Pushing Paper (Aside)
Supply-chain Automation Streamlines
Multiparty, Multiprocess Environment
By Edward J. Finegold
many carriers, particularly in the Tier 2 and 3 markets, a billing system is the
epicenter of customer, service and revenue-focused operations. It is the
gatekeeper for customer records, product catalogs, pricing plans and even
revenue performance. Often, however, it is a series of manual processes that
regulate what moves in and out of the billing system. Ordering and provisioning,
in particular, typically involve groups that work phones at a "desk"
to police paper, fax or e-mail processes. As service providers expand their
offerings from basic services such as long-distance resale, to more complex
offerings, such as local voice and multiservice data, the burden on ordering and
provisioning desks grows exponentially. To address mounting complexity, leading
billing vendors have developed new functionality, with the help of some key
technologies, designed to automate sales, customer ordering, and supplier
ordering processes while incorporating intelligent features to police processes
and guide people.
Complexity grows exponentially
because the art of the telecom business now lies in a provider’s ability to
assemble technology services from multiple suppliers into complete, seamless
offerings for end customers. Common offerings include things like channelized
T1s that deliver local, long-distance and data services. Almost all providers,
including massive Tier 1s, deliver their service packages with some combination
of owned facilities, unbundled network services and resale.
Coordinating the timely delivery of
these piece parts as customer orders flow is a massive challenge that is
critical to a provider’s profitability. "Our customers were saying they
have manual processes with sticky notes and can’t get their orders all the way
through as fast as possible," says Don Culeton, president of Info
Directions Inc. "If they can’t do that, it doesn’t matter what’s in the
billing system … We knew we had to solve these problems."
Ordering and provisioning desks that
once handled PIC requests for long-distance resale, for example, become saddled
with more complex interactions with LECs, ISPs, backbone providers and others
supplying underlying services. What was a relatively straightforward ordering
and provisioning process evolves into a more sophisticated supply-chain
management challenge. A service package can’t be delivered in pieces, and delays
in delivery will result in significant opportunity costs.
"If you think about it, every
four days of delay equals one percent of the potential revenue for a service
package in a year," says John Konczal, vice president of business
development for Telution Inc. If the manual processes designed to support basic
service offerings are thrown at this supply-chain challenge, it greatly
increases the risk and likelihood that order-to-billing time will grow along
with an increased cost to deliver every piece of every service order. Even if
revenue grows in step with new service introduction, the increase in fixed
operational costs will erode profitability.
In the supply-chain context,
automation attacks the paper-pushing aspects of complex ordering processes. In
most cases, ordering processes are mostly standard for each supplier or partner.
Most suppliers have defined processes, forms and sometimes feedback mechanisms
that software — which performs consistent, repetitive tasks well — largely can
automate. However, the software must come ready with certain capabilities.
"If you’re getting a pre-integrated solution that doesn’t have modules to
deal with standardized sets of processes, you should look for a different
solution," says Eric Nelson, CIO for multiservice provider and Tier 1 ISP
Netifice Communications Inc.
In many cases service providers’
staffs fear automation and resist it because they believe it necessarily means
staff cuts. This is often a misconception, because people are still a critical
part of any back office. "I don’t see it as taking a person [out of the
process]. There’s still so much work that needs to be done, and as automated as
you can make it, you’re basically unclogging the backlog," says Susan
Matarazzo, billing manager with Trans National Communications International
Inc., a multiservice operator that combines its own facilities with both resale
and UNEs. "You want to be automated with checks and balances in place,
that’s the ideal," she says.
The concept of checks and balances
is an important one. People still need to make sure that customer and supply
orders are fulfilled in a timely manner, errors are addressed and the business
is meeting customer demands as efficiently as possible. What should be automated
is the basic transport of information across supplier and sales channel
boundaries, the validations that insure order accuracy and critical steps such
as credit checks and follow-ups. Follow-ups can include a combination of pure
automation and prompting. For example, people working a provisioning desk must
track their provisioning requests and often place phone calls to see that those
requests don’t fall into jeopardy. An automated system can contain rules that
monitor the process and alert people before a stalled request results in a
fulfillment delay. This frees people from constantly policing every request,
making sure no orders fall through the cracks and allowing work groups to keep
up with the workload.
If a billing system is going to
tackle complex processes, it needs tools that allow service providers to model
and adjust them. "Task management is a big part of making sure that the
human touch points don’t fall down," says Info Directions’ Culeton. Task
and process design tools aren’t new technology, but they are new, integrated
components of today’s advanced billing solutions. The best of these tools allow
graphical, drag-and-drop process design. The elements that are dragged and
dropped represent componentized sets of tasks, validations, follow-ups,
triggers, scripts and requests for data that can be defined individually and
mixed and matched to form repeatable, largely automated task chains. They also
must be a truly integrated part of the billing system, and be able to define
interactions with billing systems throughout the supply chain.
"[Task managers] have not
historically faced billing, but rather provisioning," says Telution’s
Konczal. "Now it needs to mediate to one or many billing systems … and
track the history of an order."
This is an important concept because
end customers are demanding more customized service packages. The ordering
process, whether direct to the customer, or through channel partners or agents,
is becoming more complicated. When customers demand customized packages and
pricing, the automation systems in the background must be flexible enough to
define parameters for sales and insure that what’s being sold can be delivered
to the customer or location in question. They also must track the history of how
the order was built, which suppliers are involved, what the final details are
and which company should be compensated.
As an order is being built in the
sales process, a sales person shouldn’t see a service if it can’t be delivered.
"It needs to support what we call offer selection — expose the service to
the channel for qualification, validate it and deliver it to the point of
sale," explains Konczal. A provider can’t afford to sell a service and then
call back later to say it’s not available. Rather than validating service
availability after an order is requested, the product catalog in the billing
system should dictate, based on some simple rules that act off of customer or
location information, what can and cannot be sold. Parameters also must be
defined for how packages or bundles can be altered, and how far the sales person
can go in creating a custom pricing plan.
One of the weaknesses of a
provisioning-oriented task manager is that without integrated access to the
billing product catalog, it may not be able to control pricing, product bundling
and availability issues. "There are all kinds of rules where provisioning
and billing interact, where you need to know how the long the customer has been
with you and what you can offer to them. If you only have a provisioning engine,
you’re missing what you need to deliver tangible value to the customer,"
Task management tools have matured
and are simple to use once they are set up with the right elements. Standing
alone they provide little value to the supply-chain challenge. What’s defined in
a task manager must be backed up with technology designed for the multiparty,
multiprocess environment. The two primary technological advances that have
enabled new capabilities are XML’s maturation and the introduction of
distributed Web architectures. "XML has been like a godsend to us, and the
same is true for Web services [Microsoft’s .NET] and J2EE (Java 2 platform,
Enterprise Edition from Sun Microsystems Inc.) on the non-Microsoft path,"
says Netifice’s Nelson.
Telution’s Konczal explains the
power of XML is that it allows underlying elements of the supply chain that must
interact, such as systems, data and application functions, to describe
themselves in a common way. This simplifies integration and ongoing maintenance.
"XML is becoming the standard for sending orders back to your suppliers,
and it can give you the ability to inform everyone, including your customer, and
manage expectations throughout a process," he says.
When an advanced billing package can
design tasks and define follow-ups and validations, XML can be the common
vehicle for delivering information to affected and interested parties.
Distributed Web architecture
technologies, such as J2EE and .NET, pack even more punch. They allow
applications to be designed for an Internet or network environment that assumes
interactions among multiple parties and doesn’t tie an application’s presence to
a server’s physical location. This allows service providers to extend real
application functions to their channels’ and suppliers’ people and systems. It
also makes a service bureau or ASP option a more desirable possibility because
functionality, data and customization isn’t held hostage or necessarily limited
in any way. Says Netifice’s Nelson, "You have to find a way to leverage the
tools out there and still remain in charge of your own destiny … especially
given that your business will change at least four times a year."
Technologies like .NET enable
capabilities that simply were not available even a year ago. Lightweight .NET
clients, for example, incorporate the best aspects of browsers and windows
interfaces, in terms of maintainability and robust interactivity, respectively.
The underlying .NET technologies, or J2EE for that matter, put the basic
transactional and security plumbing into components that developers can exploit.
In the end, it reduces development time and expense even when crafting a highly
complex supply-chain application. For the service provider this means
applications aren’t bogged down as they grow, new service introduction stays
fast, and maintenance costs and efforts don’t explode. It also means providers
can have more freedom to customize solutions without waiting for compiled code
to roll out in a quarterly release. The distributed Web application should keep
pace with the business and stay flexible.
TYING PROCESS TO REVENUE
Rapid business change is a fact of
life for any provider. However, most providers lack any real ability — beyond
basic reporting tools — to monitor, measure or refine the business as a whole.
Introducing a high level of integrated process automation can and should deliver
these capabilities in addition to reducing the cost and complexity of
transactions. Because a provider must go through the process of defining rules,
checkpoints and process models when bringing in a billing-centric supply-chain
and sales-channel automation system, it can then see and measure business
performance at any interval, potentially in real time.
The automation system should be able
to derive metrics such as:
numbers of new orders and their
details on specific customer
attrition and retention numbers
order fulfillment performance
from suppliers, through channels and direct to customers
revenue performance per service
or sales channel
collections, float and bad-debt
metrics relating to supply
relationships and agreements
demands from sales channels and
The savviest of vendors are
developing "executive console" capabilities into their products that
provide a navigable, real-time view of the business and these metrics. With
flexible process modeling, pricing and product bundling and discounting tools, a
service provider can act on these measurements to refine processes, renegotiate
supplier agreements, develop incentive programs, determine the success of
campaigns, and trim any fat or dead wood in and around its business.
In the end, what was the core
billing application stays where it is, but its reach and intelligence extend
much further into the business, tying process and product back to revenue at
each step. The key for any service provider comes in selecting the right system
that meets around 80 percent of its requirements, has the tools to customize the
remaining 20 percent, and is delivered by a vendor that will be a strong
partner, committed to minimizing costs while maximizing flexibility.
TOP 10 SYSTEM DELIVERABLES
1. "Billing functionality.
Don’t forget that you need to be able to bill. Corporate hierarchical billing,
flexible discounts, contract management, incentive program support — you need
to throw a wide net." (Don Culeton, president, Info Directions Inc.)
2. "You want automation with
checks and balances. You want it to be functional. You want orders turned up and
generating revenue as fast as possible." (Susan Matarazzo, billing manager,
Trans National Communications International Inc.)
3. "Control your own destiny. I
want something that covers as much of my stated requirements, or my eTOM
(electronic telecom operations map) diagram, as possible and fill in the pieces
around it myself." (Eric Nelson, CIO, Netifice Communications Inc.)
4. "Aggregation … and XML.
Give sales people a better view of what they can sell … not just ordering
against the facilities-based network, but supply that partner connection and
deliver what partners deliver to [you]." (John Konczal, vice president of
business development, Telution Inc.)
5. "Task management. You need
to tie it all together so you can ensure that orders are coming in, exceptions
are being managed, and delays in the supply chain are being communicated back
6. "You have to go through a
period of replication where you measure the [new] system against the manual
processes. You need a strong project manager … and [so does] the vendor."
7. "Identify and bring in
better customers. The attention paid to credit management is higher than I have
ever seen it." (Konczal)
8. "Tools for management. You
want a console that allows executives to measure and examine performance and
continually refine the business." (Culeton)
9. "You have to find someone
with an architectural solution that uses J2EE or .NET — it’s extendable,
exposes their internal services, and let’s you hang your own stuff off of
10. "Experience. You don’t want
to spend six to eight months building something from the ground up; it should be
ready to roll for you and able to adapt as you integrate it into your
Edward J. Finegold is general
partner, Stylus Telecommunications LLC, which helps communications service
providers find the commercial B/OSS solutions and also provides support for
marketing, sales, business development and strategic planning for solutions
vendors and integrators. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Click here for The Sales-Supply-Delivery Chain Chart
|Info Directions Inc. www.infodirections.com
Netifice Communications Inc. www.netifice.com
Stylus Telecommunications LLC www.styluscom.com
Telution Inc. www.telution.com
Trans National Communications International