For telecom companies, the Web is an ever-evolving customer relationship tool. Simple pricing and information Web sites have given way to online price quoting and password-protected account access. The next step? Giving customers the ability to order, provision and configure personalized communications at the click of a mouse.
While customer self-care via a Web portal continues down the path to customized functionality, making it happen involves more than implementing slick graphics and nifty color schemes. “A portal isn’t about the glossy front end, but … it really takes [a lot] on the back end to be useful,” says Mpower Communications’ Russ Shipley, new technology officer.
Carriers and vendors are tackling the developing requirements for selfprovisioning and e-care with gusto these days, and no wonder: Benefits from implementing such technology include reductions in operational expenditures and higher customer satisfaction, two increasingly important elements in a competitive and complex environment.
“A few years ago there was a push to have things provisioned on a consumer level, then it leveled off,” says Richard Kane, president at Coastal Technologies Group Inc., a provider of Web-delivered OSS that handles 10 billion transactions per month and offers “OSS Connect” for outsourced provisioning. “Now it’s been back on the front burner the last few months, because transaction rates are increasing, and we’ve seen local number portability and VoIP picking up steadily. For the provider, there’s a need to simplify all this.”
In fact, the volume of accounts and complexity of access control have created a $2.4 billion market for products and services providing authentication, single sign-on, user directories, self-service portals and access provisioning, according to the Yankee Group.
Efficiency, customer satisfaction and even sales and marketing opportunities are a few of the reasons self-service is ever more in the spotlight.
“Carriers want to drive the amount of revenue generated over the Web,” says Dave Berry, CTO at Synchronoss Technologies Inc., an order management and fulfillment software company that helps carriers outsource the people, processes and software to e-bond with their customers more quickly, via its ActivationNow product. “Typically that’s in the 20 percent to 25 percent range now, and they’re seeing their cost per gross add go down. So it lowers operational expenditures in call centers and help desks, plus they don’t need as much inside sales.”
Paul Savill, director of data services at WilTel Communications Group Inc. notes reducing calls to a call center alone can save significantly in operational expenditures. “Back-office systems and support are making businesses more streamlined and efficient in the call center,” he says. WilTel created its own wholesale and enterprise customer Web portal, Direct Network Access (DNA), which has about 400 customers using it. Customers can order new services, view circuit-level performance and open trouble tickets on their own. Meanwhile, performance reporting provides utilization data on virtual local area networks and circuits. DNA’s pricing tool allows customers to generate up to 45 network design solutions at one time, including leastcost routing and local access options to meet their specific business needs. Pricing is created using customized rate plans.
The ability to do all this without making a phone call can make a carrier more attractive to do business with, especially on a wholesale level, where such things are complex and have long provisioning cycles. “If a wholesale customer can go in and look at private line services, enter two addresses and get an end-to-end price quote, there’s a value to that,” says Savill. “Also of value are things like looking up estimated delivery dates, launching orders and the ability to check in to get a real-time update on where it is in the process, whether it’s been sent to the LEC yet, and so on. And we have autonotification if a circuit is down - we send a call to a pager, cell phone and so on. And the customer actually can go and pull down a billing estimate, so they can be more timely in billing their customer.”
Self-care attracts enterprise customers as well. Qwest Communications International Inc. conducts regular customer surveys and asked its business clients whether the capabilities of its portal, Qwest Control, influenced their decisions to contract with Qwest. A full 25 percent said yes, according to Jim Rudolph, program manager at the ILEC. “So we see this as a sales tool as well,” he notes. “And we find our customer satisfaction is significantly higher when we provide them detailed information about their services. The Web is a much easier way to work with Qwest. Some will prefer to use other channels, so we don’t cut off that option, but we want to let them access information as is appropriate for their needs.”
Meanwhile, e-provisioning may become a requirement in doing business with small and medium businesses. Yankee Group analyst Steve Hilton notes that price and network quality are table stakes for this group, and don’t engender loyalty. Rather, customer service is the key. Tightly integrating back-office OSS databases and front-office customer relationship management systems to a Web portal significantly increases SMB loyalty, he notes.
|Click to Enlarge
Synchronoss outsource services facilitate e-bonding.
“Non-automated, legacy backoffice systems - including order management, inventory management and service provisioning - negatively affect an SMB’s interactions with its service provider,” says Hilton. “Without strong, robust order management systems, service providers cannot efficiently automate the installation, provisioning and activation processes, especially as the volume of daily interactions between the SMB and its service provider increases.”
Besides customer satisfaction and operational expenditure reductions, self-care also opens up opportunities for direct marketing on the part of the carrier. “One can, for instance, make incremental revenue through the bill, for things like Caller ID, conference calling and cell phone services,” says Ron Whaley, vice president of sales and marketing at OSG Billing Services, which performs print-and-mail services for billing as well as electronic billing and presentment. “We use graphics and highlight colors as a way to educate the customer. Carriers can use the bill to explain new things, Wi-Fi, for example, and to migrate the customer to new offerings.”
Coastal Technologies outsourced provisioning service for carriers provides intelligible reporting for end users.
The use of the bill becomes more dynamic in an online environment. “Flagged data in the billing system helps us utilize it to create customized, one-on-one relationships via the bill, so we can analyze the services a customer has and present offers accordingly. It offers a personalized touch that marketing-driven providers can really capitalize on.”
Carriers can use e-care to market to consumers as well, particularly in the wireless area. “When contracts run out, the rates go to an out-of-plan rate,” says Berry. “So within 90 days of expiration, we will send them a link so they can review the new plans available, and bring them back to the Web store for an up-sell.”
Self-provisioning opens up opportunities for the greater customization of customer interactions. The trend speaks to a continuing goal of creating a world of personalized communications, where selfconfigured and self-managed services are the norm: a nice perk for customers, and very efficient for carriers.
The idea is perhaps best brought to life in the consumer VoIP world. “There is now an evolution from self-provisioning and self-care, moving to service control,” explains Kent Steffen, president and CEO at OSS vendor Telution Inc. “That’s driven by IP-based, customer-configured communications that change on an ongoing basis with functions like find-me-follow-me. Self-provisioning used to be about the network. Now it’s about the applications that ride on top of the network.”
However, as edges of the networks get smarter (a consumer can put a $59 box on the line that allows him to do VoIP), carriers lose much of the control they had in a centralized switch environment, and that presents back-office challenges. “Peer-to-peer configurations and IP services break down a lot of that centralized model,” says Steffen. “This is a new era of personal communications, and selfprovisioning will become important as people determine which services play across televisions, mobile devices, PCs, the phone and so on.”
|Click to Enlarge
Cramer5 shows the capacity utilization on a proposed IP VPN service circuit.
Meanwhile, VoIP providers need to deliver the same level of quality as an incumbent if they want to get more than early adopters of VoIP to sign on. “That means they have to maintain quality of service over a network they don’t necessarily control,” says Charles Studt, senior product manager at TeleGea. “And after the service is installed, end users are expecting to manage changes themselves with a VoIP offer.”
“Self-care for customers on the residential side may be table stakes,” adds Studt, “But for business model viability, you have to have that. You can’t scale the business or hire enough CSRs otherwise.”
Such customization isn’t limited to IP carriers. Wireless operators are getting in on the act. “The next level of self-care is just-in-time self-care,” says Berry. “Originally we were just taking orders on the Web and performing the fulfillment and provisioning in the regular way, but that’s changing. On the wireless side, it’s becoming flow-through and automatic. We’re looking at creating a Web site that looks like the phone, so customers can program it right there. You’ll see e-care come off the Web to the device, and features will be activated with a communication from the network directly, so it’s provisioned on the network with no intermediary.”
Legacy carriers are moving in the direction of personalized self-provisioning too. “We recently re-architected the whole system to add increased flexibility to what we show customers, so now it’s much more personalized, and because we have the ability to show only what’s relevant to them, the portal suits the individual customer’s needs better,” says Qwest’s Rudolph. With an eye to flexibility, online ordering is the big push in 2005 for Qwest Control, he says, while e-bonding with customers via XML is the end game. “We’re putting more and more complex capabilities online, to get to the ultimate goal of direct interfaces,” he says. “Right now, we offer a downloading capability so they can get the raw data, and we’ll evolve that.”
BEHIND THE SCENES
While a world of self-provisioned, personalized services sounds like a win for carriers and customers alike, actually making it happen represents some behindthe- scenes challenges when it comes to related processes like validation loops and inventory management.
At Qwest, implementing flow-through provisioning for simple orders or changes will be easy enough, but the development of ordering functionality has proven to be a bigger challenge than expected. Order initiation for complex services often requires additional contracts or validations at several points along the way. “You need the appropriate validations up front,” says Rudolph. “You might have to do additional checks with the customer, and you have to make sure you do a contract check. Is the person entering the information authorized to do this? And you have to also comply with any regulatory requirements.”
Self-provisioning represents a challenge for carriers in managing their capacity. If customers are creating bandwidth-hungry networks that the carrier can’t adequately support, chaos ensues. Thus, a holistic view of the network and the back office is essential for inventory management.
“Customers want the services, but carriers are risk-averse to giving the customer control of the network,” explains Briscoe. “It’s a problem for bandwidth utilization, so typically what you see with e-care is monitoring, modification, but not necessarily creation of services.”
The ability to provide true selfprovisioning for complex business services hinges on an appropriate inventory management ability. Because many backoffice systems are interrelated when it comes to managing capacity, a carrier needs a single point of reference and an abstracted view of the network. “You can’t do it with a piecemeal approach where every system has its own management context,” says Peter Briscoe, senior worldwide product manager at Cramer Systems Inc. “A sub-two-second response to a request means a high-level inventory view of the available capacity, and a single inventory reference model. Some operators are getting there as an architecture, certainly not all.”
Another challenge exists in the form of validations. Once an order is entered, a series of checks to make sure the order is authorized and provisionable come into play, typically performed by a set of live provisioning professionals once an order is entered in the Web site by the customer. There is a movement underway to automate these processes, making them real-time for the customer and more customizable. “The ability to do this will be a differentiator when bandwidth or connection is what you sell,” says Briscoe. “True, real-time self-provisioning lets carriers provide more than a pipe - it also translates into better ways to manage bandwidth and structure creative services.”
In most opportunities, Cramer5 obtains information from the front-end systems via a middleware bus it then looks at the network, the customer location and specifications, and performs a design process. Once it determines that there is sufficient capacity at the customer’s locations and across the network, it then associates the appropriate physical connections. The order then sits inside the Cramer system, reserved.
“No on else can take the capacity away at that point,” says Briscoe. “Then we send it on for deployment, and the carrier negotiates for price and there is a validation loop, after which the order is sent to the activation systems.”
Cramer5 can act as a validation platform, as it does for Dutch communications service provider BBned, for its Web-driven order process capability. The platform manages the physical and logical inventory across all technology layers and can validate across them.
“The key is incorporating a quick, suitable offline validation loop prior to touching the network,” says Briscoe. “Then you have to get a system in place for validation within an inventory model, so you aren’t reworking the system over and over again, redesigning with manual processes.” The key is an all-encompassing information base, he adds.
|Click to Enlarge
TeleGea’s VoIP Delivery Management Solution consists of three logical layers to automate, administer and manage hosted VoIP services.
Self-provisioning can engender a backlash if a customer believes the order has been accepted, only to find out later that it cannot be provisioned because of capacity issues. Ninety-two percent of orders sent to Coastal Technologies come via Web services and flow-through provisioning, and to solve the inventorymanagement issue, it pre-qualifies new orders by looking at the contents of the local loop and network and solving any problems before giving the customer time frames, least-cost routing information and other information. “We have service rules written in - so when a service is rejected, we work with carriers to create their own validation loops for different types of services, to correct errors before they get out the door,” Kane says. “For the user, we offer a red, yellow or green dot to show whether something is a go. End users or corporate provisioners can’t order at a complex level - they need a transaction layer. We provide a Web service that almost looks English, and we fill in the service code to make the order flow through.”
VoIP providers are in a better position to implement self-provisioning than the ILEC, Studt says. “There-s no confusion from legacy systems and processes, so they can offer a seamless experience from order to provisioning and management.”
TeleGea’s Work Flow Engine coordinates the provisioning process, gathering inventory data and supplying it to the front-end systems. It embeds validation processes into the software and offers packaged interoperability with feature servers from Broadsoft Inc., VocalData Inc., Sylantro Systems and Cisco Systems Inc. “A VoIP provider can go from having a highly specialized provisioning person to an automated process pretty easily,” says Studt.
Coastal Technologies Group Inc. www.coastaltechnologies.com