Hey telco, where's my support?

There's nothing more annoying than having a telephone company customer support issue. Any time I have to call to report a problem, I hate the experience before it starts.

Interestingly, I don't feel this way about calling software customer service lines. In fact, I hardly ever call software customer service lines. Instead, I go to the support pages on the software vendor's Web site and usually find what I'm looking for. Telco Web sites, however, are still a relic of an age when the only questions were billing questions, despite the fact that their product lines now bundle voice mail, Internet access and home networking.

In Connecticut, I'm an SBC SNET customer. I have voice mail. Occasionally, the central-office-based voice mail indicator on my business line stays illuminated and has to be reset, and I always forget how to do this. So I did an experiment: I dialed SBC customer support and started surfing SBC's Web site at the same time to see which would provide me with the answer first.

The Web site home page doesn't have any high-level option for residential or business telephone services support. The "Ask a question" section deals with billing and DSL Internet questions only. I click on Business Services and, aha, there's a "Solve a phone problem" section with the appropriate "Troubleshoot a phone problem" hyperlink. I click on this option.

On the phone, I'm asked for my phone number and begin navigating a voice response unit (VRU) toward the area for voice mail issues.

Back at SBC's troubleshooting Web page, I've got a whopping 10 things that can go wrong with my phone service (interestingly, they're the same 10 things listed for residential services - so much for business having more sophisticated needs). In small print at the top, it says: "If the trouble is not with your telephone line but with your telephone services, please find the appropriate custom-calling features in our user guides." Voice mail is a custom-calling feature, so I click there.

On the phone, I'm hearing a listing of services and am asked to indicate to which one my problem pertains.

On the Web, I've got a similar listing of features to select from. I click on voice mail and find, essentially, the user manual restated - how to dial your voice mail access number, how to change your greeting and so on. Nothing to help me reset my indicator.

On the phone, as I enter the voice mail support area, the first thing I'm asked is: "Is your indicator light staying on?" "Yes," I affirm. I'm then asked if I would like to listen to automated instructions as to how to fix it myself, to which I reply yes.

On the Web, I find the place to click for additional voice mail help. It says: "For more information, call the Help Line at 1-800-575-5552."

On the phone, I listen to the automated help message playback option for my problem, solve it and hang up.

What's the lesson here? This stuck indicator problem is obviously the No. 1 customer service issue for the voice mail support group, if it is first in the VRU messaging stream. So why isn't it on the SBC site?

Telcos have trained us to dial customer support if we're having a problem. But more and more, people are trained by other companies to use the Web for their support issues. Telco problems are going to be less about billing and simple "My phone doesn't work" issues. Telco products are changing; they now include all sorts of add-on services, but the telcos have not changed their approach to support - it's still a compartmentalized issue, not a one-stop-shop issue. You can buy bundled services, but forget about bundled support.

Telco Web sites today are nothing more than user manuals online. They need an overhaul so that they reflect the most-often-asked questions and how to resolve them. Telcos need to level-set support for all their services and provide a common interface for getting information.

Lots of work to do, folks, lots of work.

Briere is CEO of TeleChoice, a market strategy consultancy for the telecom industry. He can be reached at telecomcatalyst@telechoice.com.

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