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Mission critical

Mon, 10/31/2005 - 7:00pm
Craig Kuhl, Contributing Editor

Although the spotlight shined on the technology behind IP telephony as operators began to test and deploy the service, MSOs are now applying much more effort toward the proper training of field technicians and customer service representatives as their VoIP footprints expand.

And for good reason. A solid force of trained pros will be required to support a service that is expected to reach more than 80 percent of cable households by 2008, according to a recent estimate from the Yankee Group.

Just how VoIP is to be provisioned, sold and maintained, and more importantly, who will have the competencies to get all of this done, are two crucial questions being addressed by the cable industry and its growing legions of VoIP trainers and trainees.

Training for the deployment and advancement of VoIP, with its inherent IP and telephony complexities such as security, number porting, regulation and disparate standards, and the extremely high expectations of a lifeline phone service, goes well beyond cable's traditional, and relatively simpler model of content distribution.

The result is a training mission of unparalleled proportions, with the objective being to train thousands of cable technicians, engineers, CSRs, back office management, mid-to-top level executives, and, well, just about the entire organization, about the many nuances of VoIP as a technology and a business.

And there is a growing sense of urgency. Telcos such as BellSouth, SBC, Verizon and others are in various stages of video deployment, a competitive strategy to defend against the cable industry's VoIP threat to their voice business.

Consequently, the pressure to quickly train a cable workforce on how to provision, sell and maintain VoIP service is intensifying, and pushing many MSOs to train their employees on VoIP, with haste.

"MSOs have committed to deploy [VoIP] so fast, that it's affecting the training process. There's an inevitable learning curve, and it's never been done before. It isn't seasoned, so education and training are the keys," says Mark Dzuban, vice chairman of PacketCable equipment supplier Cedar Point Communications.

Figure 1
Figure 1: Comcast Digital Voice Agent Development.

Keys, indeed. Comcast Cable, for example, is deepening its effort to train numerous layers of employees on VoIP.

"We're using the 3T approach: National trainers, who then train the trainers, who then train the local CAEs (customer account executives), technicians, engineers, and others. We'll use outside sources, but in-house training is our philosophy," says Karen Gaines, vice president for voice customer service at Comcast.

An integral part of that philosophy, she says, is providing CAEs, technicians and back office personnel with a foundation on which to clearly understand the intricacies of VoIP technology.

"Each module delivered face-to-face is available online. Employees can re-do the whole module, and refresher training is available 60 days after the traditional training. We are also using CAE feedback for the first time to make sure the initial training meets their needs. The foundation is the key component," she maintains.

Just as vital, she adds, is hands-on training. "We have labs in the field so technicians can see what VoIP looks like in a live lab environment. And for CAEs, we've added to the call center a panel with VoIP-related wiring and installation information to eliminate any surprises."

A valuable training asset for Gaines and Comcast is the circuit switched experience gained from its traditional phone business. Adds Gaines: "It has been very helpful. We are able to use relevant material for VoIP and learned lessons internally. But training for VoIP, especially the technology piece, is different, and we have more markets that haven't offered phone. So, we've streamlined the training, shortened the time, and simplified the system."

And included the marketing discipline in the training as well, she adds. "Marketing is a key part of the foundation. The product must be positioned appropriately and CAEs must be in a position to understand VoIP technology, competitive factors and features. Part of our VoIP training includes recognition and rewards components, and reinforcement, which provides an on-going stream of information."

E-learning also is emerging as a vital new tool for VoIP training, she notes. "We are leveraging e-learning and enhancing it with video. It's a great way to create an 'E' environment and push it out to CAEs."

Trainers are lining up

The mounting pressure to create and deploy quality VoIP training programs is prompting a growing number of training specialists to develop employee-friendly ways to understand the technical and business aspects of VoIP. And it's not easy.

"Thousands of people need to be trained, especially in the bigger cities, so the training demands are enormous and require good tools and consistent, easily accessible materials. That's what the cable companies are asking for," says Mark Wagner, president of Jones International Academy (JIA).

JIA Website Screen Shots

JIA has completed a VoIP installation training program that provides technical staffs with the tools and education they need to perform VoIP installations and to set up service. It is available on CD-ROM or online and can be administered in a classroom or self-paced via computer.

"We wanted to bring technology to the training via online and CDs that allow self-paced, self-directed environments and use special testing techniques to report the progress. And eventually, we will develop a specific training program for marketing, CSRs, billing and executives," Wagner says.

There are a few speed bumps along the way, however. Admits Wagner: "All these MSOs use different equipment, so that is a challenge. And, homes are wired in so many different ways. We have to deal with those challenges."

Just how the VoIP trainers deal with those challenges will likely depend on who generates the content used in the new training programs, and how it is presented.

"The content comes from experts and the MSO themselves. We needed someone who could get this (VoIP training) going, and the MSOs, especially Comcast, have contributed greatly to the training," Wagner concludes.

Broadband training firm NCTI Inc. also is intensifying its VoIP training efforts, including a thorough installation and repair program for IP telephony service.

NCTI's training includes an instructor-led session for VoIP and broadband cable executives, contact center employees and installation and repair. It also offers a Web-based, self-study course on installation and repair.

"There will be changes in the methods and procedures for training, and it's ongoing. We've developed three different solutions through our professional services division: Top management first, then to the front line, then customization for each of the different disciplines such as CSRs. And we're finding it's not the VoIP technology itself, but the methods and procedures of VoIP, which operators just haven't done before," says Alan Babcock, NCTI's chief learning officer.

Training for VoIP versus cable or standard phone service can be tricky, and tedious, Babcock says. For instance, VoIP comes with voice mail, but existing phone service already has it. How does a CSR remove voice messaging, and how do you train a CSR to use it?

Home security, number porting, how to bill for VoIP, and E-911 issues are just a few of the unique challenges of training for VoIP service.

"There are unique processes that have to be implemented to get numbers provisioned, ported, billed, and the margin of error is much less with a phone service than [with] cable. And CSRs must deal with the different feature sets of VoIP, which are more complex," Babcock says.

Bresnan Training w/JIA
A Bresnan Communications training
session uses Jones International
Academy courseware.

Training to bill for VoIP is a top of mind issue as well. Adds Babcock: "There are different billing systems, so they require different VoIP training methods. The trainer has to understand them."

Time Warner Cable (TWC) is arguably the farthest along in understanding VoIP's training requirements, having been one of the first to deploy VoIP on a large scale.

"We are far along in the continuum for VoIP training. We've trained CSRs on the product, feature functionality and how the service compares with other voice providers. The challenge is to sensitize CSRs that customers expect higher levels of service from VoIP, and it's a lifeline service. We have to ingrain the whole concept of Telephony 101 into the CSRs," says Charlene Keys, vice president and general manager of digital phone for TWC.

TWC is doing the "ingraining" mostly in-house, a strategy Keys feels is vital to the company's training future in VoIP. In some cases, however, the company is relying on outside sources. "We try to maximize internal resources to facilitate training, but have leveraged outside vendors in the security alarm community and how our service interacts with various alarm systems," she says.

The formal training process includes digital phone training for all employees, refresher training on a weekly basis, discussion of current VoIP issues with digital phone teams and dissemination of information throughout the company. "We start with the core digital phone team and don't segregate the training into VoIP. It was a huge hurdle at first, because it was an entirely new business," she maintains.

And the new business required new tools and mentalities, Keys admits. "We must have the right tools to improve network monitoring and refine the process interoperability in voice-enabled services, and enable QoS. Now, we're leaning towards a centric environment to look at points in the network and to communicate test results."

VoIP training has tested the corporate culture as well. Concludes Keys: "Sure, there were cultural challenges, and some employees felt this isn't what we do. But the real pearl from the training is that the group resisting the most quickly caught on and grabbed the whole concept. We knew there would be some remedial, on-the-job training, and training on how the process worked. But when you see the direction of this business (VoIP) and the market excitement, that's contagious. The employees were all over that."

A growing number of outside sources are scrambling to the VoIP space as well, with most offering some form of training, particularly for their individual products and services.

"We now have a growing partnership with MSOs. The challenge is to train the masses about the basic functionality of VoIP and how to operate a lifeline service. There are many different test sets, troubleshooting tools, and some MSOs are dealing with millions of lines, so the transition from video to the VoIP test tools and maintenance side is crucial. And training is the key component," insists Wagner of JIA.

An important component of VoIP training is the Society of Cable Telecommunications Engineers (SCTE), which is focusing on middle management headend technicians and plant engineers through its DigiPoints series of guides, workbooks and tutorials, along with two VoIP symposiums it has conducted in the past year.

"They are built with technology management in view: what is VoIP?; PacketCable as a platform; technical references to PacketCable recommendations; how does it interface with DOCSIS?; and how all the IP components work together," says Marv Nelson, vice president of professional development for SCTE.

SCTE is working with other VoIP training partners, including JIA, to develop an all-encompassing training platform and strategy. Says Nelson: "They have the resources to create the programs. We want to determine the requirements, then evaluate and determine what packages they used. We're not a training provider, but a conduit for all aspects of VoIP training being covered."

By Q1 of 2006, SCTE expects to have developed "major" advancements around VoIP network engineering and operations, and is developing face-to-face programs with MSOs—not entry-level, but how to manage the product. "It will be a conduit strategy and look three to five years out to determine the impact of VoIP on operations. We see VoIP placing big demands on the workforce. So, we want to get the right programs to the right people," Nelson says.

VoIP training, most experts admit, is a work in progress, and transitioning an entire workforce to a complicated new technology and business isn't for the faint of heart. Yet most remain optimistic about the lessons being learned about VoIP service, and how to apply them to future training methodologies.

Concludes Keys: "We are trying to sensitize people back to telephony-speak. There is no silver bullet, but an aggregate of several training components and test gear that will allow us to see problems in the network. From a training perspective, that would really help us."

With the stakes rising for VoIP service, and competition in abundance, training the cable workforce on VoIP is assuming a top priority.

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