Cerillion CEO, Louis Hall, explains to Lynd Morley why he believes the company is on the fast track to success in the highly competitive convergent billing market
The concept of the lean, responsive organisation, flexible and adaptive to client requirements, may not be entirely new, but it is certainly experiencing a strong re-birth in the current telecommunications marketplace. It is not always an easy brief for an industry rooted in the conservative 24/7 service provisioning ethos to fulfil, but it is certainly one that, according to its customers, convergent billing specialist, Cerillion Technologies, is delivering.
Louis Hall, Cerillion's CEO, is undoubtedly keen to foster the image of an agile organisation, able to answer the complex and urgent needs of operators, but it is the testimonials of satisfied customers that ultimately give gravitas to any marketing claims. Chris Hall, Managing Director of Manx Telecom -- a long-standing Cerillion customer -- for instance, notes: "We telcos are being dragged into becoming much more customer centric and marketing focussed. That's why it's imperative that we have flexible systems. It's no good having a great marketing idea to stimulate sales if it's going to take two years to execute it.
"That's where Cerillion score so highly. They listen to their customers. They are invariably very constructive, very positive and, probably more importantly, they deliver, going from concept to execution very quickly."
Formed in 1999, following the management buyout of the in-house billing and customer care division of Logica, Cerillion provides carrier grade billing, CRM, interconnect and mediation solutions to fixed, mobile, IP and convergent operators worldwide. Having grown from an organisation of some 18 people, with a $4.5 million turnover, to a staff of over 140, and figures for the financial year ending September 2004 showing a 46 per cent increase in turnover to $17.5 million, Cerillion and Louis Hall are feeling, understandably, bullish.
"Certainly if an operator is looking for a small, flexible, responsive, customer focussed organisation that has a credible carrier-grade solution, we're pretty much all there is in that space -- most of our serious competitors having been merged into large corporations."
To date, a wide variety of companies, from Cable and Wireless, Jersey Telecom, Tele2, Manx Telecom and Tele Greenland, to Caudwell Communications, Maltacom, Go Mobile, Redstone Telecom and MobiCom Corporation have made exactly that choice.
In terms of its solution, Hall explains, Cerillion is very much focussed on breaking down the traditional paradigm between end-to-end and best of breed, and concentrating on what he terms a 'bundled components' approach.
He stresses that the Cerillion system supports any deployment model. The end-to-end model, for instance, offers workflow embedded as an integral part of the system, while the systems modules are all pre-integrated encompassing everything from rating, CRM and billing, through to mediation, point of sale and directory management.
"But we're equally comfortable with a mixed deployment project," Hall explains. "Our modules can be easily replaced by third party packages where desired to meet specific project needs, allowing for seamless evolution with no restrictions on an organisation's future growth. For Bulldog Communications Ltd, a subsidiary of Cable and Wireless in the UK, for instance, we installed our rating and billing modules alongside their own in-house Order Management System.
Add to these solutions, best-of-breed, managed service solutions, or indeed, bespoke developments, and the view of Cerillion as a truly flexible provider appears to hold water.
"I think that what we offer tells quite a different story to what the rest of the market is doing -- and that's partly why we're being so successful," Hall notes. He goes on to underline the fact that the success is based on a number of new contract wins (as opposed to upgrades of existing systems) -- including Cable and Wireless and Caudwell Communications in the UK, BTC in Bulgaria, and Gamtel and Gamcell in Gambia, the latter reflecting Cerillion's experience in both wireline and wireless markets as it undertakes to migrate more than 200,000 fixed and mobile subscribers from two separate legacy systems into the new convergent solution.
Based in Central London, with offices in the US and -- more recently -- Singapore, the company operates in both mature and slightly more 'emerging' markets, answering a wide variety of requirements. But 'mature' Hall says, does not necessarily denote 'sophisticated'.
"In mature markets we are, in many ways, seeing simplification rather than sophistication," he comments. "Many operators are really focussed on price and a fairly commoditised service. This is obviously partly a result of having been hit by the telecoms downturn, but it is also because there's a limit to the appetite among users for ever more sophisticated features."
He goes on to stress that, going back over, say three years, much of the hype generated by industry analysts and the press, stressing the promise of ever increasing sophistication of services through 3G, has not yet fully materialised.
"3G has, arguably, still not found a market," he comments. "A lot of the services available in 3G that are actually selling, are also available in 2.5G. Users are tired of hearing the 'next great thing' being continuously trumpeted, so the operators' focus is now much more on price and delivering the services customers actually want and believe they can get."
He points out, for example, that the success of the CPS (carrier preselect) and MVNO (mobile virtual network operators) models is based in their targeting of very specific segments of the end user base.
"So, the CPS provider offers SME businesses, for instance, really neat packages that suit them perfectly. The SME is not confused by the choice of some 40 different offerings, but can concentrate on what really works for him. Now that is getting close to the customer!"
The focus on price, of course, has led operators to pay considerable attention to their BACC systems, not only in terms of function, but also with regard to the cost of building, installing and running such systems. One solution, of course, is to outsource the whole procedure, taking up the offer of managed service billing operations from an outside provider.
Tele2 Ireland recently joined Tele2 UK in using Cerillion's managed service offering. The system is located in London's Docklands and is managed entirely by Cerillion staff. Bill Butler, CEO of Tele2 UK notes that by using this approach, the company has been able to launch the new Ireland service both quickly and efficiently.
Outsourcing the billing function is not, however, particularly widespread in Europe, despite the fact that it may seem an obvious solution for operators determined to concentrate on their core competencies, get closer to the customer, and keep a tight hold on the bottom line.
"There is a much greater trend towards outsourcing in the US," Hall comments, "particularly as billing is regarded very much as a commoditised service there.
"The problem elsewhere is that the billing system is seen as the revenue generation engine, and if something goes wrong with that, it impacts directly on the bottom line. So there's an issue about control here.
"The other issue, of course, is security of data -- many European players still don't feel comfortable about giving up that information."
Certainly, given that many senior managers in telcos across Europe grew up in PTTS where so much of the data they held was government information, which they were charged with guarding, it is hardly surprising that they are still instinctively highly protective of their data. In addition, data protection legislation in a number of countries across Europe specifically forbids the moving of certain data outside their borders -- so any managed service could only be run from within those countries.
Hall notes, however, that he believes there will be a lot more movement in the managed service space over the next three to five years.
"One of the great advantages that running the managed service give us is that we have the same experience as our non-managed service customers, dealing with the day-to-day operation. And that means that we're closely involved in how the system operates in a live environment. As a result of that first-hand experience, we can improve it to everyone's benefit."
This notion of using a specific development or experience to work to the benefit of all its customers, is a central plank of Cerillion's reputation among those customers. Manx Telecom's Chris Hall notes:
"I view Cerillion as a partner, not a supplier. I know a lot of people aspire to partnership with their clients, but for me, of all my suppliers, Cerillion are among the few that have actually achieved it.
"They do have an excellent product, but one of their great strengths is their people. They put real effort into understanding what we're trying to achieve, and they're very responsive. We have loads of good ideas, and we want to get them out to the market quickly, and Cerillion will find a way of doing it.
"Indeed, the resulting work will often go into their general release, so the whole club of Cerillion users is effectively working together, putting new innovations into the system, from which we all profit."
Having established a sure footing, both in terms of turnover and customer base, Hall sees his company moving increasingly centre stage to work with the larger operators. "In today's market" he comments, "productised solutions increasingly make sense for telcos. In cost-based organisations -- which telcos are now undoubtedly becoming -- there really is no option. This procurement model, which was always used by the smaller companies, is now moving up to the larger operators."
To date, the company has traditionally been focussed on Europe, but now has a growing customer base in the Americas, and is looking to the Asian market with the opening of its Singapore office.
"I believe we'll see a great deal of activity in the Americas, and particularly in the Caribbean, over the next couple of years," says Hall. "There are a lot of legacy systems out there, and a lot of billing vendors that have gone under, and that's left many operators high and dry. Certainly it's a highly competitive marketplace, with a lot of operators such as AT&T and Cable and Wireless establishing themselves in the region.
"At the same time, the growth in the holiday industry has meant that the corresponding growth in the roaming traffic is massive. There are operators running services in the Caribbean just for roaming -- because, obviously that's where the money is. We're currently in discussions to start work with three operators who are doing just that."
Setting up the Singapore office is a longer-term investment. Hall believes that while the region does have a lot of home grown suppliers, it is nonetheless a very brand conscious market, and the fact that Cerillion is building a solid brand in Europe is helping the company in Asia. It is, of course, a potentially huge market, and Hall comments that while the 19th Century could be viewed as the 'English' century, the 20th as the 'American' century, the 21st will certainly be the 'Asian' century.
In the meantime -- back in the old country, or, at least, the old region -- Hall notes that differentiation in the telecommunications market will increasingly be based in marketing and branding -- given that everyone is offering much the same service. He points to the emergence of the re-seller market through the CPS providers on the fixed networks, and the MVNOs on the mobile side, and while he notes that this does not necessarily represent a power shift -- as all these providers have to sit on somebody's network anyway -- the resultant competitive pressure means that all these players must increasingly look to managing their relationships with customers, package their products and services effectively and, of course, bill for them.
"There are something like around thirty CPS providers in the UK alone, and the trend is moving into the European market. These companies are coming in with little experience of billing and customer care in the telecommunications environment, which provides us with a tremendous opportunity.
"At the same time, the growth in MVNOs is also great for us. These companies know exactly what they're doing in terms of establishing their brand, but they will look to outsource the network, billing, customer care and debt collection. So what you have at the end of the day is a marketing organisation. And that's commoditisation."
It will doubtless not have escaped Hall's attention that in a commoditised market, it tends to be the agile, flexible and responsive companies that win the day.
Lynd Morley is editor of European Communications