Would one of your customers recommend your company to a friend or colleague? In the telecommunications industry, client satisfaction is historically very poor. Ken Williams, vice president of client services at Simplify Inc., says the key to breaking that trend is to fill the gap and bring a high level of service to the customer.

“Client retention comes down to serving your clients well — putting your clients’ success first,” he says.

Smart Business spoke with Williams about how to improve customer service and satisfaction.

What are the keys to improving client loyalty?

I think of them in two broad categories: job performance and behavioral competency. Job performance is the service you provide, the quantifiable, measurable actions a company is looking for in its telecom partner — the ‘hard’ skills. Behavioral competency represents the more qualitative, but equally important ‘soft’ skills: emotional intelligence, communication skills and interpersonal ability. Behavioral competency is driven more by the culture and values of the organization.

Every company needs both. They need quality, dependable service on all fronts and a truly professional partner they can trust.

What ‘hard’ skills need to be honed to improve customer satisfaction?

First is cost. All companies are looking to reduce costs in this extremely competitive, ever-changing business environment. Telecom costs can be a somewhat hidden goldmine of potential cost reductions. As the telecom industry faces constant consolidation and price reductions, a savvy consulting partner will find lower cost providers for its clients. But the partner must be vendor neutral. Consider the insurance industry. When an agent works with only one insurance company, you have no idea if you are getting the best pricing because the agent is only bringing one provider to the table. Companies looking to reduce telecom costs should look for a trusted adviser who is vendor neutral and sees their relationship as being with the customer, not a particular carrier. Look for an adviser whose fees are primarily paid by the carriers to avoid another layer of expense in your cost structure.

Second is speed. Enterprises who are starting new locations or moving locations cannot afford to delay openings. Consider a retail company that is opening 50 or 100 new stores a year. They sign a lease, put people on payroll, connect their utilities, start paying insurance on the location — so the quicker they get the store open, the quicker revenue starts coming in to recoup these expenses and generate a profit.

We see enterprise companies who consistently have openings delayed by 10, 20, 50 days — that’s a lot of lost revenue. Multiply that by 100 new stores per year, and it becomes a very substantial amount to the bottom line. So it is paramount to find a partner that understands carrier processes, has good installation processes, provides specialized software tools to manage the telecomplexity, and can be a productive part of a team with real estate, construction and project management to ensure facilities open on time.

The third area is responsiveness. If you are a multi-location service provider, or if your business depends on your data circuits, data network or voice lines, responsiveness is crucial. Say you are a multi-location auto parts store chain and you have a lot of repair shops calling in orders. If your phone lines go down, every minute that goes by is lost revenue. Mean time to repair for telecom services becomes incredibly important. If you want to minimize business downtime due to telecom outages, it’s important to find a partner who understands the carrier processes, has the volume to demand the best repair escalation paths with telecom carriers, and has its own team of people who work with the carrier to get issues fixed as quickly as possible. Businesses who attempt to simply go straight to the carrier for repair issues typically get lost in the morass of processes and departments and do not have insider contacts to expedite repairs. Businesses need a trusted partner to navigate that for them.

The fourth client satisfaction driver is accuracy. There are tons of horror stories of lines and data circuits being delivered to the wrong address, creating weeks or months of delays. Businesses need a partner who knows the potential mistakes that can be made, and has the processes and software in place to help identify the errors before they become critical and can catch them on the front end instead of on the back end.

What ‘soft’ skills can improve client loyalty?

First, trust is essential. Revisiting the insurance agent comparison, if you know the person works for one insurance agency, and only one, it’s hard to trust him. Is he here to help me get the best insurance I can at the best rate, or is he here to make a sale? You have to find someone independent, carrier-neutral, vendor-neutral, there to serve you and make sacrifices. When a company trusts its partner, client satisfaction goes up significantly.

Next is servant focus, which is the mindset that the biggest reward for a trusted adviser comes when its clients are doing well. Everyone claims to provide good service; not many will make sacrifices to ensure their client’s success. Of course, serving your clients will pay off in the end with solid client loyalty, but you need to start with a giving mindset and let the benefits flow back to you naturally.

Third is a sense of urgency. A business owner never wants to call a partner or carrier and tell them his store is down, the business is losing revenue every minute, and get a lackadaisical, ‘we’ll see what we can do,’ and ‘are you sure it’s our issue?’ finger-pointing. They want to hear that the carrier knows the business and has the connections to get this fixed as soon as possible.

Last is honesty. When it comes to telecom, like most technologies, most people don’t understand it. It’s easy to mask facts or place blame elsewhere. You want a partner that owns its mistakes. If they do something wrong, they will admit it and do everything they can to make it right for you.

Ken Williams is vice president of client services for Simplify Inc. Reach him at Ken.Williams@simplifycorp.com.

Published in Dallas

Telecommunications technology just keeps hurtling forward, and while we may love the added conveniences and fresh, new features, staying current requires more time and effort than we’d like. Many companies have decided to skip the headache and work with a trusted adviser: someone who knows the industry and stays up to date with the swiftly evolving world of telecommunications.

“Proven telecom specialists will have knowledge of what’s available from the carriers, including detailed information regarding feature, product and pricing differences,” says Ginger Smith, business market manager with Simplify Inc. “From there, they know what questions to ask the business to determine what their real needs are so that they can make the right match.”

Smart Business spoke with Smith about how companies can sort out the differences between telecom products and services.

What makes it so difficult to assess the differences between the offers from different carriers?

The wonderful and the terrible thing about technology is that it is constantly changing.  We all like the improvements, but staying up to date on the differences between the vast array of products offered by telecommunications providers today can be a daunting task. There are so many providers today — global, domestic and regional, and each carrier has multiple products, most that come with their own special marketing name and slew of associated acronyms. Carriers will try to do everything for everyone, but no single carrier can do everything well.

What kinds of products do you see people migrating to for their data networks?

Most companies have abandoned the old private line or frame relay networks for fully meshed data networks using MPLS or some other form of IP VPN. However, even among these products, there is diversity. How do you know which you need? If you need MPLS, do you need Class of Service support and, if so, how much bandwidth per class? If you need IP VPN, should it be IP-Sec based or SSL based? What are the advantages and disadvantages of each technology? What are the security implications? Is one carrier’s MPLS really different from another’s?

The carriers would love to answer these questions for you, but each one has its own obvious bias. While most IT departments have a preference regarding the type of technology they employ, many do not have a full understanding of the difference between, for example, the various flavors of MPLS in the market and the carriers capable of providing it. A knowledgeable, carrier-neutral adviser is invaluable in these situations — someone that can explain that Carrier A charges a hefty fee for Class of Service, while Carrier B includes it for free, or that Carrier X rides the Internet while Carrier Y has a fully private backbone.  Understanding the distinctions between each carrier’s approach to WAN products results in an ability to choose the right product fit for your company’s needs by matching the product characteristics to your internal design specifications.

Are voice products simpler?

Great question. Comparing voice solutions can be equally confusing. One carrier may give great per-minute rates but charge high ‘mandatory fees,’ while another carrier waives these same fees entirely. Some carriers even charge account fees just for the privilege of having an account with them, while others have the audacity to charge a sub-account fee for every location in your enterprise. Those really do add up, and frequently don’t even appear on the proposal provided by the carrier. An experienced telecom specialist knows to look for these things. Getting an accurate bottom line cost comparison of multiple providers will make the true cost of services much easier to assess. Seeing the cost for all of the services you need plus any associated fees is much more valuable than just looking at a line rate or usage rate.

Many companies are now looking at converged voice and data services. How does that impact this process?

This can get even more cloudy when you get to integrated solutions: Voice Over IP, dynamic bandwidth allocation, SIP trunking, concurrent call paths, etc. Every carrier has a different twist on their offer. Comparing the features of these different products across the carriers is time-consuming, but absolutely necessary to determine what carrier/product best suits your needs.

How can partnering with a trusted adviser help companies make the right decision for their specific telecom needs?

Partnering with a telecom specialist introduces an adviser who is able to study your existing system and analyze your present and future needs, and then say, ‘Here are the products that fit your needs, here are the ones that are better or worse and the pricing associated with those.’

It’s a huge advantage to do that as part of a single process with one point of contact and one set of pricing comparisons, as opposed to your company doing the research on its own. You must meet with multiple carriers, get multiple quotes for pricing, and it’s probably still not an ‘apples to apples’ comparison.

When you have a single person handling that for you, getting pricing from everyone and putting it into a format that is ‘apples to apples,’ you have a real basis for comparison on the carrier, the product and the price. Then, you have a better, fuller understanding of how products work and how they are priced before you make a decision.

Ginger Smith is a business market manager with Simplify Inc. Reach her at (972) 393-5322 or Ginger.Smith@simplifycorp.com.

Published in Dallas

Telecom expense management (TEM) is the process through which an enterprise’s IT and accounts payable/finance departments work in sync to acquire, provide and support any corporate fixed and mobile communications services.

“We are trying to simplify your financial control by reducing costs and increasing productivity with workflow management,” says Anthony Buono, enterprise solutions specialist with Simplify Inc.

Buono says there are benefits to telecom expenses management as well as facility management, including reduced operational costs, life-cycle management, and improved productivity and control.

“Our industry-leading software platform (Advocate) is the core benefit of Simplify’s services and we strive to deliver to our clients a full lifecycle management solution,” he says.

Smart Business learned more from Buono about how businesses can benefit from TEM and facility management.

How does TEM reduce costs and help workflow management?

Basically, the IT/telecom team orders products and services, while the finance team approves invoices. The teams typically work hand-in-hand, and the TEM solution works to bridge any gaps. Instead of chasing after each other to ask questions back and forth, the application automates some of the process work they would do, such as approving invoices.

Typically, many companies choose to contract a third-party service provider in order to utilize an application that controls and leverages the automation of the invoice management process. Additional services play a key role in a complete solution, including sourcing, ordering and provisioning management, inventory management, contract management, usage and dispute management. The goal is to develop a customized workflow to complete a telecom lifecycle management solution that includes reporting and business intelligence.

Why is TEM applicable to businesses with multiple telecom vendors?

Last year, in Magic Quadrant for Telecom Expense Management, technology research and advisory company Gartner Inc. wrote ‘For most organizations, fixed and mobile communication services are among the top five business expenses, but (organizations) often do a poor job of managing processes relating to communication spending.’

This is one key area that companies need additional help with, especially organizations with multiple telecom carriers. They may obtain assistance with the up-front services to help save money on telecom carrier options, but those organizations are typically left handling the invoice process. Where multiple carrier invoices are standard, a TEM solution is the perfect fit to streamline the workflow for the invoice management process. If a company has one invoice, it’s manageable. But if they have three or four carriers, it gets more complicated.

Based on client feedback, Simplify has added layers of services to our custom application called Advocate that include Enterprise Cost Management.

What are some examples of cost management in telecom, and how do they work?

Some clients with multiple carriers have difficulties approving the invoices manually in order to make accurate payments. If that payment to the carrier is not made on time, then service may be cut off, resulting in downtime for the business.

Consider changes to inventory that impact the invoice and approvals that aren’t timely. Service is disrupted requiring a manager to step in and call the carrier to get the service back up and create a dispute. Why not rely on someone else to do that?

Our Advocate platform powered with our ECM solution allows clients to rely on the automation of the application to upload all invoice details for viewing and approval. This eliminates the need for stacks of invoice files on the desk and working through massive Excel spreadsheets to track all invoices every month.

How does workflow automation impact telecom costs and efficiency?

The key is to transfer the current process each client uses today and embed that as part of the workflow utilizing the TEM platform. Where most companies may look at the top 10 percent of the invoices coming in every month, the other 90 percent are slipping through the cracks. The system will automate the receipt and validate each invoice for any various overage fees and charges for services not rendered.

This is a huge benefit of automating with a software application. Additionally we leverage our relationship with the carriers to convert a paper invoice into an electronic file for uploading into the platform. If a company doesn’t have an expense management platform, they do that manually. So if they are a small company, they may get multiple paper invoices from their carrier. Larger carriers like Verizon or AT&T will give larger companies an online portal, which they have to visit to track down their invoice information. Companies typically spend hours and hours manually organizing all that data in Excel spreadsheets. It’s chaotic to think that’s the case, but it is.

What should companies look for in facility management?

Some of the key features to look for in a facility management service include capturing maintenance contract expiration dates, scheduled maintenance, pictures of assets to control and a complete work history of contractors and service provided. Companies should always be looking for partners that think outside the box to help them in ways that would create additional cost savings. Simplify has partnered with a company that provides a full service application in order to manage the workflow of service requests into work orders, allowing complete Facilities Lifecycle Management by tracking expense allowance and invoice reporting.

Anthony Buono is an enterprise solutions specialist at Simplify. Reach him at (203) 888-3146 or anthony.buono@simplifycorp.com.

Published in Dallas

The larger and more complex your telecommunications network becomes, the more likely it is that your telecom provider alone can’t meet all of your needs. Now, many businesses are employing professional services organizations instead of hiring full-time employees to help manage their evolving telecom services and fill the gaps that the telecom providers just aren’t equipped to handle.

“Instead of increasing their staff with engineers, project managers, etc, corporations are deciding to bring in professional services organizations to assist in everything from network design, new technology implementation and trouble management,” says Jon Marley, director of Technical Solutions with Simplify Inc.

Smart Business spoke with Marley about using a professional services organization to keep your telecom services under control.

What gaps should companies look out for in their telecom network?

One gap is proactive management of their data  networks. Most enterprises have people on staff who are highly specialized in network performance, server applications and uptime of critical software applications for their users. To have these high-end resources spending time following up with carriers on basic trouble tickets is not an effective use of their skills. Having a pro services organization take over the basic blocking and tackling of this type of day-to-day support is a huge benefit.

Another gap: When a customer decides to implement a new network, a pro services company can be critical to ensuring a successful implementation. A qualified pro services company can manage all of the detailed steps in the process because they understand what a carrier will not or cannot do for a customer and can fill in the gaps. For example, when a customer orders a circuit, it is often then their responsibility to get that circuit extended to their suite, install and configure the equipment, handle the test and turn up with the carrier, and then connect it to their local area network. A competent pro services organization can assist by getting field technicians, the carriers and hardware vendors onsite to handle all of these tasks, then documenting the interactions between all parties.

Inventory management is another reason to partner with a pro services company. Enterprise customers today tend to have a multitude of carriers servicing their voice and data needs. They typically store e-mails in folders that have circuit IDs and other critical information or put them on a spreadsheet that is stored away on an individual’s local computer. Given the constant change that most businesses experience, few can effectively keep up with the documentation of all of the moves, adds and changes within the telecom inventory with this type of approach. A pro services company specializing in asset management can assist with gathering information not only from the customer but also directly from the carrier(s) and/or employ specialized network scans so there is no question on the customer’s network infrastructure. The key is to ensure that information is readily available and updated as changes occur.

What are the advantages of hiring a professional services group that works with many different providers?

Most large enterprise customers deal with multiple carriers who each in turn have multiple products that they are delivering to the customer. Having one organization with ties to all those carriers and products is like having a universal account team. Any life cycle management changes or billing disputes can be pushed to a single source even if multiple carriers are involved.

In today’s environment there is not one carrier that can meet all of your needs and still give you competitive rates. They all have their ‘sweet spot’ products, and defined footprint geographically in the U.S. and/or abroad. If you are able to leverage multiple providers, you will get the best of breed of each product at the most competitive price. Combining that with a pro services company makes it seamless to the customer. It’s a win-win scenario.

Carriers today are increasing their product portfolio to meet the growing trends and new technologies within the telecom industry. For example, one of these trends is putting more of what usually resides at a customer’s corporate site into the carrier’s network (the cloud). A professional services company can help identify products from carriers that best meet the customer’s needs.

Why push IT/telecom to the cloud?

Today, most customers buy the hardware, maintenance, operating systems and applications needed for their users. Then they are trapped in the cycle of purchasing new equipment when improved hardware or newer application upgrades are available. Now we have the ability to actually push some or all of this into the cloud. Carriers are offering products to manage all hardware for a fixed monthly price, meaning no capital outlay for large hardware purchases. They can also manage a customer’s environment down to the application level. These products can be complicated; this is where a professional services company can assist by identifying what products and services are best for a customer’s current and future needs.

With all the options, how can companies decide what is best for them?

Sometimes, companies do not know how to incorporate change and bring new technologies or products into their environment. A professional services organization can take the time to understand their workflow, their applications, and where the people using these applications reside. If your employees all sit in one building, it might not be the smartest idea to push everything to the network, but if they are all over the country, it might be. We look at the applications, how they flow, which ones are more critical than others and help with design, implementation and protecting against network outages. When we add in deep dive analytics that include the financial aspect of each option, we can provide cost-effective solutions that meet the enterprise’s short- and long-term needs and goals.

Jon Marley is director of Technical Solutions with Simplify Inc. Reach him at jon.marley@simplifycorp.com.

Published in Dallas

If your telecommunications environment is out of control, you may need to go beyond a simple audit and conduct a full-fledged analysis of your costs, technology choices and goals.

“You have to understand your own inventory and cost structure, as well as the products and services available in the market,” says Brent Saxon, vice president of sales/general manager of Simplify Inc. “Compiling and analyzing this information is a challenge for most companies, but is even more difficult for large multi-location corporations.”

This isn’t a service provided by the carriers in most cases. Rather, customers are left on their own to analyze cost savings, technology migration and bandwidth use. Sometimes brokers or auditors are brought in, but they only look at a piece of the puzzle, not the full picture.

Simplify uses a four-step process (deep dive analytics, collaborative strategy, accountable execution and life cycle services) to help you make sense of the mess and make better telecommunications decisions.

Smart Business spoke with Saxon about how the deep dive analytics process works.

Why is this process important?

This first stage is critical because it sets the stage for the rest of the process. Deep dive analytics starts with the customer’s location list, a copy of the invoices for every dollar they spend, and a letter of authorization that allows us to pull the customer service records. We also review their contracts.

Basically, we build an inventory of exactly what’s on their invoices. We can show them by location what they spend for all products (local, long distance, data, wireless) and break everything down by product, all the way down to taxes, fees and anything else on their bills.

Why is it important to build an inventory?

By doing analytics on the front end and building a full inventory, the transition is much easier when customers decide to switch carriers. That’s why a lot of customers stay with their incumbent provider: it’s simply too painful to move.

These analytics also allow you to benchmark against other options, whether it is like-for-like services, technology migration or something else entirely, and then make it possible for you to choose what’s best for your company, transitioning smoothly to new options as needed. You can’t do that if you don’t have all the data in house.

What’s the difference between the deep dive and an audit?

Auditors mostly go after low-hanging fruit. They check to see if you are paying the contracted price for your service with your carrier or if there are other errors in your bill. Then, they keep 30 to 50 percent of the savings for the next 12 months for finding that error.

Auditors will also tell you if you’re on the wrong product with a carrier. You can usually re-term with a provider and save 10 to 20 percent. That’s low-hanging fruit. You will save that 10 to 20 percent and the auditor will get 30 to 50 percent of that savings over 12 months, but they are leaving options on the table. Our process will benchmark that bid against the competition. The 10 to 20 percent you could save from re-terming could be 30 to 40 percent with another option and could provide much better consolidation in billing and/or support services.

Also, auditors rarely have to live with their recommendations. They analyze, but the customer has to go back and implement the changes with the carrier. Whether the auditor advises to renegotiate and re-term or migrate, the customer has to do all of the work associated with that. The auditor does the front-end work, but the customer is left to handle the heavy lifting on their own.

What can the deep dive uncover?

Hidden fees and taxes that you may be paying, incorrect invoices based on your contracts — it even uncovers charges you are still paying for services that have been disconnected. The main thing it uncovers is exactly how much you are paying for every dollar of spend.

What kind of results can a company expect from the process?

The average savings is 20 percent, but some clients get up to 40 percent. We’ve built our company around having the right process in place to help companies be more successful. Deep dive analytics is just the first stage of a proven process. We don’t stop there, but taking that step on the front end allows you to be more successful on the back end with things like life cycle support.

Benefits reaped include cost savings, consolidation and better information so you can make better decisions going forward.

How much maintenance does it take to keep it running?

The right application is a must! Advocate, our industry-leading service tool, loads the inventory we built for you, and keeps that inventory updated. Everything runs through a process in the software instead of using spreadsheets, e-mail or phone calls like most companies. Everything goes into the application, which proactively manages the inventory.

At the end of the day, it’s all about accountability. If we say we’re going to save you 20 percent a month, we can be held accountable to that number because we know exactly what you spend today and in the future. Accountability is something that most auditors just can’t offer.

Brent Saxon is vice president of sales/general manager of Simplify Inc., a firm that helps large multi-location corporations simplify and optimize their communications life cycle management. Reach him at (281) 465-6003 or brent.saxon@simplifycorp.com, or visit www.AreYouTelecomplex.com.

Published in Dallas

For multi-locations, best practices leverage strengths and weaknesses of multiple carriers and products. If your telecommunications needs require the use of multiple carriers and products, you may want to consider using an application to help reduce the time and resources spent keeping track of your telecom network.

“For most companies, managing their telecommunications leads to an enormous amount of chaos,” says Elan Crane, vice president of systems and virtual solutions for Simplify Inc. “A properly integrated application containing every detail of your inventory by location can manage requests, track the progress of installations or repairs and more — basically give you a window into the entire network to let you know what’s happening.”

Smart Business spoke with Crane about how having the right telecom applications can be a real game-changer for your business.

How can businesses benefit from using an application to monitor their telecommunications?

Most companies that have hundreds or thousands of locations are going to have multiple telecom carriers and products. This creates a lot of chaos, because you need to keep track of a lot of data. Plus there is the daily coordination of installs, disconnects and project deadlines, not to mention cleanup and maintenance.

Typically, there are three different scenarios. First, a company has multiple systems from which they pull data. They usually have people whose full-time job is gathering data from the different systems and reporting it.

Second, the company bought some supposedly flexible software, but didn’t use it. Either everyone gives up on it, or someone new comes in who doesn’t want to use it.

Third, the company uses separate e-mails and spreadsheets for individuals, depending on the carrier, the department and the region.

You can see the web of chaos that is created when you’re talking about hundreds or thousands of locations with many products across many carriers.

What can businesses do to manage the chaos?

Once you realize why you need an application, you need to have a complete audit performed to understand exactly what you have, down to every phone line and feature. An auditing team like ours can walk into a company and gather information out of the chaos. Once you have that information, it sets the stage for the application. Then you have a starting point toward being able to sit back and see the big picture.

You can’t just throw an application at a company and solve their problems. If they don’t have a true account of what they’re doing and what they have, you need to do the audit first.

What should you look for in an application?

Telecom is constantly changing; technology is constantly changing. You need a platform that doesn’t look at specific carriers, but allows you to have a window into your telecommunications over your entire business. And you need to be able to integrate with your different departments and carriers. Every department has different needs.

Many applications just keep track of requests — they essentially throw your request over the fence to the carrier along with every other order that the carrier receives. There is no integration; there is no funneling of your order to make sure it gets into the right hands and, in most cases, no liaison translating between the customer and the carrier.

You need to have an application that provides integration in a simple format for each department. Integration with each carrier is just as important, but commonly overlooked. Every unique carrier has its unique processes and motives. When you understand the different carriers and their processes, what makes orders go smoothly or get held up, that is a key ingredient. You must be able to integrate with the carriers through your application to achieve the best output.

How can you tell if an application will integrate well?

That comes down to a very difficult piece to perfect: the process. The process takes your order — depending on what type of request or trouble ticket it is — and makes sure it is set up in such a way that it goes through the proper carrier and channels, yet hits the milestones needed. It allows the customer to be updated properly and allows accountability, so the customer can leverage the carrier instead of the other way around.

The best applications, whether in software or service, are more of a solution than an application because you have the right people behind the scenes who take those orders, follow up on those requests and ensure those requests take place.

As carriers downsize, they lay off support staff, not salespeople. Often, you’re working with someone one week and someone different the next. The missing link with many applications is having people who are accountable to ensure that every order is being documented. Sometimes that is through integration, but sometimes it is an additional layer of actual people who are accountable and bridge the gap between the carrier and the customer.

What else should the application do?

Another component is having the proper dashboards and reports. An application with a dashboard allows you to have a window into what is happening, whenever you need it.

Being able to equip everyone in the organization with the ability to know in real time about savings to date, implementation issues, problem trends, etc. — that is a major missing component with most applications. Many companies are blindsided by their customers saying, ‘What’s going on?’ Then they have to send a bunch of e-mails and make a bunch of phone calls to put the story together, instead of using their application’s dashboard to quickly assess the issue so each department can make quick, wise decisions. That wouldn’t be possible without having that data at your fingertips.

Elan Crane is a vice president of systems and virtual solutions at Simplify Inc. Reach him at elan.crane@simplifycorp.com or (281) 465-6007.

Published in Dallas