The Latest in Home Security

Home security

Home security (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Anybody following this blog knows that I have been promoting the ideas of telecom providers getting into the home security business. I see this as one of the ways that you are going to keep yourself relevant with the advent of the internet of things.

Modern Home security centers in the homes are already a lot more than that, and they can also be the platform used for home automation and energy management. There are numerous devices being made that function as the gateway to any ethernet device in your home that can be connected with wires or with wireless technologies. These main consuls then can interface with the user through smart phones or other such devices.

Of course home security still does the basic stuff. You can set up your house with monitors on doors and windows that will tell you when something changes. But modern security systems can do so much more. Here are some examples:

  • Everything can be tied into your smart phone so that you have access to your security system at all times. You can use your phone to change settings, to peek in on any of the cameras or even to speak with somebody who is at your front door even if you are not at home.
  • You can tie normal security features in with motion detectors. This will tell you if something is moving in a room that ought to be empty. But it can also do cool stuff like alert you when anybody approaches the external doors in your house. So rather than wait until somebody has broken in you can be alerted when somebody is at one of your doors. It’s not all that useful to know when the mailman comes every day, but it’s very comforting to know that you can be alerted when somebody is at your back door at 2:00 in the morning.
  • The systems can be tied into a number of other kinds of monitors. Certainly you can tie this into smoke detectors, but you can also monitor if the temperature changes drastically in any room. You can monitor for carbon monoxide levels (and if you are really paranoid, for many other kinds of chemicals and gases).
  • New systems include voice recognition and you can talk to your system. This allows you to change settings on the fly. For example, you can just tell your system that you will be working in a certain room and to ignore monitoring that room for a while. But your security system can then help with those absent-minded people like me. If you turn off the security in an area for a while, you can set it to ask you later if you still want it off.
  • Your system can get to know you. Sophisticated systems are starting to use things like face recognition and gait sensors so that your security system will know it’s you walking around on the lawn at midnight and not a stranger.
  • And it’s all cloud based, meaning that you can get an alert if the power goes out on your system while you are not at home. Turning off the power to a home has always been a common burglar technique for confounding a security system, but the system can be set to alert your smart phone every time the power goes out.
  • And of course, there are cameras to view or record everything. You can set your cameras up with some smarts to only view unusual events or events of a certain kind so that you are only storing views of things that matter. But the cameras give you the ability to monitor pets or babysitters while you are not at home. With cheap cloud storage you can record a lot of video.
  • There are now smart door locks that are tied to the security systems. These can use some combination of proximity to cell phone, voice or face recognition to allow keyless entry.
  • For those times when you drive away from home and can’t remember if you set the alarm a certain way, your system can be tied into your smart phone’s GPS and it can ask you if you want the alarms on once it senses you away from the home. Side benefit – you are always tracking the location of your cell phones if you want to see where your kids really are.
  • You customers can monitor it all themselves. It’s no longer necessary to have the security system tied into some center that will alert the police. A customer who is never without their smart phone can take a more active role and get all of the alerts if they so choose.

Most of these changes have been introduced within the last few years and one can imagine that many more changes will be coming in the next decade. So the best platform is one that is software driven and that can be upgraded to accept new devices and new features as they hit the market.

How Good Should Your Customer Service Be?

This is the hardest question I have asked as a blog title, because there just is no easy answer. Before I try to answer the question at all, let me set some parameters. I am talking about smaller companies and not those that operate large call centers. There are dozens of consultants who specialize in software and metrics for large call centers. But most of my clients do not operate call centers and they have a more intimate relationship with customers. So let’s look at this question in terms of smaller companies.

One glib answer I could offer is that your customer service has to be at least good enough to make your customers happy. And there is certainly some truth in that, but that sounds a bit like consultant speak. So let me dig a little deeper and ask: what ought to be the goals for a smaller customer service group? Here are some of the traits a small customer service group needs to have to produce the best results. I have learned these over the years by having worked with literally hundreds of small customer service groups:

  • Friendliness. One of the advantages that small companies have over large ones is that your employees can get to know your customers and form bonds with many of them. This should be encouraged because when somebody knows the person they are talking to on the phone the whole transaction is more likely to go well. So encourage your customer service reps to get to know your customers.
  • Accuracy. Accuracy means just what it says. It means making sure every order you take is accurate so that the customer gets what they asked for. It means giving customers the right answer when they ask a question. It means perfect directory listings. And to be accurate requires training, but more importantly it requires that your reps are graded for paying attention to details.
  • Prompt Responses. Customers love it when a customer service rep has the information they are looking for right at their fingertips. If they call with a billing question they don’t want to be put on hold for five minutes while your rep tries to find the answer to their question. The way to make this happen is to have a good OSS/BSS system. If you want your reps to do a great job you must have great tools. Companies often get very comfortable with a software system and never consider changing. I visit many clients and see them using outdated systems that make it hard for their employees to do a great job. There is no excuse for that these days. There are a number of quality vendors and you should not be afraid to change if your current software is not doing what you need. I always ask the question – who is more important to you, your customers or your vendor? Do not get wedded to a vendor just because you have used them for many years. If they can’t and won’t keep their software current to fit your needs, look for somebody that will.
  • Knowledge. Your customer service reps ought to be able to answer most questions about your products and prices without having to look up basic facts each time. Make knowledge a priority in how you grade their performance each year. They ought to know how your most common features work and should be able to walk a customer through using them. They ought to know the basic troubleshooting steps needed to fix basic problems when they get a trouble call. If they can take care of a problem without having to refer it to a technician, then you will have saved money and have a happier customer.
  • Empowerment. Your customer service reps should be empowered to fix customer’s problems on the spot. Some companies have policies like always requiring higher approval before giving a credit to a customer. Empower your employees to make decisions and take care of customer problems on the spot. You can always review credits that are given out and if you don’t like the way they were done you have a teaching opportunity to do it better the next time. But don’t be afraid to empower your employees to take care of customers so that the customer can get a problem resolved on one phone call, talking to one person.
  • Not Scripted. I don’t know of a person who doesn’t feel marginalized and unimportant when a customer service rep is clearly reading something to them off of a screen instead of talking to them person-to-person. This is something that many large call centers foster, and sometimes calling customer service feels like talking to a robot. I don’t think this works well for large companies and is one of the reasons that people hate large telco and cable company customer service. So don’t fall into this trap and try to put pre-packaged words into your reps mouths. Make sure they know what they need to know and then just let them talk to customers like a person.
  • The Right Policies. Your reps need to be working with policies that are customer friendly, and this is all up to you. I often find policies that make me shake my head. For example, I have one client who required a money order or cash for a customer to reconnect service for non-pay. Of course, this leads to customers just deciding to not come back. The policies you have in place in dealing with customers need to all have the same underlying premise – they must be customer-friendly and they must make it easy for customers to use you as their vendor.

Smart Upgrades

Every network faces periodic upgrades of electronics or key components. We have found that cutovers are the time when any network is the most vulnerable.

There are tried and true processes that can be used to minimize the chance or duration of network outages during upgrades. The following is a list of steps that we recommend for any network upgrade that puts customer service at risk. Following these steps is never a promise of 100% safety, but we have never seen a company that upgrades in this methodical and planned manner have major problems.

  1. Have a Project Manager for the Upgrade. It is vital to have one person in charge of the upgrade. They can get assistance in planning and doing the upgrade, but they need to be the one ready and authorized to react if things don’t go as planned.
  2. Develop a Checklist. You should develop a step-by-step checklist of everything to consider for the upgrade. Make sure that you understand every piece of equipment and software that will be affected by the upgrade. And then, most importantly, develop a step-by-step list of the steps required to perform the upgrade.
  3. Break the Upgrade into Manageable Steps.  If possible, the upgrade should be done in stages where progress can be measured and tested as each step progresses.
  4. Establish a Baseline / Establish a Go-Back Process. By this we mean that you need to completely understand the current network configuration, in detail. You need to know the exact settings of every piece of equipment. And once you understand the current network configuration develop a go-back process. This would be the steps needed to get the network back to the original configuration if something goes wrong during the upgrade. Ideally the go-back would be something really fast and we sometimes have seen this programmed such that it can be done in minutes.
  5. Understand the Traffic Flow (and then monitor during the cutover). During the upgrade process you might not get the same kind of alarms that you normally would expect. Also, changing traffic patterns due to the cutover can skew traditional measurements if you are rearranging the network. So it’s vital to understand your traffic flow before the upgrade. Then, have somebody monitor the traffic during the cutover since this might be the only way you will know that you have knocked customers out of service.
  6. Make Sure you have Vendor Support. For a major upgrade you should consider having a vendor representative on site. Otherwise, make sure ahead of time that somebody will be able to help you if you run into unexpected problems. I have seen clients schedule an upgrade over a holiday, not thinking that the needed expertise at the vendor is probably not going to be available.
  7. Pre-test Every Component before the Cut. Definitely test any new equipment before you introduce it into the network to make sure that it is operating properly. For complicated upgrades you ought to consider setting up a test lab where you can test the new equipment against components that will remain in the network for interoperability.
  8. Take Every Upgrade Seriously. I often see companies follow most of the above steps for major upgrades only to see them knock out their network for some simple upgrade like introducing new cards or something they thought was a simple upgrade. Any change that can knock down your network might knock down your network, so take every upgrade seriously.
  9. Define What Success Looks Like. You should establish the needed tests ahead of time that will let you check that every aspect of the network is working as planned. You don’t want to do an upgrade that is almost right only to find that you have created future problems. So establish a detailed test plan.

If you have questions about upgrades or want help developing an upgrade plan contact Derrel Duplechin of CCG at (337) 654-7490.

Give the Customers What They Want

I have a friend Danny who is a CPA and he is doing something that I think is brilliant. He has taken over the accounting practice from his 72 year-old father and he also has a number of other older accountants who help him during tax season. (And I don’t use the term “older” accountant nonchalantly, being one of them myself).

For several years he has tried to force the older accountants into learning new tax and accounting software and they have resisted vehemently. Their arguments are that they had multiple years of tax returns from their clients in older legacy programs and they also were just not interested in learning yet another new program. In fact, his father told him that if he was forced to learn a new system he would just stop helping him. And the clients all love his father.

And so my friend Danny did a brilliant thing. He went out and set up his own private cloud network. He put all of the new software into the cloud that he and most of the staff use, but he also sent the various older legacy software that the older accountants wanted to use into the cloud. And he chose to use a cloud so that anybody could work with any of the software packages from anywhere.

He would have preferred to do this with an existing cloud computing service, but none of them were interested in helping him set up the legacy software, some so old that they are DOS systems. There are a number of cloud services that support new accounting software. In fact, one of the major selling points of most of the cloud service providers is that a customer will never again have to worry about having software that is out of date and the cloud providers tout how they will introduce every update from the software provider when it becomes available.

Accountant upstairs ↑

Accountant upstairs ↑ (Photo credit: jah~)ems. 

And the cloud providers are completely missing the point. Real life people don’t want software that is always up to date. My worst nightmare is to log onto a cloud server with a project with a deadline and find out that the program I use every day has changed and that I will have to spend hours figuring out the differences. People don’t mind upgrading software over time and we have all migrated through the many versions of Microsoft Office. But people are creatures of habit and our relationship with software has become almost intimate. Danny’s father is a perfect example. He won’t use anything newer than Office 2007. And this is his right – he paid for it and it still works. Upgrading software you use every day can be unnerving at best and traumatic at worst and is always a bit disruptive.

And so the cloud providers have some big lessons to learn if they really want to be successful with the average customer. The cloud providers have chosen to stress the benefits of always having the most recent version of software. And from an operational perspective this makes sense for them. They only have to maintain one version of the software which makes it easier on them in a number of ways. But this doesn’t make sense from the perspective of what their customers want.

In the telecom business we have a long history of offering a handful of standard products to businesses. And from the perspective of the telcos this makes sense for the same reasons that the cloud providers want to push one version of software – it’s easier on the telco in terms of staff training, operations and billing. Selling standard products is what Ma Bell did for a century.

I would argue that selling only ‘standard’ products is not in the long-term best interest of a telco. If your company only sells standard products then you have turned those products into a commodity. In a competitive world, customers have no reason to be loyal to you if they can get that same commodity from somebody else for less. But if you are willing to listen to your customers and give them a custom product that they want, then you have created a loyal customer who is likely to stay with you for a long time. I don’t think most telecom providers add in the cost of churn when looking at profit margins. It is worth spending more up front to get a customer who will stay with you than to sell standard products to customers who will always be price shopping.

Do You Know the Margins for Your Product Lines?

That sounds like a straightforward question and most businesses in the country can say yes to that question. But I find that a large percentage of telecom companies don’t know the margins on their products.

There are a number of reasons why it is important to know your margins.

  • You need to know if you are selling any product at a loss. It’s okay to consciously have a loss-leader product if selling it always also sells more profitable products. But it makes no sense to sell a product that loses money as a single product. If you have products that lose money you need to consider raising the price or stop selling the product.
  • You should be trying to sell what makes you the most bottom line. All too often I see telecom companies push products that get them a lot of revenue but not much margin.
  • Without knowing your margins you can’t understand where you need to cut costs. While raising rates is one way to increase margin, cutting costs can have the same effect.

Regulated telcos are very used to having separations studies performed that define their access costs. But these studies have no practical value to management and tell you nothing about your profit margins by product line. And many CLECs and cable companies have never done any kind of cost study.

There all kinds of studies that can be done to look at your margins. The most common are:

Fully allocated fully distributed costs. In these studies every cost in the company is distributed to products. Done properly these studies will define your gross margin (revenues minus direct costs of producing a product), your net margin (the margin after also allocating joint and common costs), and net income by product which will look at depreciation or a surrogate cost of the network layered onto your other costs.

Incremental costs. The large phone companies have historically produced TELRIC or other forms of incremental cost studies for state commissions. These studies do not calculate margins in the same way as a fully distributed cost study. Rather, they look at the incremental cost of producing one unit of the product. The main purpose of these studies is to prove that you aren’t selling products below cost, but otherwise they have very little practical value for management.

Luckily it is a very straightforward process to understand your margins. A fully allocated fully distributed cost study can be as simple as a spreadsheet that allocates every cost in your ledger to products using some logical allocator. The whole key to getting believable results is to develop the best allocators that you can find for the way your company operates.

CCG has done these kind of margin studies many times and we don’t see them being offered by a lot of other consultants. There are a ton of companies that do separations studies or TELRIC studies, but not nearly so many who do straightforward cost accounting studies that management can use. Once you have a good margin study on hand then management can begin to understand how costs affect your profits. As an example, you can quickly see what will happen to your margins if you hire a new employee or if the cost of your Internet backbone goes down. That kind of basic information is vital if you want to maximize the bottom line. Knowing your margins lets you concentrate on those things that will have the best impact to the bottom line.

Launching a New Product

At CCG we often introduce clients to new products. Historically our clients had the leisure to introduce products slowly since they were not operating in highly competitive markets. However, today we see speed to market being a major factor in being successful. Since there are many steps needed to launch a new product and because it will touch every part of your organization, it is mandatory that you are organized and have a plan to develop and launch a complex product on time and do it well. Lack of organization will inevitably lead to delays, or worse, to a product that is half-baked and full of problems.

At CCG we are experts at the process of launching new products and many of our clients now include CCG as part of the new product development and launch team. We can provide the needed discipline and the extra manpower and expertise needed to insure that a product is launched on time and is customer-ready.

The following (using the example of launching IP Centrex) is  a list of the basic steps required to launch a new product. This list is abbreviated but demonstrates how launching a new product will touch every part of your organization. Without a clear plan it is easy to get bogged down and delayed.

Steps needed to launch IP Centrex

Define the Product. Define the specific market for the product. In the case of IP Centrex, should you have different packages to reach different parts of the market? (For instance there might be a version for typical small business, a more complex product for more businesses like doctor’s offices, and a product for businesses with a centralized receptionist). Define the equipment and software needed to launch the product. What kind of handsets / functionality do you want to offer? Will you let subscribers use their own devices like smart phones and tablets? Will you support integration of phones and computer systems (Outlook, etc,)? Will you be supporting 911 portability (supporting 911 when the customer moves the phone off-premises)?

Determine Technical Readiness. Is your switch ready to support the product or do you need an upgrade? Will your OSS/BSS support the new product’s billing and operational requirements? If you are going to launch using something other than a softswitch, take the steps needed to choose the right gear and/or partner. Find a 911 mobility vendor to support remote 911 if you go this route. How are you willing to distribute the product – over your own network, over leased facilities, or over the open internet. Anticipate and address any IP addressing issues. Analyze the customer premise network requirements –  premise wiring alternatives, customer demarcation points, VoIP quality assurance capabilities, etc.

Product Pricing. Create a name and branding for the product. Determine the market prices of competing products (trunks for existing PBXs, B1s, traditional Centrex, other VoIP providers, etc.). Determine your pricing strategy (one price fits all vs. pricing based upon what the subscriber is using today). Determine your pricing elements (individual service elements like stations, talk paths, features and calling plans or a more all-inclusive element). Determine if you are going to sell and/or lease handsets as part of the product. Will this be bundled with other products like data or long distance?

Testing. Buy test handsets/stations. Activate and then test each switch feature with the handsets. Create a common or custom profile configuration for supported and chosen handset types. Make sure that you have an easy way to load the profile configurations into handsets/stations. Make sure the chosen features will work with each other (a common problem when combining multiple complex features). Test OSS and billing system.

Regulatory. Are tariff updates needed? If you are going into new markets will you need to open new 911 PSAPs? If sold as a regulated product, how does SLC charge apply? Are there any CALEA issues?

Sales and Marketing Readiness. Define the value proposition for the subscriber. Develop marketing literature. Update website. Develop order form that will capture the complexities of the product.

Internal Training. Train salespeople and CSRs on how to use the product. Train help-desk staff. Train anybody who will install or train on the product. Should your own company be the first test customer?

Customer Training. Develop customer training material/manuals.  Consider a web tool andor video tool. Develop training plan. Will you train every employee or train the trainers? How much will you charge for training? How do future subscriber employees get trained?

Implementation. Develop installation plan/checklist. Order IP stations. Perform any customer premise network changes required. Install and verify data connection(s). Install stations and any managed network equipment required. Develop plan to verify that every station is updated and provisioned correctly. Conduct subscriber training sessions. Ask for subscriber feedback on the quality of the implementation. Render and verify first bill.

NOC/Customer Support/Troubleshooting. How will you handle customer support? Will the first level of trouble shooting be done at the CSR level or by specially trained individuals? Who will have access to the tools and training required to assist subscribers?  Will billing issues and technical issues be handled by different employees or by the same employees?

Ongoing Product Maintenance. How do you stay abreast of new features, services and apps that may benefit your subscribers?  How and when do you introduce updates to subscribers?