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We handled everything, we looked like heroes.

When I came to USA Today five years ago, the customer service department was already beginning to evolve into a more sophisticated unit. We were quickly outgrowing the original phone system. The information wasn't as complete as we needed to manage a national customer service center, so we began to look for solutions.

USA Today is a company known for its high-tech approach to solving problems. The newspaper is written and designed in Rosslyn, Va., and sent via satellite to 32 printing plants across the country. This technical wizardry has enabled USA Today to become the nation's first truly national newspaper. It seemed ironic that a company known for high-tech advances had a customer service system that wasn't keeping pace.

We started to look around for other systems. We looked at all the vendors and spent a lot of time looking at switches and companies before selecting AT&T's Definity Communications System Generic 1. Many systems were close to what we wanted, but we chose AT&T because it integrated so nicely with the ISDN technology we were considering, and because of their relationship with Spanlink Communications of Minneapolis, a value-added vendor.

Spanlink did some custom programming, almost identical to our requirements for planned activities, for the Minneapolis Star Tribune.

Spanlink is helping us configure our new phone system to cut 15 seconds off each call. Since we receive about one million calls a year, this translates to a savings of 4,000 hours of payroll and phone line usage, which is a nice return on our investment.

All USA Today's subscriptions are handled through our national service center in Silver Spring, Md. When a problem such as a major snowstorm occurred near one of our print plants, customers called our office to find out when their papers would be delivered. When the volume of calls became too great, we couldn't provide satisfactory service.

To solve this problem, we wanted to be able to determine by area code and exchange whether a call was coming in from a region where we were having a distribution problem. We then wanted the call automatically routed to our Conversant Voice Information System, which would provide a recorded message advising callers that the paper would be late and giving them an estimated delivery time. With our new system we can do just that.

Callers have the option to speak with a customer service representative, but a large percentage of calls can be handled with the Conversant System.

Shortly after our ISDN cutover was completed in February 1991, we got the word that a new product, USA Baseball Weekly, was on the horizon. The new phone system made it very easy for the Customer Service Center to handle the increased volume of calls; we handled everything, and we looked like heroes.

In fact, we handled Baseball Weekly so easily that once it was up and running, we started thinking about other things we could do with the system. It had lots of room, lots of bells and whistles, and we knew there had to be more we could accomplish.

About this time, AT&T Bell Labs asked us to beta test their new Fax Attendant product which they wanted to integrate with our voice messaging system. The Fax Attendant system manages incoming faxes so the recipient is notified of a fax arrival via the Audix mailbox.

Recipient can arrange to have faxes printed at their convenience on any machine they designate.

For example, when I'm on the road I can call into the system, and if there are faxes for me, I have them sent directly to my hotel.

The sytem preserves the sender's privacy. Each of us has our own fax mailbox, so our recruitment officer, for example, can have resumes faxed directly to her mailbox to be retrived when she's ready.

This way, confidential information isn't simply piling up at some fax machine where anybody can read it.

If a subscription arrives by fax, a message light is activated on a data entry supervisor's telephone.

Incoming faxes were handled so well that we started thinking of ways to enhance our out-faxing capability. One tedious, time-consuming job involved sending out our classified advertising rate card--a four-page document. Our classified representatives received many requests each day for the card, and someone had to stand by the fax and manually send it every time.

We programmed the card into the system and published a number for advertiser to call. When they call, the system automatically faxes the card.

We discovered many other ways to use our system. For example, another Gannett newspaper, the Palm Springs Desert Sun, was ready to launch a Sunday product and wanted to establish a reader survey. They considered setting up two 900 numbers for callers. The editors hoped that, because the calls involved a too, customers wouldn't be tempted to repeat calls, influencing the poll's outcome.

We recommended against charging customers for the calls. Instead, we established one 800-number system for customers to vote yes on the day's question, and another 800 number to vote no. These calls are accepted by our Conversant System which tallies the votes.

By using ISDN's Automation Number Identification (ANI), we can identify and eliminate duplicate numbers to prevent stuffing the ballot boxes.

Every Monday, Wednesday and Friday night, we fax the results to California, and the Desert Sun staff write about them for the next day's paper.

In addition to an application that enables readers to phone-in letters to the editor, we've begun working with the paper's advertising department to sell value-added services. We've been able to help the paper capture advertising revenue in an increasingly competitive market.

For example, an advocacy group seeking to improve its public image was looking for the best way to spend their limited budget. We offered a way for readers to respond to their advertisements by providing them with a toll-free 800 number.

Using the Audix System, callers could leave their name, address and phone number if they needed a respondense directly from the advertiser. Callers who requested general information could have it faxed to them immediately since the advocacy group programmed this information into the Fax Attendant System.

We were so flexible that they invested all their advertising dollars in USA Today. As you can imagine, the ad department was thrilled with us.

Right now we are working on a co-op program between our education-marketing department and the "MacMeil-Lehrer Report" television program.

The PBS show is producing a series of programs on educational issues presented in a trial format. At the end of each trial, viewers will serve as jurors, calling in their verdict to one of two 800 numbers. The results will be reported in the next day's USA Today.

We'll know by area code and exchange what part of the country each call comes from, so we'll be able to determine how different regions vote on a give issue.

Our customer service center has become more of a service bureau, bringing in income for the newspaper. Our definition of customer service has expanded greatly to include readers, other departments of the newspaper, other papers, advertisers and potential advertisers.

We are also ready to work directly with outside companies to provide them with these services. We have the technology, equipment and customer service focus to be a competitor in the service bureau industry.
COPYRIGHT 1992 Nelson Publishing
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 1992 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

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Title Annotation:USA Today, the nation's first national newspaper, improves customer service
Author:Timmins, Sandi
Publication:Communications News
Date:Mar 1, 1992
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