Archive for January, 2007

Instead of the usual stories about making money and corporate machinations, today I thought I would point to to the personal story of an ordinary revenue assurance Joe Shmoe.

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There is a debate about whether telecoms fraud falls within the remit of revenue assurance, or has anything to do with revenue assurance, or is something that needs to be managed differently. I never could understand those arguments. Businesses should organize themselves in the way most efficient for their circumstances. Sometimes that will mean linking the management of fraud with revenue assurance, sometimes keeping them separate. It all rather depends on what frauds and revenue losses the business is likely to suffer from and how it deals with them. Here is a very good synopsis of the various kinds of fraud from Geoff Ibbett of SubexAzure. Stephen Tebbett of Ernst & Young has an awesome list of all the kinds of revenue loss that I would give you the link to, except it is not on the web yet, so come back soon as we will be hosting it here in the near future. Though the causes of the losses on Geoff’s and Stephen’s lists are quite different, many of them revolve around similar weaknesses or gaps in monitoring, and there is a lot of overlap in the indicators of fraud and revenue loss. Of course, in the real world lots of questions about who does what job are decided by internal politics and power struggles. But if you want to think about the question solely on the basis of efficiency and effectiveness, here are the three factors to consider when deciding whether to link the management of fraud and revenue assurance.

1) Human Resources, Staff Time and Communications

Will there be pre-launch analysis of risks for both fraud and revenue assurance? If so, could this be performed by the same individuals? Can the training of fraud and revenue assurance analysts be combined to improve effectiveness and reduce overheads? If fraud and revenue assurance staff were in the same function, would they have improved promotion prospects making it easier to retain good people? Are losses due to fraud and revenue leaks reported using a consistent format? Are they both presented to the same executives? Could they be collated and reported by the same person? Are they calculated in a consistent way?

If the answers to the questions are “yes”, linking fraud and revenue assurance will provide efficiencies in terms of human resources, communications and the time of senior staff. If the answers are “no”, it is still worth asking why. Why not have the same person trained to identify fraud and revenue assurance risks? Why not calculate losses in a consistent manner and present them to the same execs?

2) Incident Management and Process Improvement

Are there overlaps in the way fraud and revenue assurance weaknesses are addressed? Is there a similar scope for the systems and processes reviewed and monitored for both fraud and revenue assurance purposes? Is same the documentation used to understand internal processes and system performance and hence to identify weaknesses? Are there topics like information security or business continuity where both fraud and revenue assurance considerations are often addressed in the same way? Do improvements related to reducing fraud often have benefits for reducing revenue loss and vice versa?

If the answers are “yes”, there is a good case for trying to resolve issues and fix bad processes using a common approach with common prioritisation. Where the understanding of technology and product is much the same for preventing or identifying weaknesses for both fraud and revenue assurance, duplication of effort can be reduced by linking the goals.

3) Monitoring Systems and Processes

Is the same source data used for both fraud and revenue assurance monitoring? Are alarms that indicate possible fraud sometimes set off by accidential revenue leakage? Are checks for accidental revenue leakage sometimes evidence of deliberate fraud?

If the answers are “yes”, there should be cost efficiencies in implementing systems and processes able to identify and react to both deliberate frauds and accidental revenue losses. Exploitative customer actions like use of SIM boxes, or internal frauds where some customer bills are suppressed, may not be picked up by classic monitoring focused on looking for certain pre-defined types of customer fraud, but may get identified through generalised RA checks. Likewise, monitoring for unusual customer activity or for internal frauds may highlight an accidental error by the business or one of its partners as well as identifying genuine frauds. If there is a high degree of overlap in the recurring checks that would counter both fraud and revenue loss, then it is more efficient to combine the monitoring strategies and to reuse data where possible.

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I like the idea of democracy. I think there is something to be said for sharing authority between a large group of people rather than giving it to an elite. That is why I like blogs. Why listen to one person’s view when you can listen to many? Check out this blog about user-centric revenue assurance, which started me thinking about revenue assurance and democracy. I always enjoy listening to points of view which are more sophisticated than the usual “buy this stuff and it will fix all your problems” marketing blurb.

The problem with democracy is that if you give responsibility to many, you may find nobody takes responsibility. Revenue assurance is like a public good. For a start, revenue assurance is something that benefits everybody (unless you actually want to work for an unprofitable and wasteful business that makes lots of mistakes). However, measuring and allocating responsibility is virtually impossible to do. Many revenue assurance big-shots would no doubt choke, or laugh, after reading that last sentence. But that is because they like to take all the credit for any successes, and take no responsibility for any failures. Holding an RA department responsible for revenue assurance is like holding environmental activists responsible for global warming, making the Police responsible for crime, or holding a doctor responsible for the health of the community. Sure, they have some role to play, but they do not cause the problems they deal with, and many of the solutions are outside of their control. So if things get better, they may deserve some credit, but much of the credit must go to other activities too (think about the impact when people recycle, or take better precautions to prevent crime, or exercise regularly). The same is true of revenue assurance. Spending money on a revenue assurance department so it can employ people or implement tools is like putting your faith in centralised solution to the problem that people make mistakes. I say people, because systems do not make mistakes – only the people who choose them, design them, implement them, and use them make mistakes. There are lots of ways to avoid mistakes, live emphasising simplicity in design, taking a modular approach, or being thorough with testing. Encouraging people to avoid mistakes, or to identify and correct mistakes, is like encouraging people to recycle or to exercise. It would be a bad doctor who wants his patients to be unhealthy just so he can then give them expensive treatments. But it is very hard to measure the benefits of preventative medicine, and hence to reward it, either in terms of the doctor’s efforts, or of the community as a whole. Hard though it is, a service provider must remember the importance of collective action, or else he will end up with very expensive doctors trying to cure a sickly business that never gets well. So revenue assurance is not the problem of the RA department, it is everyone’s problem. That means the first step is the same as with any public good: educate the public. If people do not know what the problem is, they will never start to work on the solution.

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I will get back to blogging about revenue assurance and other things at some point. But having blogged about the Celebrity Big Brother racist bullying scandal a couple of days ago, guessing that it might turn into something with enormous consequences for how we debate public standards of behaviour, I cannot stop now. Last night saw the worst episode yet. And today, the chickens are coming home to roost. Here is a quick update on where we are now:

– Complaints to Ofcom now total 30,000, by far the most ever about a UK TV show;
Carphone Warehouse has now pulled their sponsorship of Celebrity Big Brother;
– Ofcom is writing a letter to Channel 4 about the show.

Two separate debates are getting muddled during all this. The first one, which gets a lot of coverage, is about whether the obnoxious behaviour of some of the contestants is racist. The implication seems to be that people being nasty in a non-racist way is a perfectly acceptable thing to show on television, but if it is racist than it must be stopped. The second one, which is not getting much coverage, is what exactly people are complaining about. Are they complaining that Channel 4 should not show this programme, or are they complaining that people are behaving obnoxiously (whether racist or not) on the programme?

Let us focus on the second question. Perhaps some people on the show are racist. But it seems most people agree that even if they are racist, these people are making complete fools of themselves. Channel 4’s editing clearly highlights their ignorance and stupidity over and over again. All the indications are that the bullies will be left with no choice but to apologise, desperately try to justify their actions, will spend lots of time being seen out with coloured friends and denouncing racism in order to hold on to what will be left of their careers and businesses. If you oppose racism, then presumably the best outcome is to keep these imbeciles on television for as long as possible to guarantee they ultimately suffer the maximum in humiliation. People do not tend to complain about television channels presenting racists as stupid, ignorant bigots, so I assume the complaints are caused by the dislike of these particular bigots, and not because Channel 4 is so expertly highlighting it. Given that this is television that anyone can watch unedited if they wanted, Channel 4 and the producers, Endemol, have only sinned by pointing the camera at some fools, by allowing them to act like the fools they really are, and by broadcasting edited highlights of the most foolish things they do. In which case, the makers and network should be applauded for performing a public service, not castigated for failing to protect a supposedly feeble-minded public from the truth of what these people are. The gut reaction is to be angry at the behaviour of these silly bullies, but a calmer head says that the bullies are doing the most harm to themselves and anyone else who thinks like them.

Of course, there will be some politicians jumping on the bandwagon. A lot of MPs have tried to grab some attention by signing up to a motion on the topic. London Mayor Ken Livingstone, a man who thinks it inoffensive to compare a Jewish journalist asking a question to a Nazi solider following orders, has also spoken out. Livingstone has suggested that Channel 4 should lose their licence to broadcast as a result. But then Livingstone also praises China for being an open and tolerant society so we should not be too surprised at his attitude to free speech.

But I am grateful that Channel 4 are not backing down to pressure and intend to continue the show. The moral of the story here is not to be impressed by people who take any opportunity to promote themselves, whether they are a footballer’s girfriend or Ken Livingstone. The victim of the bullying, Shilpa Shetty, is a successful person who is showing the bravery to stand up for herself. She is not running away from the show or her treatment. Three other contestants have previously walked out on the spur of the moment, one claiming it was because he had no clean underpants. Nobody would think less of Shilpa Shetty if she left because she thought herself victim to racist intimidation. But instead, she battles on. As a result, she will be giving the public an ultimate opportunity to send a message about racism, as she contests with the loudest bully, Jade Goody, which one of them will be evicted from the show in the public vote this Friday. All the predictions are that Goody will kicked out by the viewing audience without needing the involvement of politicians. Many predict that Shetty, largely unknown in the UK beforehand, will go on to victory in this most straightforward of popularity contests. If she has the courage to continue, and to take on the self-publicising fools inside the Big Brother house, I see no reason why self-publicising fools outside should interfere.

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Ofcom, the UK’s communications and content regulator, must be working at full speed today. Yesterday I blogged about the complaints Ofcom had received about racist bullying on UK’s Celebrity Big Brother. The number of complaints went from 2,000 when I started blogging to 3,500 by the time I finished. Less than 24 hours later the reported total of complaints now stands at 16,400. Carphone Warehouse boss Charles Dunstone is considering pulling his firm’s sponsorship of the show. Tony Blair was asked about it at Primeminister’s question time. Chancellor Gordon Brown has spoken out against it whilst touring India. Elsewhere in India, there are protests on the streets. Back in the UK, the police are investigating death threats. I am half tempted to get in my car and drive the half hour to where the show is filmed to see if an angry mob is rioting outside.

So, what is the good news, you ask? Well, at least people are finding it easy to complain these days, and part of the credit must go to modern communications. The foolish and insensitive behaviour of a few self-absorbed minor celebrities is hardly the worst thing happening in the world today (is it even a surprise?), but it certainly is provoking many to speak out to condemn it. In condemning their behaviour, they are also establishing a standard they expect all to conform to, not just the fools promoting (or destroying) themselves by living in a box for a silly TV show. And thanks to the speed of electronic communications, the numbers of complaints can be counted and reported with only a short delay. The public relations people are unable to argue for a spurious balance in the media presentation of this news story, because we can all see the numbers of people that have been upset. Well done to Ofcom for getting its numbers straight for once (we hope) and for reporting them so quickly. Sadly, they have not yet decided to put up a real-time complaints counter on their home page (perhaps they would if Carphone Warehouse offered to sponsor it?)

But so far, there is no sign that the BB show will be cut short or that the offending people will be kicked off the screen. The increased attention has only helped ratings which must encourage Channel 4 to leave things unchanged. Until the victim complains personally, or somebody obviously oversteps the line, they can probably get away with leaving things as is. And I hope they do leave it on for as long as possible. However unseemly the behaviour of the contestants, it is glorious to find so many ordinary people empowered and willing to register their unhappiness about it. Although I feel sorry for the victim, Bollywood star Shilpa Shetty, I hope she will be able to look back and feel some greater good came from it. The response generated is helping to define expectations about acceptable and unacceptable behaviour, both on and off television. Society’s standards may seem too often to stem from an elite that is forgiving of the rich and famous (Lord Archer? Prince Philip?) and intolerant of the weaknesses of the rest of us. If this fracas defines better standards for everyone in society, and those high standards come from common ordinary people appalled by the actions of the representatives of wealth and celebrity, that can only be a good thing for us all.

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