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Diminishing Carrier Support

What is happening to customer service in the telecom industry--specifically the carriers? Typically, getting things accomplished in telecom has always been more complicated than most customers expect, but lately we are encountering provisioning and engineering challenges like we have never experienced before.

Just last month we had a client who was moving one of their offices and needed to have an MPLS circuit installed. The day after the Firm Order Commitment date, we inquired about the status of the install. Nothing. We escalated. Nothing.

We kept pushing and were finally told facilities issues had delayed the order, yet earlier in the process the carrier's local engineer responsible for the building had confirmed that the building was lit. Even after escalating to the carriers' fifth (and highest) level, no one could offer any insight into what the actual facility issue was.

Three weeks into the escalation process, our sales rep managed to get his VP engaged, who got a provisioning VP engaged, who sorted out the issue, expedited its resolution, and personally stayed on our order to provide periodic updates until the circuit was finally installed. Since the client was to move another office soon, we asked the VP for his stewardship over that order. His response: "I will try, but I am currently responsible for 17,000 active orders."

Through more than two decades of experience with telecom vendor management, we have learned that in addition to a good working knowledge of the technology and its applications, savvy customers are the ones who have an accurate understanding of how the carriers operate and focus their energy working within these parameters--rather than trying to force the carrier to work according to the customer's preferences. Couple this understanding with a good working relationship with a quality sales and/or service representative from the carrier, and most things went very smoothly.

While I believe this formula is still true, it would appear that the technical changes affecting our industry (e.g., the massive overhaul from TDM to IP, the demand for delivering high speed fiber-based Ethernet circuits) coupled with the operational changes to the carrier business models (e.g., outsourcing of key customer support functions to contractors, many of whom are overseas) are all factors leading to unprecedented challenges to end users who need services installed and working on-time.

The sales rep is still the customer's main point of contact at the carrier. With each round of reorganization, the carriers continue to increase the number of customers each sales rep must support while they shrink the pool of resource personnel available to assist the sales reps in serving their clients' needs. Even the best sales reps we deal with require several follow-up calls and prompts to take care of customer requests. The carriers' alternative to dedicated support personnel seems to be general departments to handle similar requests similarly. Good theory; however, the results of this approach are definitely mixed.

We see new-circuit provisioning as an area of increasing frustration for customers. Once an order is entered by the sales rep, it seems to disappear for weeks as it moves through the order and provisioning process, which is often handled by contractors--preventing the sales rep and the customer from having any substantive visibility into the order progression, and thus making it impossible to know if a customer's critical install dates will be met until well into the order process.

Predictably, it appears that many of our consulting colleagues around the U.S. have noticed this trend of declining customer service. Is a shrinking field of major carriers making the threat of losing customers less of an issue to the carriers? Are the economies of fully-converged networks making enterprise customers even more dependent on the one or two major carriers they have selected? Has the continual merger/acquisition activity complicated the back-office operations of previously nimble carriers?

There are likely a host of reasons why we have seen a decline in many carriers' ability to deliver services effectively. The more important question is "What can I do to better ensure success when working with my carriers?"

1. Get to know as many contacts in the carrier organization as possible. Take advantage of all executive meet-and-greet opportunities, personally meet with sales rep, engineers, and product specialists as often as is feasible.

2. Keep track of your sales and service escalation points. Get your escalation contacts in advance of projects and revalidate all escalation contacts at least annually.

3. Know the big picture but be able to zoom in. With every order, be sure you understand all of the sub-intervals along the order process and manage to each of the sub-intervals.

4. Order services well before they are needed. If the carrier quotes a 90-day interval, order AT LEAST 120 days prior to when the circuit is needed. If you don't have the luxury of extra time, get a backup plan in place.

5. Know your SLA. Service Level Agreements around provisioning and service delivery are more critical than they have ever been. Be sure you know what they state, and manage to them.

Another potential strategy exists for customers. Perhaps carrier user groups should be formed. User groups have been effective in other IT segments to garner executive-level attention and provide user leverage. We do not believe the carriers would form user groups, so this would need to be a grassroots movement. We envision a forum for enterprise business to assess carrier performance and communicate areas of deficiencies en masse to drive improvements. Anyone interested? What other ideas do you have for improving the support provided by the carriers?

The Society of Telecommunications Consultants is an international organization of independent information and communication technology (ICT) professionals serving clients in all business sectors and government worldwide.