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Mankato, MN

Challenges Facing a Telecom

Last we checked, the largest carriers in North America – Verizon, AT&T, Bell, and others – were strong and getting larger. Numerous mid-tier telcos and cablecos are competing to win on a national and regional basis as well. So where does that leave the regional carriers in the lower Tier 2 and Tier 3 market?

It leaves them awfully busy and constantly on their toes.

 

The on-demand nature of the internet and cloud providers like Amazon has made commercial customers very impatient these days.  And, to be honest, those commercial customers no longer care that the services you offer are far more complex to provision than the previous generation, or that you – as a regional
provider – simply can’t throw the same money and resources at problems as large carriers. 

Customers are focused on results, so in order to compete you need
to be extremely adaptable, smart, and able to make do with less.

 

And yet the opportunities to grow a regional provider business are clearly exciting:

 

  • Demand for fiber and Metro-Ethernet services is high for all kinds of regional businesses, government offices, and college campuses;

  • Hospitals are expanding their need for ICT services, including data services, unified communications, and video;

  • Running data centers and helping move commercial accounts to the cloud is another growing market;

  • Regional players are lighting up shopping malls, stadiums, ballparks, and private commercial communities with a broad range of voice, data, and internet services.

 
This paper is all about how regional providers can capitalize on all these growth opportunities by improving their sales-to-order and order-to- cash processes.

 

If you think about it, being excellent in those areas almost guarantees you will succeed.

 

This paper was commissioned by Northflow Solutions, which sells SuiteSolution, a workflow engine discussed in this paper and a solution deployed as the central integrator of the sales- to-cash process at several regional providers
in the United States and Canada. 

 
 

When the ILEC Business Got Interesting

 
Let’s first take a brief moment to review how the business of ILECs and regional telecom provider has evolved — and how that’s affected the back office systems needed to support a smooth sales-to-order-to-cash process.

 

To do that, we’re going to look at the real-world challenges faced by HickoryTech, the former Minnesota ILEC, as it transitioned its business to support the greater complexity of serving commercial customers.
 
Two decades ago, HickoryTech’s ILEC business was 80% residential, 20% commercial. And back in those days, commercial customers were easy to acquire because the regulators would protect your territory.

 

Service orders were very straightforward, too: a customer calls in and the support system provisions a phone line and LD. Later on, inter- net and TV were added and the rep would click a button and orders flowed downstream to operations and engineering. 

 

But deregulation and the shift to serving commercial accounts greatly complicated things for HickoryTech.

 

At first, commercial sales in the new era went well. Salespeople and engineers would meet with customers to get their IT and network requirements.

 

Unfortunately, what worked for sales was often a nightmare for operations, engineering, and billing/collection.
 
The issue was that every order was different and every commercial customer had different expectations.

 

When the sale was closed and engineers handed off the order for operations to build, the true costs would end up being much higher than expected.  So when the customer got the quote and bawked at the price, a costly rework cycle was needed to push the order through. And to continue operating in that manner meant the business would never scale. 

 

Boil it all down, the key problem HickoryTech faced was poor information sharing.

 

Often the data to deliver an accurate customer quote was available, but the data couldn’t be accessed in a timely manner. And the typical root causes were three:

 

1.  The customer’s equipment inventory was  not accurate
2.  The proper network facilities were not available at the location
3.  A dozen other details were not nailed down properly


Meanwhile, sales sold services for whatever price they could get with only a fuzzy understanding of what could actually be deployed at the customer premise. 

 

This lack of coordination among the various back end systems utterly killed HickoryTech’s efficiency in the sales-to-order-to-cash process – and that led to significant revenue loss and major cash flow concerns. 

 

Building a Solution from the Ground Up

 
So what could be done? Well, if the key problem is integration, then one option for HickoryTech was to buy an integrated COTS system that combines billing, order management, fulfillment, CRM and other support functions.

However, the integrated COTS product option was rejected. Not only was spending $5 to $10 million on a system too high, precious flexibility would be lost: if HickoryTech needed to enhance its system in a hurry to move in a new direction, it would be at the mercy of a large supplier’s slow delivery schedule.
 
For these reasons, HickoryTech commissioned its internal IT team in 2001 to build out a new central workflow engine from scratch to deliver the necessary coordination among its many back office systems.

 

Today that same system is called SuiteSolution.

It’s used by several operators, and continues to be enhanced and maintained by Northflow Solutions, an independent software company created in 2015 when HickoryTech was acquired by a private owner. 

 

56 days to only 29 days

In the end, HickoryTech’s order-to-cash cycle time improved from an average of 56 days to only 29 days, delivering a boost to the company’s bottom line.

 
When HickoryTech started down the development path, it faced two key issues:

 

  1. Too many variations of the same product were spiking up the cost of engineering and maintenance.

  2. The starting point for too many orders was a piece of paper between the salesperson and a customer, leading to all sorts of billing errors.

 

SuiteSolution solved these issues by distributing operational data and workflow tasks to the various departments responsible for performing their part of the order flow.
 
The solution also let HickoryTech mix and match products and services to simulate the delivery of tailored solutions for customers.

 

What’s more, the system was designed to capture best practice processes so they could be repeated the next time a similar product was ordered. And in that way, ordering is done in a consistent and operationally efficient manner. 

 

Workflow Engine in Action


Now that you know the business problems that led to the importance of a central workflow engine, it’s time to hear commentary from the expert champions of the product.

 

To set these dialogues up, Northflow connected the author to a half-dozen clients, each of whom were interviewed about their business and sales-to-cash challenges.

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