Column

It’s time for telecoms to focus on customers

Telecoms providers need to shift strategic focus from ultra-fast networks to equally fast customer service. Digital platforms can get them there.

  • Telecoms providers have fought for years to expand their customer base, often at the expense of quality customer service
  • Many are plagued with siloed business systems that don’t communicate with each other
  • Unified digital platforms can help integrate these systems and automate critical services

Telecoms providers have been squabbling for years in consumer ads about who’s better, faster, cheaper, and more reliable. As someone who worked in the industry for more than a decade, I had a view of these arguments from the inside.

In the early days of mobile, communications service providers (CSPs) competed almost exclusively on price—who could offer more minutes or text bundles at the lowest cost. The goal was to sign up as many customers as fast as possible and try to hold onto them for dear life. Maintaining a functioning network to accommodate that growth was the biggest priority. Quality and reliability of service, meanwhile, took a back seat.

Once the price wars subsided and customers could buy whatever handset they liked, CSPs then tried to differentiate on depth of coverage and network reliability. But those arguments grew weaker every year, as CSPs began to share much of the same infrastructure. We see the same trend today, as CSPs make incessant, largely specious claims about the superiority of their 5G networks.

Here’s the point they often miss: The only sustainable point of differentiation in telecom today is superior customer service. That comes down to how CSPs answer questions like these: What should service reps say to customers who are angry because their mobile network went down without prior notice or follow-up? What kind of information can they offer about what caused the outage or when service will be restored? How quickly and efficiently can they deliver that information?

[Read also: Inside Swisscom’s move to the cloud]

These challenges are arguably more critical and urgent than the outages themselves. For many telecoms, huge disconnects still exist between operations centers that keep mobile networks running and support centers that manage customers. It’s not because leaders are ignoring the problem. In many cases, the real problem is that they’re still relying on legacy systems that can’t communicate through siloed organizations.

NOC NOC, who’s there?

For decades, network operations centers (NOCs) have relied on poorly integrated systems that are good at flagging network breakdowns, but often struggle to deliver relevant details to technicians or guidance on how to fix them.

Silo-based IT structures are one culprit. One section of a NOC might be dedicated to monitoring the radio access network (for calls and texts) while another handles a CSP’s internal network. Other systems may monitor a CSP’s IoT network or its cloud infrastructure. Few of these systems communicate with each other. When outages and other problems occur, it takes that much longer to mobilize resources to fix them—and to alert customers throughout the process.

The problem will only worsen for some companies as the “connected enterprise” gains momentum and as 5G and millions of IoT devices come online over the next few years. CSPs need simpler, more automated ways to manage them. For many, that means adopting a single digital platform that can link disparate monitoring systems together and connect them to ticketing systems used by customer operations. They can also map services to devices, then identify the customers who will be impacted when that device fails.

The only sustainable point of differentiation in telecom today is superior customer service.

There are other benefits. Connecting network assurance to service assurance makes it possible to send proactive notifications directly out of the NOC. Automation tools can tell customers where the problem is, what the cause is, and when they can expect a fix. That avoids enormous extraneous communication between legacy-based NOCs and customer operations teams. It removes a world of pain from the operator, while providing a quantum leap in customer service.

At one company in the telecom sector where I led digital enterprise innovation, I inherited a collection of siloed systems and multiple platforms. It was a very complex environment. Customers often found out about problems before we would. After we adopted a single platform, however, our agents were able to access a 360-degree view of each customer. It allowed us to be much more proactive and to notify customers of issues before they became aware of them. This digital transformation boosted our productivity 45 percent and improved our customer satisfaction ratings by more than 25 points.

Customers understand no network is perfect. Bad things happen. What they want to know is that the operator is fixing it as quickly as possible. Proactive notification and transparency are game changers for telcos, especially when dealing with their largest enterprise customers.

Toward predictive capabilities

There are even more exciting possibilities on the horizon for CSPs willing to make big changes. Machine learning has the potential to identify network problems and correct them before they cause a second of downtime. When a critical piece of network hardware is showing signs of incipient failure, these tools will automatically generate a ticket—then dispatch an engineer out to handle a repair, or tackle a software fix without bothering a human.

For such predictive operations to work, CSPs need to deal first with more immediate challenges: putting new digital platforms in place that are capable of instant, cross-functional communication and workflows, and can handle customer and network issues at the same time.

Eventually, self-healing networks enabled by AI may become the norm in the industry. The CSPs that get there first will have a real market advantage. At that point, I predict they’ll find something else to argue about.