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Earthlink's customer service strategy starts with employees

Internet service provider Earthlink has made superior customer service a primary part of its corporate strategy by empowering its employees to "do whatever it takes."

If you were to believe its latest ad campaign, Earthlink's service group is staffed with fairies, unicorns, and gnomes. But in reality, the company's support staff works magic by serving its 5 million customers consistently.

"It's the basic rule that if you treat your customers well, they'll stay with you and tell other people," says John Bowden, group vice president of customer support. Bowden oversees employees and operations in 20 customer support locations (both in-house and outsourced) that deal with all aspects of customer service for the Internet service company.

To promote its customer strategy internally, the ISP recently created the "I am Earthlink" campaign to empower all employees to do whatever it takes to help the customer. "We want every agent to own the customer's Earthlink experience," Bowden says. In addition, all employees in the support organization, whether customer-facing or not, must listen to calls to understand the customer point of view.

Offering a variety of support channels—phone, email, Internet chat, and Web self-service—is an important part of Earthlink's customer strategy. And although customers are computer users, a majority of interactions are by phone. Internet chat is second and gaining ground. "Live chat is a great way to get your account serviced," Bowden says. Customers can print a transcript of the interaction, and there are never any issues with an agent speaking too fast or slow.

For more information about customer service and loyalty

Surprisingly for an Internet company, email is the least optimal support channel. "It's unusual that a customer can adequately describe a service issue in an email," Bowden explains. It may require a few questions on the part of the agent to diagnose a problem. But "if a customer wants to do it in email, we'll provide email," he says.

Customers are quick to provide feedback about the quality of the support via email and mail, as well as via post-call interviews and online surveys that drill down to the specific agent and issue. "Patrick deserves a medal," reads one customer message to Bowden about one of his agents. "He thoughtfully called me on a Saturday when there is no charge on my cell phone, which is the only phone service I have. No words can express how much I appreciate his patience and hard work."

Another key to a smooth running support operation is backing from top management, Bowden says. The executive team is constantly in touch with his group to learn about what's working with customers, and what isn't. "I have reports every day that go to the C-level," he says.

Information collected in Bowden's group is also shared with sales, marketing, IT, and finance, so the entire enterprise has a finger on the customer pulse. "It helps us keep abreast of what's happening with our customers and in the marketplace," Bowden says. For example, individual product managers may want to know what the issues are relating to a certain product, so they can improve the experience with that product.

Although Bowden wouldn't release any specific figures, he agrees that Earthlink's commitment to customers has an impact. In 2005 EarthLink High Speed Cable Internet was ranked #1 by PC World magazine readers in its annual ISP satisfaction survey. "We have the privilege of talking to customers, and that's something we don't take lightly," he says.

Reprinted with permission from 1to1 Media. (c) 2006 Carlson Marketing Worldwide.

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