The Prophet Motive

Thanks to Guera Romo of MTN in South Africa, who wrote the following comment on my post about TMF vs. GRAPA: Which Home for RA Standards?:

“Yes, I know the TMF issued standards and have been using these although they are a bit high level. I guess it is because most of this is driven by vendors who will give enough to make you interested without giving away their IP.

The bit that I have seen on the GRAPA site does not lead me to believe that standard would come from this community although it is refreshing to see operator representation here.

I just believe there is more to RA than TMF and GRAPA. Attending conferences always leaves me a dire need for more “substance”. Where are the real goodies that make the board members sit up and pay attention?”

What a good question. But on the other hand, is anybody surprised if the answer is “nowhere”? Yesterday a conference organizer asked me about associations for revenue assurance. I told her about GRAPA (yes, incredibly I do tell people about GRAPA without prompting, despite my reservations about how they are run and why they exist), the TMF and the friendly social club for operators that calls itself the UK Revenue Assurance Group. But after those three I was unable to cite more examples. Probably there are some other countries where people working in RA get together on a regular basis (although the UK is unusual in having so many national and international telcos headquartered so close to each other). You could also argue that user meetings for suppliers like Subex Azure and specific forums in the Fraud sector make for sizable congregations of people with specific interests within the revenue assurance universe. However, other than conferences it is hard to think of any more examples where revenue assurance people from different businesses interact with each other. And even then, as Guera points out, the interaction leaves many of us wanting more “substance”. So my best guess is that the substance is, frankly, nowhere to be found. Why is that? Maybe we should ask the opposite – is it reasonable to expect any more substance to this topic we call revenue assurance?

The thing about revenue assurance is that the principle motive is profit. It is a business activity. Nobody does it just because they love it (apart from me and a few other freaks, perhaps, and you have to be cynical even about people like me). So to generate content, and then to share content, there has to be a profit motive. There are lots of kinds of profit as well as direct financial rewards, of course. Which is lucky, because nobody is going to get rich writing a book called “How to help big telecoms operators make a bit more money” or “How to help big telecoms operators make a lot more money”. The former book is not sexy enough, and nobody would buy it. The latter book would have to be a lie. You can be sure it would be a lie for the same reasons that you know people who write books entitled “How To Easily Make Millions and Millions of Dollars” make more money from selling the books than they did from following their own terrible advice i.e. they would not waste their time selling books if they knew a better way to make money. As well as making money directly, other forms of profit include the prospect of enhanced future or indirect financial rewards, in other words the benefits that flow from marketing and reputation building. But writing books and selling advice to a tiny audience is probably a terrible way to make money (even Rob Mattison must struggle to find enough gullible people in the world, and once he is finished there will be very few left for the rest of us). Other kinds of profit are less tangible: status, glory, respect and other euphemisms for feeding the ego. But, geez, that hardly is a way to pay the bills, and flying over all the place to share your wisdom takes time and money. Also, the more time you spend flying around the world sharing your wisdom, the less time you spend doing proper work and learning how to do your job so you actually gain some wisdom to share when flying around the world. So be suspicious of any prophets of revenue assurance who have no obvious motive to help your business be more profitable, help you get recognition, help you get a pay rise, help you get a promotion, or help you do anything else which you hope will deliver zillions of dollars to your telco. Because you cannot trust the motives of someone like that.

There is another kind of motive for telling people things, of course. It is the same motive as the one you find in those forums where people share tips on the new kinds of fraud. The important word in that sentence is “share”. To get something of value, give something of value. The problem with some people who “share” knowledge of revenue assurance is that they are just repeating the same old lame nonsense they previously heard someone else say. Regularly when I go to conferences I also find I meet people who say “I know nothing – I just came here to learn.” “Great,” is what I think when I meet them, “they expect me to lavish hours of free advice on them, for absolutely nothing in return.” Because that is exactly what they do think. They maybe spent a thousand dollars of their company’s money to go to a conference, and so they expect me to make it worthwhile even though there is almost no way that I could ever generate a return on giving them free knowledge. Even if they did want to pay me for my time as some form of gratitude or quid pro quo for the advice I gave them for free up-front, chances are I will be busy working somewhere else during the narrow range of dates when they have a budget they can spend in my direction. So sharing only works well between equals, who have useful experience, who trust each other, and who think that they are speaking to someone who is as willing to be open as they are. The thing there is that neither person is a prophet and neither is a follower. They have to be equals to make that work. This is the challenge for revenue assurance if it is to develop that “substance” that Guera was asking for: we need a meaningful number of people, who are approximate equals, and are open, and honest and willing to share, and willing to work together. Playing the numbers game is easy – advertize one prophet willing to stand up before a crowd and soon enough you will collect a crowd of people who came there hoping to get something for nothing. But after a while even that crowd is going to realize that, usually, you get nothing for nothing. Or as the phrase goes in my Yorkshire vernacular: “you don’t get owt for nowt”. The trick is to get numbers of equals who all believe that they will benefit it they all share.

Of course, there is nothing that the lost prophets of revenue assurance hate more than being in a team. Teams are things they want working for them, not with them. Being part of a team means you have to compromise. You also have to share the credit. The Merriam-Webster dictionary definition of teamwork is

“work done by several associates with each doing a part but all subordinating personal prominence to the efficiency of the whole”

It is not hard to see why people wanting lots of publicity are not too keen on teamwork. But you need teamwork to respond to the challenges posed by revenue assurance. There is nobody who knows everything about revenue assurance. Revenue assurance is, after all, a multi-disciplinary field. It embraces accounting, auditing, software development, database management, data integrity, process mapping, corporate governance…. the list goes on and on. No single person can claim to be an expert across every element of revenue assurance. Anyone who makes that claim is a liar. The problem with the lone prophets is that they just talk about the things they understand and pretend the rest is irrelevant or try to bluff their way through it by repeating what they heard other people say. There is a phrase that goes like the following: when a man’s only tool is a hammer, every problem looks like a nail. So gurus with database skills want to solve every revenue assurance problem with a database, gurus who develop software always want to develop new software to solve each problem, gurus who… you get the idea. A long time ago I wrote some code in C and C++, but I do not pretend to be a skilled software developer. I have written some SQL queries, but I am not expert at that either. I am a qualified accountant, but spending years working in revenue assurance obviously means I am not the best accountant. One thing I do know is that you have to know your own limitations and be willing to allow some problems to be solved by other people using skills you lack. There may be many ways to skin a cat, but only one will be quickest and cheapest. A good revenue assurance professional puts the interests of the telecoms business before his owns – he drives them to do what they most need to do, not what he is best at doing. So teamwork is a problem for revenue assurance, as lots of people are in competition by offering lots of different ways to skin the same cat. Getting one to admit that their way is not always the best way is going to be hard, but is necessary if we are going to get some genuine teamwork.

So if the substance seems lacking, that is my opinion why. And in case you did not notice, I gave my opinion for free. I broke the Yorkshireman’s rule and gave owt for nowt :) Multiply the amount of time I spent writing this by my usual rates and this advice should be worth a good few hundred dollars. But you got it for free. Strangely enough, though, if you do not make people pay for something, then sometimes they do not value it. They just take it for granted and assume it will always be there. So prove me wrong, people. I could put a little button so you can make a donation to this website through PayPal. Then, like Radiohead, I could encourage you to pay whatever you think my material is worth. But, unlike normal people like Rob “Guru” Mattison, money is not what I am asking for here (remember, I admitted I was a freak in the third paragraph). Nope, just give me some info. Tell me something interesting that I might not know. Better still, tell me and everybody else who reads this blog. I dare you. But I will not pay you. Which is why I am not expecting to get much more “substance” from the rest of you than I have previously :( But I would love it if you proved me wrong. If enough people started sharing what they know, perhaps some day we might even find that we work like a team. So be honest: does being part of a team motivate you? If not, expect to wander the revenue assurance wilderness alone, or else decide to follow a prophet – but you can safely assume any prophet you meet is just as lost as everyone else.

Eric Priezkalns
Eric Priezkalns
Eric is the Editor of Commsrisk. Look here for more about the history of Commsrisk and the role played by Eric.

Eric is also the Chief Executive of the Risk & Assurance Group (RAG), a global association of professionals working in risk management and business assurance for communications providers.

Previously Eric was Director of Risk Management for Qatar Telecom and he has worked with Cable & Wireless, T‑Mobile, Sky, Worldcom and other telcos. He was lead author of Revenue Assurance: Expert Opinions for Communications Providers, published by CRC Press. He is a qualified chartered accountant, with degrees in information systems, and in mathematics and philosophy.