Robert Sloan, AT&T eSales & Service vice president, is behind a three-year effort to revamp enterprise sales and service under the AT&T BusinessDirect umbrella. Inspired by mounting evidence pointing to a need for integrated, effective, and highly productive customer portals, Sloan convinced upper management to fund a self-managed organization that operated its own sales, training, and marketing under his direction, all with an eye on improving the business customer experience. "When I first got involved in this effort, it was not unlike the story in a lot of companies four years ago—leveraging the Internet to enhance the customer experience was often done in silos for an individual element, whether for care or sales, rather than [effecting] changes in customer experience," he says. "We brought them all together in this single organization, AT&T eSales & Service, to focus on the evolution of our technology and bring it together to provide value-add for customers from small businesses to our largest global customers.

"It was not as much about the company structure as what the customer's needs and wants are," he adds. "We went about developing the strategy by getting input from customers, from AT&T Labs, and from our care process people to understand how things work, and we brought the information together in a way that enabled us to go after areas of interest and provide value as well." The evaluation process revealed inefficiencies and outmoded technological approaches to crucial, everyday processes such as order-taking and trouble ticket recording. Staying in constant contact with customers, through forums and focus groups, has been key to continually revalidating and adjusting the strategy first articulated in 2003. "We work with our customers to understand how they learn to use these tools, and we attempt to take that information and put together training and processes that help them better learn."

By pairing the solution designers with in-house trainers as well as front-line personnel, the eSales & Service division created new customer service tools that could more easily and effectively be incorporated into the everyday workflow. "Often folks who work in this [technical] area only focus on the development of the tools, or on making sure the processes exist behind the tools. But when you're attempting to evolve and transform, you need to bring everyone together—at least, we did!"

As a result of Sloan's efforts with BusinessDirect, his organization has retained a larger proportion of employees than many of its peer organizations within the former AT&T, while markedly improving the corporate customer experience—a key component of retaining enterprise business. More than 700,000 users are registered to use the system, expected to reach nearly 1 million by year's end. Nearly half of major customer service inquiries are now automated, contributing to what AT&T says is an overall 20-fold return on its BusinessDirect investment. Lead times on new voice and data services have improved from 40 to 70 percent and the need for follow-up contacts to verify client data had fallen from more than half of all orders to less than 10 percent. The most acute point of pain for customers, mean time to repair data service outages, has fallen 10 percent. And the unit was considered one of AT&T's prized properties at the time of the SBC/AT&T merger announcement last February.

Sloan guided AT&T's business services unit to keep the business it had, and better expand to new customers by advancing customer service strategies with equal doses of modern technology and commonsense teamwork and integration. "Companies that have attempted to do this [customer care] transformation overnight, and expect somebody to adopt it because it sits there, will fail," Sloan says.