Automation is usually seen as a means to streamline operations, reduce opex and use capex more efficiently. But for Canadian operator Telus, the ability to automate and deliver business self-service is an opportunity to compete better with the "Bobs" of the telecom world.
With its major initiative to create self-service portal/tools as it rolls out its SD-WAN offering, which Telus Corp. (NYSE: TU; Toronto: T) calls Network-as-a-Service (NaaS), the Canadian operator is hoping to create a much-improved customer experience for its mid-market business customers, who today are likely to use a more responsive value-added reseller -- their buddy "Bob" from down the street -- than the much larger telecom operator whose service isn't as responsive.
"As a small business, medium-sized business, you want to call the guy you know -- we like to say, 'It's Bob'," says Evan Frith, the operator's director of products and services for connectivity solutions. "When you have a problem in your business, you call him and you know he's going to be right there. That is something that, as a service provider supporting 12 million customer connections, we can't do. Our process -- you call, you end up in a queue, we book a technician to come out two to three days later -- that has historically been how we can serve these customers."
By automating its back-office processes to enable a self-service portal, however, Telus can give businesses the ability to do many things themselves and the visibility to see what's going on within their network services, he says. They can still call Bob -- or someone at Telus -- to perform specific tasks on their behalf but Telus becomes their primary technology provider and can empower its customers to use their own skill sets or work with those they are used to, changing at their own pace.
Telus is seeing significant adoption of its NaaS offering among this mid-market segment, in part because of what SD-WAN can offer in terms of better pricing and higher functionality than dedicated MPLS lines, but also because customers are ready to engage with the technology earlier in the buying process and commit to helping themselves with this technology transition, Frith says.
"Relative to the mid-market, where we see considerable uptake, what we see is a lot of customers who have been historically frustrated by how they were treated by the service provider, getting less than what they need to run their business," he says. "They see slow response times, they don't get the same level of management and service that the larger companies get, but they are often charged just as much."
Finding the sweet spot
That makes this segment a sweet spot for Telus, which can aim to evolve its relationships and improve its revenue streams by improving the customer experience without having to compromise on the availability and service level agreements that customers want.
"It dramatically improves the customer experience of our mid-market customers," says Frith, who admits that Telus has been losing out to smaller players that have been able to offer a more appropriate level of service and customer care. Now, though, "it's a real growth opportunity that comes from our ability to service our customers properly."
Telus launched its SD-WAN offering in 2017, and has been evolving it through the year to prep for a major 2018 upsurge, which Frith says is happening right now. Canadian operators have been fast followers where SD-WAN is concerned, he admits, watching as US, European and Asian operators rolled the service out, but focusing on making sure they got it right. And that's where the automation piece becomes important.
The push to automate within the business services sector began about 18 months ago "with the vision that said we'd really like to push a big green button at some point and network services just provision themselves," he explains. "It is still somewhat visionary -- I would say that the journey we are on has lead us to automate 75% to 90% of fulfillment tasks and about 50% of move/add/change tasks."
In the broader Telus organization, automation had already been built into its mobility sector and into the the major fiber-to-the-premises program initiated about five years ago, Frith says, since the company didn't want to invest billions "without automating the back-office environment that goes along with that." The idea there was that all homes and offices passed by fiber would be ready to activate remotely when a customer moved in or requested the service.
"So when we came along with our OTT solution, which NaaS or SD-WAN largely is, we had a lot of those foundational elements in place," he says.
Netcracker as enabler
What the business connectivity organization built on was Salesforce.com Inc. as its customer relationship management component, and Netcracker Technology Corp. as the enabler of everything downstream from the order-capture phase.
"Netcracker owns the product catalog and has built that product catalog for us -- it has enabled automation from that catalog into all of our downstream functions that support our fulfillment processes," Frith says.
The process today is about 80% complete, with the other 20% coming this year, he says. Currently, a sales team member can access the Salesforce system and request an SD-WAN service for a customer, hit the order button, and then everything from that point on happens in an automated fashion. "The services are turned up within back-end systems, the CPE is shipped, a field services technician is scheduled, subject to confirmation with the customer, and will show up do a light install, the services are activated automatically and the customer is using it within a very short period of time," says the Telus man.
Netcracker's work was essential because, like most large telecom operators, Telus has a back-office operation that is unique to the company and even standardizing on Salesforce.com as a new CRM platform required customization to be integrated into "a business that has been around for well over 100 years and drags that history along with us."
He adds: "The challenge is how to leverage platforms [in which] others are making significant investments and align some of those with what we are doing, so we can partner with the enablers," Frith says.
There is an intent to align to industry standards as those evolve, he adds, but at this phase, the automation effort is aimed at what is practical and efficient to support today's customer experience goals.
— Carol Wilson, Editor-at-Large, Light Reading