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Article : Text Messaging Comes Of Age As A Customer Care And Interaction Channel

Mobile operators handle millions of customer care calls per year. Phone users typically dial a short code, go through several menu options, and then queue to speak with a customer care agent. The cost to a phone user of a customer care call is often zero — but it can cost the network operator providing the service as much as 10 euro. What's more, even if the help provided is accurate and useful, customers are often frustrated by waiting in the queue, which is self-defeating for a call to a call centre.

Many operators have already sought to reduce the costs and the queues by launching customer-care FAQ sections on their Web sites and by making use of IVR technology to give customers menu-driven audio information. Now, far-thinking networks are adding text to the customer care mix.

All network operators are on a mission to delight customers and develop loyalty at every touch-point, and the quality of the customer care experience is a key factor. A newly developed system delivers text answers to text questions within a few seconds. For example, a customer can text "How many loyalty points have I got?", customer care costs are dramatically reduced as no human agents are involved, and disruption to the customer's life is minimised – they simply send the query, get the answer immediately, and continue with their day. This speed and simplicity is giving early adopters a significant market edge. As teenagers mature into high-ARPU business customers, they will not tolerate listening to 20 minutes of music on hold when another operator can respond to their query instantly by text.

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The automated text system uses unique natural language processing and database technology to promptly and accurately respond to each query. There are no new numbers to remember and no complicated syntax to learn – phone users send their questions, in whatever natural language form they choose, to the standard customer care short-code. The essence of a question is instantly recognised and matched to an appropriate answer in the database which is sent back as a text response. The system can be paired with intelligent SMS routing so that questions and answers are exchanged directly in real-time, unhindered by the store-and-forward delays inherent in SMSCs, and creating no additional load on the messaging network.

For phone users, SMS customer care has a number of other advantages apart from speed. It is discreet and always available – people can send text queries from places where it would be impractical to make a voice call and at times of day when call centre agents may be unavailable. Also, by using text, phone users do not need to trust their own memory, or make a written record of the answer to their query. They simply leave the response on their phone until they need to refer to it. This is ideal for queries such as, "How can I get traffic information on my phone?" In this way, the service becomes a virtual user-manual embedded in the phone, answering the majority of the most frequently asked questions.

SMS customer care is particularly useful to roaming customers. Often, when roaming, it is not possible to call customer care using the normal memorable short code, but a text message sent to the short code will always arrive back in the phone user's home network.

A system of this type is easily operated alongside and complements existing call centre, Web and IVR customer care channels. The customer-care group can quickly configure it to handle most queries, using information from external databases where required. Typically, a small number of questions – such as "What is my balance?" and "How can I access my voicemail from abroad?" – account for the majority of traffic.

However, the real value of the service lies in questions that can be answered by text, but which cannot be answered by an automated voice response system. For example, some operators enable customers to check their balance using a menu-driven voice response system, but it would be impractical for an automated system to handle a question such as "Can I use my phone in China. The new text system uniquely enables customers to hold a natural language conversation.

It is easy and quick to enhance. Operators can analyse records of successful and unsuccessful queries and add new content. The programming sequence for a new question and answer can take as little as few minutes, enabling the system to quickly and naturally evolve into a powerful, responsive and highly cost-effective customer care channel. This is in contrast to Web-based customer care systems which make it difficult or impossible to follow the customer's journey through the site.

At the first mobile operator to deploy the new system, the CRM director observed: "It is bringing our costs down while increasing customer satisfaction and retention. That's a rare and extremely valuable combination."

In the 12 months following installation, the system handled over six million customer care queries, giving instant answers to frequently asked questions while freeing call centre agents to deal with more complex queries. Now the operator has doubled capacity in readiness for further demand, and to enable the hosting of new text-based services for its 20 million pre-pay and contract customers. Among them is an application which lets pre-pay customers get an instant automated loan if they are temporarily unable to buy phone credits.

Customers simply text to receive the automated credits – and re-pay the loan when they next buy a top-up. The text customer care system processes requests, updates pre-pay accounts and sends customers text messages confirming their additional credits. Other new automated text services include loyalty points queries, mailbox setup, last invoice request and registration of customer care calls in any one of eight European and Arabic languages, which allows customers to text their language choice, so that in subsequent calls to customer services they are greeted by an agent speaking the requested language.

Says the operator's CRM director: "We originally deployed as part of a strategy to reduce load on our call centre and it's proved highly successful, enabling customers to get quick text answers to their texted questions. We are expecting usage to continue to grow. It is a highly flexible piece of technology and we've been exploring what else we can use it for. This range of value-added services, headed up by the pre-pay loan application is just the start."

About David Pearce:
David joined Telsis in his current role in November 2005. David has 18 years experience in marketing and product management of mobile value-added services, including voice, data, text and location propositions. His career in mobile communications began when he joined what was then Racal-Vodafone in 1988.

About Telsis:
Company LogoTelsis was founded in 1987 and has a well-deserved reputation for delivering high-performance carrier-grade text and voice solutions for network operators. Telsis provided Intelligent SMS Routing, enabling mobile operators to significantly increase revenues from SMS. Intelligent SMS Routing provides the next generation architecture to overcome the limitations of legacy store and forward systems. It improves quality of service, reduces costs and enables network traffic to grow without further investment in SMSCs.
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