Archive for the Opinion Category

Sharing a taxi on the final night of last year’s event, Mansi Chouhan, Subex’s personable Marketing Director, asked my opinion about possible venues for the 2014 Subex User Conference. Appealing to her patriotism, I proposed she invite her customers to India, Subex’s home territory. However, it was clear that neither Mansi, nor her decisive boss, CEO Surjeet Singh, were moved by my arguments. Although they had just overseen a very successful conference in Dublin, they were already thinking ahead, to how they could do even better next time. And I cannot fault their impeccable taste in choosing Istanbul for the 2014 event, which begins on November 5th. Istanbul is a fascinating city that boasts a rich and diverse heritage. Connecting Europe to Asia, it has long been a junction for international trade, even between warring peoples. These days, ideas and business travel across the world at the speed of light, but we can still learn a lot from the history of this great city. In many respects, the story of Istanbul is an example of the force we now call globalization.

Though we debated the location, I did not argue with Subex’s choice of a chairman for their 2014 event… because they gave that honour to me! Looking at the agenda, I will be introducing an impressive roster of speakers. It will be a treat to ask them questions whilst on stage, and I also hope to pick their brains whilst backstage.

Respected futurist Gerd Leonhard will be the first keynote speaker. There is no contradiction when observing that Leonhard has impressive pedigree when it comes to predicting the future. During the dotcom boom, he was an entrepreneur who concentrated on digital music and media. By 2006, the Wall Street Journal was calling Leonhard “one of the leading media futurists in the world”. Given the convergence between the communications and media sectors, I am looking forward to Leonhard’s analysis of how telcos will need to adapt, if they want to thrive. To my mind, access to exclusive content, and the ability to anticipate the individual’s taste in content, will be two key factors in differentiating communications firms. I want to hear if Leonhard shares that view.

Many people fear an auditor, but I am keen to meet the second keynote speaker, Michael Rimkus, who is the VP of Internal Audit and Risk Management at T-Mobile US. The very fact that he is presenting at a Subex user event tells us something about the direction assurance is headed. I passionately believe that practitioners of revenue assurance and fraud management need to immerse themselves in the context of enterprise risk management. The relationship between business assurance and internal audit has varied from telco to telco, and is sometimes antagonistic, though this is more often due to politics and personalities than any practical obstacles to complementary ways of working. Future success relies upon delivering synergies inside the expanding umbrella of objectives that fall within the remit of audit and assurance. I am keen to hear Rimkus’ views on how the use of software to analyse large volumes of data is best integrated with the traditional goals and methods of internal audit.

There are many other speakers listed, some of whom I know, others I am unfamiliar with, so it may be unfair to highlight other presentations I am looking forward to. However, I will be a little unfair by mentioning a few names worthy of attention. Dave Huras is the President of the Communications Fraud Control Association, and he will be sharing insights from their fraud loss survey. Amit Agrawal is the Etisalat Group Director for Revenue Assuranace and Fraud Management, and I will be asking him questions about a topic which has come up several times in my career: the difficulties of establishing shared services for business assurance within an international telecoms group. And I eagerly anticipate the panel that will debate future readiness for revenue assurance and fraud management. That panel features: John Brooks of Subex, who always has plenty to say and is always worth listening to; Pedro Bravo of Portuguese multiplay operator Nos, because he is a clever guy working for a convergent comms and media provider in a small but agile market; and old friend Andreas Manolis, who has as much managerial experience as anyone working in telecoms assurance, and who now strategizes for BT. In addition, there are talks scheduled from such varied operators as Telstra, Telefonica Chile, and Teliasonera… plus plenty of telcos whose names begin with other letters than ‘t’.

I have chaired conferences before, but this time I hope to be introducing some technological innovations to the role of chairman, as well as talking about innovation in the telecoms sector. Recent meetings of the UK Revenue Assurance Group have seen us experimenting with new ways to facilitate interaction with the audience. So long as participants remember to bring their smartphones, Subex’s user conference will see us gathering real-time feedback and opinion from a business assurance audience, on the largest scale yet.

It is my privilege to attend events like the Subex User Conference, and I am very grateful that Subex invited me to chair this year’s event. After an initial burst of energy, ideas and enthusiasm, there was a steady decline in the quality of business assurance conferences run by third party events organizers, until it reached the point where I no longer saw any reason to attend them. Vendors have stepped up and taken over the running of the best meetings for practitioners from around the world. The most successful vendors have grown their customer base to a level where they attract a more extensive range and depth of hands-on business assurance experience, to a single place in the world, than any generic conference provider can hope to achieve. I am very fortunate to attend several of these events each year, learning about working practices adopted, the risks encountered, and the challenges faced, from people who really know most about this area of expertise, and who come together from all over the world.

The opportunity to attend these events should be considered an important additional benefit, when telcos select a larger vendor like Subex. At last year’s event, I was greatly impressed by a case study given by Rajeev Davé of Verizon. However, I learned most from the informal chit chat that occurs away from the stage, during the breaks, over the meals and amidst the evening entertainment. I recommend that Subex customers make every effort to attend this year’s user conference, even if it means nagging their boss to get approval, and leaving their telco a little less protected for a few days. For those who already know they are going, I advise you to make the most of your time in Istanbul, by daring to introduce yourself to strangers from other telcos, and by finding new people to sit with during dinner. And for everyone who is a customer of a rival vendor, you must badger your supplier to run user events that are as welcoming, as well-managed, and as well-attended as the Subex User Conference. Otherwise, you miss out on the best source of intelligence: the insight of your peers.

To Subex customers, I look forward to seeing you in Istanbul. To everyone else, I hope we all keep finding ways to meet in person.

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Last week, an anonymous individual explained why they were frustrated with their telco’s approach to revenue assurance. Ultimately, the complaint was that management pursued the wrong objectives, focusing too much on short-term money-grabbing targets, and not enough on the treatment of the root causes of leakage. This prompted a question in my mind. How representative is this individual’s experience? Maybe most of you feel unhappy with the progress made in your telco. Or perhaps you feel that executive support for revenue assurance has improved greatly, and keeps getting better.

My own experience is mixed, but as my experience has been accumulated over time, it is not fair to compare executives I met 10 years ago with those I have dealt with more recently. Revenue assurance has changed a lot. People know more about revenue assurance than they used to, but that also means we should expect people to know more. And whilst I have worked in various countries, I would not claim they are a representative sample. In short, I have met good and bad, but I am reluctant to jump to conclusions about the current state of play worldwide. Will you help me to assess current satisfaction with how CEOs approach revenue assurance?

Look to the right-hand sidebar, and you will find a new poll, asking your opinion about CEOs and whether they understand revenue assurance. Please click on the answer that is the closest match to your personal experience.

The results are updated in real-time. That means the graph below will keep changing, as new responses come in!

My aim is to cut through the hype, and to identify if the world of revenue assurance should be doing a better job of communicating with the top dog in every telco. After all, CEOs have the ultimate say on how the telco’s employees are incentivized. They determine how much reward is given for delivering this quarter’s recovery targets, compared to the appreciation shown for implementing preventative and proactive assurance strategies. Alternatively, maybe you feel that CEOs are doing a good job, and if attitudes do need to be changed, the focus belongs elsewhere. Please treat this as a starting point, as we collectively explore how to improve the understanding of revenue assurance. It would be great if we could change perceptions in positive ways, meaning fewer of you endure the kinds of troubles recounted by last week’s anonymous blogger.

Where will this lead? I do not know. But then, when I started working in revenue assurance, or when I started blogging, I had no idea it would lead to this! All I know is that we can keep striving to do better, and to make telcos better. That starts by identifying where we are doing well, and where we need to improve. Vendors do a lot of work promoting RA to execs, but it would be naive to rely upon them to push hard for changes that will yield them no reward. For example, root cause analysis is important, but it is harder to monetize than the reconciliation of large volumes of data. So whilst we can thank them for the work they do in promoting in revenue assurance, the community should not solely rely upon their efforts. Let us look to increase our efforts, first by asking where they should be focused. Is it on the CEO? Or should the revenue assurance community seek to increase its influence elsewhere? I can imagine it will take a while to reach any valuable conclusions, but that should not discourage us from beginning this endeavour. After all, the history of revenue assurance is a story of daunting challenges that were overcome, even though there was no guarantee of success or of what the rewards would be. We have already travelled from there to here. If we work together, we can go further.

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talkRA has always accepted anonymous posts and comments, because we appreciate that businesses can be obstructive, or even vindictive, when employees dare to say something negative. Today’s guest post comes from an experienced analyst who wishes to remain anonymous. It tells a story of a telco whose management culture is unwilling to fix fundamentals because they prefer to deal with symptoms instead of causes. The irony of revenue assurance is that it is inherently a ‘bad news’ function, discovering and reporting mistakes and failures, in order to resolve them and improve the business. Such a role can only succeed if management teams are willing to tolerate and respond to bad news. talkRA also understands the need to vent frustration. Hopefully this critique will reassure other readers, facing similar circumstances. Know one thing: you are not alone!

I have been in the Revenue Assurance and Billing world for over a decade, and worked across multiple operators, both fixed and wireless. The first company I worked at is still the most mature example of RA I have seen to date. This really hit home when I looked at how my current employer does RA. They are a large operator, but they are missing many of the key attributes I would associate with a mature RA function. Starting with the basics:

Usage/Traffic Assurance: They have CDR counts and file matching for most switch types, but all are reconciled manually on spreadsheets with no alarms! Their methods are stuck at eyeball 1.0, and they wondered why we didn’t notice a switch losing 40% of its call records one day!

Suspense: Suspense is semi-monitored or maintained by multiple parts of the organization such as RA, Billing, Ops or 3rd party contractors. There is no real logic to where everything is. The split of responsibilities reflects the history of organizational change, like a river erodes the valley, meandering through the path of least resistance, but with no overall plan.

Rating Assurance/Test Call Generators: There is very poor coverage, with only basic call types being tested. You have to question a control that hasn’t found any errors in three years!

Non-Usage Assurance: This was probably their strongest area, for the products they assured. The biggest weakness? The products they didn’t cover! The relative strength of this assurance is no surprise, as it is easy to implement controls that compare how many assets you have in the inventory, with how many you bill for.

Coverage Model/Controls Matrix: Errrrr, nope. If completed this would look like a scene out of a horror movie, with a sea of red across the graphs.

New Product Development: It would be nice to be proactive rather than reactive, and have reporting requirements submitted before the launch of a product/service. Somebody tried to do this, but it doesn’t contribute towards a target, so it became one of those jobs that people did when they had spare time. And guess what? There is never spare time.

This isn’t the first operator I’ve worked for, but I’m thinking what the hell have I got myself into. It’s not that I don’t enjoy the challenge, because I’ve always thrived on the challenges, at every operator I’ve worked for. It’s not that we don’t have the resources, because we employ an army of people. It’s not that we don’t have the talent, because we have some of the best minds in the industry.

The real issue is that – and you probably picked this up already – the RA function is like a scene out of Jerry Maguire

showmethemoney

This RA function is being used as a cash cow to make up for financial shortfalls within the business, and to accelerate people’s careers. The targets are difficult, with strict rules on the benefits that can be claimed. As an example, any control which has been run for more than a year is classified as protective, and doesn’t contribute.

The team always seem to pull it out of the bag and hit the numbers, but this behavior reminds me of the theme to an old TV series, The Littlest Hobo.

Maybe tomorrow we’ll wanna settle down, until tomorrow we’ll just keep movin’ on… to the next leakage! This operator never settles down and builds a foundation for its RA. It just digs for goodies, then moves on. There is no interest in fixing root causes, establishing permanent controls or proactive measures. The operator treats leaks like plants that grow wild: take as much as you can from each field, then come back a few years later and re-harvest the same issues once they have grown back.

There you have it… a long time has passed since the birth of RA, and still a large operator can’t get the basics right. Why? Because senior management love the money!

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For the last couple of years, I have worked for a financial institution.

The finance industry has a lot of common with the telecom industry, one of them is Revenue Assurance. Just like telcos, they are exposed to revenue leakage, yet there is only limited interest in RA tools or initiatives. Having limited bandwidth, the management is far more interested in generating new revenue streams and supporting existing portfolios than dealing with assurance. In short, assurance at best comes at 3rd place if not lower than that. Third place usually attracts low attention and limited budgets.

Viewing the world from my position, I can only lament the lack of introduction of new high margin products in telcos. Today there is much discussion about mobile money, plenty of conferences on the subject, but then what? We all watch the discussion on the subject and various initiatives, but most of them are OTT providers like Paypal mobile, Starbucks mobile app, Simple, Moven et al.

One aspect of mobile money is money remittance which is conducted mainly by financial institutions. The margins in money remittance business are rather attractive, 90% and over, with low set up costs comprised mainly from the effort required to create the financial collaboration, financial rails connections and platform service setup, which usually come as low as $150K. However, only a few telcos would do something in this domain. If they do, money remittances are treated as a local initiative, or else the telco behaves like a back seat driver.

For the sake of any discussion we all mention successful local mobile remittance deployment mainly in developing countries like M-PESA in Kenya, where there are Airtel Money, Tigo Cash, MTN Mobile Money etc. Most of the remittance models are three-corner models. None of them have bank licenses, only (at times) “e-money licenses” depending upon the country they are operating in. So, P2P transfers are done as an accounting change, there is no issuing / acquiring split like there are in four-corner models (VISA, MC, etc). One of the most intriguing four corner mobile money implementations demonstrated by Garanti Bank(Turkey) collaborating with MasterCard and Turkcell, while Turkcell is only a backseat driver.

We live in a global village. Even in a small country like Israel, we have many foreign workers that pay dearly to Western Union, MoneyGram, EuroGiro and other financial rails to wire funds back home. It is a commodity service that comes with high price and attractively high margin.

Somehow it reminds me the discussion I had a while ago with the CTO of T-Mobile Germany, which had a fancy DWH&BI project and knew even the average speed of each and every one of his customers, but failed to come with a meaningful solution like Waze. Same here, many conferences for benefit of telcos staffers and very little done on the subject.

I can’t stop thinking about the resignation letter of a failed telco CEO I had seen some years ago, who said in his stepping down letter that “they are the victims of their own success”.

For full disclaimer, I do not promote ANY vendor.

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In this guest blog, Dan Baker of the Technology Research Institute and the Black Swan Telecom Journal addresses a question raised two weeks ago: should talkRA continue in its current format, change with the times, or step aside to make room for others? Dan’s analysis is as thought-provoking as always…

Eric’s recent post “The End of talkRA” provoked a good discussion. And those who commented are eager to keep talkRA — or its successor — alive and well. I think this is mostly a tribute to Eric’s industry expertise and skills as a writer and moderator.

And yet, as Eric admits, “things have changed”. The business assurance software vendors serving the market are expanding in many directions. But that doesn’t mean RA and related issues are solved. New issues are entering the scene all the time.

The telecom market is evolving at a rapid pace today. Huge issues are there to be discussed, i.e. how to operate and position the business in the new IP-centric, 4G/LTE, big data, and enterprise-serving business where the boundary line between service providers, OTTs, and vendors is rapidly blurring.

So I’d like to see talkRA’s focus shift to cover these broader strategic issues. It will give Eric and everyone else plenty to talk about.

And this migration should be fine because I believe the core talkRA readership is not wedded to RA alone. Here’s my take:

  1. Readers are focused on operations and have a wide-ranging view of the telecom business. And they work in the carrier, consultant, and software camps.
  2. They are analysts or managers of analysts who seek to help the business in whatever areas deliver the biggest payoff for their companies and their own careers.
  3. The watchwords are “business rules” and “alignment of operations with the business”. To me, the simplest explanation of this philosophy was given by Ed Shanahan, the former manager of RA at TMNG.
  4. They are eager to work with software tools, but they know there’s no such thing as putting the business on auto-pilot. Telecom evolves too quickly and every major software advance requires analysts, consultants, and experts to step up and intelligently direct the analysis and interpret the results.

OK, so here are my suggestions for talkRA’s future:

  1. Participation, and more participation. If 50 expert readers of talkRA contributed a short guest column every year, you’d increase the value of visiting talkRA quite a bit and it would provoke some very nice discussions. How can we promote more participation?
  2. Surveys. Daniel Peter mentioned this and it’s a great idea. And my inclination is to support quick in-line surveys. I also think an annual “State of the Practice” survey is worth having and sharing. Here’s a good example from the publication, A List Apart.
  3. On Black Swan Journal, we do not have comments or commentary, so I’m looking for ways of doing that, and perhaps integrating with talkRA in some way would achieve that.

So these are my thoughts. Eager to hear reader and Eric’s comments.

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