SYDNEY, Australia -- Pizza Hut is fanning the flames in the already heated battle over the $1 billion ($500 million U.S.) Australian pizza market by modernizing its centralized call center.

According to the Sydney Morning Herald, among its closest rivals -- Domino's Pizza, Eagle Boys Pizza and Pizza Haven -- it's the only pizza chain in the country to have such a high-tech center.

"We always felt that our call centers gave us a bit of a service/customer access advantage," said Peter Scodellaro, national call center manager for Pizza Hut in Australia.

Its previous call center wasn't quite as automated and operators keyed in customer data. Its new system identifies the caller's number and checks its database for that customer's history.

One unique feature of the system is its ability to direct customers to the proper personnel. For example, if the customer called back 10 to 15 minutes after his order was placed, the system recognizes that as someone likely calling back to change an order and sends the call to the appropriate person. If the customer calls after his order is delivered, the system assumes it's a complaint and sends him to a problem solver.

"Previously, you just went into a standard queue, anyone answered your phone," Scodellaro says.

This redirection of calls, Pizza Hut believes, has reduced customer hold times by about 50 percent, and boosted overall call center productivity by 10 percent to 20 percent.

"Traditionally 30 seconds' queue time, on average, would equate to a 5 percent abandonment rate of calls," Scodellaro said. "We've now been able to change it so that 30 seconds of queue time equals just over 3 percent of abandoned calls."

The new system has been in use in Sydney for several months, and will be available in Melbourne and Brisbane by July. Pizza Hut is planning to do research on customer reaction to the new system, which is expected to be implemented nationwide by the end of 2003.

Pizza Hut wants the system to pay for itself in three years, but Scodellaro said that preliminary performance numbers have convinced him that should happen about six months sooner.

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