Who Is Best At Revenue Assurance?

On Tuesday I was in Amsterdam, in a glorious old building, hosting a training session on revenue assurance maturity at BIMS 2008. I talked for 2 hours straight after lunch, with the hot sun beating on the curtains to the darkened room, but everybody managed to stay awake. That counts as a success. During the session, we had some very interesting debates about how difficult it would be to reach the top level of maturity, and I pointed out that we had not seen anyone reach the top level, at least not per the TMF’s version of the maturity model (I have no interest in other so-called maturity models, which seem to be based around the idea that if you buy tools X, Y and Z you get to instantly reach the top level of maturity and remain there ever afterwards – even if your people do not know how to use the tools, or even if the tools are irrelevant to your business model!). The point, of course, it to construct a model that gets proportionately harder as you keep going up. Improving maturity is like climbing a mountain. The slopes get steeper and the oxygen is thinner as you go up, slowing the progress of even the best climbers. As you go higher, there is also more and more risk that hazards, bad luck or an accident will force you to go back down again. There should be at least the same degree of difficulty for an experienced telco to go from the penultimate to the ultimate level of maturity as there is for an inexperienced telco to move off the bottom level. In fact, it should be harder to reach the top. A telco at the bottom should find it easy to buy experience and copy what other companies have done. At the very top, you cannot buy experience because there is no relevant experience on the market, and the best results will never be delivered by copying another business, as all businesses will have unique challenges. I know that is a tough message that some audiences may not want to hear: in the real world, many have to satisfy bosses who only want to hear if they are the best and do not want to hear that there is a big difference between good and best. However, I was heartened that my group agreed about the importance of increasing the difficulty of the next challenge that follows each success.

After the session, I too was succumbing to the heat. I had taken an early morning flight into Amsterdam, and my tiredness started to catch up on me. I sat in a couple of very interesting presentations but when they finished I found it hard to get to my feet and get into the mood for some hobnobbing on the exhibition floor. Fortunately for me, as I shuffled my away across the building, I spied Eli “The Craic” Krakauer of cVidya, sneaking his way into the building. Sneaking is the right word – he was wearing jogging sneakers that looked a little incongruous with his suit. Eli explained it was because somebody had stood on his foot the day before, though I suspect the real reason is that they allow him to stealthily creep up on his competitors and listen to what promises they are making. Eli is an entertaining character, and always full of gossip (none of which I can share here, I am sorry to say). He must have done all of his sales rounds for the day, because we amiably chatted whilst waiting to hear the big news of the day: the announcement of the winners of the World BSS Awards, and of the revenue assurance award in particular. Although cVidya were nominated, from the look of Eli’s sneakers, I assumed that cVidya were not in the running. How wrong I was! I found myself straightening Eli’s tie and looking after his bags whilst he collected the award for the best revenue assurance project on behalf of BT and cVidya.

One of the reasons for being genuinely surprised at the announcement was that BT had won the same award last year. That suggests they must really have impressed the judges to win the same award two years running. Does this justify the conclusion that BT are world leaders in revenue assurance? They have certainly been doing it long enough. One old Gartner report refers to a revenue assurance project run by BT Wholesale in 1991. Given that the broad thrust of the current BT/cVidya project is centred on BT’s Wholesale division, you might wonder if the prize has been given to the business which has made the most progress over the longest time or the business which reports doing the same thing over and over ;) You could spin an argument that BT revenue assurance has sucked in skills from other UK telcos, and hence turn this into an argument that the UK is the worldwide center of excellence for revenue assurance. There are ways to bolster the argument that the UK sets the pace in revenue assurance. For example, the award nominess included UK multiplay provider Carphone Warehouse, and the 2005 joint award winners Azure were a British firm spun out of BT and since bought by Subex. Even those clowns at US-based GRAPA have a strong British bias, with 3 Brits represented on its 7-strong executive committee. What a shame that they have no influence over the Mattison clan who make all the decisions for GRAPA…

Israelis might reasonably counter that they, as a nation, are world leaders in revenue assurance. Not only did Tel Aviv-based cVidya share in this year’s first prize, but Rosh Ha’ayin-based ECtel finished second in collaboration with AT&T. But the location of suppliers in global markets will be determined by costs as well as availability of skills, so this is not a totally reliable guide. Measures of leakage are not a reliable guide, because people have reasons to exaggerate their leakage in both directions, and no part of the world appears to be performing all that much better than any other part of the world. Maturity assessments might be a better guide, though I noted with disappointment during my tutorial the evidence that telcos tended to borrow from the TMF’s maturity assessment the parts they liked, and ignore the parts they did not like. That might lead to high maturity scores, but anyone can score high if they only measure themselves in the most flattering way possible. From my own experience, I am aware of two telcos that may be on the verge of achieving the highest level of maturity, but part of the reason why they are doing so well is that they are keenly focused on doing the work, and not so focused on promoting themselves. That means that their successes may be less likely to attract awards and plaudits than other telcos…

Of course, my initial question is silly. There is no way to tell who is best, or even to agree what we mean when we talk about the best in revenue assurance. The judges at the World BSS Awards have to rely on the honesty of the people who apply for awards. As soon as you do that, you move away from a completely fair determination of who is best to a subjective appraisal of who told the most uplifting story, even if it is not entirely true. The judges will need to agree what is best between themselves, but best will mean different things to different people. Road safety is a good analogy to revenue assurance, as both exhibit many attitudes to risk and how it should be mitigated. One driver will think of road safety in terms of driving a Volvo, with impact-resistant bars around the cabin and many airbags to protect them in the event of a crash. Another will think in terms of the better design of roads, by straightening bends and using road signs. Another will think in terms of laws and police enforcement to punish bad drivers and remove them from the road. Another will just drive slowly and carefully. What is best in revenue assurance depends on your attitude to risk. Many revenue assurance vendors sell the metaphorical equivalent of seatbelts and airbags – tools to protect you and cushion the blow after an accident has taken place, but which do nothing to reduce the risk of an accident in the first place. Some telcos place the onus on employees in their business to take care and avoid mistakes, but lack the rules and police to encourage and enforce policies designed to reduce risk. Consultants may point out some ways to straighten roads – by eliminating needless complexity in processes – but whilst these improvements may reduce black spots for leakage, they may do nothing to improve the design of data highways in the long run. There is no single best attitude to risk, because some telcos will desire more risk and others less, and both may have perfectly valid reasons for their attitude to risk. What the maturity model tells us is that however the risks are managed and mitigated, there has to be an appreciation of the balance of proactive and reactive techniques available, with decisions driven by the most effective ways to serve the telco’s interests and fine-tuning of risk management based on results so far. Sometimes that will lead to investment in more alarms and airbags, sometimes it will promote straighter roads and better processes, sometimes it will increase the authority to police and enforce rules. The balance must be set differently for each company. To get the optimal balance, all risk mitigation strategies must be considered and explored and used together. Those telcos that can see revenue assurance in the context of overall risk management will be the ones deserving to be called best. In Amsterdam, I saw some signs that the real leaders in telcos do appreciate this. In future years I hope we see some of them standing on the podium and collecting the awards they will deserve.

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.