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March 2000


Leveraging The Intelligent Network Through Superior Customer Service


In the last five years, the communications industry has been turned upside down. A new industry has emerged, spawned from deregulation and propelled by the molding forces of competition, technology and powerful market catalysts. Over the past couple of years, competitive service pricing points and creative bundled service offers such as local phone service, long-distance phone service, high-speed Internet access and cable television have been the key methods used to win and retain customers and grow a healthy revenue model. However, communications providers can no longer rely on these methods alone for continued success. Service costs can only go so low and bundling will eventually no longer be a differentiator, but rather the norm. Moving forward, the companies that will succeed are those that take a customer-centric focus by building an interactive and dynamic customer-network relationship by leveraging the vast network assets and valuable repository of customer information they already have available, but are not exploiting.

Advancements in network technology are creating endless opportunities and challenges for communication service providers, painting an interesting picture of the state of the communications industry. Service providers need to grow market share, revenue and profitability in order to be competitive. This is occurring at the same time that pricing for network services like connection and transportation continues to fall. Yes, network technology is becoming less expensive, allowing providers to operate a network at fractions of historical costs. But the lower operating costs do not make up for the margins created by decreasing product/service prices. Most providers have determined a two-prong approach to combat this challenge.

Communication providers who will be the leaders of the next-generation communications market will have realized that effectively using the network technology available to them can create exciting products and services to win customers and can help them build intimate customer-provider relationships to retain them. Of the two, many providers are finding that the latter is more difficult to accomplish. This article will review some of the dilemmas providers face in leveraging their robust infrastructures to create an intimate relationship between the provider and the customers and will provide some key recommendations for eliminating these obstacles.

Dilemma 1 � The Need To Expand And Promote Enticing Product Offerings
In the not-so-distant past, entrepreneurs like Henry Ford took the stance that customers could buy a Ford car in any color they wanted, as long as it was black. Today, however, it is the consumer and not the business that drives product availability. The future is clear � customers demand options and providers not willing to accommodate them will not survive.

As a result, while communication providers are working to effectively bundle multiple products and services, simultaneously they must market to insatiable consumer demands for new and exciting products. The results of this product expansion include popular items such as personal digital assistants and enhanced services, which �hook� more customers, increase network volume and raise provider revenues.

However, there are both upsides and downsides to this methodology. On the upside, most providers are finding that deploying the network technology to support new services is a relatively straightforward affair. Network infrastructure providers have excelled at building equipment that supports quick deployment and true interoperability. On the downside, regardless of the initial success of deploying new network technology, even the most innovative products will fail without thorough integration into customer service and sales channels. What most providers are finding is that introducing new products and services into existing sales applications and operations support systems (OSS) is extremely difficult, if not impossible. The reason for this is quite simple. Most existing communications operations support systems were built to support one or two services � nothing more, nothing less. This prohibits these systems from supporting the sales, ordering and provisioning of new services. In most cases, providers are held back from offering new services because they simply cannot order and provision service.

Obviously, the inability to order and provision service will prohibit providers from leveraging available network technology to deploy new services. Another roadblock in introducing new services is how they are sold and serviced. An interesting conundrum is occurring. Service providers are rolling out advanced services that take advantage of the Internet (examples include DSL, wireless Internet access and voice over Internet protocol), but cannot use this technology to sell to and service customers. Customers become baffled when they realize that the provider of the latest and greatest network service has not figured out how to leverage this technology to enhance the ordering and support of the service. Customers want to be able to do it themselves � order service or view and pay bills � all over the Internet. They demand a customer service experience that is advanced and as efficient as the new technology they are ordering. The root of this problem is also with the provider�s sales and operations support systems. The typical system was not architected to support customer access to account maintenance and service ordering functions and data via the Internet. Again, a service provider is prevented from leveraging its vast network resources to enhance the marketability of its new products and services.

Dilemma 2 � Getting A Better View Of Your Customers
Most service providers capture enormous amounts of data about their customers (where they live, what services they want, how often they use these services, paying habits, etc.) They are now beginning to see the value of these data and how they can be used to drive a customer care experience that builds a long-term, profitable subscriber base. However, most communications providers are faced with the unfortunate reality that they have built their businesses, especially their operations support systems, on the goal of quick time to market rather than the goal of developing an intimate customer relationship. However, in turn, this has led most providers to deploy separate systems for sales, customer care, service ordering and billing. Most providers have been able to integrate these systems only to ensure the basics are supported, such as capturing an order for new service and producing monthly invoices. They have not fully integrated them to be able to leverage the data these systems capture to provide enhanced customer service. Hence, even with the multimillions of dollars that have been spent developing customer care and billing infrastructures, the majority of providers do not have a unified view of who their customers are, what services they buy, how much they spend and what complaints or compliments they have about the providers� services. The typical provider is unable to share customer information across the enterprise to help build long, profitable customer relationships.

Building The Interactive And Dynamic Customer-Network Relationship
To address these dilemmas and build an operations infrastructure that enables a provider to take advantage of its vast network resources, a provider must build an interactive and dynamic customer-network relationship that provides the power to manage all aspects of how customers are served at the touch of a button. Keys to building an interactive and dynamic customer-network relationship are as follows.

Merging Front- And Back-Office Operations. In order for a communications provider to be successful in the highly competitive communications market, a fundamental change must occur in the way a provider manages its front-office (sales and customer service) and back-office (provisioning and billing) operations. To be successful, communication providers need to leverage their most important asset � customer data across the enterprise. One of the major tasks facing the communications industry will be fusing the commonly disparate front-to-back office triad of billing, order management and customer care to power this new customer-centric focus. Service providers will struggle to figure out how to merge the data from the multiple systems they have deployed into a unified information model and then leverage their network to push these data to multiple users � customers, customer service professionals, marketing analysts and network professionals.

In addition, this model must be replicable and adaptable to new products and services as they come to market. It is difficult to predict which technologies will develop and when. Without a crystal ball, providers must rely upon a system�s flexible architecture to ease new product offerings into the marketing and customer service mix.

Enable An Interactive Value Proposition. The relationship with a customer must be about more than just the initial service order or the monthly bill. A customer relationship is about listening, understanding, changing and responding appropriately. The physical bill should be a means to an end and a way of enhancing the relationship, but cannot be the end itself.

Communications providers must be interactive with a customer, using every interaction to build a stronger relationship with the customer as an individual. Part of being interactive means having knowledgeable people to manage the customer interaction, including the right customer relationship management (CRM) system to enable service professionals to be successful. The CRM system must be flexible enough to allow the gathering of any type of information, which may help foster a stronger relationship. The end goal is not just to be able to provide the elusive �segment-of-one� targeted marketing, but more importantly, to change the nature of the relationship. Providers must focus on replacing the shallow and easily switched provider-to-customer relationship with a more permanent, high-switching-cost alternative of friend-to-customer. If a customer perceives value in the relationship he or she has with the communications provider, the switching costs are much higher, and churn much lower, than when he or she views the relationship as a cold, commodity service, price- sensitive interaction.

Provide Choice And Flexibility. Communicate with customers anytime and anywhere. Customers should be able to define their preferred mode for communicating with the provider. They should be offered choices, wherever feasible, so they can design their own relationship. Options are the key. Some people like to speak live to a call center representative. Some prefer a voice response system. Others want to interact exclusively over the Web or through Web TV and manage their relationships at 2:00 a.m. An effective provider must discover how to use its network and systems capabilities to accommodate these various needs and give the customers choices�all the while learning from the choices customers make.

A Holistic View Of The Customer. To maximize the potential of any interaction, the provider must gain a holistic view of the customer. The service provider must view every interaction in the context of all other interactions and piece together an understanding of the customer in light of these small interactions. This means that service professionals must have access to all information about a customer at the click of a mouse. Examples of this interaction include access to:

  • All demographic information,
  • All past and current billing information,
  • All order information, for both existing and pending orders,
  • All trouble ticket information, and
  • All information regarding past calls, when they logged in using the Web and what their needs are.

A Checklist For Success
In the new communications marketplace, a provider�s business will inevitably change. Rivals will become partners. Partners will become competitors. Customer demand will become increasingly intense and customer choice will need to be increasingly extensive. Inevitably, operations support systems and people will struggle to keep up with new demands and new business strategies. In 2000 and beyond, the successful communication service provider will use its network and operations infrastructure to do the following:

  • Fuse disjointed billing, order management and customer care systems to service customers expeditiously and efficiently while inherently providing the ability to support new products and services,
  • Provide a unified information model across multiple business lines to create unlimited opportunities for using customer and operational data to improve and grow business,
  • Create an interactive value proposition for customers and partners by Web-enabling ordering and billing functions to increase customer satisfaction and operational efficiency,
  • Enable an integrated supply chain with trading partners to significantly decrease service delivery times, and
  • Deploy a robust, network-centric operations support systems architecture, which provides a long-term solution that enables service providers to scale in terms of size, performance and functionality.

Service providers who realize that a renewed and intensified focus on customer care is the linchpin of success will be the only ones left standing after the communications war.

John Konczal is vice president of business development at Telution, a Chicago-based provider of applications and services which foster enterprisewide communications to drive customer service and operations for next-generation communications providers.

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