Beyond Lip Service
By Peter Lambert
IF ONLY THE SERVICE REP knew the customer on the phone already tried service X but might well be open to a service Y pitch at this moment. If only the channel partner knew a customer on his contact list for today suffered a painful service outage yesterday and may not be in the mood to renew a contract just yet. If only the network-provisioning department knew a certain customer already takes a virtual private network service and needs only one, not two or three, additional pieces of equipment to activate the additional IP Centrex service he has requested.
For communications service providers, these and a thousand other “if only” laments could become a thing of the past if only the right hand were able to know what the left hand is doing across multiple back-office, operational support systems (OSSs). That’s why providers have been seeking ways to integrate isolated silos of data and applications in their back offices.
And that is why vendors have turned to “web-native” architectures and web services that are beginning to turn the promise of customer-centric operations into something more than lip service in 2002.
Web services effectively make data and application code mutually accessible across what have been hard boundaries between “customer-facing” operations, such as product catalogs, CRM and call-center applications, and “inward-facing” enterprise resource planning (ERP) operations, including network inventory, network management, service provisioning, order entry and order management and billing.
Two web standards in particular are fueling the architectural shift. First, extensible markup language (XML) allows for common “tagging” and formatting of data so that one OSS can access and recognize data, such as a customer profile, product description, trouble-ticket history or network infrastructure map, from another otherwise incompatible OSS. Second, the simple object access protocol (SOAP) allows applications to share their logic commands, or “executables.”
“Communications companies selling commodities have to differentiate on customer service more than on product, and that’s impossible to achieve if you have sales, call center and channels operating separately, with organizational separation and system separation preventing access to information like when a service can be made available,” says Eric Chen, senior director of PeopleSoft Inc.’s communications industry practice.
With help from these technologies, this and other industries finally can bring down the front-office/back-office wall, Chen says.
The benefits don’t stop there. Amdocs Ltd., Oracle Corp., PeopleSoft, Step 9 Software Corp. and other software vendors say web architectures empower service providers to make front-office and back-office information available on a selective basis to entire supply chains, from equipment vendors and service partners to in-house departments, resale channels and customers themselves via a universal window: the web browser.
Even as information technology spending shrank in 2001, IT spending by service providers suggests they concur with this logic. PeopleSoft’s communications industry practice, initially known for its human resources (HR) management software, added 57 new accounts, PeopleSoft CRM sales exceeded HR sales for the first time, and PeopleSoft grew in software license revenue overall.
“The nature of the spend has shifted from growth — even in systems like HR — to a focus on supply chain and enabling external self-service plus internal efficiencies,” Chen says. “That has raised interest in CRM and CRM analytics.”
He adds that in practice carriers can begin to redefine problems and opportunities in terms of customer impact. “If a customer has a technical problem, lots of things can happen, including placing a trouble report in the service center, applying diagnostics and dispatching field service who may or may not have the correct spare part,” Chen says. “Is this a supply-chain issue, inventory issue, financial issue or an HR issue for training and dispatch and payroll? It’s really all those things, so this is one business process looked at in entirety, and CRM is the linchpin, because the power to stay or go is in the hands of the customer. We see CRM being the centerpiece, rather than CRM and ERP being separate.”
Billing giant Amdocs’ acquisition last year of one of the industry’s “big three” CRM vendors, Clarify, also substantiates this shift. “What you’re seeing now is service provider CRM needs to be fully integrated with all your business processes, and the processes need to be centered around a rich understanding of the customer,” says Peter Hurst, vice president of marketing for Amdocs’ Clarify CRM division. “That means integrated processes from customer acquisition, customer service and loyalty building through analytics capabilities to intelligently up-sell and cross-sell additional services to existing customers.”
Other software powers are on board the OSS integration vision, most of them via web services, including Hewlett Packard Co., Microsoft Corp., IBM Corp., Oracle, Siebel Systems Inc. and Sun Microsystems Inc.
Step 9 Software unveiled its own suite of such services Feb. 5 in the form of its iCustomer SDX (Service Delivery Excellence) software release, representing a yearlong, fundamental redesign of its software around web-native principles. Based on Microsoft’s .NET platform for web services, iCustomer SDX seeks to integrate customer profile, product catalog, order entry, fulfillment and billing into an XML- and SOAP-based life-cycle management system based on a “360-degree view” of the customer and his services.
“In our completely mix-and-match product catalog, you have both provisioning and billing information for each product, so when a product is selected, that triggers the fulfillment process according to rules defined by the carrier,” says Step 9 chairman and CEO Michael Rowney. “So it’s a catalog that knows the rest of the back office and anticipates every step required to fulfill each product.”
Thanks to the malleability of web-based integration, a “generic products module” in the iCusto-mer SDX enables providers to build from scratch any new service in the form of a catalog entry that covers the order-to-fulfillment-to-billing life cycle.
“Within one application, the provider can assemble the product components plus the provisioning components plus the accounting and billing components,” Rowney says. “Historically, CRM has gone up to the point
of order tracking, managing prospects and applying analytics and will have a product catalog not connected to the back office. Step 9 would take the order at that juncture and associate it with the provisioning processes all the way to billing.”
In effect, web portal product selection becomes a flow-through, self-provisioning service that puts selective control of back-office provisioning into customer and channel partner hands, thereby offloading a provider-facing burden onto a customer-facing application.
To bridge the gap between legacy and XML data, vendors are providing “information logistics systems” for the unification of data that underlies such operational advances. For example, earlier this year U.K.-based billing and CRM outsourcer Hurricaneseye Limited implemented the Columbus Business Information Logistics system from Macro 4 Inc., a database software suite designed to normalize ASCII, PDF, html, XML and a range of other file formats into a common archive for delivery of electronic and printed output to constituents inside and outside the enterprise.
“You can’t afford to keep a customer on hold while you close one custom, single-purpose system to open another, or even to run down the hall for some paper record,” says Tony Gabriele, strategic marketing director for Marco 4.
“Typically we’re the capture system for both print and web, WAP [wireless access protocol] and other delivery systems,” he says “Hurricaneseye wants to unify bills, customer profiles, CSR communications histories for their customer care center.”
The system has demonstrated a typical 40 percent improvement in call center productivity and up to 90 percent printing and distribution cost reductions among Macro 4’s European customer base, “and now the CSR can be freed up to handle more complex calls and selling.”
Click Here for Current Paradigm Chart
Source: Step 9 Software Corp.
Analytics = Personalization
Advocates call cross-OSS information access a gift that keeps on giving beyond the initial customer acquisition and service activation.
While many service providers already apply analytic software programs to isolate and assess operational efficiencies and customer predilections, they have been left to manually translate the problems and opportunities uncovered by back-office analyses into front-office responses.
Providers that run predictive churn-management analytic applications in their back offices can electronically share the results with call-center apps, to “enable the CSR to personalize behavior with that customer, including targeted selling,” Amdocs’ Hurst says. “The CSR can see a history on the screen of this customer’s products, trouble tickets and the like, and even have an indicator on the screen pointing to a current marketing campaign appropriate to that customer. All that relies on front-to-back office integration.”
As it prepared earlier this year to debut a new CRM For Communications release by the end of the first quarter, PeopleSoft pushed the notion of analytics “embedded” in CRM. PeopleSoft claims to dissolve the boundary between such analytic capabilities and the CRM core that manages marketing plans, ad campaigns, telemarketing and billing messages. “On the operations side, you can then fine-tune the effectiveness of the spend, because you can analyze how the customer responded to, for example, a free bill message versus a costly direct-mail message.”
Having ported more industry-specific functionality into its communications products from its acquisition of Vantive, PeopleSoft promises to deliver prebuilt integration of typical service provider functions, from fraud to local number portability to spare parts inventory management. In each case, Chen says “the customer-facing application becomes the same as the management app.”
In the opposite direction, the goal is to pull the back-office administration staff’s mindset into consciousness of the customer. In fraud management, for example, an isolated case of fraud can now be correlated with the customer profile to put the case in perspective. “Is this a gold customer? Does he also take our Internet service?” Chen asks. “That’s why we bring network fault and trouble management and fulfillment into the customer-facing application. It’s then up to the service provider to write rules for notification.”
Analytic applications also are becoming more utilitarian, he says. In the past, for example, such applications might allow a manual query to assess the impact of an outage on churn, but such a query won’t find much that isn’t already obvious to the provider. “Late last year we introduced Customer Behavior Modeling integrated analytic algorithms within the data warehouse that can find and correlate undesirable behavior,” Chen says. “It can start with behavior I want and don’t want and let the algorithms search for unplanned answers. I may find that an individual technician is a bigger factor than the outage, and he just needs people-skills training.”
People skills. Now there’s a lodestone for survival in tough times.
Click Here for New Paradigm Chart
Source: Step 9 Software Corp.
Hewlett Packard Co.
Siebel Systems Inc.
Step 9 Software Corp.
Sun Microsystems Inc.