Archive for March, 2011

Tony Poulos always seems to deliver the big scoops – how does he do it? Whilst at the big revenue assurance and billing event in Bangkok, Tony interviewed Alvaro Ribeiro, who spearheads WeDo’s business in AsiaPac. Alvaro talks generally about the development of RA and Fraud Management, and also about the direction and strategy for WeDo. Then Alvaro revealed that WeDo is looking to double its revenues in the next 5 years through both organic and inorganic growth. It transpires that WeDo is looking to buy businesses in both AsiaPac and the USA. WeDo’s rivals had better watch out; it looks like WeDo has the funds to consolidate its position as one of the big two RA vendors.

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A recent stock analysis of Indian RA vendors Subex highlights that their net profitability will be enhanced by the restructuring of their debts. However, their results remain vulnerable to the impact of currency fluctuations. See here for the full analysis by the Indian Economic Times.

The analysis is good, identifying the key trends in the company’s performance. However, the reasons given for Subex’s ‘stagnant’ sales are questionable. The article attributes the plateauing of revenue growth to ‘turbulence in the global telecom sector’. A fairer assessment is that Subex’s niche market has shifted rapidly from growth to saturation. Put simply, most telcos have now procured the kind of RA and FMS systems that Subex supplies. In this context, Subex’s increased emphasis on selling managed services is not just a good way of riding out any short-term doldrums in telecoms spending, but is vital to their long-term prosperity.

Meanwhile, Subex has announced another ‘multi-million dollar’ contract to supply its ROC RA and FMS, this time to an unnamed Middle East fixed and mobile telco. You can see the press release here. The description of Subex’s revenues as ‘stagnant’ overlooks recent trends in sales announcements. In short, over the last year, Subex has announced more large deals than all their major rivals put together. 2010 saw a notable reduction in sales announcements compared to the gold rush years of RA roll-out, and this has continued into 2011. It would not surprise me if, in 2011, one of the vendors with weaker financial backing cracks under the strain of diminishing revenues. In contrast, Subex has recovered from their darkest days, and is here to stay.

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A week ago, I participated in a new program dubbed “In Your Shoes”. This initiative requires each manager to spend two days at a customer-facing point in order to see for oneself what our customers are going through. I thus spent one day at our retail centre in Nairobi CBD and a second day in a town about 50 kilometres from Nairobi. A few weeks ahead of the retail centre visits, I was at the call centre and listened in to some of the calls coming through. To be honest, I was at first sceptical about this whole idea. It struck me as a feel-good opportunity where one spends time commiserating with customers only to get back to the desk having done little and intending to do even less. Some folks, in companies I will not name, have made careers out of market visits, raking up enough per diem to buy villas and Ferraris. Surely, there are better, efficient ways of getting to know the pain points of our customers, I reasoned. I could get a data dump from the CRM system and also look at the trouble tickets escalations that are coming through the support teams. That would give a network-wide view now, wouldn’t it?

I came out of these visits with appreciation of what our retail team goes through. Their jobs are tough, to say the least and it is amazing how well they handle the challenges. Everybody else in the company can mess up and hide in the offices (even Call Centre staff connect to customers from afar) but the retail agent, who is the very face of the telco, stands in for us all). She is engineer, accountant, counsellor, cashier, salesperson, marketer, PR expert and when all else fails, she will do for a punch bag.   It is a shame that we do not always have processes and systems to back this fine team. A slight CRM system downtime, even occasioned by normal connectivity issues, has a very big effect on the queues at the retail centres. Suddenly, the queue stretches to the entrance and starts snaking its way up the street. Voices go up. Tempers flare. A general atmosphere of hostility from the customers starts building up.

The experience also challenged my notions. Seeing peasant farmers who are well advanced in age asking about internet challenges the assumption that some of these services are for the youthful category of the market. The two days also provided a suitable opportunity to pause and ask myself, “Why are we here? Really.” We sell services that do not work as they should. We run systems that make it difficult for retail staff to serve customers. We make promises that we do not keep. I suspect a number of people working for telcos are probably guilty of these transgressions as well. In Nairobi CBD, I witnessed retail staff cowering behind security guards as they informed customers that the system is down hence the customers’ issues cannot be resolved and would the customers please come back after two hours. From the pained expressions and the anger that registered on the customers’ faces scenarios of actual bodily harm came to mind. The program is not called “In Your Shoes” for nothing. In my case, it was more like “Quaking in Your Boots” as I imagined tempers reaching a boiling point – may I add that I was not entirely positive that the company insurance scheme would compensate my family if I happened to be a victim of bare-hands-strangulation by an unidentified customer hence my apprehension is excusable.  I imagined my epitaph:  His demise, while unfortunate and unjustifiable, is wholly understandable. He came, He saw, He got clobbered.

Apparently, some customers have been through this drill so many times that when you approach them and ask if you can assist, they first ask, “So your system is up today?” One lad pulled me aside and suggested that since the customer-facing systems always seem to have a problem, we should consider borrowing the system that our competitor is using – you have to admire this kind of out-of-the-box thinking!  I nodded and considered replying that we are giving serious thought to this idea but decided not to push my luck. Radical ideas aside, one begins to come to terms with the frustrations that the customers and the customer-care team are going through. The sad summary is that the tired customers who are queuing with the hope of having their problems solved are an indictment of the CSP’s systems, processes and people with regard to the promise of one or more products. We can achieve 99.99% billing accuracy by use of sophisticated Online Charging Systems but if one customer-facing system or process is not OK, the 99.99% accuracy rate counts for little in deed.

To avoid the program becoming an exercise in futility, I think it is advisable to use it as a learning opportunity that re-evaluates some of the monitoring points that RA is looking at. If 3 out of 5 customers are at the retail point because of a provisioning-related issue affecting prepay data SIMs, it certainly makes sense to spare some effort for this area. If 2 out of 5 customers are bitterly complaining that they cannot exit a daily subscription service that is “eating” their airtime, there is a problem right there. Even without going granular, trends start to emerge. Step by step, some things become clearer and one starts to question even the efficacy of some of the controls that are in place. Some customers are also on the queue because of processes that have excessive controls. Are the controls all necessary? Red tape is danger – if something requires back-office approval by 2 or more people, the flow of service soon breaks.

During encounters with customers, the logic of some of the processes becomes reproachable. Take the case of a customer who has returned a handset for repair. He is issued with an acknowledgement form and has to wait 14 working days. That is the SLA. Sometimes it takes 2 days to repair the handset but since the customer was told to wait for 14 working days, he will only come on the 14th day (more likely, the 15th day). Perhaps a mechanism to notify customers once the handset is ready through a designated contact number would be helpful. Recall that not many customers have the luxury of 2 handsets. The handset is now intricately linked to the socio-economic lives of the customers and 14 days without it translates to hell. For a population that is largely living below a dollar a day, those 14 days may now be a zero-dollar-a-day hell. Consider the case of a customer who has visited the retail centre to inform the CSP of some fraudulent activities being perpetrated by a few rogue dealers downtown. Do you really want to ask this person to queue behind 50 individuals in order to get to the point where this information will be keyed into the system? Dare you suggest that and he promptly stomps off. Can you blame him? Wouldn’t a well-publicised toll-free number for reporting such frauds work better?

Truth be told, you can look at the CRM system reports and analyze all the tickets you want but if you want to have an inkling of what your customer thinks and feels, perhaps you should, every now and then, also face the customer across the counter and really listen. It is during such times that one realizes what misery results from skipping one provisioning step and not detecting in good time. It is during such times that one notices the queue building up because there is a customer identity vetting process that requires the retail agent top open two screens and painstakingly copy details from 10 different fields across. It is during such visits that you realize the customer is really patient and has given you a second chance, a third chance, a fourth chance… and you wonder if the nth time is round the corner before he lunges across the counter with the intention of squeezing you by the neck until your eyeballs pop out.

 It is also during such times that you realize that the revenue assurance team, with its wealth of experience in data quality and process reviews, can apply some of those skills to make a difference to at least some of the people standing in front of you.

If you have the will to take the necessary follow-up actions, rest assured the customer is talking. Is anyone listening?

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I am working on a book chapter in an upcoming academic publication on disruptive technologies.  My focus is on the human capability impacts that disruptive inventions have on operations management practices.  In our RA language it is about the capabilities of CSP operations personnel (non-RA people) to detect, correct and ensure process and data integrity in their own operations areas.  Needless to say I tried to solve world hunger in 20 pages and failed dismally. I must have had about 10 variables in this short study, all of which affect the people capability in some way or the other. That makes for a nice academic study if somebody is keen to delve in.

One thing let to another and I ventured down a bold new road.  Bold and new for the RA community, but perhaps not so bold given academic objectives. When I analysed all the contributors to the CSP personnel’s inability to cope with, or execute accurately its operational tasks, the concept of organisational learning came out.  The objective of the chapter is to identify the reasons for a CSP to create a new function or new roles (using RA as example). I see this as a change in basic business management practices.  The operations areas (billing, customer care, etc) should, in line with general business management theory, have the capacity and capability to execute its operations properly.  Failing which, personnel performance management and human capital processes kick in. Business Management 101.  We know from experience that this is not case. Why not?

Seeing that CSP’s are traditionally leading the disruptive innovations field, the need for ongoing learning is just so much more prominent.  Organisational learning is not about training. One tends to think about it as “sending the developers on a training course”. Organisational learning in this sense is about organisational change management. Embracing the need to change our ways of thinking and doing. To recognize that we lack skills and competencies or that we simply do not have the “zoom effect”.  Core skills become rigid liabilities. Think about a techie with leased line experience, who must now manage IP Networks. Organisational learning leads to the ability (personal conviction and organisational support) to alter the state of our current capacity and capability. This sounds straightforward. How many times have we as RA managers engaged in some form of resource motivation exercise? Countless.

From the literature big stumbling blocks appear to be the upper echelons of the organization and those with a long tenure. They appear to be more set in their ways and less able to see “the bigger picture of the grass root level reality”. The bigger the organisation, the more profound this challenge.

Technology advances faster than human capability. It is a fact of life. Organisations compensate. Some compensate by working its staff to death. Others appoint expensive help but fail to integrate them properly. Most organisations simply change their org structure in the hope that the incapacity and incapability of its force would miraculously fix itself.  Yet others create new roles to pick up fallen pieces or hurry along something of great importance. RA is a compensation intervention. It acts as an intermediary to translate between the technologically competent and the business competent.  At least in context of Business Management 101.  I am wondering how RA could be a learning intervention.

  • RA’s role as monitoring agent provides a report with failed processes back to the 3rd party for which the monitoring was done. If this party were to take this feedback as learning opportunities, the monitoring report would not include those failures in future reports.  Isn’t it one of the RA objectives to report regularly on failed processes and manage this 3rd party through a dedicated RA analyst to improve the process? The RA auditors specifically look to see what capability the RA team has to manage this interaction with its business counterparts;
  • RA’s roles as facilitator and advisor have a similar learning objective. Only, in this case it is as a “teacher”.  A facilitator/advisor does not have the mandate to fix things. The role helps the person who is responsible to detect, correct and ensure…to do just that. Point him where to look, what to look for and how to action it. The role of facilitator/advisor cease to exist when the owner of this process can function on its own. How does this differ from a mentor or teacher? OK, in practical RA this does not happen because our mentorees never learn or there are just so many areas where they need advise that we are perpetually inundated with request for assistance.
  • RA’s role as business optimisation agent is in my mind no different from project office resource. Most organisations have a separate PMO cum project management capability. Any improvements not done operationally as part of every day work should go into a project and managed as a project. Continuous improvement is an objective of every department head and should in a generous measure be included in every line manager’s KPIs.

RA’s role as operational fixer is assumed to be included in the roles in the literature even though the description/definition of the roles above suggests non-execution. In non-CSP industries that are looking into RA now, the thought of setting up a parallel structure is incomprehensible. Operations stay accountable for the execution but the first 3 roles (monitoring agent, advisor and facilitator) are real opportunities out there for non-telco people.

I am looking at this parallel structure as either a learning intervention or as a permanent new business management feature. As a learning intervention the roles of Learning needs assessor, Teacher and Mentor need to be properly formalised and managed. I can see where our notion of benefits realisation calculations can come in handy to motivate this approach. In the current trend RA is a permanent parallel structure albeit with an ongoing battle to justify its existence. My question is this. If an RA person or Engineer is expected to continue learning and adjust his/her mindset and skill set, why not the rest of the organisation? I don’t disagree that the parallel structure is current required. The question is whether this should be permanent and if so based on what motivation and at what cost? Cost here does not only refer to financial implication but also the psychological cost of interdepartmental tension, role conflict, etc. Sure, RA through benefits realisation, can pay for itself but if all units in the organisation took on this accountability to learn and adjust, the additional “benefits” would have been included in the profit and not pay for a parallel structure.  I am questioning the operational execution responsibility of RA here. Not the concept of RA or its role as monitoring agent, advisor and facilitator.

This chapter may not be long enough to capture all the other issues affecting the CSP’s management practices. There are a number of other issues I believe contribute to the fact that RA has right to exist. But that’s a story for another day.

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Our new book, Revenue Assurance: Expert Opinions for Communications Providers is out today; to find out more, look here. If you read RA websites, go to conferences, or attend courses, you should be asking yourself one thing: what will you get from this book, that you have not heard a hundred times elsewhere?

There is one thing you will not find in the book: easy answers. The problem with easy answers is that they are often the wrong answers. Step back and think about why somebody would promise you answers to the problems faced by your business, when they have never stepped inside your business. They do not know your business, and they do not know its people, culture, customers, tariffs, customers, network, IT, processes, CEO… in short, they do not know what makes your business unique, and the unique challenges it faces. If there was a universal checklist of how to do RA, everybody would have been following it years ago. Indeed, if the perfect checklists existed, then people could use them to think ahead, instead of waiting for things to go wrong. If human thought processes were flawless, there would never be any unexpected leakage. Leakage occurs because life is complicated, people make mistakes, resources are limited and time is short. Solving problems requires more than a manual. Solving problems requires imagination – your imagination.

We cannot teach imagination, but maybe we can encourage it. If you wrote a story, and I told you which words to keep, which to remove and which to add, then it would end up being my story. You would have learned nothing. But if I can show you how other people write stories – ideally presenting a variety of different ways – then you can take from that experience and develop your own abilities. We believe the same is true when it comes to solving problems. It would be convenient if the problems faced by your businesses were identical to those faced by others. It would be convenient, but unlikely. Not only are there many problems, but there are many ways to solve them. People play up the similarities between problems, but your job exists because of the differences between them. The book seeks to prompt your imagination, by looking at revenue assurance from many points of view. We cannot solve the problems in your business, but you can. What we can do is show you how we think about, identify, manage and solve problems. The most important lesson is that whilst you can copy solutions, but you also need to learn how to adapt them and develop your own.

Why write a book, when we have a website already? Some ideas can be expressed in a few pages, but others take a lot more. Also, some ideas benefit from how they are organized and presented alongside other ideas. The book gave us an opportunity to do something we could not do with a website. We took the best of advice from the site, and presented it alongside new material you will not find elsewhere. Here are some of the things you will find in the book that we feel are genuinely innovative:

  • The 4 C’s model of transaction processing – capture, conveyance, calculation and collection – provides a logical foundation to performing revenue assurance. This consistent framework informs many aspects of revenue assurance: designing tests for leakage; implementing controls; assessing the capability of tools; setting scope and responsibilities; documenting flows; and reporting performance. This framework of understanding can be adapted to the assurance of any stream of transactions in any business.
  • The book provides an analysis of the role of revenue assurance and fraud management within the context of enterprise risk management and compliance. This enables you to explore the connections and conflicts between the various goals that motivate your work. We evenhandedly explain the commonalities whilst also highlighting the inconsistencies in objectives and methods.
  • A straightforward method for evaluating the returns generated by revenue assurance and fraud management gives a practical basis for showing the benefits of your wok. This method is easy to explain and justify to management, fairly recognizes the value of prevention and enables consistent benchmarking.
  • The SPIRIT method for evaluating the offerings of RA vendors starts with looking at the problem to be solved, without jumping to possible solutions too soon. The method builds on the 4 C’s whilst encouraging the RA team to consider all possible options for how to meet an objective, including kinds of tools they may not otherwise have considered and reuse of systems already owned by the business.
  • A thorough exploration of the role of control frameworks will help you to ground your work, giving it purpose beyond the short-term recovery of leakages. The book includes an entity-relationship model that can be used as the basis of systematically documenting control objectives, existing controls and needed improvements.
  • The book presents a proper analysis of the relationship between charging errors, customer perception and customer complaints. This is based on the concept of a value-visibility curve. It explains the flaws in the over-simplistic assertion that more error means more complaints (or that no complaints means there are no errors). This then serves as a foundation to explain what should be the focus of regulation to protect customers from overbilling.
  • Instead of asserting a single definition of revenue assurance, which can only limit our perspective, the book discusses the evolving definitions and redefinition of revenue assurance. This is articulated through the paradigms for how people execute revenue assurance in practice. The book explains the two distinct paradigms that dominated the early development of revenue assurance, whilst identifying how changing technology and the changing attitudes of RA practitioners leads to the emergence of a new, third paradigm.

We also bring back some old favourite topics in the hope of rejuvenating them and improving on previous advice. For example, the book contains an all-new version of the classic revenue assurance maturity model, with a self-assessment questionnaire that is easier to understand and quicker to complete. We also present a detailed worked example on how to use statistical techniques to calculate sample sizes. This convincingly disproves the RA folklore that says spending more to test more is always worth the extra investment. In addition, the book recognizes and recommends other useful methods, like Yelland and Sherick’s Five Dimensions, and the guidance of the TM Forum. We also feel that the ability to imaginatively solve problems is helped if people learn to relax and embrace different perspectives. To go with all the serious stuff, we include plenty of anecdotes and entertaining asides.

Like I said, you will not find the new ideas anywhere else. It would be no surprise – and a sort of compliment – if these ideas did end up retread and recast by all sorts of people to incorporate into their talks, guidebooks, and courses. If you cannot wait for them, then buy the book. And if you are willing to wait, ask yourself this: why would you want to learn about how to come up with fresh solutions from people that did not innovate? Innovation is the currency of thought. We did not write this book to present answers to yesterday’s problems. We wrote it to help you solve the problems of tomorrow.

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