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Asserting a role in M2M – what’s an operator’s place?

Many M2M services require only minimal or passive involvement from operators. Despite this, many operators see a clear opportunity to drive new revenue from M2M applications and services. But their role will not typically be as innovators for the services themselves, but rather as key stakeholders delivering the variable orchestration and assurance capabilities such services will demand.

Work on eHealth services provides a clear indication of how this might play out, with operators being a key stakeholder, supporting application providers in highly focused consortia. We expect to see much more activity in such applications in 2015, but operators need to realise that their role lies in being a key supporting enabler to the providers of critical applications across different verticals and form appropriate partnerships to capitalise on M2M opportunities.

It’s clear that momentum is growing in the M2M and IoT market. While we remain a long way from the dramatic numbers some have forecast, we can all recognise that M2M and IoT applications have gone mainstream and are beginning to impact our lives. But with uncertainties still surrounding the value of such services, the role of the operator remains uncertain. Are operators going to drive the market place or do they have a relatively limited place in the value chain?

At this year’s Service Delivery and Innovation Summit in London, we attempted to answer some of these questions, based on our experience of a specific vertical within M2M markets that has attracted considerable attention: eHealth.

There are many thousands of M2M services and a huge array of potential applications that can be enabled. Essentially, anything that can be monitored or anything that can, actually or potentially generate data and be controlled from another location can be connected to form an M2M service. For each such service, there are both common and unique requirements.

Now, if you are an operator, common requirements are probably not all that interesting – they are suggestive of low value services and commoditised capabilities. But unique requirements are rather more interesting, as these suggest that some tuning needs to take place in order to ensure that the service is delivered successfully.

It is these services that demand more of an active role from operators. Variable requirements, particularly where data can:

  • Have different packet sizes, depending on media
  • Have different levels of priority that change according to circumstances, events or alarms
  • Need to be forwarded to different monitoring systems and control centres, according to events

Of course, the list is not exhaustive, but the point is that for certain applications, dynamic elements need to be considered which create the need for active and dynamic service delivery and assurance systems – which operators with control of network assets are able to manage, unlike pure OTT providers. One example is eHealth monitoring. A system that is set up to monitor heart rate in a patient must be able to do more than simply forward data to a monitoring system. If there is a change in the observed rate beyond a stipulated threshold, then the priority with which such data is sent to relevant observation systems will change.

While this suggests that operators can play a major role in the orchestration, delivery and management of data from more critical M2M services, it still doesn’t imply that they should take the lead. However, work undertaken by our friends at ISPM in eHealth trial projects shows that operators will be key stakeholders in the necessary ecosystem. But the leadership will probably stem from specialists in the provision of the applications themselves.

That is, there will likely be consortiums of key stakeholders, driven by the needs of the application. Thus, in critical eHealth applications, for example, the operator is required to ensure that the conditions for meeting dynamic and variable data transmission, forwarding and delivery, with variable priorities, are met. An applications that sends alerts to people to tell them that the milk in their fridge has passed its sell-by date is, while useful to some, not particularly interesting to operators. But critical or highly variable and sensitive applications are.

In this context, operators need to play a key supporting role to innovators that develop such applications. They need to be able to deliver the variable orchestration, assurance and transport capabilities that will enable them to flourish, but they will not necessarily be the lead actor. Operators will sometimes take the lead; at other times, they have a minor role to play. But there are many, many potential applications which will depend on the ability of operators to provide differential service capabilities to other stakeholders – in other words, in the M2M world, operators are absolutely essential to ensuring the performance of certain services, but they must work with other stakeholders as part of consortia to ensure their success.

Staggering incompetence in the call centre – a case study in poor CEM

CEM has become a huge topic and is likely going to be a key theme for 2015. Despite this, operators continue to give poor service when dealing with customer enquiries. This is all the more surprising since systems exist (and have done so for years) that enable a seamless experience and full integration between ACD, CRM and business processes. An encounter with Vodafone illustrated how far away even a tier one provider is from delivering joined-up service. Efforts to address CEM require a holistic approach – it’s not just network performance, it’s a host of factors that constitute the overall experience with an operator. Until these are addressed, the impact of CEM efforts is likely to be limited. In the end, CEM is greater than the sum of its parts.

It’s not often that we refer to bad experiences by naming the offending party, but since customer experience management (CEM) is attracting so much attention these days, it’s worth highlighting a recent encounter with Vodafone.

We’re Vodafone customers and have been for years. Recently, I called Vodafone to try to set up another couple of new accounts. To do this, I used the short-cut code and reached the call centre. Evidently, it was a busy time, so the IVR system told me that there was a lengthy queue and invited me to use a callback facility. To access this, I had to enter my security code and confirm the number on which I wanted to be called. So far so good.

But when the callback arrived, I was connected to someone who immediately asked me for my Vodafone number. I wondered why he couldn’t see it, having been connected to me through the ACD making an outbound call. In order for this to have happened, the system must have known the number to dial and, in the event that I had used a different number from that of my mobile, surely the CRM would have checked first and found that I was using the same number? Evidently not. He couldn’t see my number, nor could he see the CRM. This meant I had to revalidate myself – and explain the nature of my enquiry, despite having selected relevant options in the original IVR menu. Then, having run through a couple of questions, I was forwarded to someone else, who could, apparently, handle the enquiry.

On being connected, this agent immediately asked me a question. To my surprise, she asked me, once again, for the phone number for this account. Her next question? “Can you tell me the second and third digits of your security pin?”

Gah! This is wrong in so many ways. First, I had already validated myself on the initial call. Perhaps they might confirm this, but in any event, there should be a CRM that enables agents to correlate data to avoid repeating the same steps. Second, why on earth isn’t data passed between agents? When they handover calls, surely the screens in front of them should be updated with details of the call in progress? Third, the callback system is nice, but it sets expectations. You don’t expect to have to repeat processes, pass on details for calls that have already been logged by choices in the IVR menus, and so on. Needless to say, I didn’t complete the transaction.

Doesn’t Vodafone associate data? Doesn’t it care about presenting information between agents and matching it with accounts? What a shower. We know how easy it is to make this kind of thing work easily. For a tier one provider to have such a disjointed, infuriating system is really quite shocking. CEM is a big term. It refers to many practices and processes that affect customers – from when you buy a service to when you close it, and all points in between. Operators, such as Vodafone, need to really think about this, because it’s so easy to annoy customers by failing to get the basics right.

We talk a great deal about network quality. This is a huge factor, of course, but so too are less frequent encounters, such as when you call a service centre. Here, CEM really matters – whether, like me, you were trying to buy something or not. I’m looking at other providers for the new accounts now, but this is not rocket science. In fact, it’s much easier to address these kind of service issues than it is to build a network. All Vodafone needs is a decent CRM and an ACD that ensures information is presented, correlated and associated with relevant business processes. Mind you, what really got my goat was the text I received shortly after finishing the call, asking me to complete a customer satisfaction survey. Friends on Facebook will have seen my response.

CEM may be flavour of the month and will likely be a key theme in 2015, but it’s time operators started to think about things from a customer’s perspective. Network and handset performance is one thing, but poor service in the call centre is just as important. Operators must not forget that there are multiple touch points in the customer experience. They need to understand how to tune each of them, so that customers are not inconvenienced, are not frustrated and are able to complete the enquiries they make successfully.

Failure to differentiate has a price

If you can’t explain why your solutions or your organisation are different from competitors, then you may find you can only compete on price. Differentiation is essential to the process of creating positioning that articulates the attractions and advantages of your solution and of working with you. Failure to differentiate means you will lose competitive edge and face a challenging future with an inevitable race to the bottom.

At a recent seminar on NFV and SDN, hosted by European Communications, Neil McRae, Chief Network Architect of BT challenged equipment vendors to tell him why they are different. Many solutions have broadly similar functionality and solve the same sets of challenges. If there is nothing different about them that differentiates one from the other then, he said, he would choose the cheapest – which would be a certain Chinese vendor “by a country mile”.

That’s a brutally honest assessment. Clearly, not all network operators will have the same view, but it is still an important point. All vendors and solution providers need to be able to identify what makes their offers different. Differentiation is essential. It gets to the essence of what you offer.

As far as we can see, there are two problems here. First, many vendors choose to focus on traditional values, such as throughput, specification compliance, performance and so on – in other words, typical features from a product requirements document.

But features are not enough to be interesting. The second problem is concerned with how many operators force vendors to focus on minutiae. In any RFX process with an operator, most participants will support most of the required features – and, if they don’t, they probably can if they become mandatory requirements. But this process rarely creates room for expressing key differentiators that are actually important to the solutions in question. Vendors need to be absolutely clear about what makes them different, either at the level of individual solutions or as an organisation, or better still, both.

Because of the legacy of formulaic RFX processes, few vendors make such efforts. They remain focused on their products and do not consider how they should position solutions to capture the essence of what makes them different. If they are not different, then they will simply be treated as commodities and, as Mr McRae says, the cheapest will prevail.

That’s why a bit of introspection is essential. It’s increasingly hard to compete and there is a wealth of innovation to be found. In competitive markets, identifying and clearly building propositions around your differences can provide an edge – and an edge is what you need for sustained competitive advantage and performance.

The lessons are clear – it’s not easy to change operators’ purchasing tactics, but it is relatively straightforward to identify and develop stories that accentuate what makes you different. If you can’t already articulate this clearly, then you probably haven’t thought it through and need to invest time in doing so. We’ve met vendors that struggle to do this, because they believe their differentiators to be complicated. If it’s too complicated to explain, then no one will ever understand it.

If you can, then you need to make it fundamental to your propositions and ensure the differentiating factors are given appropriate prominence in verbal and written communications. And, if you haven’t already recognised the absolute necessity of doing so, then perhaps you should talk to us and see how we can help.