Independent operators are walking a fine line trying to balance local strengths
and their need to support advanced services economically and efficiently
Less is more. Small is good. On the face of it, those two adages are full of compressed wisdom... depending, of course, on the situation to which they're applied. When it comes to broadband telecommunications, supporting advanced services and independent or medium- to small-sized operators, those two phrases can be a source of great strength and even greater concern.
Yet, as the traditional "cable TV" industry morphs into something much greater by offering additional services, smaller operators risk being pinched by the high costs of upgrading their back office infrastructures and the need to have the ability to quickly roll out service and properly bill for usage.
Matt Polka, president of the American Cable Association, says that in the past, the smaller or independent operators have prided themselves on customer service that was strongly anchored in the local community.
"In many cases," says Polka, "even before the digital revolution, what they had to sell, more than bells and whistles, was their ties to the local customer and the fact that their customers were friends and neighbors. That has always stood out, and it's really not a whole lot different today."
But as more advanced services get rolled out, many of these operators are facing some hard realities when it comes to providing customer support and coordinating back office operations. While small is good, it isn't always efficient, says Dan Mulvenon, vice president of member services for the National Cable Television Cooperative Inc.
"The trick with these guys," says Mulvenon, "is they walk a pretty fine line between staying local and staying profitable. Local call centers or outbound service centers can help the small systems keep a local presence. But, a centralized customer service and support system may provide more cost efficiency.
"We've talked to companies that have gone in and advocated turning over virtually all office operations to an outsource center. While that's attractive financially to some of these operators, it's hard to be local and sell yourself as being local when the local office no longer exists."What's good for the goose...?
The customer support/back office challenges being faced by independent operators aren't all that different from what some of the bigger operators are facing, says John Seig, president and CEO of AP Engines, an OSS integration company.
"Quite frankly," says Seig, "many of the customer service/back office systems today are all separate, even with the large MSOs. Things are handled as individual manual processes. There is lots of entry at different consoles, and there is not an automated correlation between systems.
"Billing gets turned on literally by a CSR manually entering things after he/she hears from a field service or network guy that things seem to be up and running (for a particular customer). There are a lot of inconsistencies when that happens.
"The biggest barrier right now is the cost to deploy broadly. A lot of places are doing just fine with a handful of van rolls and manual processes. But, it doesn't scale. And, in order to scale, they tend to think in terms of just adding more people."
"What scale gives you," says Mossman, "is that it allows you to invest in your infrastructure and leverage those costs over a fairly large customer base so that you can continue to drive down your unit costs." Mossman notes that adding more bodies just aggravates the situation because customer care is generally one of the two or three largest budgetary items for a cable company because of the head count required to provide such services.
Added on top of that, says Michael D'Eath, president and CEO of CaritaSoft, a customer management provider, is the increasing complexity of the advanced services that are starting to roll out in all sizes of systems.
Part of the customer support/back office solution, says D'Eath, can be found in the way operators view the problem and how they refocus their whole approach to this increasingly complex business.
"The first thing to do," says D'Eath, "is look at the problem as a whole. Trying to do it piecemeal will kill you in terms of integration costs. Look at the problem strategically, in the sense of where you want to be and what you want to be able to do in two years, as opposed to today."
It's also important that any system provide the right tools for a customer service representative (CSR) to do their job quickly and efficiently, says Jeffrey Campbell, CTO at Core Networks, a provisioning system provider.
"When somebody calls," says Campbell, "they want to talk to a human rapidly. You want to make sure you leave them on hold as briefly as possible. One of the ways to do that is to make sure the information is at their fingertips.
"What's really necessary is that the tool the CSRs have in front of them gives them the ability to immediately pinpoint problem areas, identify the source of the problem and contact either the data people, the plant people, the service people, or the billing people. All that information has to be available on one consistent, easy-to-use interface."
What kind of information? Campbell says CSRs need all the essential contact and account information, all the e-mail addresses for that account, trouble ticket histories, what cable modems and/or Ethernet cards they have and the network addresses associated with them. He thinks CSRs also need simplified, e.g., color-coded, readouts of essential service functionalities like bandwidth settings, upstream/downstream signal strength, and signal-to-noise ratios, etc.The road less traveled
Buckeye CableSystem is an aggressive, innovative independent operator serving approximately 160,000 subscribers in the greater Toledo, Ohio area. It filed as a CLEC in 1998 and eventually developed a switched commercial telephone service with 25,000 access lines that's landed nearly 600 accounts.
A Modem Probe Screen shot from the CoreOS Broadband Provisioning and Management System gathers live statistics from individual cable modems to assist in proactive network monitoring and management.
The one-by-one approach to rolling out advanced services is reflected in the customer support/back office operations as well. Joe Jensen, executive vice president and CTO at Buckeye, says Buckeye has created two customer service groups. One covers the commercial telephone service; the other covers its video cable and high-speed access services.
"For customer service," says Jensen, "we have a billing system that we have managed ourselves in terms of software development. We incorporated some changes in it to support the billing and initialization of the IP platform for our cable modem customers."
Jensen says the company has managed the code for its billing system for the last 10 years, and he says the staff has become pretty good at it. But, he says, the do-it-yourself days are fast approaching an end.
"I think our days of adapting are over," says Jensen. "Over the last year, we put an internal task team together with some help of some outside consultants to define a next-generation, back office operations support system which will begin pretty soon.
"There are couple of key pieces, in our opinion, that have to be in place before we can launch residential (telephony). That means a new billing system, a new customer care solution and a new order management system. We're also looking at enhancing our facility management system."
Upgrading the customer support and back office operations, says Jensen, is a task that can easily get bogged down and run up costs at the same time. "I think it (the upgrade) could easily become an expensive black hole," says Jensen. "So, you've got to be very careful and analyze your current operations."
To avoid those pitfalls, Jensen says they were very proactive in enlisting input from all affected parties in the company. They were also very selective in choosing the consultants who assisted them in the project. Jensen says the process was also helped along by designating a full-time product manager early on who did nothing else but manage the whole software system analysis.Joining forces?
Smaller operators often don't have the resources to undertake a complete back office upgrade, or they simply don't have a large enough customer base to justify the expense of a stand-alone customer support/back office operation. To address that situation, D'Eath says his company is "exploring" the possibility of creating an application service provider (ASP) approach where smaller operators, as an organized group, could use a packaged solution on a piecemeal basis over a period of time via the Web.
"What we could possibly do," says D'Eath, "is put together an ASP approach which would mean the operators might pay an upfront fee to set it up and get their data loaded and so forth. We'd work with a billing vendor to provide billing and customer care and marketing systems on an integrated basis."
Such a system, says D'Eath, might involve operators paying a one-time data-loading fee, and then perhaps pay for usage monthly, based on the number of subscribers and/or how many workstations are connected at any one time.People who need people
What does this or any other customer service/back office solution offer to independent operators? D'Eath says it's a major shift for operators of any size, one that will change the industry forever.
"I think 2001 is the beginning of a new era for these folks," says D'Eath, "because it will help operators understand who their customers are and exactly what their needs are. In the past, maybe it didn't matter and it was certainly hard to find out because the infrastructure didn't permit it. There are now systems out there where they can do it.
"This gives them the opportunity to start to run their business around their customer. They can now be customer-centric instead of product-centric.
"The need for that is here now, both as a defense against competition, as well as being able to handle the complexity of the products they're now selling. They have to make sure they're not selling the wrong product to the wrong person. Because, if they do, by simple definition, they will increase churn."
That, we all know, is the BIG no-no in this new and increasingly competitive marketplace.