NetSuite, integration and the local loop

Opal Telecom, one of NetSuite's largest customers, is using integration and custom workflow to improve customer service - something that's sorely needed in the UK telecoms market, as my experience moving house this week shows.

NetSuite came to London this week to launch its 2007 edition. Choosing to launch the product outside of the US was a neat way of emphasizing the newly extended language support and other globalization features of the new release. Perhaps, who knows, it was also a convenient way of sidestepping any 'quiet period' requirements relating to the company's long-promised IPO. Whatever the reason, it was good to have NetSuite here on my home turf for such a major product announcement.

It was good also to meet some of the company's UK customers,It's about the cultural adjustment to doing business in a connected world including one its largest accounts, with 2000 seats. Opal Telecom — part of the Carphone Warehouse group — is a network operator that provides network services to telecom providers in the UK. It uses NetSuite for sales, partner relationship management and customer services. I spoke to Marie Vernon, head of the company's service management centre, who put into context how much her team relies on the CRM package: "Our whole day is spent in NetSuite."

Integration to other systems, in particular those of other telecoms operators that Opal nteracts with, is a crucial component of its NetSuite implementation. Indeed, one of the attractions that drew the company to choose NetSuite was the ability to add web services integrations and custom workflows, so as to automate previously lengthy manual processes.

I found this interesting for two reasons. Firstly, it's a great illustration of my contention that SaaS is just a component of a much broader trend towards connected working and business practices. Secondly, I have gained something of an insight into the nature of interactions that take place in the UK telecoms arena over the past week as a result of moving house. In fact, I'm posting this from a friend's house (after an earlier failed attempt at a coffee shop) since my new home currently has neither a telephone line nor an Internet connection.

Telecoms provision in the UK has been 'unbundled' in the name of competition, but although this has resulted in lower prices, certain aspects of the new setup are less advantageous to customers. Moving to new premises is one of the worst situations, particularly for those like me who work from home. Last time I moved, I experienced a two-week gap in broadband provision, but at least I had a phone line when I moved in. This time I have neither, but I'm expecting to be back online again by Monday, just five days after moving.

The UK system revolves around something called 'local loop unbundling' (LLU). This refers to the fact that all the copper wires going into homes and businesses across the UK (except in the city of Hull, but let's not go there) belong to BT, which was the national (and originally government-owned) monopoly telecoms supplier. In the past few years, those copper wires — the 'local loop' from the customer's premises back to the local telephone exchange — have been made available to other providers. First of all they were allowed to put their own network equipment in the telephone exchanges so they could offer competitive broadband services running over BT's local loops. Then more recently, competitors were allowed to install their own equipment on individual lines and provide their own phone services direct to the customer premises — thus 'unbundling' the local loop from BT's monopoly control.

The problem I've faced this week is that once the local loop has been unbundled, it has to revert to BT before a new customer can take it over — even if that customer then wants to 'unbundle' it again with a different provider. BT has made a lot of marketing capital out of this with a disingenuous ad campaign about the millions of customers who are 'coming back to BT'. In most cases, they have no choice.

On the other hand, the BT brand also suffers because their call center is the first port of call for anyone who is moving house, and I've personally had several conversations in the past ten days with BT call center operators who sound stressed out, defensive and inadequately trained to deal with customers' frustrations at the difficulties they encounter.

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In my case, I'm moving into a house where the previous occupant had signed up with Orange Telecom, and is having trouble getting the Orange service transferred to her new address. That means that, even though Orange has disconnected her former line, BT is still not seeing it as available, which means I'm on hold too. Fortunately, the house is also served by a cable provider, who is installing their line on Monday, so at least I know that'll be working next week (or at least I hope so). But meanwhile I and my predecessor are having to battle with BT and Orange call centers to try and get some progress with our respective phone lines. Her email to me yesterday exemplified the kind of hoops consumers are being asked to jump through in these situations:

"I am tearing my hair out, having spent the afternoon being batted between Orange, BT Retail and BT Wholesale, all of whom blame another party for the delay and tell me to call that other party with some weird coded instruction (involving 'tags', ECO Codes and 'provisions'), before being told that it's another party's responsibility.

"Anyway, Orange has now told me that the broadband will be transferred by JUNE 29TH, which is outrageous I know, as it's 3 weeks after we moved. I'm still in the process of hassling though, and it's possible that a quicker alternative will be for me to set up a new line with BT, get Wholesale to remove any 'tags' and get Orange to transfer to that..."

I suspect that a lot of these delays come back to incomplete integration between the different operators' systems, which was confirmed by my conversation with Marie Vernon.

Before Vernon's team put in the NetSuite system at Opal Telecom, any customer enquiry about service problems that involved another network provider had to be resolved by physically calling up the other provider and asking a question. This meant a lot of time-wasting back-and-forth, in particular with OpenReach, a division that BT set up to provide level-playing-field access to the local loop for both competitors and its own retail divisions. Now much of that information is automatically updated over web services links, so that the answer is already there in the customer record in NetSuite. Vernon says that the resulting efficiencies have saved as many as 30 or 40 extra call center seats, which adds up to a lot of savings.

This is such a new field, though, that providers have to go through an interative cycle of deciding what the workflow should be and then doing the integration and automation to achieve efficiencies. I got the impression, both from talking to Vernon and from my own experiences with BT and Orange, that Opal Telecom is further along that path than many of the other providers.

In part this is a cultural adjustment, and it goes back to my earlier point about doing business in a connected world. The local loop unbundling that's happening in the UK is a classic example of a previously vertical proprietary stack being sliced open into horizontal layers that allow competition between different players. But its smooth operation depends on those players interacting efficiently and co-operatively, even while they compete with one another. Perhaps some participants hanker after an earlier era when they owned more of the stack and didn't have to broker these very complex relationships. Therefore they're not investing in the right systems to gain the business process agility they need to compete effectively and deliver a satisfactory customer experience.

Personally, of course, I'm well aware that I'm putting my faith in a separate vertically-integrated stack — the cable provider — to get myself online on Monday. I'm also curious to see whether cable is an improvement over ADSL, having not previously lived at an address where cable was available.

It will certainly be a relief to be back online and able to get back to posting more frequently. I've had a hectic few weeks getting ready for the move and I still have quite a few things to catch up with here on the blog. Most of all I want to come back with some further detail on the SaaS scene here in Europe. I'll be flying to Dublin mid next week to attend the SaaS Summit there, so expect some local Irish color to my postings too.

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