One of the most common questions I get asked is “how do you start doing revenue assurance in a telco that has never done any before?“. I suppose I have never wanted to write a public answer, because I get paid for doing consulting and giving away the answers for free means I get less money! However, it is about time I gave a proper answer to this very important question. Here are my ten tips for how to start doing revenue assurance for the first time.
- Use a list of leakages to define scope and priorities
- Gather relevant information already known to someone in the business
- Prove your worth with quick wins
- Spread your coverage with ‘quick and dirty’ audits
- Emphasize versatility and a range of skills amongst your people
- Admit your ignorance and ask stupid questions
- Engage a broad range of executives with tailored messages
- Adopt the mantra of who, what, when
- Adopt and adapt an off-the-shelf strategy by using the maturity model
- Get into the loop and get information about the future
Do not try to be clever by trying to work out every possible leakage your business might suffer. Any list you come up with is bound to be incomplete, so save yourself some time and trouble and borrow from the TM Forum’s leakage framework. You can find it in the TM Forum’s RA Guidebook; a new edition of the framework will soon be published. Not every leakage in the list will be relevant to your telco. Identify which ones are relevant, then make some decisions on which ones will be in scope and outside of scope. Give yourself a sense of priorities as to which you want to investigate and deal with first. By doing this simple task, you have a solid foundation for explaining your role to your bosses and other people in the telco, and for showing how you are managing the work by identifying what to cover now and what to leave for later.
A lot of revenue assurance is good common sense about how to run a business and stop mistakes. That means that even in a business where nobody has been employed to do revenue assurance, there probably are people who already do relevant tasks. They may be monitoring a specific leak, or doing work that helps prevent some kinds of leak. Instead of duplicating their work in ignorance, make the effort to speak to people around the business and ask if they have measures that will help to fill out the grid of leakages you created from the leakage framework. Perhaps Billing Ops does some sample checks of bills. Perhaps Internal Audit did an audit of suspense management last year. Perhaps the engineers make test calls which are compared to bills. Perhaps internal departments check internal phone costs, and this highlights occasional problems. Perhaps Customer Services keeps track of the number of upheld complaints about billing accuracy. In short, look through your grid of the leaks to cover, and identify if there is somebody in the business who might have some useful data, then go speak to them. If there is some data, even if not perfect, it will help you to determine if there is a serious problem or if the risk of leakage is under control. Perhaps you can generate some quick wins by suggesting small changes to tasks people do already. For example, perhaps the Billing Department does sample checks of bills, but they do not keep a record of the value of errors they find. Persuading them to keep a record will give you a new metric. If, after speaking to people, you find there is no data for some of the leakage points, then you have a stronger business case for implementing new measures and controls to fill the gap, because you can be confident that nobody else is managing the risk. Finally, the other big benefit of talking about revenue assurance widely is that you will get a good idea of who are your natural allies in the business, and hence who will work with you to deliver results.
After you have done your survey of who knows what, focus your efforts on one or two areas which are very likely to generate straightforward and valuable financial benefits. Even if you would prefer to do something else first, pick the areas where you are very confident there are leaks with a significant financial value, you have a good idea how to stop them, and where you believe you can get results quickly without needing to spend much money. Favour issues where you feel that other people in the business are more likely to support and help you, and avoid those issues where you expect to face a lot of internal resistance. It is more important that you can show you can fix the leak, and demonstrate the value, than to pick the biggest leak, so prioritize smaller leaks if you can resolve them and show the benefits more quickly. If you can, also favour those leaks where you can recover some of the loss (for example, through back-billing). The important thing is to overcome scepticism and generate the belief that revenue assurance adds value to the business, which is why a smaller but quicker win may be better than a larger win but which takes longer to deliver. Building confidence and a track record of delivery at an early stage will make it easier to overcome obstacles later on.
Despite the advice to focus on quick wins, avoid the temptation to put all your resources into fixing known problems. Use some resources just to get some understanding of leaks that have not been covered before, and where you have no data. A quick and dirty audit, perhaps based on a small sample, is sufficient to provide you with an impression as to whether an area has serious problems or is generally fine. Do not worry about following a perfect approach, just do a rough check to see if there are serious issues. If everything appears fine, you can report to management you have done a little work and there is no urgent need to act, although you will need to do more detailed work later. If there are problems, you may find other opportunities for quick wins which you can prioritize above some of the leaks you knew about before.
The range of skills needed to do revenue assurance is phenomenal. It could involve everything from writing an SQL query to having an intelligent conversation about the IFRS for revenue recognition. It needs people who can understand technology and people who are good communicators. In the early days of doing revenue assurance, it will be very hard to assemble any kind of team, whether a project team, dedicated staff or virtual team, with the full range of skills needed. Be aware of this, and try to find individuals who are versatile, adaptable, and willing to take on tasks that take them out of their comfort zone. If you employ a programmer, try to find one with strong inter-personal skills. If you recruit an accountant, choose one who understands technology. Encourage team members to broaden their skills by learning from each other and substituting for each other. There are some very bad role profiles circulating around RA circles, that seem to say that everybody in the team should have the same kinds of skills, and which ignores others. There are some very silly profiles that ask for every skill to an impossible degree. Be realistic and try to find the right blend of people who will complement each other. Most importantly, the manager must resist the temptation to only recruit people from the same background as he or she has. It is hard for a manager to lead people with skills they lack, but good revenue assurance demands it.
Every culture is different, so it is hard to generalize about this recommendation. However, revenue assurance people usually do better if they are seen as friends who work with the business, and not policemen who cause trouble. People in revenue assurance cannot know all the detail, and the best way to learn is to talk to people in the company who know how things work, and to ask them questions. This serves two important purposes. First, it trains you and your people, and by getting an understanding of how systems and processes work from end-to-end, you may spot potential leakages, or opportunities for controls, that have previously been missed. Second, by asking a question you may make somebody else think again and realize there is a problem they had not thought of before. Perhaps an engineer is doing a very good job, keeping his boss happy and meeting his deadlines, but nobody asked him about possible financial implications if such-and-such happens. If you ask him, he may realize the business is losing money for the first time, and may also be able to suggest how to do things differently. He may do this quicker than you could do it. When this happens, try to have a positive relationship and to share credit for finding and solving the problem. If you share credit, people will be willing to work with you in future, but if give blame or try to keep all the credit, then they will not. It is important that your bosses also think of revenue assurance that delivers good results by doing simple things like talking to people and asking questions, as well as involving lots of software and tools. Also, remember that there are no ‘stupid’ questions. Even a very simple question may highlight a misunderstanding or mistake that is costing the business money. Be brave, and ask questions, even when you deal with unpleasant people who think you are ridiculous to ask them. You will not convince everyone, but if you persist you will succeed, and it is important that you emphasize that in this world, in every company and in every country, mistakes will happen. It is your job to ask questions to try to identify and prevent those mistakes.
Presentation is very important. If you present useful information, then you have the chance to become friendly and win the support of many executives, and not just your boss. If you present big totals but with no drill-down, or long lists where only a few items to relevant to the person listening, you will lose support. If you present a good-sounding idea, but no numbers, you will lose interest. Wait until you have some of your leakage map filled in. Then ask politely to arrange one-to-one meetings with a wide range of execs, other than the exec you report to. If you have relevant information, you might end up with meetings with the CEO, CFO, COO, CIO, CTO, CMO and so on. Avoid meetings where you talk about revenue assurance to a large and varied audience; they save your time but waste the time of everyone else because different things you say will have relevance to different people in the room. Keep the exec meetings very short, focus only on topics of relevance to the specific executive, and restrict it to explaining a few big simple issues. Highlight the top few leakage numbers with a known cause, plus a few big risks areas where you have no measures and there is no data. Be clear about actions that need to be performed and try to schedule follow-up meetings that will discuss whether these did happen. In short, if you can show execs how you support them to meet their targets, and to look better when dealing with the rest of the executive team, you will acquire the influence to get information and promote change all over the business.
Because of the variety of work in revenue assurance you need very adaptable people to do it, especially in the early days. Even if you pick adaptable people, it is natural for then to do the things they are good at, have experience of, and like to do. They may consciously or subconsciously do more of the work they like and not enough of other work that is of more importance. For example, some people will like to query data and detect problems. But do they follow through on the fix that needs to take place? Perhaps some of the team like to find problems by creating process maps and holding workshops. But do they interrogate data to back-up their theory by quantifying the actual amounts lost? You must constantly strive to finish every job, because there is a natural inclination to leave jobs half done. Deal with this problem by adopting a simple mantra that everybody will repeat and everybody will get used to doing automatically. After every task, the next question on everybody’s mind needs to be who needs to do what by when in order to follow-up? Only when the problem is fixed permanently can you stop asking who, what and when. The mantra is useful to every team at every level of maturity, but give yourself a good start by adopting the mantra at the very beginning, so even when the next step is not obvious, people still feel the responsibility of making it happen. Sometimes you know what needs to be done, but not who in the business can do it. Sometimes you know there is a problem, but are not sure what needs to be done to resolve it. Sometimes you know both who and what, but are not clear on the relative priority and urgency. Repeat the ‘who, what, when’ mantra, and encourage everybody you work with to take personal responsibility for finding the right person, defining the tasks that need to be done, understanding and quantifying importance. In short, make it clear that it is everybody’s responsibility to learn and ask questions to get answers, whether the answer is a name, a task or evidence to set a priority. There will be very many questions to ask and very many answers you need to find. Encouraging people to take responsibility, be autonomous and use their initiative is vital to rapid delivery.
The TM Forum Revenue Assurance Maturity Model can be used to help strategic thinking about revenue assurance whether just starting out on the road to revenue assurance or applied to a very experienced business. In early days, strategy may not seem important, but the self-assessment is quick and powerful; it can be performed in less than 90 minutes, and requires no specialist knowledge or data, but it is a distillation of the collective experiences of many businesses. If you have walked around the business and created your leakage grid, and attempted to arrange a few exec meetings, you will know everything you need to know to assess the revenue assurance maturity of your business. The results may surprise; just because you are starting revenue assurance does not mean the business is starting from the bottom in all aspects of what you need. The benefit of using the model is that it will give you a simple basis for communicating strategic priorities to senior people, and a quick mechanism to lay out a roadmap for how revenue assurance should develop. It ensures that the key pillars for good revenue assurance are all considered: organization, people, influence, tools and processes. By making sure you think about them all, it will help you to balance priorities and ensure that you improve each aspect at the same rate. Using the maturity assessment is particularly helpful for avoiding traps and mistakes that sometimes get made, where an RA team makes rapid progress but then loses a sense of direction because it focused on too narrow an idea of its purpose.
In the rush to fix the current problems with your business, it is easy to fall behind. Many RA teams discover, much to their horror, they ended up dealing with yesterday’s problems and paid insufficient attention to the problems of tomorrow. Avoid this by pushing for the RA team to be represented, or at least informed, of any new system changes, business transformations and product launches. You may not have resource for a thorough review, but at least perform a high-level analysis of the potential risks for leakage and the key controls that should be put in place. Knowledge of what lies ahead will often change the priorities for revenue assurance, and helps to ensure that the most important considerations get the bulk of the limited resources available. A few simple questions about potential leakage also helps the business, because they can often lead to improvements in system and process design that will reduce the risk of errors. In addition, it is often much cheaper to implement controls if they are included in the original design.
That is my top ten tips for starting revenue assurance. There are, of course, many other things that need to be considered when starting revenue assurance. It was a struggle to keep the list to just ten tips. The beginning is a vital time, and the impression you create and how much momentum you generate will determine how rapidly you make progress for years to come. I know of big telcos that claim to have mature revenue assurance but where it is clear they started down the wrong path at an early stage, and have always struggled to get back on track later, no matter how much is spent on staff or tools. This is because revenue assurance is much more than the job done by the RA department, and it is crucial to influence the rest of the business to behave in ways that support and enable the goals of revenue assurance. Funnily, the best time to influence the rest of the business is at the very beginning. At the beginning, there are no clear expectations and the lack of resources makes it easy for RA people to ask for help and show how they can work well with other staff. Make the wrong start, and other staff may fear RA, obstruct its work, or compete with it. It is harder to reverse the damage of bad relationships than to get them right from the beginning. If you are starting revenue assurance for the first time, you have my sympathies, because the challenge may be daunting. But follow these top tips, and know that if you start right you can make a very important contribution, not just to the bottom line, but to how your business works. The beauty of revenue assurance is that when it is done right, the benefits are enjoyed in the short term and the long term. It cuts across many aspects of the business, and provides a never-ending learning experience and a fresh challenge every day. That makes my eleventh tip the best of all: try to enjoy it!