Features

If providers want broadband customer loyalty, they must prove they can be trusted right from the start, says Kieran Moynihan

The transformation of the world's wireline networks is already well underway in many countries, with the ability to deliver broadband content and entertainment services to a wide variety of non-telephony devices within the domestic environment already centre stage within the strategic planning departments of most fixed line operators.
Even straightforward voice services are about to be reborn in fresh guises, using new protocols like SIP -- along with simple presence and location information -- to widen the depth and breadth of traditional service portfolios.
However, in this headlong rush towards new revenue streams, it's vitally important that service providers don't lose sight of the actual customer sitting at the end of what is going to be an ever-lengthening value chain. It's not going to be any good just pumping more and more bits at them in the hope they're going to pay for this on the basis of sheer volume alone. For the customer -- who's already becoming far more discerning about the range of possibilities on tap to them -- other criteria are also important, particularly the overall quality of the total service experience that they get from their provider. The raw truth is that if you want them to come on the broadband journey with you, you're going to have to prove to them -- right from the start -- that you're a trustworthy partner.
For some fixed service providers, negotiating the service quality management route in the broadband environment could end up becoming rather a problematic kind of journey. Managing speech quality in the circuit-switched world, while not simple, is at least a well-understood and standardised discipline that's been practised for many decades. By contrast, making the move into the broadband IP world necessarily involves far higher value transactions for content services from the customer's perspective -- along with an accompanying increased exposure to uncertainty and risk for the provider. Before asking the customer to transfer all their communications services -- including broadcast  -- onto the shoulders of one single provider, we'd better make sure that we're up to the job.
Fortunately, one part of our industry -- the mobile sector -- has already been here before and there are valuable lessons for the fixed operator to learn from that experience.
Consider the essentials of the wired broadband mix:
*  A variety of different access technologies, each with their own particular behaviours and physical limits
*  A need to support a multiplicity of services in a consistent manner
*  Great variation in the actual terminal devices being used by the customer
*  A potential separation between ownership of the actual physical network infrastructure and the providers of services to run on them              *  Complex and often highly distributed value chains, involving third parties and intricate settlement procedures
*  A fickle and often fragmented customer base, prepared to churn at a moment's notice
*  Customers who will use the network for both business and personal use -- with appropriate levels of security and reliability
Sounds a bit like the mobile environment -- but with one important difference. Customer expectations in the mobile space have largely kept pace with the network's actual ability to deliver on these. In comparison, consumers of broadband services will usually be approaching their relationship with their fixed line service provider with already high expectations, based on years of consistent performance. To them it's irrelevant that something called VoIP is letting them talk cheaply to friends on the other side of the country -- they just expect it to work.
In this context, the main lesson that could be transferred from the wireless community to their fixed line cousins is the importance of appreciating the totality of the customer experience -- and that means taking a far more holistic approach to the systems that support service quality. In the steady-state world of circuit-switched services, the data needed to monitor service quality was pretty basic, as only a handful of performance parameters actually impacted on the user's experience. Did the call connect, did it complete, was it successfully billed for and so on?
By contrast, there are a host of different issues that can impact on the broadband experience and, just like the mobile environment, not all of these will be under the direct control of either the service provider or the network owner. In taking a leaf from the mobile book, fixed line operators are going to have to start seeing things from the customers' -- not the network's -- perspective, and this involves a shift in focus to what in the mobile arena is called customer-centric service management.
That involves pulling together all the currently separate and discrete functions of network operations, customer care, billing, enterprise account and product management and integrating them in ways that add value to the customer, to the whole business and not just to narrow departmental responsibilities. With the right kind of service quality management system in place, it becomes possible for faults that will have an immediate impact on customer service to be quickly identified and resolved, while triage can readily be performed to prioritise less urgent problems. Internal Service Level Agreements (SLAs) can also be defined and monitored across the organisation, leading to a greater coordination between all the different departments actually involved in creating, deploying, marketing and billing new services.
Given the critical place we're at in the rollout of broadband services, there's a strong argument to be made for adapting that old adage 'If you can't bill for it -- don't offer it' into 'If you can't guarantee its quality -- don't offer it". Fortunately, help -- and real world experience -- is at hand.                                                        n

Kieran Moynihan is General Manager, Service Management Division, Vallent Corporation
www.vallent.co.uk

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