The Guardian (Manchester); 31 May 1990; Claire Neesham; p. 31
The recent introduction of British Telecom's customer service system has revolutionised its approach to dealing with enquiries. DEBBIE LEWIS and Liz Owens are British Telecom front office managers. Their spacious, open plan office overlooks Cardiff, towards Penarth bay. A graphics terminal adorns each of their otherwise tidy desks. There is very little paper in this office, no filing cabinets and the overall feel is of a calm and efficient working atmosphere. The surprising thing is that this is one of BT's customer service departments, dealing with bills, orders and faults? It's the type of department that has a reputation for inefficiency, and is the target of many comedians' jokes. Even BT coined the phrase ``the Telecom Shunt'' to describe how customers were passed from person to person if they had a query. But Jeff James, a front office manager for the South Wales district, says: ``Of the four to five thousand calls we receive each day, over 95 per cent are dealt with by the person who answers the phone. The rest are called back or passed on to a specialist.'' The reason is that Cardiff is one of the trial sites for BT's customer service system (CSS), the aim of which is to get all of a Telecom district's residential and small- to medium-sized business billing, order and fault information on to a single Cullinet RDMS database. CSS development began in 1983, and by the end of 1989 all 27 of BT's districts had the first phase running. This required the installation of about 30 IBM ES/3090 and IBM-compatible mainframes (from Amdahl) running MVS/XA, around 1,500 on-line programs and 50 gigabytes of disc storage in each district. The customer information was transferred from BT's existing systems into the new integrated system a procedure which gave BT a few headaches at the time. The total cost of the project has not been disclosed, but estimates have suggested hundreds of millions of pounds. A BT spokesman said only that they thought it was the largest civil computer project in the world. The first phase of CSS allows the customer service staff to use the system for billing and order enquiries, although they continue to work from separate departments. Eleven of BT's districts can also conduct a line test from the CSS terminals. BT intends this facility to be available in all the districts by the end of 1990. The South Wales, Liverpool and Thameswey districts are more advanced still in having a ``front office.'' Their staff can answer queries on bills, equipment orders and faults, though some data is protected by extra security codes. So if a customer wants to report a fault while renting an extra line they can dial 150 and the person who answers the phone will be able to deal with both enquiries. Owens says ``With this system you feel more confident in handling enquiries because all the information is to hand.'' For example, if a customer complains about the length of time it took to clear a fault, the front office member dealing with the query can quickly select an on-screen display showing the time and the date when the fault was reported, and when the engineer carried out the repair. The system is also helping BT meet its new aim of clearing all business faults within four hours of report, and all domestic faults within nine hours. When a fault is identified a message is sent over the system from the front office to a CSS terminal in the appropriate engineering division. The system then finds the engineer with the shortest queue of things to attend to. The office staff can even tell the customer whether the engineer will arrive in the morning or afternoon. A striking feature of the Cardiff front office is the lack of paper and general clutter. Owens contrasts this with the old set-up where staff could have over 30 files piled on their wooden desks. Although they had computers, there were usually only a couple of terminals for each office. With so much paper floating around it was easy to mislay messages or put files back in the wrong place. Now if a customer rings up they don't even have to say their name. Their file can be retrieved from the database by telephone number. The initial screen contains basic customer information including their method of paying bills and type of equipment rented. Further screens hold details on recent bills, faults or outstanding sales enquiries. Owens and Lewis say a lot of their customers are surprised that the person who answers their enquiry knows so much about them. But they believe it is comforting for the customers to realise that BT knows what is going on. CSS has also reduced the number of complaints about BT's customer service. Brychan Lewis, secretary of the Welsh Advisory Committee on Telecommunications, says: ``I get the impression BT is dealing more promptly with enquiries these days.'' He points out that four years ago a lot of complaints were from people who had been left hanging on or had been transferred from person to person. Now these grievances are less frequent. In the future, BT will network the CSS systems to cope with changes in district size which follow the reorganisation. Then a customer who lived in London could query a telephone bill while on holiday in Scotland. The Scottish front line office staff would have access to all the information. So far this facility is only available within a particular district. But it is still better than the old days when someone living in Swansea and working down the road in Cardiff would be re-directed to the Swansea office if they queried a bill while at work. As James claims proudly, ``CSS has allowed us to get rid of the Telecom Shunt.''