Sunday, November 7, 2010

CRM & Telecom VAS

The primary and only service of mobile telephony service providers was Voice and Voice based services like Forwarding, Conferencing etc until recently. Due to a lack of product level differentiators, intense competition around voice and commoditization have led to reduction in tariffs of calls. While customers have been more than happy, mobile operators have bled. ROI timelines of new operators who were to launch or have launched services in the last two years have doubled if not tripled. Mobile operators have been desperately looking at alternative services to expand their portfolio and bring in a bouquet of services to differentiate themselves. Telecom Value Added Services, which include services like TV, Location Based Services, Payments, Games etc in addition to SMS and MMS on the mobile have been touted as the next big thing and is going mainstream in pockets; VAS is providing service providers with ways to differentiate through packaging of services and innovative pricing models.
From a CRM perspective, this has added complexity. A basic tenet of CRM which is to provide the Call Centers with 360 degree view of the Customer stands threatened. CRM Experts at Mobile Service providers are grappling with the following decisions: What level of detail should a service provider get into in terms of tracking customer’s VAS usage? VAS is normally not provided by the Service provider, but is provided through a wide range of partnerships with VAS vendors, who specialize in their respective domains. In a 2G environment, VAS providers are typically Voice or SMS based, in a 3G environment however, the channels and VAS providers increase exponentially. Without a single subscription & transaction management system, not only will be impossible for CRM to track the number of transactions, activations, deactivations etc, it will not be correct to burden CRM systems with such transactional information.
Two issues on top of this:  
  • VAS providers typically have their own Customer Care Website, which can be used by an Agent to provision services to Customers, re-push downloads, MMS etc without additional cost. However, VAS companies do not maintain their own Call Centers taking up Level 3 issues which are purely technical. Can CRM applications provide a front end to all the different VAS portals? What are the implications with respect to cost of training Agents on each of these portals? Will this be feasible when the number of VAS providers multiply as 3G gets going?
  • Some VAS providers do not have their own portals. In such cases, how will Agents know about Customer’s transaction and provisioning history?
One thing is for sure, if a Mobile Operator wants to differentiate itself by providing a wide bouquet of VAS services at different price points, he needs the capability at the Call Center to be able to answer queries of Customers pertaining to the VAS services, some of these questions would be along the following lines: 
  • Whether a customer has subscribed to a VAS service
  • Ability to provision/de-provision the Service
  • Start and End Dates between which the Subscription is/was Active
  • Ability to re-push a VAS service incase Customer has not received the download
  • Ability to handle disputes and give credits against a Customer disputing a VAS request
The question: how it is possible for CRM systems to bring such information in front of a Call Center Agent. Please take a look at a question on the same subject posted in LinkedIn. In a future post, I will detail some insights on the same topic, outlining a strategy on dealing with VAS vendors and their applications.

Thursday, October 14, 2010

CRM for MVNOs: Part II

Since MVNOs pride themselves on their superlative understanding of their customer segment compared to traditional operators, Customer Relationship Management becomes a key focus area for them. CRM helps MVNOs manage entire lifecycle of Customers by supporting the following activities.

For an understanding of the business model of MVNOs, importance of the parent brand and customer segments and the changing MVNO Operator relationship, please go through my previous post here.

• Campaigns and Promotions: Since MVNOs normally target the same or similar segments that are targeted by their parent brand; a good point to start for them is to target the customer base from one of their existing lines of business. CRM provides the platform to extract the list, run the campaign, track customer responses and take suitable actions based on the responses.
• Customer Acquisition: Customer acquisition in a saturated telecommunications market is tough, costly and a complex process with multiple points of failure. No provider would want to create a negative impression at the very beginning of the Customer’s Lifecycle. CRM provides smooth on boarding of customers though automated Order Management processes, managing and updating inventories, coordinating with courier/shipping companies for delivery and close looping through Agent or IVR assisted activation and welcome call.
• Complete View of Customer: MVNOs try that much more to create a differentiator by bringing in information from multiple systems and presenting relevant information in a manner that is understandable easily to a BPO Agent or to a Customer availing Self Care.
• Customer Service Management: MVNOs strive to provide 100% resolutions to Customer requests, complaints and queries on the call without passing the buck to a back office team. Apart from higher level of customer satisfaction due to on call resolutions, this creates a suitable opportunity for up sell and cross sell since customers are more willing to listen once their issues are taken care of.
• Analytics & Real Time Decisions: Real time analytics and decisions are triggered by Customer actions. These events re-calculate churn scores of customers on the fly and based on historical patterns of customers with similar profiles, can throw offers at the customer. Customers are prompted for up sell or cross sell or may be offered incentives and customized solutions if identified as churn prone.

CRM for MVNOs: The Way Ahead
• Social CRM: MVNOs are, as mentioned earlier, customer driven companies. They need to be ahead of anyone else in terms of understanding their target segments and need to tune in to the changing tastes of customers through various social networking mediums and communities. The ability to identify micro segments within the broad segment, their unmet needs and specific tastes is what will keep them ahead of traditional operators.
• Cloud based Applications: MVNOs should look at cloud based solutions for their BSS stack. Cloud based BSS solutions are based on a subscription model and reduce setup costs by moving costs to an OPEX model. Cloud based models were not considered suitable for telecom operations earlier because of high transaction volumes, but have now been proven to be scalable and can handle MVNO transaction traffic.
• Integrate with other LOBs: While MVNO’s operate as separate companies within the parent’s brand umbrella and have separate applications and systems, an integrated CRM containing information of Customers across other Line of Business can be done to provide a complete perspective of the Customer’s lifestyle and behavior.

Sunday, October 3, 2010

CRM for MVNOs: Part I

A Mobile Virtual Network Operator or an MVNO is a common term in the telecommunications industry today. MVNOs ride on the Network provided by a traditional telecommunications service provider, i.e. they buy or source minutes from the service providers, package them in a market savvy way and sell to consumers. Some key characteristics that differentiate the MVNO from traditional operators are as follows:
• MVNOs primary Line of Business is not telecommunications. They have an established brand presence in other industries and markets
• Their target market segments are aligned to the overall marketing strategy of their brand. They will not dilute the brand by targeting completely new segments.
• They are highly conscious and cautious about their image and hence have higher quality and performance requirements from their IT and Network partners.
• They pride themselves on their understanding of their customers, they want to be nimble so that they can change quickly with the changing tastes of their target customers
• They are highly oriented towards VAS and other innovative ways to bundle and price products and services, their revenue sharing agreements with VAS partners reflects the importance of the VAS partner to them.

Companies have transitioned overtime from being product oriented to being customer oriented. The days when Ford started mass production of automobiles with Model T, an assembly line production of cars of a single color that opened travel to the common middle-class American have been replaced with an era of mass customization. As search costs have reduced, customers have become more powerful and demanding. Companies have been forced to incorporate customer feedback and behavior as a key component of product and service design.
MVNOs are companies who consider themselves as champions at customer orientation. They believe they are in the telecommunications market to fill a gap and satisfy an unmet need of their target segment. While traditional telecom operators are tied to their products (mainly voice based) and want to sell to as large a customer base as possible, MVNOs consider themselves as partners to their customers trying to fulfill their needs.

MVNO Operator Relationship
On-boarding of MVNOs was a costly affair till a few years back. MVNOs wanted to have control over most of the BSS systems, which meant significant investments around CRM, Rating, Billing, VAS, Self Care, Portals etc. While MVNOs wanted to limit their dependencies on operators, operators themselves were wary of losing Customer base to MVNOs. However, with the MVNO concept gaining ground and providing a steady and new revenue stream for operators, traditional operators today are encouraging MVNOs and preferring to play a wholesale and B2B role in some cases. Lately, operators have started supporting most of the BSS platforms for MVNOs to the extent that some operators even own the portals of MVNOs. Outsourcing BSS systems to operators (in most cases to the operators IT vendor) have resulted in win-win combination for both the operator and the MVNO partner. For the MVNO, the CapEx on infrastructure has been replaced by OpEx, which has reduced their entry barriers. At the same time, the Operator has been able to rent out the existing IT infrastructure they had in place, thereby creating an additional revenue source for them. Thus, the Operator MVNO relationship, which started out as a vertical co-specialization of activities, has moved to the next level of consolidation, with rationalization of resources taking place between the operator and MVNO.

In the second part of this post, I will detail the role CRM plays in MVNOs and share thoughts on how MVNOs can use CRM more effectively.

Saturday, August 7, 2010

An example of poor service management

Kareems is a renowned chain of restaurants in Mumbai. I knew little about them before I went there on a Saturday a few weeks back. I love a well cooked meal and do not go to the restaurants to evaluate their service management, but this particular experience stood out so clearly that I had to take notice. It’s raining in Mumbai these days, and when we reached Kareems for lunch, it was raining really hard, so it was a relief when their attendant noticed that there were 4 of us and came down to the car with two huge umbrellas.
The waiter mentioned that the kitchen was closing and we needed to order immediately. Over time, I have realized that if I do not know much about the restaurant, it’s better to ask what will be available instantly. Normally, items that move off the shelf quickly would be recommended. For me this guarantees that other customers like the item and that the food is freshly prepared. This has worked for me well in the past and I followed my well rehearsed approach. One problem with the approach is that one has to rely on the waiter’s recommendation for quantity and I went with his recommendation. Not only did the food taste like leftovers, our waiter had forgotten to order one of the dishes, and now could not take orders because the kitchen was closed. I would have hoped that this was all, but it was not to be. When we tried to pay by credit card, we were told that credit cards were not accepted. So we paid by cash and were made to wait for the change. On asking for change our waiter mentioned that they were out of change.
An analysis of the ordeal will throw up some interesting concepts in service management. Kareems started on a strong point with their attendant at the gate setting the standards elevating expectations. Subsequent experiences went from bad to worse. The unpleasant experiences kept coming one after the other, a classic fault. In service organizations, if there are no ways to avoid unpleasant experiences, it’s important to pack them together and take them out initially, but Kareems segmented the bad experiences making them seem longer. While I gave them the opportunity of ordering their best dishes, they took away my power of choice not only by mentioning that the kitchen was closing, but also by not ordering an item I had requested. Taking choice away from customers after offering it is the last thing a service organization should do. Paying by credit card is like a ritual for me, but I was forced to pay by cash, for which I had to forage from everyone. By the time I got out, the experience had left a bad taste in my mouth.
The reason behind such service may have been because we had arrived for lunch late and they were short of resources, whatever the reason, at the least, Kareems lost future business it could have generated from me and a few people I know.

Tuesday, July 6, 2010

Outsourcing Key Business Support Systems

Should outsourcing be the preferred implementation strategy when it comes to key Business Support Systems (BSS) like CRM? To evaluate this, I will touch upon the key reasons why companies outsource and also look at issues that are being faced while outsourcing key BSS applications.
IT outsourcing started with cost advantage as the primary motivation, the drivers of outsourcing have since undergone changes and different models have emerged over time. The key reasons why organizations outsource are the following:
  • Core vs. Non Core – Focus on core business strategy and leave the rest to partners
  • Specialization – Skilled labor with specialized skill sets required for the job
  • Dynamic Capacity – Need based capacity changes in terms of resources/hardware etc
  • Innovation – Align with latest trends in IT and be on top of the innovation curve
Benefits accrue from outsourcing as long as organizations know what to outsource and what to maintain in-house. Processes and functions with low impact on core strategy are ideal candidates for outsourcing while those of strategic importance should be maintained in-house as transaction costs associated with outsourcing such processes outweigh benefits. Non-IT organizations frequently categorize IT as a non-core function and end up outsourcing IT as a whole, while actually there are areas within IT that may be core to business strategy and its enablement. There are instances where organizations have spent additional money to bring back outsourced processes and applications in-house. This points towards a more fundamental question as to whether top managements are able to grasp how critically IT impacts business today, but that is topic for a different discussion. At this point let’s say that it is important for organizations to distinguish and identify the core and non-core IT applications.
Even though outsourced vendors are governed by KPIs/SLAs, there may be a difference in motivation levels and complacency may creep in once contracts are signed off. Hence, BSS applications like CRM, Rating etc in a telecom scenario may need tighter controls where quick resolution and turnaround on issues is critical.
Outsourcing also adds bureaucracy and rigidity with vendors not willing to accommodate last minute changes. For core applications that support business strategy, it is critical that changes are incorporated immediately with changing business needs. Especially in volatile environments like new telecom launches where customer strategy is fluid and prone to changes, an unwilling vendor can cause severe damage to business prospects.
In core and customized applications like CRM where understanding business and its drivers is important, employee turnover at the vendor end is also a sore point. IT Vendors turn to their most efficient employees to win clients and projects, sometimes taking the most resourceful people out of an ongoing project. This leads to unending learning curves and causes dissatisfaction at client end.
I am not saying that BSS applications should not be outsourced because maintaining applications in-house has its challenges; and the degree of outsourcing depends on the maturity levels of both parties, it is, however, important that organizations understand the criticality of different IT applications in their portfolio based on their impact on business. The degree of control on different applications is something that organizations need to evaluate to form a long-term and constructive relationship with the outsourcing vendor.

Sunday, June 20, 2010

Steps to Initiating CRM

A CRM initiative starts with top management taking a conscious decision towards customer orientation. Visualization of benefits should happen at this stage and should be articulated in the form of a value proposition. A discussion on CRM project’s value proposition is available here. The next step involves outlining business processes that will be impacted by CRM. As mentioned in an earlier post, the impact of CRM initiatives is not limited to the front end and customer facing processes only. While CRM applications have evolved and are industry focused and process oriented, the custom processes of the organization still need to be mapped to standard processes provided by CRM vendors. A process re-engineering team comprising of members from strategy, operations, IT and external CRM consultants should be formed at this stage to analyze custom business processes of the organization and provide clarity on the following:
1.      Time/Cost Estimates of the initiative
2.      Phasing approach (and identification of quick-win projects)
3.      Change management requirements
4.      Metrics to monitor progress/returns at every step
Subsequent to this, the CRM product vendor needs to be selected. Unlike purchasing a cell phone, where one learns after purchasing a feature rich phone first, subsequently realizes his unique needs and next time buys just the right one, CRM product selection is a one time activity unless the organization gets it completely wrong. Product vendors are aware of organizations’ penchant for features and would package numerous additional features highlighting discounts if bought as a bundle. Enterprise vendors would also bundle a few non CRM components for future opportunities. Organizations that fall into the trap may end up paying for features which they will never use. Results of the analysis phase should provide the framework within which the organization should commit its resources. A similar logic should be adopted while purchasing licenses. Organizations should however, ensure that product support and consulting from the vendor are included as part of the package as these are critical to the success of the initiative and will be costly if bought later.
The next step is to decide whether to develop the CRM application in-house or partner with a system integrator (SI). There are advantages and disadvantages of each approach which will be considered in a later post. Some key things should be considered while selecting the SI partner. Reputation and reliability are important because organizations will be exposing their customer strategy to the vendor, trust and mutual respect will play an important role in opening up and sharing knowledge. Good CRM SIs are costly because they employ technologists who in addition to understanding the unique business processes, are expected to understand the organizations customers. Being penny wise here will prove costly in the long run.
Once the organization has mapped out its business processes and selected the product and SI vendors, they are ready to create specific business requirements with help from product and SI vendor’s teams. 

Monday, June 7, 2010

Segmenting your Customer base

While organizations start with some basic understanding about their target customers, the target segment gets refined with time and may undergo significant changes once there is visibility of ground realities. In organizations that have implemented CRM solutions, the CRM application tracks information about customers across different channels. Overlaying analytics on top of CRM data, organizations can identify different segments, outlining buying habits like preferred products/services, channel, location, willingness to pay for premium services etc. A successful segmentation strategy will result in segments that are easily definable, sizable, reachable and actionable. Segments are defined in such a way that characteristics within a segment are homogenous while between segments are heterogeneous, so that different treatments can be designed for different segments. Characteristics, based on which customers can be segmented can belong to any of the four major types:
  • Geographic (e.g., country, region, climate)
  • Demographic (e.g., age, sex, income, education, # household members)
  • Psychographic (e.g., lifestyle, personality, values)
  • Behavioral (e.g., usage rate, loyalty status, usage occasion)
Geographic variables provide high level indicators. Mobile telephony customers based out of coastal regions, where one of the primary occupations is fishing, have a higher willingness to pay for weather related services and forecasts on their phones.
Demographic variables can indicate if a particular age group uses specific types of services more often than others. SMS is used more often in the age group 15-25 than in any other age group.
Psychographic variables are based on human psychology. Customers can be identified as Innovators, Adopters or Followers. High end new products or services can be targeted specifically at Innovators thereby increasing acceptance rates.
Behavioral variables are based on the presumption that past performance is a true mirror of future performance. The success of RFM methodology (Recency, Frequency and Monetary Value) to predict future revenues from customers proves the efficiency of behavioral variables. The number and value of prepaid recharges made by a customer over a period of time, in addition to time lag from the last recharge can predict to considerable accuracy whether the customer is still with the service provider; it can also predict when and of what value will be his next recharge.
Segments are rarely based on one type of variable; a combination of multiple variables of different types can provide useful insights that define a customer segment. A study conducted by a colleague and me on the upcoming 3G market in India found that young (22-28 years) medium income (9–14 lacs) basic degree holders interested in music would have the highest willingness to pay for Mobile Gaming. Get entire report from here.
Once segments are identified and selected, the next step is to design service offerings and pricing keeping the target segments in mind. There is a trade off involved between the depth of segment definition and cost; some experts, however think that one need not make an either or choice. To read more about creating service offerings for a segment size of one, refer to the blog on 1to1 Marketing