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January 2012

Gratifying Ghana: Why Listening to Operators Trumps Vendor Technology and Size

Gratifying Ghana: Why Listening to Operators Trumps Vendor Technology and Size

Company size is a highly overrated success factor in telecom software companies.  History shows that companies large and small can find their niches in the B/OSS market.

A few years back when IBM, HP, EMC, and Computer Associates swooped in to acquire leading players in the OSS/service assurance business, people figured the gig was up for the smaller assurance vendors.  But we soon discovered that the market was too dynamic and entrepreneurial to be dominated by a few technology giants.  Instead, several small-to-midsized players have emerged in the telecom service assurance market who are innovating and adding value in areas that many of the big guys didn’t foresee or chose not to address.

And in addition to company size, I would count technical excellence as another overrated success factor.  The software can be truly groundbreaking, but if it’s not marketed or implemented right, the effort to build a better mouse trap is all for naught.

One vendor attribute that will never go out of fashion, however, is being in synch with the customer’s business, capabilities and unique needs.  And that, in a nutshell, is what Basset does far better than many of its competitors, particularly in the telecom fraud market.

The Stockholm-based provider of fraud, interconnect billing and RA software has fewer than 100 employees.  Yet that small cadre serves an amazing 70 operators in 65 countries in Europe, Africa, the Middle East, Latin America and Asia.  In business since 1996, two of its founding-year clients are still customers of Basset.

In 15 years, fraud and billing technology has gone through monstrous changes, but according to Ludvig Lindqvist, Basset’s vice president of business development, the key success ingredient of this small company is not technical brilliance, but an ability to thoroughly engage with clients and support their unique business challenges.  Here are edited excerpts from our discussion.

Dan Baker: The telecom fraud software market has been anything but stable in the past decade.  Too many solutions have turned out to be throwaways and operators ended up shopping elsewhere.  What’s gone wrong?

Ludvig Lindqvist: Dan, in many cases, it’s a simple case of the vendors not keeping close to the customer’s need for addressing new types of fraud.  Many times we’ve seen a system that is practically dead from neglect because the vendor has not been present or been there to serve the new requirements.

A new solution should also be able to support the new ways a fraud team is working and organized.  For instance, today you have revenue assurance and fraud teams merging quite a bit, and that’s a new development that happened in only the last two years.

Another problem is that operators select a vendor who is on site for 3 months, 6 months, and suddenly a year has passed before getting operational with the fraud system.  Here Basset gives confidence to the operator because we are able to deliver a solution very fast, within a few months’ time.

What do you mean by “keeping close to the customer“?

The primary point is to understand the operator’s business.  It’s not so much any customization or technical finesse.  We as a vendor must make sure that we exactly understand their business.  We try to be an advisor for the long run.

The main focus in the very beginning is to really sit down, discuss, understand and document the customer, their surroundings, their business processes, everything that’s needed to understand how we should configure, train or put this system live in the best possible way.

Smaller operators require plenty of advice along the way.  Mature operators, on the other hand, already have processes in place where if you don’t understand those processes, you can’t deliver something that works in their environment.  Always, you have to be humble so you do not push something new on to the operators that they are not willing to accept.

Just as we cannot override the customer’s requirement, the customer has to be willing to accept us as well.  No operator’s requirements are mind-blowingly unique, but all customers look a little bit different when you examine their operation up close.  So, to be able to put our knowledge, our experience, our systems in place, we need to understand them and talk their language.

You can win a sale and deliver what’s required on the contract, but that doesn’t mean you really understand what the operator does and how they do it.

What about Africa?  What are the major issues the operators face there, especially in fraud?

Well, one of the biggest issues in African markets is to keep competence within the company and maintain good product knowledge and an understanding of customers.

In the fraud area specifically, perhaps the biggest issue is bypass fraud via SIM boxes, though they also face threats from internal fraud and international revenue share.

Africa suffers from many telecom difficulties, but in other ways they are actually moving faster and ahead of other countries.  For example, mobile money is stronger there because they don‘t have any infrastructure for taking care of money transactions as we have in Europe or America.

In recent years some of the fraud-management vendors are strongly pushing managed services in markets like Africa.  What’s your assessment of that?

I can see the point in managed services, which is to make up for high staff turnover, but I think removing the fraud-monitoring function from the operator is a mistake.  You need to fully understand all processes of an operator.  And remote monitoring and remote workforces don‘t do that.

Let me give you an example.  I was in Ghana about eight years ago and the local fraud investigator saw something suspicious.  He told me: “Look at this.  Have you seen this before?” And he showed me the user’s calling pattern.  But I looked at the data and saw nothing strange.  Then he explained to me that a user being on the phone for three or four minutes was highly unusual because in Ghana the custom is to make calls that are 10 or 15 seconds, long enough to give directions where to meet to discuss in person.

So this points to the importance of having local knowledge of a market.  A person like me with European eyes will find it hard to investigate potential frauds in Ghana because I don‘t really know their exact behavior and what I should look for.

That’s a great story.  Is that still the case, today — calling for only 10 or 15 seconds?

No, the situation is very likely to change over time as customers adapt to the market such as rate plans, economy and even the political situation.  That’s why it’s not recommended to manage a fraud department from another region.  And a more practical fraud example here is fraud bypass through SIM box.  SIM-box fraudsters are no longer using the same techniques they used in the past.  If they hadn’t changed their pattern, then would have been defeated again and again.  But SIM boxes are alive and well, costing operators millions of dollars every month.

Please tell us a little more about the SIM-box threat.

First of all, in many countries it’s not a serious crime to run SIM-box operations; however, the SIM box user is violating the terms and conditions for having the prepaid card which prohibits call reselling.

In other words, it’s not authorized, but you can’t be put in jail for using a SIM box.  A contributor to the issue is that so many Africans have moved to the U.S. and Europe, so a huge amount of international minutes are calling into a country like Nigeria every day.

The problem for the operator is that people are routing traffic through an Internet line connected to an array of 10, 20, 100 or more prepaid SIM cards.  The SIM cards are national on-net calls, making free calls and therefore bypassing, say, the Nigerian operator’s terminating charges.  Often this leads to a congested site causing bad call quality.  So it becomes both a monetary and call-quality issue.

Ludvig, thank you for these great insights.  Speaking of international business in Sweden, a few years back on a trip to visit Ericsson I went to a very fine Thai restaurant in Stockholm — one of the best I’ve ever been to.

Yes, I think a lot of Americans would be surprised.  We live in a Nordic country but we are not all blue eyes and blonde hair.  And especially here at Basset it’s a real melting pot.  We have people speaking Spanish, someone from the Congo, and Asian backgrounds too.  But for us, it’s all part of good business.  Understanding the cultures and business conditions of our clients is why we’re able to serve them for many years.

This article first appeared in Billing and OSS World.

Copyright 2012 Black Swan Telecom Journal

Ludvig Lindqvist

Ludvig Lindqvist

Ludvig Lindqvist is vice president of business development at Basset Global, headquartered in Sweden,.

Basset Global is a software and consulting services vendor that focuses on revenue assurance/fraud and interconnect billing solutions.  Established in 1996 is self-funded and part of the Kinnevik Industrial Group.

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