The Data Exists, But Will They Use It?
Nov/Dec 2012
Tim Lindner

As regular readers of this column know, I focus on the impact technology has on the lives of people, including me, and the reasons we embrace certain connected devices and services, and resist the adoption of others.

Sometimes, we adopt a technology because we essentially have no choice. Mobile phones are an example; most of us depend on them to make day-to-day living and working possible. I know of no one who does not have some issue with his or her carrier concerning poor coverage and dropped calls. Adoption of mobile phones is a necessity for most people.

As a long-time advocate of connected devices and their ecosystems, I have developed and sold services that help monitor and remotely manage connected-device infrastructure. The complexity of these services is mostly transparent to the end user, especially consumers. These services depend on the seamless integration of many “moving parts” to ensure the customer experience is as positive and friction-free as possible. When they fail, customer pain correlates directly to the difficulty of remediating the problem.

There is, today, a large and diverse third-party service provider base to which many “brand name” companies have outsourced the ownership, installation, management, and remediation of complex services that are essential to the operation of their businesses and the satisfaction of their customers. I can think of no industry or market in the United States that has not substantially outsourced internal functions to what are broadly called “managed-services” providers. The primary reason for this transition from doing it “within” to having a third party do it is cost. The elimination of internal overhead (people) and operating expense (systems), replaced by a fixed-price service-level agreement typically offered at a price below the internal cost, has been one of the ways American businesses have managed results in a difficult economy.

This brings me to a recent personal experience. It involves my mobile phone carrier—one of the top four in the United States. My experience will serve to highlight the complexity of the infrastructure, the impact of outsourcing on problem identification, and the requirement of consumers to have the patience and fortitude to persist in getting a resolution to a problem that falls outside the norm.

I concluded that the cell tower closest to my home, which I can see, was “down.” My first action was to drive to a place where I could call technical support. This is where my first touch with a third party engaged by the carrier became apparent. I have had direct experience with call center operations, both in the United States and abroad. When the person answered my call, with an “Americanized” first name and accent distinctive to a foreign country in which many call centers are located, it became clear a script would be followed, the deviation from which would be unlikely.

Let’s pause for a moment and consider just how “connected” a cell tower is. It is a good example of how functional devices such as antennas, transceivers, power sources and generators, security systems, and any other operational device installed that is critical to its function have sensors attached to them to monitor the health and status of the devices and the processes they are running.

While base-station equipment will have unique OA&M (operations, administration, and management) characteristics unique to the carrier, and therefore not likely to be outsourced, most of the other equipment and its OA&M is outsourced. This will include the installation of new equipment, upgrades to existing equipment, repair of faulty equipment, and regularly scheduled maintenance.

The monitoring of everything on that tower is a 24/7 function, with performance data streaming to and from NOCs (network operations centers), field crews, and subcontractors. This is a case where the data to “see” the status of any tower is ample and available. It is also the case that not everyone in the carrier’s employ can access it.

I have five mobile phones on my personal account, three of which are with users based in my home. On July 1, calls to and from home started dropping at an unusual rate. This went on for a few days, until service stopped completely. However, if I drove 10 minutes in any direction from my home, service returned to normal.

Getting back to my story, I was armed with enough knowledge about the cell tower infrastructure to be dangerous. I explained to my call center agent that it appeared my local cell tower was “down.”

Per the script, the agent started with a check of my phone—did I take out the battery and retry? I did, as with the two other phones in my home. I also explained the phones worked fine 10 minutes in any direction from my home. This was not a personal device issue; I asked him to check the tower.

Apparently, all he could check was the coverage within my zip code, not my specific tower, and he reported there were no known issues with coverage in my zip code.

I asked him to initiate a ticket to the appropriate department advising that there was a specific tower issue. He said he would. He then offered to send a signal booster that tied into my cable system. This, he assured me, would solve the problem in my home. Great! When could I get the unit? Oh, it is on backorder for three-to-four weeks.

After the call, I knew I was not going to get the proper attention to my situation. I again dialed the general number, and this time got through to a gentleman in tech support who was clearly U.S. based—he had a Gulf Coast accent, and he confirmed he was based in Shreveport.

I explained my problem again. This time, he actually explained what he “saw” when looking at coverage within my zip code. I learned the carrier has 10 towers in my code area. It is assumed that if any one tower was down, the others would be sufficient to keep me connected. He saw no coverage issues, but he did initiate a ticket, gave me a number, and confirmed that the first agent neither opened a ticket nor ordered the signal booster. My new friend in Shreveport promised someone would call me the next day (which was July 4!) to update me on the status.

I was skeptical that anyone would call me on a national holiday, but call they did (luckily, while I was in an area where I could get a call). This time it was a woman who identified herself as an engineer in the field-support division of the carrier. She did something that she said my friend in Shreveport could not: She could access tower location based on my street address. Sure enough, she “saw” the tower closest to me, and confirmed it was in fact “down.” She also said the assumption that one or more of the other nine towers in my zip code would pick up the coverage was inaccurate in my case because of their location in relationship to the terrain surrounding my home.

She initiated a field-service request to the local third-party crew, advised when they would be at the tower, and when I could expect a resolution to the coverage issue. Further, she gave me the “special” 800 number that took me directly to her department, and she promised to call me daily with updates until I could confirm the problem was resolved. She did, and she was accurate in her estimate of when the repair would be finalized.

Her concluding remark was the most disconcerting: Unless a customer calls to report a service outage, they don’t know there is a problem.

The exercise I went through confirmed towers can be individually monitored and problems “seen.” The data is there, streaming to an NOC, and someone has a visual on the status. Yet, until my call prompted a look, no one saw what the data was reporting.

I kept thinking of my mother throughout this exercise. She would not have had the knowledge and persistence to get to the right person who could see what the data was saying. It took four days to have someone believe me and take action.

I am also concerned that “out-of-the-box” problem resolution is now more problematic for all U.S. carriers because of outsourcing. The combination of simplifying scripts for non-native English speakers, poorly designed or implemented interfaces between front line and core teams to see data within context, and the burden of massive customer-based teams point to increased pain for the consumer trying to get back to basic service restoration.

And, that home signal booster? It arrived four weeks to the day it was ordered. Getting that device properly installed is another story all together!


Tim Lindner is senior business consultant at Voxware, a company focused on voice- picking software. He can be reached at tlindner@voxware.com



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