Years of writing for this audience have taught me that the best way to ensure an article is circulated widely is to deliver exciting news of a positive development that people will want to share. This is not going to be one of those articles. Nevertheless, it is necessary to write this piece whilst there is still time for those with sufficient courage to do something in response, even if I am convinced these words will be read by too few of the people to which they are addressed, and will be welcomed by even fewer.
Some kinds of crisis cannot be avoided. We can plan for how we respond to an earthquake or a tsunami but we cannot prevent natural disasters. Other crises are predictable to those who are willing to admit that trouble may lie ahead, though they may still come into being because of a failure to change course early enough. Titanic could have steered around the iceberg. Kodak could have changed their business model. But the ‘unsinkable’ Titanic did sink, and shares of Kodak are now worth a fraction of their previous value. Kodak’s management watched as the world of photography turned digital, whilst continuing to sell film as if demand for their product would never decline. It is sad to observe that there is a branch of telecoms risk management that is sleepwalking towards its own crisis. I find the inevitably of the crisis to be all the more depressing because it will hit a branch of risk management that is dear to my heart: revenue assurance. Analyzing the strategic risks, I can only conclude that revenue assurance is in danger of becoming irrelevant for want of a plan to turn the discipline around.
The Warning Signs
There was a time when the CEO of WeDo chastised me for not saying his firm was the biggest in revenue assurance. His point, at that time, was that he disliked the way I used ‘revenue assurance’ to refer to the combined RAFM market. He wanted to talk about WeDo being the biggest supplier of revenue assurance solutions, whilst their chief rivals, Subex, held the crown for fraud management systems. Nobody cares about who is the biggest in revenue-assurance-but-not-fraud-management any more. Over time it became obvious that WeDo, a business that once boasted of being the biggest in RA and which is now a division within Mobileum, had come to believe their growth depended on increasing fraud sales whilst managing the decline of revenue assurance.
Subex is also undergoing a transformation. The business that pioneered the concept of the Revenue Operations Center (ROC) now seeks to offer a plethora of products and services linked to cybersecurity and data analysis. Whether they are pitching honeypots, launching a new analytics brand, or partnering with a prison town in Arizona to develop their IoT security services, there are many ways that Subex is investing in the future, but none of them suggest a revitalization of the ROC.
This is not to say that revenue assurance has been so successful at eradicating unforced errors that it has made itself redundant. Evidence of inadequate revenue assurance controls can regularly be found in the newspapers. We may not be listening, but journalists keep hearing how customers and national authorities are displeased with inaccurate bills. The regulator in the UK has been ramping up fines for overcharging. The issue of overbilling keeps receiving more attention in Canada. And the US regulator keeps paying subsidies for services received by people who do not qualify for subsidies. There is a great deal of overlap between the kinds of controls that identify and prevent revenue leakage, and those that ensure each customer receives the right charge. If RA teams are reporting continuous improvement then they need to ask themselves why customers are not more satisfied with the accuracy of charging than they were a decade ago.
About once a week I am notified of a new press release saying the market for revenue assurance software is enjoying explosive growth and will be worth billions in future. The press release may be new, but it is attempting to sell a report that is old. That report was written almost a decade ago, and the authors keep rebadging it in the hope of taking advantage of the unwary. Nobody has written a report forecasting the growth of the revenue assurance market since. What does that say about the prospects for this market?
Some of the most worrying signs for revenue assurance come from the leakage coverage surveys run by my own nonprofit association, the Risk & Assurance Group (RAG). This shows that our aging discipline has hardly developed beyond the universal adoption of the controls that originally defined RA, such as switch-to-bill reconciliations. Where limited development has taken place, it shows our nascent profession has fractured as different RA teams pursue development in many different directions.
Telco RA teams are adopting significantly different priorities for what they choose to do next, but there is no critical mass. A discipline which has no common syllabus, and no recognized qualification, because it never amassed the scale to deliver either, now finds itself spread even thinner than before. Some years ago the TM Forum issued a ‘manifesto’ for business assurance, but was there ever any actual reproducible work to attach some muscle and some skin to the skeleton of an idea? Whilst it may seem dandy to discuss business assurance manifestoes, if the vendors are chasing only small pools of operators, and there are too few telco managers with sufficient common interest to work together, all we are doing is to draw a larger boundary line around a region we lack the resources to populate.
The Strategic Challenges Faced by Revenue Assurance
As vendors reduce their interest in revenue assurance they will not invest in driving the adoption of new objectives, methods, products or services. Each year they put less money into the discipline, and telcos are generally unwilling to make up the difference. As a standalone entity, RA’s future is bleak. But might we seek comfort in the arms of others?
The combination of revenue assurance and fraud management would provide one obvious solution to RA’s troubles. Ignoring past arguments about how to define the market, firms like WeDo and Subex achieved scale and efficiency by exploiting what revenue assurance and fraud management have in common. But there is a difficulty: a large camp within the fraud management community refuses to give a damn about revenue assurance. The GSMA Fraud Forum thought RA so worthless that they voted against including it in their work; they have since preferred to explore synergies with security. The CFCA has always said it takes an interest in revenue assurance, but even a cursory glance at their output reveals how hollow that claim is. Even RAG, my own association, is now finding it difficult to accommodate the RA community. I would like to put more revenue assurance on the agenda of each RAG conference, but that is difficult when so few offer to talk about meaningful new work.
I can hardly blame fraud managers for wanting to plot a course that is not amenable to the RA fraternity. They have natural allies that force them to innovate: the fraudsters that keep coming up with new ways to cheat telcos and their customers. They also work in a field where it is easier to reapply their skills and experience in other sectors. Though telco RA managers have often thought of moving into utilities or even into banking, only a few have done it, not least because those sectors have not spent heavily on recruiting them. That also tells us a story about how well we have done at communicating our virtues to a mass audience.
A challenge is also an opportunity, and telcos face many challenges that RA practitioners can turn their hands too. This much is manifest in the wide range of activities incorporated into RAG’s crowd-sourced leakage catalog. If there was some way we might agree on two or three areas of growth that most telcos want to prioritize, then we could better hold the interest of vendors who will spend more on developing the products and services we will want, and make them available at a price telcos can afford. We also increase the chances of influencing executives en masse, like we did when RA was first born. But one obstacle is that the leaders in the field find it more productive to turn inward, and solve problems for themselves, without speaking to vendors or other telcos. This makes perfect sense from the perspective of the individual seeking the best and most immediate boost to their chances of promotion. But solitary progress further undermines the chances of realizing common education standards that would transform revenue assurance from an odd little niche into a choice that young people can take at the beginning of their career with the understanding of how to climb the ladder and where it might take them.
Can We Do Better?
The RAG Leakage Catalog is a good piece of work. It shows there are many ways for RA to grow. So how do we make that growth happen? Firstly, we need leaders. By which I mean: we need real leaders. It is not enough to have a manifesto; you must be able to articulate a plan that others can follow in practice. And forget money-grubbing pompous clowns like Papa Rob Mattison, who sell soiled dreams to laggards who think the ideas realized in revenue assurance came fully formed from a mystical past that ended three weeks before they started work as an RA analyst. Prematurely written manuals created obstacles to growth, instead of cultivating the fertile imagination needed to see risks, leaks and flaws where others have not.
We need leaders who actually deliver inspiring new work in their telcos – and are willing to share the results with the rest of the world. That means finding champions who have innovated in their companies, because they not only knew how to do things better, but also had the savvy to persuade others of the need to improve. They have the capacity to be real leaders, and we need them.
Instead of showing each other the best examples of our work, we have ceded the stage to people whose primary source of knowledge comes from surveys and other second-hand information. But somebody whose knowledge is second-hand can never be a leader. They can only tell us where others have already been, and know nothing of how they got there.
If you are one of those leaders then I would love to hear from you. If you know somebody else who is a leader, then please put them in touch. We need them, more than ever. We need leaders with the vision that would have saved Kodak. We need new captains to steer the ship. And we need them now, whilst there is still time to turn this ship around.