IVR Delivers for a Propane Gas Supplier

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The market for propane gas is a competitive one, and any advantage when it comes to customer service goes a long way. For AmeriGas Propane, which has roughly 2 million residential and business customers in all 50 states, an interactive voice response (IVR) system from Atlanta-based Message Technologies Inc. (MTI) is proving to be the right tool to provide the personal attention each customer deserves.

"We wanted to implement IVR solutions that would provide the best possible experience for our customers," says Andrew Hertzog, senior product manager at AmeriGas, which is headquartered in Valley Forge, Pa. "MTI has delivered everything we were looking for in a partner."

AmeriGas installed the first part of its system in September 2011. That project involved creating multiple phone lines and menu trees to coincide with specific marketing campaigns. "We wanted to be able to separate out our campaigns," Hertzog explains, "and track the number of calls that they generate."

In the month of September alone, AmeriGas was able to track about 10,000 calls that could be linked to specific marketing campaigns.

Phase Two of the project, which AmeriGas rolled out earlier this year, included the creation of a central, toll-free number (1-800-AMERIGAS) and a speech-enabled IVR that could help customers find the nearest local distributor, get answers to online billing questions, or make payments. A unique component of the system allows callers to enter their ZIP codes and have calls automatically routed to their local distributors and affiliates for service.

AmeriGas operates nearly 1,200 distribution locations across the country, and also sells, installs, and services propane appliances, including home heating and hot water systems, clothes dryers, and stoves and grills. Most of its facilities are located in suburban and rural areas, where natural gas is not readily available.

The IVR "has been a tremendous asset to get customers more quickly routed," Hertzog says. "It's all about just trying to get people routed to their local office that can help them."

Every month, about 5,000 of those calls come into the national office. And having 24/7 access to those distributors is important, especially in the case of an emergency.

AmeriGas chose MTI, a provider of IVR technologies and hosting services, because of the ease of use of its systems, which are based on VoiceXML technologies and open standards.

"It's been fantastic to work with MTI. They were able to deliver everything we needed ahead of schedule," Hertzog recalls.

Prior to implementing the system, "we never really used anything like this before," Hertzog adds. But getting users up to speed was never an issue, he says.

In addition to a user-friendly front end, Message Technologies created a custom Web portal to allow the AmeriGas team to gain insights into the performance of the system and the overall customer experience. Using the password-protected Web portal, the five-person AmeriGas customer service team can view interactive dashboards and listen to customer-agent interactions, allowing for ongoing system tuning and agent training. The team conducted the first training sessions in the fall based on findings uncovered during the process.

"The portal was part of our requirements," Hertzog notes. "We specifically requested it."

And Hertzog is glad he did. "It's important to see how many calls are answered and what generated those calls," he says.

With common inquiries now handled by the IVR, call center agents can focus on higher-value inquiries. Other benefits have come in the form of increases in customer service and satisfaction, shorter wait times, and greater visibility into each phone interaction.

Though Message Technologies' IVRs are capable of both inbound and outbound calling, AmeriGas hasn't done much with outbound yet. "We have a small call center in Ohio that could do outbound, but to this point, that's been very limited," Hertzog says. Most marketing materials are distributed via direct mail—for now.

Additional capabilities that are part of future considerations for the IVR include allowing customers to place orders, schedule deliveries, and manage their accounts by phone. AmeriGas currently offers many of those functions, including bill payments and account management, through its Web site.

Adding them to the IVR "is further down the road," Hertzog says. "In the long term, we'll expand our capabilities, but we're in a holding pattern right now as we integrate everything from a recent acquisition."

Earlier this year, AmeriGas completed the purchase of rival Energy Transfer Partners' Heritage Propane business for $2.8 billion, doubling its customer base and adding more than 500 million gallons to its distribution network.

But despite its size and reach, AmeriGas remains committed to retaining its focus on friendliness and personal attention. "Right now the biggest benefit is being able to justify our marketing campaigns and improve customer service," Hertzog says. "We'll be trying a lot of new stuff for marketing and to improve customer satisfaction and our customers' ability to reach us," he adds.

"Our solutions allow AmeriGas to achieve greater results with their customer care strategy by reducing operational costs and maintaining their focus on top-notch customer service. By providing quick, accurate information and routing calls to live agents when needed, we are able to improve the call center's productivity," said Justin Simkavitz, president of Message Technologies, in a statement.

The IVR is hosted by Message Technologies, which also handles every part of the speech self-service infrastructure, including trunk and platform provisioning, business continuation planning, monitoring, Web access, physical and logical security, and colocation. For AmeriGas, that was vitally important. "Our small IT department is already being stretched to the limit with the acquisition," Hertzog explains. "We were also under a very short time crunch for rolling this out."

Pricing for the service is flexible, based on usage. While it is still an added cost, Hertzog says it's a small price to pay for all that the system has given in return. "MTI is very competitively priced, and it was all well within the budgets we set forth."

App at a Glance

In September alone, propane gas provider AmeriGas was able to use its IVR from Message Technologies Inc. to:

  • track about 10,000 calls that could be linked to specific marketing campaigns; and
  • route about 5,000 calls into the national office to the proper local distributors or offices.

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