In an era of commoditisation, competition and churn, it is becoming increasingly difficult for telecommunications providers to find meaningful market differentiators. Superior customer service offers a solution, but, to be truly effective, it requires superior customer information, explains James Wilkinson
Where most fixed-line and wireless services now offer broadly similar products, services and pricing structures, and customers can switch with increasing ease to providers with the latest incentive packages, the competitive advantage is often with those who offer a higher quality, more personalised customer service. This also provides churn-reducing loyalty and, as every marketer knows, retaining an existing customer is exponentially more cost-efficient than recruiting a new one. Existing customers also represent a potentially rich source of cross-product and upselling opportunities - providing, of course, one knows what they want.
Knowing what the customer wants depends on knowing who they are. This, in turn, requires an IT system with the capacity to capture relevant information from customer-facing sources, combine this data with other enterprise systems and then maintain the information in a format that is easily accessible, reliably accurate and always up-to-date. Creating a master customer index with these attributes is no trivial task. To really do the job requires a combination of advanced integration, identity matching and data management technology.
Until now telecoms providers have been investing heavily in applications such as CRM to create their customer profiles. Increasingly, however, CRM is being viewed as an entry-level solution. While CRM is capable of capturing a plethora of data and loading it into one place, it typically lacks the ability to integrate customer-facing and back office systems such as customer accounts, enterprise resource planning (ERP) or web portals. Nor are CRM systems generally able to arrange this information into a meaningful, prioritised view of the customer or business entity.
Having the ability to capture every front-end transaction and then be able to selectively transform this data into a coherent view of the customer that is both current and operational remains an elusive quest with CRM. To accomplish this level of sophistication, today's solution of choice is Customer Data Integration (CDI) - a subset of Master Data Management (MDM), an advanced suite of data integration and identity matching tools that enables providers to ‘know their customer' with a next generation level of depth, detail and accuracy. By offering a complete, front-to-back office system of tools for real-time customer visibility, CDI picks up where CRM leaves off.
A 360o customer view
A CDI-based customer profile, or master record, is far richer than a single-faceted view based on something like the monthly bill. It brings together strands of information from all touch points to enable the telecoms provider to see the full set of relationships it has with each customer, whether corporate or consumer. In the case of a household, this may involve consolidating a number of different accounts either held in separate data silos (accounts payable, marketing, CRM, EPR, etc.), or belonging to different family members, all with their own mobile phone accounts. For some purposes, such as payments receivable, these accounts may need to be viewed together. For functions like direct marketing, however, customer files may need to be analysed individually. Adding to this complexity is the proliferation of new services coming to market such as wireless Internet, TV-over-mobile and other content-based services, all of which makes the task of obtaining a single unified view of the customer an even greater challenge.
In the case of corporate clients, the consolidated customer record may include a variety of other information on the company's supply chain partners, different departments, lines of business or global network of offices. Using CDI technology, this data can be segmented according to any set of pre-defined parameters in order to identify such things as call volumes within a specific cost centre or to get a breakdown of personal vs. business mobile phone usage for individual staff members. This layered, or hierarchical, view of the enterprise not only provides the telecoms operator with an enriched level of insight into the high-margin business customer, it constitutes a potentially new value-added data management service for which corporates may be prepared to pay a premium.
Traditionally, the call centre is one of the service provider's costliest overheads. Given the right tools, however, the customer support representative (CSR) can not only be a problem-buster and retention builder, but can also become a dynamic sales agent, transforming the hitherto cost centre into an effective profit centre. When a customer calls in (usually with a complaint), the CSR must have instant, at-a-glance access to the customer's complete master record - time lost searching for files, asking repetitive identifier questions or transferring the caller to other departments inevitably compounds the customer's initial irritation. By contrast, having a complete overview of the customer from the start and being able to sort out the problem quickly creates a positive, personalised customer experience. This in turn prepares the ground for a selling opportunity.
Armed with this master customer record, a CSR can quickly spot service usage trends and offer better tariff rates, lock in new call packages or sell a mobile contract to a fixed or broadband customer. This interaction at the same time enables agents to update demographic details such as recent change of address, add new staff members to a corporate account, or make note of a family member who has reached school age and may need a mobile phone. Once captured within the CDI hub, this continually updated record becomes the most accurate, trusted source of customer profiling information, available in real-time at any security-cleared service or operational touch point.
Using CDI technology, creating the customer record is speedy, requires no costly data transformation professionals and is non-invasive to existing systems because the hub sits between the existing systems that gather data, and the enterprise systems that want to consume these data. Like a spider's web, it is linked to legacy back-office data sources and customer-facing applications via a system of re-usable, object-oriented components enabling master record data to be gathered and held in either a central, or a federated repository. Because this indexing database is set up to capture information from anywhere across the enterprise on a real-time basis, it becomes the most accurate, up-to-date and trusted source of information concerning the customer, business or any other entity.
Intelligent data matching
One of the main challenges of integrating data from disparate sources into a central repository is that the resulting database is frequently cluttered with duplicate files and fractured, incomplete information. This is often the result of misspelling and other errors: for example, having one file under ‘Smythe' and another under ‘Smith', or just the typical variation associated with collecting data (using Bill sometimes and William other times). Cleaning up the customer's master record and then keeping it current on an ongoing basis, is one of today's biggest IT headaches. To tackle the job, Initiate Identity Hub software, one of the industry's leading CDI/MDM solutions, employs a system of highly accurate probabilistic matching and linking algorithms to identify and resolve these anomalies. Mechanisms are in place to facilitate implementation such that changes subsequently made by a CSR or customer-facing application are in turn implemented in the master record.
In creating a master customer index, telecoms providers have an advantage over most other industries: a unique customer identifier called the telephone number. A wealth of profiling data can - in theory at least - be collected around the phone number. However, this can also lead to much confusion. An individual may have several different numbers (work, home, mobile etc.), or conversely a group of people (office or family members) may share a common number. Another common scenario is that a customer has switched to a different provider and taken their number with them. This is a particular challenge for suppliers like the Carphone Warehouse, which represents multiple providers. In such a case, CDI's intelligent matching technology can link up customers with their mobile numbers and their current supplier to eliminate duplicate or obsolete files and then group this corrected information into a new master customer record.
So far, we have focused on the customer-centric application of CDI. However, because this technology provides a fast, cost-efficient means of integrating silo information, it also has major cost and efficiency implications at an operational level. Indeed, one of the outcomes of the recent spate of merger and acquisition activity within the telecoms industry is a need to rationalise increased amounts of legacy data, frequently at a global level. Once gathered into the CDI hub, customer lists from the merged entities can be compared and cleaned, and supplier data can be compared for negotiating leverage, notably in cases where the parent company may have pre-existing partner contracts, or where the combined volume of business suggests a pricing discount is appropriate. Whatever the application, CDI/MDM's contribution - whether customer-facing or operational - is revolutionising the data management landscape.
James Wilkinson is EMEA Services Director,