Putting the Backbone Into Self-Care

For some years now consumers have become accustomed to managing many of their everyday purchases and services themselves. From booking a holiday to tracking an order of a book or a PC, they will access and manage their services online, often bypassing the need to communicate in person with their providers. Companies with successful Web operations, such as Dell in the PC market, or Travelocity in the travel market, have set a precedent in self-care that telecommunications providers have no choice but to follow if they are to provide a higher level of customer service. Self-care also saves large companies significant amounts of expensive back-office staff to deal with inquiries and operations support. It can alleviate the embarrassing problems of poor customer support service that many European broadband providers regularly come under fire for. When consumers purchase new broadband or VoIP services they have high expectations: immediate activation, 100 percent reliability, great value, and self-service capabilities. The so-called Internet generation is one of the most demanding consumer groups ever. A broadband customer, for example, has a great deal of choice of which company to subscribe to with so many competing providers now on the market. Each of these providers offers a large selection of products, from customizable bundled services, to shorter time-sensitive offers. All this is great news for the consumer, but the array of products presents a challenge for the service provider when trying to map a customer to a service and allowing her to manage services autonomously. The beauty of well-designed and highly functional self-care capability is that not only does it reduce operational costs, but also, consumers increasingly view this kind of capability as a must-have. A new generation of consumers that is now entering its prime spending years is more willing and in fact, wanting, to take full control of its purchasing and service-usage experience. Self-care in the communications industry Self-care is still at a nascent stage in this market--and usually involves customers accessing mobile phone accounts and checking their free minutes, or accessing bills online. However, for customers to be able to order products themselves, and personalize and upgrade their simple or bundled services, a service provider will need to install more comprehensive order management and provisioning systems. Just installing a simple Web portal on top of an existing customer care and operations support system won't work. The issue for a large full-service operator that may offer five or six types of telecommunications services is, the permutations of all the customizable elements of these services could result in the provider ending up with thousands of products in its overall portfolio. This can present a considerable order management problem, considering also that the customer's interaction should link up and retrieve the data that is already available and stored in other applications like a CRM system. Take the example of one of the largest U.S. communications service providers, Qwest Communications. Qwest has 16 million subscribers for its telephony and broadband services in the U.S., and is taking steps to invest in systems solutions to automate various business processes and empower its customers to manage their orders and transactions on their account. Qwest's residential VoIP service now features an automated system that enables a subscriber to control a number of settings and features via a Web portal, including managing features like virtual numbers, click-to-call, and reach-me capabilities. The user can also implement features like caller ID display and call blocking. The system works by seeing what features are available from a product catalog via the Web portal, and then also validating the user's address and telephone number. The overall solution links many disparate systems to ensure that all the data on a customer is current and correct, and ensures that customer requests get processed automatically and flow through to the underlying network. The complexity of service bundling in the communications area is leading to increased order management and provisioning challenges. Other industries have set the standard and are the benchmark that communications service providers need to aspire to in providing self-care and self-provisioning capabilities. Communications service providers have to become as agile as these other industries if they are to allow their customers to take control of their services and look after their accounts themselves. Next-generation operations support systems can handle the vast array of new services that customers are demanding today, but also support future services that service providers will need to roll out to retain and grow their customer base. About the Author
Yogen Patel is vice president of product marketing at Ceon. He brings more than 13 years of hands-on operational experience in enterprise software and telecommunications, including management responsibilities in product management and product marketing at both Fortune 100 and venture-backed companies. Mr. Patel has a BS in applied mathematics from Queen's University, Canada, an MSEE from Boston University, and an MBA from The Wharton School. Contact Yogen Patel at ypatel@ceon.com. Please visit Ceon.
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