in state utilities laws, agents at each location have been trained only in the regulations applying to the one or two states assigned to their center. By installing a database interface and call-routing system, the company will enable agents to handle service calls from customers in any of the seven states.


"Even though all the call centers focus on the same customer information system, the rules and regulations for how we handle calls and how we interact with customers are regulated on a state-by-state basis," said George Bjelovuk, AEP's call center director. "We just realized there are probably great improvements in customer service that could be gained by routing calls across all four sites."


About 500 employees staff the centers, which include 128 seats in Grove Park, OH; 46 in Fort Wayne, IN; 60 in Ashland, KY; and 152 in Hurricane, WV. The company forecasts about 8.2 million calls in 1999, all of which are inbound. The centers - which operate around the clock, seven days per week - receive calls on a variety of topics, including service problems, billing and credit inquiries.


Call volume varies widely minute-by-minute and hour-by-hour, and often fluctuates unpredictably because of service problems caused by severe weather and other factors. Because of this, the company often has resources available at some centers while other centers are overwhelmed.


AEP expects that enabling all agents to handle any calls through the use of the new system will reduce its periodic episodes of wait times and provide better customer service during power outages.


"We thought we needed to build some type of an infrastructure to route those calls virtually and still have agents skilled in the regulatory rules that apply to that particular caller," Bjelovuk said.


AEP spends six to eight weeks training agents to handle calls from the states for which their centers are responsible, and the company decided it would be excessive to train them to handle calls from all seven states. By incorporating a new database interface system, which will use area-code detection technology and screen pops to guide agents through calls, AEP expects to achieve the same result as if it had trained agents on the regulations for each of the states.


The new virtual call center will use the Oracle Telebusiness for Utilities software to facilitate agent interaction with customers by displaying custom interfaces based on the origin of the call, and it will use the Network InterQueue call-routing product from Aspect Telecommunications to distribute calls based on agent availability. AEP will use another product, the Aspect Prospect CTI Enabler, to route the data within the system.


"We're going to rely on area-code detection to prompt the proper screens on agent workstations, and Aspect will interact with Oracle to provide the proper knowledge base to the workstations," Bjelovuk said. "As they are presented with calls, they also will be presented with the regulatory rules and options that apply in those states."


He said AEP anticipates that it will begin training agents to use the new technology in the fourth quarter and to have it up and running by the end of the year. The company began installing the graphical user interface required for the system late last year, and expects to continue enhancing the technology throughout the year.


The new system also will allow AEP to track the performance and to perform trending and forecasting analysis, in addition to capturing transactional data, the company said.
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