Archive for June, 2009

Geoff Ibbett is an independent consultant with tremendous experience in the field of revenue assurance. Over the years he has held a string of senior roles at businesses like Subex, Azure, Connexn and Telecomms Consultancy & Solutions. I asked Geoff to join me for podcast 7, and we talked about the new revenue assurance training and accreditation program Geoff has developed for the TM Forum. We also talked about his work on the TMF’s new leakage framework, as well as his views on trends in the RA software market and about the professionalization of RA. You can listen to this informative interview by playing or downloading the podcast from talkRA. Better still, subscribe to the podcast via iTunes, and you will never miss a future episode.

The first of the TMF’s RA training and accreditation courses will be held in London, England and runs from September 14th to September 16th. Geoff told me there are still some spaces left, so if you are interested in booking a spot, you can find out more by visiting the TMF’s website.

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Sorry to everybody who uses Morisso Taieb’s wonderful LinkedIn group for people working in revenue assurance, but they will not be syndicating talkRA articles any more. It has nothing to do with Morisso, who is doing a great job and who immediately responded when I asked him to stop the republication of the talkRA RSS feed. Why did I ask Morisso to stop it? I have written previously how LinkedIn is a semi-closed environment; it takes content in from other sources, but gives none out. When LinkedIn first allowed their groups to syndicate RSS, it was done by publishing an excerpt and including a link to the full page. That was fine by me, as I noted at the time, even though the flow would never go the other way. However, LinkedIn did not stop there. They then changed the outbound links to show a special “LinkedIn” frame above the pages of other websites, encouraging users to discuss about the pages on LinkedIn. Hmmm… like websites devoted to discussion want all the comments about their content to end up on LinkedIn’s (closed) site instead of their own (open) pages. It is a cheek, and a kind of unwelcome advertising that LinkedIn is placing over the top of content that LinkedIn exploits for free. Their frame says the page below is “provided by LinkedIn”. Untrue. They had nothing to do with providing the content. They did not write the content. The content is provided using a web server that they did not pay for, and do not control. The same content is available to anybody in the world who goes to the right URL. So what is provided by LinkedIn? A link that points to it. And the person who types in the URL will be somebody like Morisso who added the one for talkRA to his group. What chutzpah for LinkedIn to claim they provided anything, other than providing themselves with a greedy way to profit from other people’s material.

The unwelcome advert – an ‘ActionBar’ in LinkedIn’s strange terminology – was plugged on LinkedIn’s own blog. After congratulating themselves, they added the following words:

As always – we look forward to and appreciate your feedback. Feel free to leave a comment on this blog…

So I did comment. My comment did not get published. It seems LinkedIn love to facilitate conversations on their site, unless they happen to be critical of LinkedIn’s business ethics. For those of you interested in the content that LinkedIn are not so keen to republish, here is my comment about the LinkedIn ‘ActionBar':

Nice idea – if you run a greedy business that wants to steal content, traffic and life from other websites.

There must be thousands of websites, like mine, that offer the ability to discuss and comment on specific topics without adverts. They are not run for profit, and they do not look like the “news” examples you selectively show in your screenshots, but their RSS feeds on posts and comments can be syndicated by LinkedIn groups in just the same way. By syndicating the RSS feed into LinkedIn’s closed loop, you have a simple, crude but effective attempt to hijack the content of those sites. Adding a frame is just the next step in trying to keep LinkedIn users on LinkedIn – whilst greedily taking content from outside.

The content of the RSS feed and the content of my website is copyright. I never gave permission for it to be syndicated on LinkedIn, and I do not want it to be syndicated on LinkedIn. Taking a short excerpt and a pointer back to the source is reasonable, but then adding an ugly frame to advertise LinkedIn is going too far. Worse still, as others have noticed, the frame often seems to be screwed up. Nine out of ten viewers will assume the problem is with the original site, and not with LinkedIn’s clumsy attempts to grow its revenue streams.

If LinkedIn was an ethical business, we would see copyright holders having the facility to object to this kind of abuse, in the same way that intellectual property is protected on websites that allow people to post videos and music. Problem is, those protections are given to help big business stop abuse by little guys. This new issue with LinkedIn syndication is about protecting the rights of ordinary guys who are abused by a big business. Shame on LinkedIn.

Remember, this content is brought to you on a site that requires no registration and prints every point of view, without censorship. The authors on LinkedIn share their material, but they are not giving it away, and they retain copyright. The internet is here so we can share. People who take, but do not give back, are the enemies of a healthy, vibrant and free internet. Help us to keep the internet open, and not just open for business.

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Anyone who has been reading my blogs long enough will know I occasionally dig up and share examples of how the phrase “revenue assurance”, and its concepts, are applied to quite different businesses. In the past I found relevant examples relating to airlines, the oil industry, software, and even government taxation. It has been hard to find good new examples worth sharing recently, not least because the phrase revenue assurance is increasingly used in North America as a cover-all term for any activity that might involve making more money. However, look here for a press release about a type of revenue assurance I have not seen before: preventing “piracy” in the supply of financial information services through activities like the sharing of accounts. The article also describes the loss as a “leakage”. The principle applies well. If two people use the account for the same information resource, the supplier makes half the revenue then if he sold two separate subscriptions, so it should implement checks to stop account sharing.

Though the idea is right, taking revenue assurance to its logical limit may ultimately have a downside. I guess it is only a matter of time before we start talking about “revenue assurance” to stop people sharing their newspapers…

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In a perfect world, everybody would get one-to-one tuition that was tailored for their every need, whenever they received any kind of education. In this imperfect world, our kids go to classes where one teacher takes a lesson for many children, students may fill large halls to listen to the same lecturer, and lots of different people will read the same book to get the knowledge they need. In this imperfect world, what is common to good RA training, and what should every RA practitioner learn?

I started out writing this post as a response to Gadi Solotorevsky’s comment on Mike Willet’s excellent post about training. It grew and grew, so I decided it would be best to just include this as a new post! In short, Gadi wrote that good training is not ‘one size fits all’. I want to rebut that assertion, partly because I do not think that is what Mike was suggesting, but mostly because it fails to address a much more serious issue in RA training. The more serious problem with most RA training is not that it fails to be specific. RA training is often very specific, sometimes to the point of not being relevant to the student. The more serious problem with most RA training is that it is overly specific. By being over specific, and lacking any common and universal principles, it does not train practitioners to be versatile and to cope with the unfamiliar. Because revenue assurance is about dealing with problems that people did not even realize were there to begin with, we cannot train people to be good practitioners by only giving them skills relevant to a few problems we now know to anticipate. The good RA practitioner must be able to adapt their skills to the unanticipated too, and must learn how to find issues even when nobody else has anticipated they can occur.

If revenue assurance is anything, then the specific instances of revenue assurance must have something in common. Shakespeare makes a similar point about dogs, because dogs can be very different but still have something in common:

“… hounds and greyhounds, mongrels, spaniels, curs,
Shoughs, water-rugs, and demi-wolves are clept
All by the name of dogs.”

Good training will be based on what is common to every situation. This includes the situations that the student is not familiar with, and even includes the situations that nobody has experienced yet because they have not happened yet. Tailoring a course for your organization sounds efficient, but how useful is the course if your organization is changing? How long will its value persist? Even if tailored, the course must be based on principles that can be applied outside of the specific examples that are covered.

Universal principles, once understood, are more valuable to the student than lots of specific packets of unconnected knowledge. However, the clearest failing in the revenue assurance world is that lots of people know lots of things about lots of particular detail, but struggle with what is RA in general. Take them from their comfort zone, and they fail. Present them with a new problem, that requires skills they lack, and they run from it and search for an old problem they have solved many times before. This observation was one of the driving motivations for setting up talkRA – to force people out of their narrow silos, get them talking to each other, and make them realize that RA is bigger than the skillset and experiences of any individual person.

At core, any training should be based on universals. Practitioners have more valuable skills is they learn methods and techniques that can be applied to any situation, instead of learning how to do just one task. It is the same as the differences in how we might teach history. I can teach somebody history by making them memorize a list of dates and events. I can teach them a lot more history without mentioning a single date or event, if I teach them how to do their own research. If the student can do his own research, he can then find out the detail that he needs, when he needs it. The most valuable kind of training ensures universal principles are explained, and then made specific and relevant to the audience, depending on what kind of audience is receiving the training.

Unless specific training is consistent with universal principles, then two specific training courses simply do not teach the same thing. If you wrote an RA training course for one telco based on one set of principles, and wrote a second RA training course for another telco based on another set of principles, then you have no consistency in what you are saying RA is. They may both be good courses, but they cannot both be good revenue assurance courses. The better the underlying the principles used to create a course, the more universal the principles those are, the better the training is for the recipient. Why? Because the student will be able to reapply those principles to new situations, if their business changes or if they move to do the same job in another business. Otherwise, they will just need to be completely retaught every time the situation changes.

As per one of Mike’s examples, you can teach people to do a job a certain way, by training them which buttons to push and how to use some software. They can do that job perfectly well if they keep pushing the same buttons, even if they have no idea why they are doing it. Then swap them over to new software, a new company, or a new product to be assured. You have to train them to push new buttons, and the training begins right back as if they learned nothing before! Better that they understand what is common between the two scenarios. It is not just about being efficient with training, it is about developing people as people – encouraging them to think and be adaptable, teaching them principles they can observe and reapply, and not just to be mindless drones who need to be reprogrammed for every new task they are set. Of course, you can make more money by exploiting mindless drones: they will be made to pay over and over again for more and more training…

There is lots of bad training in RA, and we need to identify why. There are lots of people, with very limited experience, offering to teach people who work in situations that are very different from any they understand. There are also lots of people happy to be trained in a kind of RA where they just want to be told how to push the buttons, and not to think for themselves. Those people might do okay in their job, but they do not understand RA and will be little better than a complete novice when they change job. Worst of all, this sector is full of people who know how to do one thing, and then pretend that one thing is the same as RA, and is equally powerful and relevant to every business and every situation. They train other people to do that one thing, fooling them into thinking they now understand RA as well. As Abraham Maslow said:

If you only have a hammer, you tend to see every problem as a nail.

The good RA practitioner has many tools in the toolbox, knows how to use them, knows how to adapt them to be used in new and unfamiliar situations, and even knows how to make and adapt his own tools to fit the task. You cannot teach that by telling people how to bang the same nails over and over. You teach it from first principles. First, people need to understand why they are doing what they are doing. Then they need to understand the choices they have about how they do it, so they can pick the best tool for the job. That is what good RA training has in common.

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Much is often made of the need and benefit of training to enhance the knowledge and skill of revenue assurance practitioners. The claims made of the benefits certainly vary considerably and, in recent times, there also seems an increased focused on accreditation or certification to prove that the student has the necessary skills. My blog is not about the content of varying and competing courses but some considerations that I recommend be thought of when evaluating different training options.

Firstly, technical training on how to use RA software tools is essential. There is little value in spending money on a tool that no one can use, or as is often the case, is not used to its full capability. No need for anything more on that.

We all know that it is people that use tools and need to apply their thought processes on the best way to achieve the outcomes that are expected of them.

Training in revenue assurance often seems centred around ensuring that the students have an adequate understanding of how a telecoms operator is “put together”. By this, I mean ensuring that the underlying technology and platforms are understood. This is certainly valuable but I suggest any RA training you undertake needs to go beyond this and if it is too weighted in this area, then it is more telco 101 than RA training.

RA training often discusses known leakage points and what to look for. It’s great to hear that operator ABC lost millions by $ by a wrong configuration but there’s a reasonable chance that the configuration is specific to that operator and not so relevant to you. Case studies are always of interest but for anyone other than absolute RA novices, we know how leakage can occur. Simply, we lose call/event records, we misalign services provisioned to those billed and/or we charge the wrong amount. Most leakages seem to be some variation of these. What you want training to do is improve your efficiency and effectiveness at finding revenue leakage.

So how can this be done? I don’t have all the answers but here’s some thoughts:

  • ensure that the training encourages you to think about you own operational situation, as opposed to a generic model of a typical telco. For example, calls can be lost but what are the relevant systems in your organisation, what are they meant to do and what might go wrong. With that knowledge, you already have the start of a scoping document for some work.
  • model what good RA work looks like –  how long should it take, how will precision be ensured, how is the programme managed, how are updates communicated, how are outputs prepared, what will be done to fix any identified leakages etc. This includes understanding what the challenges are to undertaking RA work, and highlight, very specifically, how these can be overcome.
  • how do you define a programme to prioritise your efforts. We all know our companies are large and we could look everywhere but, depending on your priorities, where should we invest our time? For example, if you are chasing revenue, then generally, complexity and/or manual processes lead to the largest losses. Training should ensure you understand some of these principles and apply them to your situation – what is complexity to you (in the design, the build, in the implementation, in what CSRs are meant to do)?

To summarise, when you look at training options, be wary of training purporting to be RA when it may be on other subjects and seek out training that defines better how you can specifically improve the quality and quantity of your RA output.

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