Righting The Digital Ship

When Champ Mitchell took the helm as chairman and CEO of Herndon, Virginia-based Network Solutions in 2001, the company was known not for its domain name registration and Web services, but for its poor customer service. “It was the worst customer service I’d seen in 30 years of business,” says Mitchell, who points to a 30-minute average telephone hold time and 30% abandonment rate as proof. “That means about one-third of customers hung up before the phone was ever answered.”

With more than half of Network Solutions’ customer base ready to bolt to the nearest competitor and company sales and market share declining, Mitchell knew he had to clean up the company’s customer service act. It would start with an overhaul of that department, followed by the hiring of Shelley Rawlings, 41, director of program management at MCI responsible for developing and implementing call center support plans for the firm.

Recruited by Mitchell, Rawlings learned that the dot-com powerhouse Network Solutions, which at one time dominated the domain registration market, was losing ground in the marketplace. “I was asked to come over to be part of the team that would rejuvenate it, rebuild it, and grow it into a profitable and successful organization,” says Rawlings, who has served as vice president of customer service and support since 2002.

For the next three years, Rawlings’ game plan would include revamping the company’s 500-person customer service department, replacing 70% of its employees, and setting up an intensive six-week training program that culls more than 50% of applicants to ensure that the company hires only the highest-skilled employees. The program includes live training at the company’s call center, where trainees listen in as experienced agents handle customer service calls and learn how to use the company’s database systems.

Moving against the trend toward sending customer service jobs offshore, Rawlings closed three call centers in Canada and New Mexico, and brought all of the firm’s previously outsourced customer service functions in-house (with the exception of one call center based in the Philippines) by opening a new call center in Hazleton, Pennsylvania. “Calls were going all over the place — to Canada, the Philippines, and New Mexico,” says Rawlings. “We had no idea how the customer service was being handled.”

The new 300-seat center opened about two and a half years ago and uses a Siebel database management system that allows customer service representatives to quickly pull up specific customer information (such as past buying activities). The center also relies on a number of proprietary software solutions that help customer service agents obtain even more specific information about clients, according to Rawlings, such as how many active domains, Websites, and active e-mail boxes they currently have. For technical support, the company uses a Citrix system that allows agents to log in as customers, control the customer’s mouse, and pinpoint areas of a Website where improvements are needed.

Now serving over 4 million small business customers worldwide with domain name registration, Internet, Web hosting and e-commerce solutions, Network Solutions boasts an abandonment