Selecting the right OSS/BSS vendor is crucial both to the maintenance of happy customers and future profitability, says Andrew Rodaway

Walk down any high street and it's pretty clear that telecoms services -- even the most technically sophisticated ones -- are becoming commoditised. As I write this you can buy a new 3G prepaid phone, complete with usage credit, for less than £50. And if you opt for a monthly contract, the differences between tariffs are often minimal, because business is so competitive. Is it any wonder that customer retention is a growing problem for the networks?
The solution, obviously, is high service quality and good customer care. Happy customers don't walk, as one carrier executive put it to me. But with most networks, both fixed and wireless, offering seamless coverage and high technical call quality, service quality brings the issue of Operations and Business Support Systems (OSS/BSS) performance into sharper focus. If your OSS/BSS aren't actively helping you build customer loyalty through the capabilities they give you to deliver great service, you're going to be at a competitive disadvantage.
For example, many operators want a unified approach to billing, where multiple services can be converged onto a single presentation to the customer. Even when that is achieved, the technical reality behind it may be many different billing systems. Suppose there is a bill problem, and the customer calls to get it fixed. Your OSS/BSS can make this a seamless experience, or it can be a customer service nightmare.
There is no one-size-fits-all solution, given the wide range of services, customer volumes and technical environments. But with growing competition for customers, the last thing you want is a failed OSS/BSS project, or multiple attempts to solve the same problem, because the vendor or its technology didn't live up to expectations.
So, how do you make the right choice of vendor? Note that I say vendor, not systems, because there has been a noticeable shift in the last couple of years in the way that networks procure critical OSS/BSS. Not so long ago it was primarily a technical issue -- how well did the product on offer meet the RFP functionality requirements? But after the last few, tough years in telecoms, the focus is now much more on the suitability of vendors as suppliers of complex, customer care-critical systems.
Of course, product capability still matters, but even the best product can be a liability if the vendor can't afford to develop it, or hasn't got the staff to implement it, or to support it in production well into the future. Worse still, what if your chosen vendor gets acquired, goes broke, or changes product strategy? All these things have happened regularly to high-profile OSS/BSS businesses in the past couple of years. In many cases their customers were left high and dry.
It has to be said that there are no foolproof ways to assure yourself that a vendor is going to be a suitable, long-term partner for the supply of OSS/BSS technology and services. But there's still a strong case for appropriate due diligence on any supplier, however well established. Here are some questions to ask -- and these are developed from real-world experience, as someone who has been involved in the acquisition of numerous OSS/BSS vendors in the past few years.
Firstly, take the most obvious case -- financial stability. Many vendors are finding it hard to build a sustainable business model. Even today, when the industry seems to be doing a lot better, judging by the reported results of many carriers, there are still OSS/BSS vendors bleeding cash. Some are propped up by VC or IPO funds, but nothing lasts for ever, particularly investor patience. Take a long, hard look at your shortlisted vendors' financial statements, and ask yourself where they will be in 3-5 years time.
Think also about product investment. Modern OSS/BSS are complex, and they need a lot of development spend to be truly reliable in production environments. Ask your vendors about quality processes, testing, benchmarking and long-term roadmaps as well as functional capabilities.
OSS/BSS aren't just software. The professional services that go alongside are vital. Major OSS/BSS projects need in-depth skills in project management, sizing, business analysis, architectural design, implementation, configuration, data transfer, integration, tuning, communications, database performance and many other areas. Does your vendor or its SI partner have these skills, in sufficient numbers, where and when you need them?
Long-term support and customer care is another consideration. If a vendor has stability in its customer base, it probably isn't just a coincidence. Just as with carriers, OSS/BSS vendors that work hard to keep customers happy tend to develop long relationships. Site visits to recent implementations may be impressive, but what about the customers sold five years ago?
These may be straightforward principles, but good customer care isn't black magic -- for either carriers or their suppliers.                                                   n

Intec was an exhibitor at Billing Systems in London. For further information see

Andrew Rodaway is Director of Marketing, Intec

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