01 Dec

Federated inventory management solutions do not work

The idea of federated data became big when some of our venerable industry leaders decided it would solve the ongoing challenge of inventory management systems.

Ideas come and go, so my initial reaction was that we would just have to wait a little while for this idiotic one to pass by. However, it’s been a few years now, and I recently saw an RFP that actually asked for such a solution. After a few quiet swear words, I decided I really needed to put in my two cents on this subject now before it gets worse. I think I am well qualified to do so: having built two inventory management systems in my lifetime, I would say I have enough scars to at least merit an opinion.

First, let’s admit that none of the existing legacy branded inventory management systems has solved the fundamental issue of accurate data. Network data by its very nature is complex and interrelated, so the challenge to keep it accurate is huge. To solve the short-terms goals, a plethora of inventory systems has been deployed at most major service providers. This has only served to make the issue that much larger, to the point where there is little appetite to really tackle the issue now.

Let’s face it: the average telco is in a bit of a mess today, with dozens or sometimes hundreds of inventory management systems that deal with the network resources that are related to customer management. These have been built up over time as the service provider adds new technology and complexity to its existing legacy systems.

For the past few years, federated models have been making the rounds, promising an overlay solution for these multiple inventory systems and sucking up whatever money a service provider is willing to throw at the problem.

But common sense tells me that except for the simplest of use cases, federating network inventory data will face a similar set of issues to the challenges we already have today with reconciliation.

Yet before I finally put to you that this federated solution is poppycock, I decided to do my own informal investigation to back up my claims. I always think it’s best to start at the source, so I made some calls to those who had been involved from the beginning. Sure enough, everyone I spoke to admitted that issues really started to pile up once the honeymoon period was over. Some even sounded disappointed that it didn’t work. I guess it’s a hard knock to take when reality smacks you in the face.

Yet if this is what people in the know are saying, why did I receive this RFP? Perhaps it’s simply down to a sheep-like mentality that makes us follow each other over the edge of the cliff! Let’s face it: we all do it. If a well-known brand says something often enough it must be true, we think, and of course the systems integrators gleefully run with it since it means a lot of professional services will be required. All in all, everyone made money with little or nothing to show for it.

This is a sad situation since the inventory of the network is one of the fundamental pillars of any service provider. It really needs to be fixed sooner than later.

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04 Nov

Brokering in the technology selection process

Continuing the theme from last time, this is the challenge faced by service providers: how do they get access to the right technology? How do they find the non-legacy technology or the innovative solutions that have not yet become widely known?

This is an issue that concerns both the service provider looking to launch a new product or service and the vendor that wants to show it has the answer, but does not yet have the profile. In fact, what both parties need here is a type of brokering solution that can bring the disparate strands together.

Aside from the formal RFP process, service providers do have opportunities to find innovative products, but this is based on a willingness or desire to find such products. It also means that you are willing to take a risk and spend time and money looking for an alternative answer.

Lets face it, going to the magic quadrant to find new innovation is like advertising you are looking for a pig with lipstick – and then getting upset because you found what you were looking for. By the time you make it into that quadrant, and after meeting all of the criteria required, the chances of you being a debutant is slim.

Being a trusted partner in our sector, we were recently asked to help a local service provider find an appropriate technology. Since this was not in our space, searching the Internet yielded a lot of possibilities but gave little guidance on how to separate the good from the bad and the ugly. Great – now I have to swallow my own medicine. Of course, I should have done what I had suggested in my last blog, but that’s another story.

So off we went to the magic quadrant looking for the answer, and of course we found an answer, but I cannot help but think I really didn’t help my partner out because I took an easy route and got what I deserved. Since my last blog, we have discussed a more formal but innovative approach to finding the answer, and it is really about modifying the RFP process that I outlined in my previous post.

But this still begs the question: how does the company with the innovative solution know you are looking? I find the brokering procurement applications that are now starting to be used by procurement departments are actually not a bad idea and are a great way to connect, although vendors still need to spend a little time and money upfront.

The TM Forum is another approach, but TMF just hasn’t got it quite right yet. I don’t see service providers going to TMF and advertising or looking at members and their technology just yet. I would suggest to the TMF that this is something it should look at seriously. Sure, it holds Catalyst events at its events to enable vendors to showcase leading-edge solutions, but it could go much further still. Maybe a partnership model to setup such an environment is well worth the cost. Please correct me if I am wrong.

Finally, the idea of getting a trusted partner to help is also not a bad idea. After all, the trusted status did not come easily and you have obviously gotten good results from the partner in question.

One last word: while it is really great to have that trust and find potential answers, verification is a must in our industry – especially if you want to avoid all the charlatans that are an inevitable byproduct of an industry that is in constant change.

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27 Oct

RFP technology selection: the good, the bad and the ugly

In my previous blogs I’ve stressed the importance of picking one key IT system at a time on which to build your business, rather than trying to transform everything at once and building a new Frankenstein held together with sticky tape and pins.

However, here is one major process that communications service providers (CSPs) still struggle with: the request for proposal (RFP). I don’t necessarily have the answer, but the RFP process for new IT systems requires attention.

As a vendor, of course I believe that my system is better than all the others – but let’s assume for now I am a CSP that has just put out an RFP. Other than price, I cannot figure out which system is right for me. As someone who was on the CSP side 20 years ago, I have a pretty good idea of what to do. However, the problem today is that technical experts figure less and less within a CSP’s IT group. Now, the group responsible for selecting key IT systems is a strange mixture of architects (maybe “markitects” is a better term), end users, and program and project managers.

At some point all of the systems proposed to you sound the same, have the same business value, and are all based on what the other guy did – which by the way may have already failed. If you pick a technology used by everyone today, it is very likely to be legacy. How do you know investment in R&D on the product you are selecting is really happening? Roadmaps are shaky at best.

Essentially, RFPs by their very nature are already flawed. You have described the situation you are in today and you are trying to fit the new technology to that situation. Assuming you are trying to transform your business, this is a dead end before you even start.

Bottom line, it seems to me that if you are looking to transform and the selection of the target system is important, there has to be a better way to find the right answer.

I do believe at some deeper level, there are answers and to get to them we need to understand the questions. Here is my take on the key strategies you should follow before you can make a decision:

  1. Request a detailed list of each vendor system’s features and the value they bring to the business. From this, select the top systems and test them in order to understand how they work. Your objective is to see how the technology enables you to differentiate, providing you with maturity of product versus a custom answer.
  2. “If I use your system, how would my business processes change?” To answer this requires collaborative work with a vendor. So how do you do this with all of them at the same time? One answer maybe is to give them your specific existing processes and ask them to redo it assuming their system is being used. Vendors are more than willing to do this, but more importantly this will really show the value you are going to get.
  3. “How long would it take to do this?” Here it is tough to weed out the liars, the fakers, and the “trust me” vendors. “Trust me” may be the best answer here, but verification is a must. I want to see a project that has just completed and one that is ongoing. Believe me, this is harder than stopping Iran from going nuclear, and inspections are tricky at best.
  4. The real answer is to invest in technical employees that have depth and breadth. Shallowness is pervasive in our business, but you have the money to do this and in the grand scheme of things consultants and vendors cannot replace this and are more expensive.

Finally, I cannot stress enough that we need to leverage the TM Forum as a vehicle to understand the industry and evaluate what is out there before we start the process of change. Change the paradigm. Announce your project and ask for vendors to present and showcase their systems so you can understand what is available. Send more people who can represent you at the events. If I am buying a car, I don’t ask my mechanic to go and choose one for me. Send people who are closely involved with the business, and who know about IT. And please don’t be cornered by one vendor. You are missing the point entirely if you do.

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02 Apr

The plague of customization

Spring is almost here, and it’s time for me to resume my blog after a brief hiatus. What with Christmas, New Year, a big family wedding and travels to Asia and back, there was no time to think outside the box.

Now, I want to link back to my previous posts, starting with a question for you all: in my last blog I put to you that business transformation is not the answer. While interest in the blog was high, I was surprised at the limited response to such a statement.

When I made that statement, I expected an avalanche of feedback because so many of you read the blog. No one said to me: “Are you crazy? Of course it’s working!

None of you challenged me on this, so my question to you is: how do I read that? Am I right, or am I wrong?

One thing is for sure: I meant what I said, and over the coming months I will continue to blog about this, because it is very important if we are all to succeed.

There are multiple reasons why I believe that business transformation does not work, a primary one being what I like to call the “plague of customization” that further complicates an operator’s already complex systems.

The fault here lies with the vendors and the operators because both drive more customization than is actually required. On one hand, the vendors seek to make more money from more customers by refining new products and systems to meet customer requirements, while on the other hand operators want the products to match those that are already in place.

This involves a high level of customization on the part of the vendors that ensures every new business transformation project ends up in the same place as all the legacy systems. This in turn often means that telcos can no longer upgrade the COTS products because they cannot without even more customization. In other words, they become stuck with no repeatability or upgradeability, and they are driven into a hole out of which it is impossible to climb.

This situation can be found at every telco to a greater or lesser degree, and both the telco and the vendor are to blame for that. What is required here is a greater number of telcos that are willing to change their processes to take advantage of inherent COTS capability. There is no doubt that telcos are tired with not getting what they want any more out of what can sometimes be a large investment.

While there is a lot of innovation on the part of smaller vendors, the larger vendors are the ones with the products that drive the market, and they in turn are driving customisation. This needs to stop.

A telco’s business is about ongoing change, but every product they bring in is a drain on the speed of deployment because they have to drive through a set of systems to get it to work.

In conclusion, I also want to stress here that I am not pessimistic. I have seen some evidence of the situation getting better, although not a lot. We are all learning, but the problem here is also that lessons do not get passed on; no one wants to admit when something has been a failure.

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14 Sep

The service provider kitchen is in a mess!

If you have read my previous blogs, you will have noticed that my world revolves around the service provider and customer service. The challenges faced by service providers in the context of customer experience are also firmly rooted in the history of their back office systems, but these systems are in chaos and have been for some years. This in turn has a dire impact on the quality of customer support that telcos can provide.

To use an analogy, if I compare service providers to a restaurant where the kitchen is the back office system, then the service provider kitchen is effectively using one kitchen to service several different restaurants.

To make matters worse, every “special” produced by the kitchen stays on the menu forever, and has to be monitored and managed even when it is well past its sell-by date. That means the complexity of the service provider’s “menu” increases with every new product, service idea and invention.

What service providers consistently fail to recognise is that every successful business has operational excellence at its root. Telcos, on the other hand, say innovation is their mantra. Operational performance seems to stay on the back burner – and it’s been that way for 20 years. What’s more, the industry seems unwilling or unable to change this.

What we should be doing as an industry is bringing operational excellence to the forefront by cleaning up the service provider kitchen.

Having said that, how do we actually achieve this? First, let me say that business transformation is not the answer. In this industry we know the issues, the complexity, the potential solutions and evolving standards. And outsourcing is also not the right approach, because this fails to address the real underlying problems.

What is required here is a complete change of mindset: service providers have to simplify what they sell. They have to bite the bullet and say: “We don’t do these old deals any more,” and delete them from the support systems.

If we look to examples in other industries, the approach taken by Southwest Airlines provides an interesting example of good practice. The airline operates just one type of aircraft from one vendor and provides a simple pricing model for the customer. Customer service is achieved through this focus on simplicity, rather than on endless options that only serve to confuse the customer and bloat the operator’s billing system further still.

Again, what Southwest Airlines did will not be easy to replicate in telecoms. But by starting down this path, we will begin to make progress that will ripple through the systems we have to nurture and support.

Is that all we can do? Of course not, but it would be the first thing I would do if I were in the shoes of a telecoms executive today. What do you think?

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26 Aug

The plight of the CSR

The next time you call your communications service provider to complain about an issue with a broadband or cellular phone service, spare a thought for the customer service representative on the other end of the line. Depending on their size, CSPs can hire hundreds or even thousands of CSRs every year, but churn rates are high among these employees – up to 20% in fact.

It’s no wonder when you consider what CSRs typically have to contend with on a daily basis: angry customers, complex systems and often a lack of the kind of oversight that would enable them to help the customer on a real-time basis. CSRs are also generally young, badly paid and not trained in every application they need to support. For example, a CSR may have to answer queries on between 25 and 50 applica tions – quite a handful for what is effectively an entry-level job. It’s not an easy place to be.

From the perspective of the CSPs, the situation is unfortunate. They need a lot of people for front-line support and they ha
ve to train these people quickly. At the same time, it’s impossible to train every CSR on every application and service that is available to the client. What’s more, CSPs are constantly adding new services and apps to their portfolios. For CSPs, this is a terrible solution as they end up with a large, unqualified and non-technical workforce dealing with their most important assets: their customers.

It’s a huge challenge for CSPs, and ultimately has serious consequences for the quality of service they are able to offer in what is one of their key channels for front-line customer support.

So what is the solution to this situation? The short answer is that we really need to apply technology to simplify the front line.

Consider the issues that frustrate you most when you call your CSP. For example, your broadband service has stopped working, you have tried all the usual tricks such as rebooting the modem and your computer, and you decide you have no option but to call your provider to find out what can be done to reinstate your service. What you don’t want is a CSR who immediately tells you to do the things you have already done by proceeding to read from a grocery list of instructions that bear little resemblance to your actual situation.

In order to be able to help you properly, the CSR requires a holistic view of the customer that enables him or her to determine what steps have already been taken in an effort to resolve the service outage. The CSR should be able to see what the customer did yesterday and earlier today – not only what they did six months ago.

In fact, there is a great deal of technology we can apply to the front line. Ultimately, a CSP requires systems that are very flexible and able to adapt to their changing technology and service environment. This also removes the need to train a CSR in every single app, which in reality is not a viable option. Instead, the CSR is given access to a flexible system that enables them to find the correct information quickly and easily, allowing them to either resolve a situation or escalate it to a higher technical service level.

The added bonus is that if a CSR is able to help customers on a more consistent basis, he or she might actually start to get some job satisfaction and stay a little longer than a few months! That in turn benefits the CSP, which acquires a more settled, motivated and ultimately qualified workforce.

In conclusion, the CSP has to recognise that customer satisfaction is extremely important and needs much more investment than they probably realise. CSRs also only form one of several channels that are used for front-line support: the ultimate goal must be to have a seamless and holistic customer support network that incorporates not only CSRs but also high-street retailers and online service support.

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17 Jul

Customer experience: an unfulfilled promise

In my regular dealings with service providers across the globe, it’s fair to say customer experience is a topic that crops up frequently as an aspect of service provision that requires constant monitoring and improvement. During industry events, service providers engage in earnest discussions about what they need to improve and how they should tackle this challenge.

Yet given all this focus on customer experience, it seems strange that this is the one area with the least improvement. To be sure, many customers say they hate having to speak to their service provider about a technical or service problem. In my own dealings with services providers as a consumer, customer representatives have actually apologized to me about what is often a far from a satisfactory resolution.

If I compare this with the customer service I receive in other industries, the situation is very different. For example, I am an American Express customer and I find their treatment of customers almost exemplary. True, I pay for it, but I am not alone in being willing to pay more if the customer experience is worth it. Another example is Apple, which is innovating the customer experience in our own backyard better than we have ever done.

Indeed, service providers in all sectors should be making the daily lives of their customers easier, not harder.

In the communications industry, customer experience may be at the heart of everything that a service provider strives to do, but this is not reflected in the actual personal interaction with customers. So why is this the case?

My take of the situation is that vendors have somehow successfully convinced service providers that customer experience is fulfilled by technology and technology alone. They see customer experience as a technical answer on the quality of the service.

While that may be true, of equal or even greater importance is how the customer experiences his or her interactions with staff who work on the front line; the customer representatives who answer your call should not be placed in a position where they have to apologize for the state of play. For example, perhaps a customer wants to see both their cellular and landline bills on the same page of their online account, but is told that is not possible to facilitate because the service provider still operates two different silos for these services.

This silo mentality is certainly one aspect that continues to plague the customer experience service providers currently provide. For example, customers may find they have to send in their bank details again to their own provider, simply because they have opted for a different plan or service. This may be a relatively minor issue, but it makes a bad impression.

In other words, the service provider’s thinking is limited to believing that the customer experience begins and ends with technology; they don’t realize that customer experience must include all interactions with the customer.

Customers should be confident they will receive the same experience whether they are speaking to their service provider about a cellular, landline, broadband or TV service. They should get the same quality of service whether they contact their service provider online, on the phone or in person in a retail store. We are still far from the point where customers can get answers about all their services from a single source, and this will continue to be an ongoing area of frustration.

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