Using Telepresence Solutions for In-Person Customer Service Without Needing to Be in Person


Clean drinking water is a universal human right. It's not reserved for the richest among us—it's for all of us. At Umbra Acque S.p.A., that's exactly what we work hard to guarantee on a daily basis.

Umbra Acque is a multi-service company that manages the water service for 38 different municipalities across Italy. Located in the center of the Umbria region, we guarantee the water for more than 500,000 people and have a massive 7,000 kilometers of water network under our care.

As a customer service manager of Umbra Acque, it's the job of myself and my team to serve those hundreds of thousands of people as best we can. As one might imagine, covering such a wide geographic area filled with that many people has certainly led to its fair share of problems along the way.

Umbra Acque manages a provincial office in Perugia, for example, that provides both information and commercial services along with eight information desks that are spread around the territory. Those services are available both via call center and dedicated mobile app.


We realized that to best serve our customers, we needed more locations close to where people live. But we also wanted to take advantage of technology. So we created satellite offices that operated as information centers for our customers—educating our customers about the new, technological ways to contact us. Unfortunately, that didn’t work out as planned. 

Dissatisfied Customers and Employees

A major obstacle was that many of our customers insisted on meeting representatives in person. This was particularly true of our elderly customers, of which we have many. But when they would take time out of their day and visit these information centers, they couldn't get the answers they needed. They had the in-person meeting they wanted, but although representatives knew the answers, they could not solve their problems, since the point of these centers was just to provide information.

For our employees, not only were they now dealing with unhappy customers, but they needed to travel to these satellite offices. Their commutes would take a long time.

After some discussion, we knew there had to be some type of telepresence solution that could facilitate information sharing, provide easy access to data, and prevent the need for so much travel.

But more than that, we knew that any solution we found had to be easy. Not just for our staff members, but for the customers we've dedicated ourselves to serving. With those core criteria in mind, we got to work on our search.

Thankfully, we didn't need to look very far.

Necessity Is the Mother of Invention

An office of the Municipality of Perugia was already using Webex and Cisco Telepresence solutions to deliver other services (District 4.0). Even at a cursory glance, I knew this was the solution for us. I'd looked extensively at other customer service organizations and found that no one was doing what we were attempting. I had nowhere to pull inspiration or learn from because there was no true leader who was shining the way.

With that, we decided to become that leader ourselves.

Quickly, we got to work replacing our old information point with a help desk solution. The end result of this is a fully automated service center—truly the first of its kind.

When our customers walk into this new location at Città di Castello, they can do absolutely everything they would be able to do if they'd walked into our headquarters. Only there’s one big difference: We don’t have any staff there. But everything is set up in such a way that this doesn't matter to our customers.

If there's a form they need to sign, a machine will automatically print it for them—and a representative will even tell them what to do next through the telepresence system and in real time. When they walk into a room, there is a Cisco Telepresence setup system ready to go. The customer gets to speak to a representative—who can actually answer their questions—and it almost feels like they’re in the same room together.

Telepresence solutions can create an in-person feel for customers.

At first, this was a little strange and disruptive for customers—but then again, change usually is. But we've never believed that change has to be a bad thing, and soon our customers grew to love it. Not only could they get the exact same level of service they would if they'd spent their day traveling to a far off location, but they could get it right in their own backyard.

Because Some Things Are Worth Fighting For

Even though we're only talking about one pilot office that has been open for a short amount of time, the results are already overwhelming. We’ve already increased the degree of satisfaction with our customers. The number of customers who say they are “very satisfied” with our service has hit an all-time high of 92%.

This location has also enabled us to expand our operational hours, since we’ve dramatically cut down on employee commute times. 

The costs and risks of staff travel have been totally eliminated. And when our satellite offices aren’t busy, our employees can attend to back-office work. This initiative has allowed us to serve our customers better, while increasing efficiency and reducing operational costs. 

As a bonus, this project has also helped to justify an ongoing expansion of high-speed internet throughout the region. Officials in the region see this as a solution that can demonstrate to everyday citizens what’s possible with high-speed internet access. A lot of the problems we were facing were also challenges for the towns and municipalities in the area. Based on our example, more money is being invested in creating the network of the future—something that everyone will benefit from.

In the end, it's safe to say that the pilot program has been an overwhelming success. Originally, we were just looking for a modest solution to some problems related to growing pains. What we were left with is a model that will help guide the next decade or more of our operations.

The results have been so positive that we're already in the process of rolling it out to more offices in the not-too-distant future. There will be three more locations that are opening their doors by the end of 2019, at Todi, at Gualdo Tadino, and at Castiglione del Lago. These three locations, together with that at Città di Castello, were chosen because they allow us to guarantee the service on all the macro-areas (North, East, South, and West) of the territory managed. The ultimate goal is to have this technology available to all of our offices. 

But our primary goal was never technology for technology’s sake. Our vision for this project was to provide the best water service possible to all 500,000 people under our care. We want to fight every day to preserve that basic human right.

Water is for everyone, and it’s my team’s job to ensure that rings true in our region. This journey has allowed us to use technology to make our customer service more human. Our employees are happier, our customers are happier, and we’re only getting started.