IT'S A FACT OF LIFE: consumers are demanding higher levels of service from the companies with which they do business.

Just ask the American Telephone & Telegraph Co.

When it entered the credit card wars three years ago, AT&T knew it had to find an angle to take on the reigning giants of the industry.

At the time, recalls James A. Kutsch Jr., speedy customer service seemed to be the road less traveled.

"Service wasn't a big priority," said Mr. Kutsch, vice president of Universal Card Services Inc., AT&T's Jacksonville, Fla.-based credit card unit. "We wanted to deliver a level of service that exceeded the expectations of customers when they called."

But AT&T quickly realized that its existing technology could not support its expectations of customer service quality or the anticipated growth of its credit card business, which today ranks sixth in the nation in dollar volume of outstandings with $6.6 billion.

The customer service platform fell short, both at the information level and in terms of the actual human interface with the system.

It was up to AT&T's 35-member computer software development team to come up with a solution. The result was Universal Windows, a Unix-based service delivery platform that improves the way customer service reps deal with customers by allowing faster access to pertinent information.

It establishes a standard interface with the company's other data bases, allowing the employee to consolidate the data on a single screen. The platform is used by every customer-service associate for quick access - in consistent, easy-to-use graphic fashion - to information on prospects, applicants, and cardmembers.

Customer service reps once needed to view at least seven screens to obtain the information they now get on one.

"With a single window that allows access to multiple mainframes, the new system lets customer service associate concentrate on the customer and not on the computer in front of them," said Mr. Kutsch, who relies on special technology in doing his job.

Mr. Kutsch is blind. To meet his unique needs, AT&T reconfigured his work space with braille keyboards and synthesizers that vocalize work he is doing on a computer screen.

The customer service improvements are helping AT&T cement long-term relationships with cardholders.

"Service is more important in retaining customers than it is in getting new customers," said Stephen M. Szekely, vice president of credit card research at Payment Systems Inc., in Tampa. "Each time you handle an inquiry to a customer's satisfaction you're sustaining the decision by the customer to get the card in the first place."

The system works like a relational data base. AT&T has integrated an automatic number identification function so that the system can determine - from an embedded telephone number - the identity of the caller. The result is instantaneous, on-screen information for the customer service associate, including customer name and key facts like social security and account numbers.

AT&T's proprietary software then takes over and determines which mainframe computer contains the needed information. With the touch of a key, the customer service rep instructs the system to pluck that information from the mainframe and display it on the screen.

The real benefit to the customer is faster service. Because Universal Windows grants employees greater access to information about a customer, all questions and concerns can be cleared up in one call. "Our associate can do more things and do it faster than ever in one sitting," Mr. Kutsch said.

AT&T gets greater efficiency from an operations standpoint, and can hold staffing levels down. "We can handle more calls with the same amount of representatives without growing the staff," he said.

"It's helped me be more productive and efficient and I'm handling more calls that ever before," said Eric Irizarry, who as a customer service associate handles between 170 to 200 telephone inquiries each day. "It allows me to bring up windows and information I need without all the clutter we had with the old system."

Before the installation of Universal Windows, employees used standard computer terminals to communicate with AT&T's mainframe. Now, employees use powerful workstations by Sun Microstations Inc., which not only enable them to view information in a user-friendly format, but also put a powerful processor at their fingertips.

Most customers, according to Mr. Kutsch, use AT&T's automated voice response function for simple requests like account balances and credit lines. But when it comes to problems such as lost or stolen cards, balance disputes or complaints, AT&T has found that there's no substitute for the personal touch.

A key advantage of using a workstation, according to Mr. Irizarry, is that it can do complicated account calculations and algorithms.

According to Mr. Irizarry, about 80% of customer calls are for basic account information, such as balance availability or requests for credit line increases. The other 20% of the calls run the gamut from account disputes to detailed questions about how the Universal Card operates.

Given that breakdown, a customer service representative can customize the screen to the tasks at hand. This is helpful at the end of the month when the mailing of balance statements normally prompts a barrage of calls.

Mr. Kutsch said the fact that the system is relatively easy to upgrade should translate into further cost savings down the road. Because most changes take place on the workstations and not in the mainframe, AT&T can add enhancements without spending a bundle.

Universal Windows has even gained the 2,500-employee card unit some national exposure. Last year AT&T's customer service platform was a finalist for the Rochester Institute of Technology/USA Today Quality Cup - awarded annualy to companies that radically improve the quality of their products and services.

"We've found a tool to make life simpler for our employees and benefit the customer at the same time," Mr. Kutsch said, showing that at AT&T, technology has made serving card members easier.

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