Levine leads the Sprint PCS charge

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The clamor over wireless e-commerce grows louder by the day, but at least one tech marketer is proving that it's not just talk.

Charles Levine, chief operating officer of Sprint PCS, Sprint Corp.'s wireless unit, has not only been responsible for marketing its wireless Web offerings to consumers and businesses, but incorporating Internet functions into all its customer interactions ranging from activations to bill paying.

ENABLING ITS CUSTOMERS

"We wanted our customers to be able, if they so choose, to use the Internet for all their transactions," Mr. Levine says.

Mr. Levine, 47, was recently promoted to chief operating officer from chief sales and marketing officer, a position he held since February 1997.

So what's his secret to understanding how to harness the Internet?

"What we have done is learn by experimenting. . . . One of the big lessons of the Net is don't be afraid to try new things, but remediate your failures as quickly as you possibly can," Mr. Levine explains. "When we began working with the Internet, there was no possible way we could know what would happen."

Currently, Sprint's online customers can browse and buy wireless phones, activate and manage their accounts and pay bills. The company soon will allow them to customize different features on their handsets.

Among recently introduced Internet features is a voice command function. For example, by pressing the star key and talk, customers can dial up to 2,500 numbers. "I can take my Microsoft Outlook list of names and numbers. Then using the Web, I can drop them onto my Voice Command site," Mr. Levine explains.

18 MONTHS OF PROGRESS

In 1997-an eternity ago in the Internet era-Sprint created a Web site that allowed customers to learn about its digital PCS service. By 1999, the company added interactive functions to the site, enabling customers to research and buy the handsets via the Web. Mr. Levine later added a customer care element in which consumers could look over their bills.

"Gradually, over the last 18 months, we have expanded that capability. . . . There are now some customized Web offers that change quite rapidly in a matter of hours," he says. The ability to deliver targeted offers lets Sprint know its audience better and create "far more and different offers" than retail stores.

Sprint debuted Web-browsing handset models in September 1999 with a dozen or so carrier partners. Sprint PCS now has 500,000 wireless Web subscribers and 50 partners. Mr. Levine expects to roll out more Internet functions this fall, aiming them at young consumers in their mid-teens.

Mr. Levine concedes Sprint has had technical challenges. But, he says, "This company has a start-up mentality. We're very entrepreneurial. . . . The challenge is how do we prioritize things we're doing on the Internet vs. the physical world."

SPEARHEADED REORGANIZATION

Internally, Mr. Levine spearheaded a reorganization to help Sprint become more Internet-focused. Personnel who were conducting development efforts for the wireless Web have been shifted into the marketing organization, and the e-commerce piece of Sprint PCS is now its own business unit.

His advice for companies struggling to catch up on the Net:

"What I would tell them is you have to be very nimble and flexible, tolerant of mistakes, and you've got to understand and watch what your customers are doing on your site and change the site to reflect those preferences."