Within the communications, media and entertainment (CME) industry, companies must find simpler and more automated ways to manage sales to improve profitability. But what's the best approach? Sterling Commerce's John Konczal provides some guidance on a complex issue

As the recession ends, companies need to embrace more effective management, communication, and enforcement of pricing, discounting, ordering and fulfilment policies across all sales channels to reduce practices that have an adverse impact on profitability. Within today's communications, media and entertainment (CME) space, companies are facing increasing selling and ordering complexity that must be simplified in order for revenue and margin goals to be met.

Sterling Commerce recently initiated a survey with the objective of better understanding the current climate of the IT decision maker, surveying 100 IT decision makers in UK CME companies.

The study revealed a general sense of economic optimism as 61% of companies expect higher revenues than last year. However, any potential increase in revenues appears to be dependent on investment, as 73% of companies also say they are considering a change in the way they market and sell their products and services. In terms of priorities, respondents indicated that "better collaboration with customers" (58%) and "improving e-commerce capabilities" (42%) are the highest priorities.

When questioned about e-commerce and online self-service, results revealed that 70% of businesses are falling behind in providing complex order service bundles. While 68% make it possible to search, browse and view their catalogue, only 54% allow customers to perform end-to-end ordering; 52% to view order status; and a staggering 9% do not allow customers to interact with them over the Web at all.

The complexity of the configure-price-quote processes makes it difficult for CME companies to increase the value of each sale, to reduce the cost of sales, and ultimately, increase margins. As a whole, the industry has a richly varied product and service portfolio - for example, high-bandwidth data services coupled with network management equipment and services.

Traditionally, CME companies' selling and orderings processes, especially in business-to-business markets, are manual, which translates into a high rate of misconfigured orders and pricing errors, in turn taking its toll on margins. An automated configure-price-quote process can help CME companies to optimise these processes. The potential benefits are great: better responsiveness to customer needs, reduced order errors, increased velocity of order processing and higher order accuracy with fewer exceptions.

Many CME companies are facing solution configure, price, quote (CPQ) process issues that are inhibiting revenue growth. The three processes identified as needing particular improvement are:

The solution configuration process - It is quite common to find that solution discovery and configuration rely on disconnected tools as well as time-consuming and error-prone manual data entry, production configuration, and solution validation;

Channel support - it is typical to find that the disconnected sales system environment as well as the overly complex configure, price, quote process limits a company's ability to expand into new sales channels, such as partner sales channels or self-service channels;

Product and pricing support - the lack of a centralised product and pricing catalogue solution that enforces pricing rules across all common sales channels can lead to issues such as sales reps using old price and product information, resulting in costly inaccurate quotes to customers and partners and a poor customer experience.

Companies reaping benefits from the transformation of their CPQ processes have embraced at least one of a long list of major changes to their B2B opportunity-to-cash lifecycle. Ensuring process integration across all key processes in the opportunity-to-cash lifecycle and implementing guided selling solutions will help improve responsiveness to customer requirements as well as reduce order errors and delays. The quote processing time can be accelerated by using advanced quote management solutions to apply the proper validations to negotiated pricing based on the context of the order.

Many companies are embracing order configuration solutions that enable guided-selling process. For example sales order workflow that guides the sales user, such as a sales rep or even a customer over the Web, can find the right solution and make the right decisions about how to properly configure a product or service during order. This helps increase the value of the sale and reduce order errors.

Other companies are looking to move to a central sales catalogue that enables more effective management, communication, and enforcement of pricing policies across different channels to help substantially eliminate pricing errors due to misinformation as well as improve time to market with new products, pricing, and promotions. Finally, companies are also making moves to focus greater attention on post-sales support, enabling customers to have greater flexibility in how they manage changes to their installed or delivered products and services.

When evaluating solutions that manage order configuration, pricing, and quoting, there are five key capabilities that should be demanded:

Interoperability: Designed for integration with existing front and back-office systems. This will help move a disconnected sales system into a seamlessly connected sales system environment, resulting in a smoother customer experience;

Usability: CPQ solutions should provide the highest degree of flexibility in defining and presenting order configuration for the most complex products and product combinations;

Maintainability: From an IT perspective, the solution should be able to be configured to meet changing business needs. From an end-user perspective, it is necessary to give business users the access and control to manage business processes and data on their own. This directly improves time to market;

Performance: Scalability and performance are often overlooked. The best-fit solution is one that has proven to handle large numbers of concurrent users processing end-to-end order configurations;

Multi-channel support: Key in this endeavour is finding a CPQ solution that not only enables you to support multiple channels but also multiple storefronts where it is possible to support sales partners with a partner-specific sales experience.

The CME vertical offers one of the most complex environments for successful sales. Products and services come in a wide array of configurations and pricing and offers regularly change. While companies are constantly increasing product offerings in an effort to be more responsive to customer needs, they may be struggling internally to manage the sale and configuration of these products.

For this reason, CME companies are focusing on improving complex sales and order management processes to drive revenue and margin improvements. Automating these traditionally manual processes can yield significant benefits if using a comprehensive selling and ordering solution that features global pricing communication and enforcement, multi-channel support and guided selling.

Overall, usability is particularly important, as sales personnel will resist adopting any new system or process if they perceive that the time spent learning to use it will outweigh its benefits.

John Konczal is director of Comms & Media Industry at Sterling Commerce

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