David’s recent post, asked a difficult question about which countries appreciate revenue assurance, and which have little interest. This started me thinking. One of the difficulties in comparing revenue assurance is that a telco that seems to have no issues may have an RA team that is not reporting them, and a telco that seems to have lots of issues may be benefiting from a hardworking RA team that finds them all. It comes down to culture. Pride can be a powerful motivator. On the other hand, the need to save face can stop people from admitting and dealing with the real issues they face.
I remember one relevant story from my early days as a financial auditor. I worked on an odd mix of clients, including a Japanese travel agency based in London, that serviced a variety of Japanese corporate clients also based there. Like accountants in most small businesses, they focused on the day to day essentials and let the auditors worry about the financial statements. Come the end of the financial year, there are always some transactions where the bills have come through the post, but nobody has got around to paying for them. You need to be careful that some do not get missed. To check, you ask the accountants for all the recent bills they got in the post, pick a sample, and see if they were included in the totals. We asked the accountant at the travel agency for the paperwork like usual, and he told us which pre-prepared file he had put it in. After coming back from lunch, and quickly reviewing the invoices, it became obvious there was something wrong. There were only a few invoices in the file, yet a travel agency deals with lots of transactions every day. Coming back after lunch, we asked the accountant to come into the windowless room where we were working, and proceeded to explain what we needed. He insisted that all the paperwork had been provided already. The accountant was Japanese, like everyone else at the business. We thought there had been a misunderstanding, so we explained again. Again, he insisted. So we tried to explain why we expected to see a lot more invoices, and he shook his head and said we had them all. It was hard to work out if the problem was to do with language, so we asked again. His reaction made it hard to tell if he really did understood, but he said there were no other invoices. We went on like this over and over again… for the rest of the day. We knew the invoices were too few in number, and it seemed unlikely the accountant had deliberately made an error that was so easy to spot. Over and over we asked, and over and over he, very calmly, slowly and quietly, said he had provided all the invoices. Come leaving time, we shrugged our shoulders and decided to give up, whilst not entirely sure how we were going to handle what seemed to be a serious obstacle to checking the accounts.
What were we doing wrong? In my ignorance, as a junior auditor, I failed to consider cultural differences. Keeping the accountant in the room, and insisting on the invoices, was my mistake. I should have realized that language was not really the problem. The problem was with the threat of losing face. From my limited experience, British accountants would provide you with paperwork when you asked. However, this Japanese accountant took it as a point of pride that he had given the auditors all the paperwork they needed at the outset. Whilst we thought nothing of the fact that some invoices might not have been provided until we asked for them, he felt at risk of losing face. Half of that day had been spent going over and over a pointless conversation. When we returned to work the next day, there was a new object waiting for us in our windowless room – a shoebox full of unfiled invoices, all with recent dates on them. The accountant had understood what we needed, he just could not bring himself to get the box whilst we were asking for it. He could leave the box for us, so long as he did it when nobody was looking.
The Japanese accountant was diligent, and did his job well. He did not want to lose face, even if it seemed to us like that there was no reason why he would. Diligence is vital to good revenue assurance, but pride can sometimes cause obstacles to communication. There are no easy generalizations, but attitudes do vary with cultures. When it comes to judging how good revenue assurance is across the world, we need to listen to what people say, and what they do not say, and also understand what motivates them to talk and what causes them to be silent. This will be especially important to revenue assurance, which is concerned with the inadvertent loss of revenues, and the action needed to save them. We need to understand a person’s motivation to understand what they say and do. Only then can we judge their real attitude to revenue assurance.