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January 2013

Navigating the Telecom Solutions Wilderness: Advice from Some Veteran Mountaineers

Navigating the Telecom Solutions Wilderness: Advice from Some Veteran Mountaineers

Market analysts like me make a living writing research reports.  We basically group solution vendors into markets, add up their revenue, and interview both buyers and sellers so people can size up their competitors or pick a solution partner.

This basic research methodology has proven itself over the 19-odd years that I’ve been covering telecom: today there are probably two dozen analysts who regularly follow the same B/OSS solutions market I do.

But trouble is brewing in analyst land because the vendors no longer fit into neat little categories anymore.

Not only are vendor capabilities rapidly evolving, there’s also quite a bit of product/service cross-over.  Billing vendors are selling analytics and network policy stuff.  OSS vendors have wandered into new areas like product catalogs and customer experience tracking.  Plus the growing mix in SaaS, managed outsourcing, and consulting has clouded the analyst crystal ball even more.

If the analysts are having a hard time sorting out these changes, you can bet that the solutions vendors are struggling mightily to position their solutions and figure out where to go next.

But an experienced mountaineer or woodsman doesn’t fear getting lost in the nighttime forest.  He can get by even without a compass.  Likewise, losing the ability to accurately size markets or predict the future is merely a setback.  It forces you to rely on your instincts and your knowledge of the home terrain.  GPS dead?  Batteries gone on your iPhone?  Fine, then you navigate by the stars just like the Huli tribesmen of Papua New Guinea.

So the very uncertainty of pinpointing future solution markets puts the advantage in the court of industry veterans, the guys with deep seated expertise in one or two telecom functions.

Joining us to talk about this telecom solutions wilderness is Al Brisard, VP of Marketing at Vertek, a firm doing a lot of diverse and interesting back office work, but all centered around its broad order management expertise.

Vertek: is there a less obvious name for a technology company headquartered in upstate Vermont?  Why even the firm’s forest green logo suggests the Green Mountain state.  Rumor has it that the many ex-Verizon engineers and managers working there are secretly planning to change the logo color to Verizon red :- )

My interview with Al jumps around quite a bit, but at every turn Al delivers a fresh insight on how we need to think about the future of vendor-supplied solutions.

Dan Baker: Al, can you first give us a quick overview of Vertek’s business?

Al Brisard: Sure, Dan.  Our core competencies are around order management, provisioning, cost data, revenue data, and overall process.  You could categorize us as a business process outsourcing company, a professional consultant, or an analytics company.

We actually work in over 350 carrier systems today on behalf of our carrier clients.  Some of that could be backend data access and some could be into the application.  But we are directly and securely connected to these carriers and their systems.  We augment our work with our own analytics.

How do you engage with clients?

Typically the client will come to us with a process issue.  We use analytics to sort out the issues and engage their team to make the process better.  In some cases we actually augment their team.

If the carrier is trying to build a financial assurance program, we go in and scope that out and see what it would take.  Sometimes, if they are starting from scratch, we submit RFPs for new systems.  And if they already have major agreements with software providers, we help them take the data to the next level of analytics.

Our work is customized.  On the carrier side of our business, it’s all project based.  And we’re not in the business of displacing established software vendors.  The current software vendor is the benchmark.  You are not going to unseat them, especially since these contracts are multi-year.  So in any way we can, we try to complement the existing software vendor.

Basically our job is to find pockets of ROI and also to modify processes that can be improved.  So there are a bunch of back office knobs we tune.

What do you do in order management?

We do a ton of order management work for carriers and now managed service providers.  When we go in, some of the things don’t line up.  A service might not be quoted in the right way.  The customer requirements may not have been accurately captured.  We could also determine there’s a problem in the way someone is selling something.  The sales engineer may be putting orders into the system wrong.  There are so many variants of what could be the problem.

You simply identify the problems in the process through evaluation and analytics.  You create some hypotheses, do some interviews, and figure out whether the hypotheses are true or not.  If they are, that’s when you start tuning your processes.

Typically they come to us for complex areas.  Every carrier’s operating mission is to maximize flow through, but the best you can expect is around 60%-70% flow through.  As the complexity goes up, your flow-through rate is lower.

We tend to deal with the complex services and concentrate on process and use their systems and get it into a state where we achieve higher rates of flow-through along with a more efficient way of handling the remaining non flow-through items.  Then we transition that back to the carrier.  We’ll then take care of the next complex thing they need help with.

We might put together some order management and revenue assurance processes together.  We might find an issue on how ordering is being done.  So the idea is to change the process to produce a clean order.  If we change the process up front, the downstream problem will go away.

We charge our clients two ways: we either create a center of excellence which has various predictable deliverables.  Or we’ll set up a demand center that processes transactions.

And what about your consulting?

With consulting, we’re very niche focused.  We are not the Accentures and the CAP Gemini’s.  I guess you could call us “blue collar consultants” with certain strengths.  Basically, for anything from quote to service assurance we have in-house expertise and this is our core compentency.

One of the critical things we bring to consulting is our independent view.  Carriers like that because they know we’re not going to be pitching a particular suite of software.

All we sell is value.  Typically it’s a short engagement for an ROI, but sometimes we don’t even have an ROI.  Sometimes it’s something the carrier has to do — go through some pain and the faster they get through it, the sooner they stop burning money.

Many times the stumbling block is the sheer number of organizations involved in these back office processes.  They have multiple organizations.  Or they have political constraints.  If you bring in our team of independent consultants, our job is to look above and beyond, focus on the problems, recommend solutions, and then facilitate the execution to achieve realization.

Are there any hot areas in order management?  Where are carriers feeling pain?

I would say sales quoting is a very big point of pain right now.  They are not only having trouble pricing services, but also checking for availability.

A lot of people are getting quotes based on generic data based on what’s generally available in, say, a certain Metropolitan region.  But they don’t know for sure if it’s actually available.

Vertek has done the work to provide a single interface.  It employs a number of techniques and back end connections to other reliable source data, including carrier APIs, to determine not only the pricing of services but also the availability of services at specific addresses.  Basically if you contract with 30 carriers, our solution figures out what you can confidently order based on terms, availability, bandwidth -- all the things you can order for an address.

It’s extremely costly when you order something and you can’t really get what you order.  You really want to nail that order the first time.  This is especially true for resellers, managed service providers (MSPs), and carriers who do a lot of off-net ordering.  And they need quoting in a much different way than what carriers are willing to provide.

Al, most carriers have portals that allow you to access their catalogs.  What is it about your solution that’s better?

Dan, you’re right.  Carriers have built out portals.  The trouble is that nobody is going to visit 30 portals to get this information on each address.

The carriers are just now starting to have an API strategy for order management, quoting, even customer support.  The key is making sure it’s a solid API with quality information.

In today’s world, there are those who have APIs and those who don’t.  When we use APIs we get near reliable information in a matter of minutes, but when you interactiwith carriers who do not have APIs, it can take from 2-6 days to get reliable information back..

The reality is that when salespeople at a reseller or MSP see an option, they are eager to get out there and sell because they’re under pressure to deliver a quote back to their client.  This means that they are typically moving forward with the choices that came back quickly from carriers who have an API.  But the carriers who don’t have an API, typically don’t even get a chance at bat .  Their pricing may be outstanding, but the salesperson is going to go to the supplier who gives them the most timely and accurate quotes that satisfy the customer requirements.

So there are many carriers out there at a competitive disadvantage because they don’t have a solid API strategy that their direct and indirect sales teams can rely on.

Al, thanks for the fine insights on Vertek’s view of the telecom world.  Any parting advice for other solution vendors out there?

Dan, telecom is an awfully big world.  No vendor knows everything.  Even within your own niche, there are plenty of things you can learn.

People come to us because they know we’ve spent time in the trenches getting the experience.  So the best way to get something faster is to leverage somebody who has been there.  Over time, you build up a specialty.  And operators appreciate that expertise because we can hit the ground running and provide immediate value.

So we’re always learning and applying that new knowledge in our next engagement.  We have built into our delivery a virtuous circle of continuous improvement, which has proven time and again to be our point of competitive advantage.

Copyright 2013 Black Swan Telecom Journal

 
Al Brisard

Al Brisard

Al Brisard is vice president of marketing and business development at Vertek Corp., a leading provider of end-to-end business process outsourcing, consulting and managed business assurance offerings that allow communication providers to reduce costs, improve customer experiences, grow revenue and ultimately improve profitability.   Contact Al via

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