Web/Call Center Reps Encourage Customers To Chose Savings/Service

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By offering a Web-billing price that is more than 16 percent cheaper than the price for paper billing, DTE Edison America is using savings and service to attract customers in the deregulated Pennsylvania market.


While encouraging Web usage was the most cost-effective way to pass on savings to consumers in competitive marketplaces, DTE Edison America sought a call center that could handle both telephone and Web contacts. The utility, a subsidiary of DTE Energy, Detroit, serves Pennsylvania and will begin service in New Jersey in the first quarter of 2000.


"We call it energy at cost," said Ron Muratore, director of communications for the utility, about the cost-savings the company is able to realize through Web-site interactions. "Driving traffic to our Web site is important for us because it is the wave of the future."


Ron Weber & Associates, Milford, CT, the company's teleservices partner since July, has cross-trained its agents to handle interactions related to the account through all mediums.


"When we were hiring for the account we looked for people who already had the ability to do all of the above, so that helped us in managing this because the reps already had oral and written communications skills," said Jared Weber, vice president of inbound teleservices with Ron Weber and Associates. "We will keep evaluating how we are doing, and if we decide we're getting to a point where it makes more sense to break it down [by mediums], we'll do that."


Through DTE Edison's "energy-at-cost" program, customers can pay a flat fee of $10 a month for online billing or $12 a month for standard mail billing. There are added discounts if customers pay their annual energy bill upfront - $100 annually for online payment of $120 annually for mail payment.


Through the use of a call center whose agents manage both mediums, DTE Edison America feels its agents will experience more unified service with the company.


"We can keep all the customer contact information in one place - there is less chance it will get lost in the transfer between two companies," said Yvette Culkar, DTE Edison America's customer care manager. "In addition, if a customer sends an e-mail from work and then goes home and picks up the phone, there is that possibility that the person who handled the e-mail will still be there and the customer could be reconnected with the same person."


Cross-trained agents make it easier to manage the consistency of response, added Weber.


"We are giving the same type of response over e-mail as on the phone because it's the same people handling both interactions," he said. "Also, we are able to keep a better eye on trends because we are handling every aspect of the program."


The company currently receives 2,000 calls a month and 75 to 100 e-mails a month from customers and prospects, said Culkar, adding that Web usage continues to grow.


The Ron Weber and Associates agents handle all post-sales customer service for the utility. The agents have also been trained to provide basic-level technical support, such as helping customers navigate the Web site, said Weber. Emergencies like storm-related service disruptions are handled by the utility.


E-mails, as well as faxes to customers, are distributed to agents in the same fashion that calls are distributed - using basic workload balancing, the alternative channels are blended into the call handling rotation. Because the e-mail and faxes can sometimes experience spikes in volume, there are times when agents are pulled from the phone rotation and dedicated to alternate channels. E-mails are answered in the same day they are received, said Weber, though an average time of answer was not available.


Agents also handle some outbound interactions, such as verifications of service switches or follow-ups when customers have filled out forms incompletely.


The Web site has also been used to conduct consumer research.


"We have had surveys on our Web site that have had high response rates," said Barb Craig, manager of acquisitions for DTE Edison America.


The other factor in selecting Ron Weber and Associates as a call center partner was the agency's "telethinking" program, through which it assigns a specialist to review each account regularly in search of ways to improve efficiency.


In one example of how the technique has benefited DTE Edison America so far, the training process for agents has been streamlined from three weeks down to two - through working with agents to find out which information was most helpful and valuable.


"Its saves time and money by shortening the training process, and I'm comfortable that the new hires are as well-trained, maybe better trained, than they had been with the three-week training," Culkar said.
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