Bills, bills, bills

Local service providers are integrating customer care into their core billing applications, as they aim to secure greater return on investment.

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By  Greg Wilson Published  October 4, 2001

Wataniya|~||~||~|Wataniya Telecom wants to automate as much of its entire customer care lifecycle as possible. The Kuwait-based, GSM service provider, envisions a day when the customers can design the services they receive either through online service activation or dialling into an interactive voice recognition (IVR) system and navigate the menu and order various services. “There are more and more services, including those in the data world, that can be conducted in an automated fashion, without the need for a human operator,” says Wataniya’s chief executive officer, David Murray.

“Going forward, we envisage using the phone as a paying device. We have to look at each service and see what makes sense to the customer. In other words, does it make the customer’s life more convenient? [If so,] we want to facilitate it. It’s not a technical [question]. It’s a question of whether it makes sense from the customer point of view,” says Murray.

Although the fulfilment of Wataniya’s customer-centric vision may be some years off, the GSM operator has been working to enhance its customer contact channels with the deployment of a call centre, an IVR system, and the extensive use of SMS. However, the single point of integration lying behind all these disparate customer channels is the company’s billing application. Wataniya is currently using the same billing application for both its pre-paid and post-paid customers. The billing services and customer service (BSCS) application, from SEMA-Schlumberger, enables the GSM operator’s customers to switch between payment models, without having to change their phone number — a key value added service. “The traditional billing application is changing into more of a customer management system,” explains Murray.

“It’s a change in paradigm… we’re using the same billing application for both post-paid and pre-paid customers. The only difference is that with pre-paid we don’t generate a bill that we send to you,” says Murray.

Alongside the value add of a flexible billing solution, it also acts as a single point of data capture for all Wataniya customers. “We retain [capture] customer data… [all] the pre-paid and post-paid customers fill out the customer service application — it’s really about collecting information on the customer.”

Consequently, Wataniya Telecom isn’t alone in using its billing application as a strategic tool to enhance customer care. It’s thought that other GSM operators in the Middle East’s competitive markets — Egypt, Lebanon, Kuwait and Jordan — are also investing heavily in next-generation billing platforms and customer care.

“Competition is forcing the mobile operators in these countries to provide a service,” says Mahoud Sherif, telcos line of business manager, Compaq Middle East. “They are using billing applications to build customer profiles, and offer services,” he adds.

||**||Customer-centric focus|~||~||~|Perhaps more significantly, the regional PTTs are also now moving to a customer-centric focus. The initial step for local PTTs has been a major overhaul of the existing billing applications — commonly there are separate billing applications per service offered — and the deployment of a middleware layer capable of drawing customer data from separate ‘information silos’ together, and presenting it through a unified graphical user interface (GUI). “The regional PTTs are just starting to add value around their billing applications,” says Philippe Rixhon, telecoms consultant and partner with Accenture.

“From the projects that we know about, and the RFIs (request for information) that are out there, they [the PTTs] recognise the need to increase customer care, the need to have shared billing and the need to integrate billing [applications] with their call centres and web sites,” explains Rixhon.

It’s widely thought that the larger PTTs in the region — Saudi Telecommunications Company (STC), Batelco and Etisalat — are either piloting or actually awarding contracts to enhance billing processes and customer care centres. “We are very active in five countries — the UAE, Saudi, Bahrain, Kuwait and Jordan — and in all those countries the incumbent telcos are currently developing major customer care projects,” comments Rixhon. However, he adds, the process has only just started.

Without the immediate threat of competition, some may ask why government owned service providers are rushing to a build holistic view of their customer-base. In the past, the monopoly service providers had a strong focus on delivering the technical infrastructure rather than customer service. However, this is changing as the need to ensure return on investment (ROI) has intensified. “There has been a strong focus on the infrastructure level in the past,” says Fadi Moubarak, e-business sales manager, NCR, Middle East. “However, [regional PTTs] are learning that customer services are vital to ensure ROI on infrastructure investments,” he adds.

PTTs are also adopting customer service mantras in an effort to offset calls for greater liberalisation. Etisalat, and its Internet subsidiary, Emirates Internet & Multimedia (EIM) is an example of a government owned entity ‘acting’ as if in a competitive environment, to justify its monopoly position in the market. “We are working as if we are competing,” says Maroua Naim, general manager, EIM. “This has been reflected in the introduction of various products and services, marketing initiatives, advertising campaigns, and our customer service,” she adds.

A spokesperson for Etisalat echoed Naim’s statements, saying, “customer services is a very high priority and is one of the driving forces behind the launch of our many services.”

||**||Private sector problems|~||~||~|Although it’s widely expected that the GSM operators are able to tackle customer care projects more aggressively, it’s difficult to judge whether private sector service providers are any further along the customer service road than their PTT counterparts.

Obviously, it’s a lot more difficult to shift an organisation the size of STC with 23,000 employees to a customer service mentality, than it is to migrate a company the size of Jordanian GSM provider, FastLink. But the real difference between the PTTs and private sector service providers, is not in the mentality, but in the ability to market services. “The nimbleness of the wireless operators is mainly in marketing and public relations. [GSM operators] have a much better understanding of branding, dynamic pricing structures, [and can] quickly respond to the competition… [They] may be slightly better on the customer care side — but only slightly,” explains Rixhon. “I would say both areas of the business are starting to become more aware of what they have to do and they are starting to do it,” he adds.

According to Ghazi Atallah, regional manager, service provider, Cisco Middle East, the inability of many of the PTTs to market products & services effectively is due to the segmented business structure. “Many PTTs lack a concise services strategy… that’s down to [limited communication] between different business divisions. Private sector GSM operators are more capable of partnering and bundling solutions, creating service packages and offering real value. The [PTTs] inability to do this perhaps explains the poor customer care of the past,” explains Atallah.

In an effort to unify information islands and create a single view of a customer the PTTs are being driven to upgrade the high-maintenance, and often ineffective customer service applications. Consequently, PTTs are stepping up their work around the billing area of the business. “PTTs are understanding that these old applications are too costly and too complex… so they are now discussing their replacement,” says Rixhon.

Jordan Telecom (JTC) is a traditional fixed-line monopoly provider that has learnt to aggressively market and sell its services. At the start of May, JTC added the Global One ISP to its group portfolio. The addition of the ISP has given JTC the ability to offer Internet, mobile — through MobileCom — and fixed line services. JTC’s drive to migrate its organisation away from the commodity fixed-line business and into other areas took another turn in September when it formed a content and e-commerce subsidiary.

The ability to cater for all of a customer’s voice and data needs has obvious customer service benefits. But JTC has the initial challenge of making all its separate business units, “walk under the same umbrella,” says Jordan Telecom CEO, Pierre Mattei. By leveraging the ‘synergies’ between its various businesses JTC, “can be more aggressive, more efficient and less costly,” he adds.

There are some restrictions to walking under the same umbrella. For example, the sharing of customer data between Jordan Telecom and its subsidiaries has to be transparent to the Telecom Regulatory Commission (TRC) to ensure JTC doesn’t abuse its monopoly position.

Similarly, if Jordan Telecom were to present all its bills in one envelope to the customer, then its subsidiary organisations would have to pay for the service. “If we put several invoices in the one envelope they will have to pay for it. It will be better for the customer but MobileCom will have to pay,” says Mattei. “We have to be very fair and transparent in communication with regard to the commission.”

JTC has already overhauled its backend application infrastructure with its 12-month implementation of a Customer Care & Billing System (CCBS), from vendor Sofrecom. JTC supplemented both its billing and customer care abilities with a recent deal with Lebanese company D&C, to distribute bills and collect payment from customers without post office boxes.

With its customer care app in place, JTC is anxious to development a full customer relationship management (CRM) solution. The CRM strategy is likely to leverage on JTC’s relationships with its subsidiaries to enhance information sharing. “We are working on [CRM],” says Mattei.

“We will have contact with [our sister companies]… because the customers are going to have a mobile or an Internet account, it can maybe [cover these services] in the same screen [GUI]. The same operator can see all the customer information and all the products of Jordan Telecom Group,” explains JTC’s CEO. Any such project has to be open to the TRC, he adds.

||**||Long-term strategies|~||~||~|Etisalat already has a consolidated customer data repository, says Naim, it is “being used for all Etisalat customers… There is a [strong] synergy between these units, which helps in sharing information and serving the customer in a better manner,” adds the general manager of EIM.

However, according to an Etisalat spokesperson, the UAE’s monopoly service provider, account consolidation is “not as simple as it sounds, due to the nature of the population of the Emirates.”

Mattei adds “the difficulty isn’t having a good IT system… the real difficulty is migrating the data from one system to another, and trying to quantify all the customers.”

A full CRM solution requires a great deal of integration between the billing application and the different customer facing channels. The integration issue is obviously multiplied for the PTTs, which have to link legacy applications with one GUI. “There is still a lot of integration work that has to be done,” says Atallah. “They have to bring this information forward, in a reliable and concise manner.”

However, building data warehouses and investing in expensive tools to slice & dice the data isn’t enough to build a comprehensive view of the customer-base, and consequently deliver better services.

According to Murray, a true picture of a customer can only be developed when customer data is combined with market research on demographics, or the spending patterns of customers. “Only then can you target tailor-made packages,” says Murray.

Wataniya Telecom currently combines the feedback it receives through its call centre with statistical information on the local market, to create ‘customer samples.’ “CRM is about understanding your customers, because as you move into more developed markets, you need to segment different customer behaviour. The only way you can segment your customers is by understanding customer behaviour patterns and understanding this customer is different from another group,” says Murray.

Going forward, service providers existing both within a liberalised market, and those in a monopoly position, are going to have to focus on customer care as a key deliverable.

Although the volume of voice and data traffic continues to climb within the Middle East markets — this won’t continue indefinitely.

Long-term market strategy has to account for the day when landlines, mobile connections, Internet penetration or SMS usage become commodity. Prior that point services providers will have had to investigate other value added channels — and customer care is going to be topping the list. “The question of return on investment will gather momentum over time,” predicts Compaq’s Sherif. “Providers are going to question if and when they can expect a return of investment from a service… and increasingly customer service is going to be the way to ensure a return on investment.”

||**||Batelco takes multi-phase approach to CRM|~||~||~|In the eyes of Batelco the customer is king, and the monopoly service provider in Bahrain is spending a lot of money to prove it. Last month, the monopoly service provider went live with an IP billing system on its eShop site at a cost $2.2 million.

However, the IP billing solution is just one element of a comprehensive customer relationship management (CRM) strategy. “CRM has always been in Batelco’s overall corporate strategy, due to its importance in developing and strengthening the company’s relationships with customers,” says Hussain Madan, senior manager, CRM business programme, Batelco.

The service provider is initially aiming to build customer satisfaction, increase loyalty and retain existing customers with its CRM strategy. Regardless of the announcement early this year ending Batelco’s monopoly, the service provider was planning its CRM strategy. The added element of competition is ‘accelerating’ the CRM project, says Madan.

“We believe CRM is essential in the presence, or otherwise, of competition. Naturally, the announcement of the introduction of competition in Bahrain [will] mean that additional focus will have to be made on [our customer] relationships and therefore should speed up the implementation of CRM,” predicts Madan.

Batelco has approached CRM from several different aspects simultaneously. There has been the development and integration with legacy applications for eShop, and the IP billing solution. Batelco eShop essentially acts as a self-service interface for its customers (See ACN/16/09). “Batelco [introduced] eShop earlier this year is part of our CRM strategy,” adds Madan.

The service provider is also in the process of introducing another billing system, mostly for the fixed line services. The application will complement the customer care and billing applications already in place for the mobile and Internet businesses. The upgraded billing application will integrate with the internally developed customer interaction system. “Being in phase one of CRM, a single view of the customer is being achieved through the introduction of an internally designed Customer Interaction Contact System (CICS),” says Madan.

“[The system] is already providing our customer-interfacing staff with common information on our customers, extracted from the existing legacy systems that are being used [such as] accounts receivables (AR), customer service system (CSS) and billing components for mobile [services],” explains Madan.

Much of the integration work to date has been based on ‘batch processing’ for the up and downloading of information. Other components needed interfaces based on Microsoft’s BizTalk server.

Alongside intensive development work, there is also a planned amalgamation of the existing five call centres, into one centralised call centre. Currently, there is one centre for each of Batelco’s various business units — MobilePlus, Inet, operator services, general sales and the business customer management unit. By converging its call centres Batelco hopes to reduce operating costs, increase revenues — products like outbound telesales is introduced — and “improve customer satisfaction,” says Madan.

The service provider has also been developing a data warehouse in parallel to support its CRM initiative. The data repository based on NCR Teredata architecture is currently due to swing into operation during the second quarter of next year. Batelco has been using either Cognos or Microstrategy to develop its data warehouse.

“Phase one of the data warehouse provides reporting & enquiring capability around many subject areas including segmentation/profiling, traffic behaviour analysis, products & services usage and behaviour analysis,” says Madan.

Finding the skills to complete the extensive integration required by the project has proved tricky.

However, Batelco has been able to leverage its relationship with Cable & Wireless to exchange “views and experiences, in [CRM] field” says Madan. Batelco has also brought in consultants where necessary, and sent staff for extensive training both locally and abroad.

||**||Cellis estimates year end delivery for CRM|~||~||~|During October 2000, the IT development department with Lebanese GSM operator Cellis was gearing up for a major customer service drive. The team had drawn up a duel strategy to deploy a Genesys CTI (computer telephony integration) and customer relationship management (CRM) solution from Siebel. Optimistically, the five-man team had hoped to have both solutions in place early in 2001.

However, when project work began in earnest it soon became obvious that if the GSM operator was to deploy a sophisticated and scalable customer service infrastructure it had to widen the project’s remit. “Initially, we went for a solution that at the beginning seemed to be quick and good, but we soon saw it wasn’t really upgradeable in terms of the integration with the back-office applications,” says Mickael Lefebvre, IT development manager, Cellis.

“We decided not to release the version we had finished by the 12th of January 2001… We decided to wait and have something much more sophisticated to launch,” he adds.

In the ensuing 12 months, Cellis has radically increased the resources available to the CTI/CRM project. The initial development team has increased to between 30-and-40 people. Accenture has also been brought in as Cellis makes a final push to deliver a full solution by the end of this year. “We faced many challenges on the project… initially we lacked resources on the development team,” explains Lefebvre.

“CRM is considered a main [objective] and so some of the projects have less resources because of the extension of resources [to CRM]. This is the most important project right now in terms of development for our customers. By the end of this year we’re going to have a complete solution that will be used by all agents for any requests that customers could have,” he predicts.

As part of its CTI/CRM project Cellis has sent team members to Europe for training. Additional training has been conducted locally.

The training and skills requirements have obviously increased as the scope of the project extends. Accenture was specifically brought in to help in the development of the enterprise application interface (EAI) layer, based on WebMethods. “Accenture is responsible for the EAI and our team is responsible for Siebel and the CTI,” says Lefebvre. “Siebel and CTI communicate with the other applications through the same application interface layer.”

Integration between both the Siebel and Genesys packages was always going to be a major part of the project. Both packages have to integrate with the Jupiter Customer Billing application. The billing application forms the core of Cellis’ view of its customer base, however, with the introduction of Siebel, the management of customer information will switch away from the billing application. “All customer information is to be managed through the Siebel application… CRM is the main goal for us,” says Lefebvre.

The Siebel aspect of the project has also required some customisation work, much of which as been carried out by Cellis’ own development department. “[Siebel] is customisable. It’s easy in theory, but in practice it’s not so easy. However, it’s much better than building your own system from the first line of code,” says Lefebvre.
Genesys also requires close integration with different ‘interaction’ channels such as e-mail or the call centre. However, it appears the sheer volume of integration work was initially underestimated.

The ‘pre-phase’ of the project went live at the end of August, delivering trouble ticketing and other service requests to the call centre agents. However, this current phase is about delivering information and not “modification,” says Lefebvre. In the second phase Cellis will go live with its unified graphical user interface (GUI) within Siebel. Cellis also intends to introduce ‘customer chat’ on its web site in the near future. But closer integration between customer service channels is something that is likely to occur during 2002.

Lefebvre is promising further customer service enhancements throughout next year. With rolling additions to customer service a “necessity” to remain in business, the decision to pull back from a go live date at the start of this year is justified. “We could have introduced something quickly… but we wanted to ensure a good [scalable] system,” Lefebvre adds.

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