The need for seamless portals and marketplaces has surged. Comms Business identifies how the channel is keeping pace with growing demand.
Provisioning has witnessed a massive evolution in recent years further fuelled by the Covid crisis. The channel has reacted to these shifts and a blueprint for success is emerging. Aled Treharne, director of innovation and development at Nuvias UC, described provisioning portals as “interesting products”. He said, “Vendors are looking to get an edge and are providing some amazing new features to their products – just look at Poly’s NoiseBlock AI as an example. This is making the configuration of devices more and more complex.
“The portal’s purpose however is to make it simple for users, so it’s a challenging prospect. For me, there’s some key table stakes that any provisioning platform needs to provide. The first is that it has to be multi-vendor. Even if you have a favourite vendor for a product range, customers don’t want to be tied in to one vendor and they want the flexibility to pick and choose from the right product for the right space. It’s why Nuvias’ room bundles are so successful – we take products from multiple vendors and bundle them together in the right way for the space the customer has. But obviously, that brings with it complexity.
“Which brings me on to the second point – a good, clean user interface with a good usercentric experience is critical. In this day, with access to so many people with skills in this area, putting out anything other than a slick, easy to use interface is critical. Ultimately, I believe that the equipment we provide has to blend into the background – we shouldn’t be the focus, the focus is the message the user needs to communicate, so the provisioning portal has to simultaneously help to support that, provide access to all the latest tech features and at the same time, be easy enough to use that it doesn’t take focus away from the end user. It’s a tough ask, but it’s definitely achievable.”
Graham Wilkinson, head of sales at Beyond Connectivity feels API’s and a seamless endto-end portal are crucial. He said, “Not only do we want to lose the “swivel chair” approach as we all work remotely, but ensure the portal platform is resilient professional and seamless. We need to ensure that constant learning is inputted into the platforms and this could be AI or bots that not only help the portal perform but take learning from people’s access and use and enhance the end user feel. The ability to go from start to finish on an enquiry to quote to placing an order is also critical in the new world.
“On the back of this the owners of the platform need to ensure it is well maintained and works for them. [For example] all usage is reported, used and collected for future use – along with being able to adeptly provision customers’ requests and fulfil orders.”
Steve Law, CTO at Giacom agreed end-to-end automation is a key table stake for players to consider. He explained, “It is crucial for ITC’s to have access to a quick and easy platform that is fully automated when they are looking for a product to purchase and provision. With an API-first approach, access to integration within billing systems allows ITC’s to extract billing data and drive it straight into their billing systems, reducing manual effort and thus removing the opportunity for error.
“However, there remains a number of portals which are only partially automated. For example, the ordering part is automated, but provisioning is not – so there remains human involvement in the back end. Instead, by being fully automated and API driven, players can remove this interaction and add automation both at the front end of the process in terms of provisioning, but also at the back end in terms of billing, so that the customer journey is automated end-to-end and the user can benefit from a successful self-service platform.”
AI and bots
Artificial intelligence and bots are increasingly handling many previously manual processes, but have they taken over? Not yet, is the answer from Beyond’s Wilkinson. “For me this is something that is still in its infancy and, although becoming wider and used more and more within all sectors, we certainly don’t see [it] in [the] mainstream yet. As AI and bots grow and become cleverer and used [more] widely, they will indeed become necessary and part of our daily lives in so many different applications from consumer to business. The learning they would take electronically could auto fix or improve existing portals and almost be at a point where it knows what we are going to press before we do!”
Fahim Sabir, director, Network On Demand, Colt Technology Services, does not think so either. “I question whether bots will be particularly helpful in the provisioning portal space. AI will be helpful, but realistically, I believe AI will be used in a more advisory capacity. AI will be used to recommend changes to customers based upon their unique user-profile and utilisation patterns, such as suggesting a customer downgrades their bandwidth on the weekends if their usage patterns show they only require a reduced service at this time. The thing that you can’t do is impose the recommendations any AI makes on your customers – it has to be about offering them the choice.”
Law is equally philosophical. “Personally, I don’t see a huge amount of opportunity or value for AI and bots in the short term. However, there is a potential opportunity for providing more self-service around help, which would be more applicable as these portals are extended down to the end customer, where FAQ-style help can instead be served by a bot.”
Machine learning momentum
Wilkinson says machine learning is all about how we use technology via machines, portals, or websites. “They take the learning of how we as humans use these products. Harness this learning and feedback so that suppliers can improve their processes. The way people interact with suppliers, purchases, or information Finding will change all the time as machine learning will feedback, alter and change what people are doing and how we do it going forward.”
Nuvias’ Treharne pointed out, “I’m not convinced that at the moment there’s a good place for that kind of technology. AI, machine learning – they’re all involved in recognising patterns of behaviour from previous systems and generating a prediction based on those patters. The problem is that the data set you have for any given platform isn’t similar enough, even across multiple customers, to offer any kind of insight of that sort from the configuration perspective.”
Law from Giacom highlighted that “provisioning portals, like many systems, generate and store a lot of data through day to day usage. Machine learning algorithms could be used to help identify patterns and trends, which can then be utilised to give the user a better experience. There are already examples of this on Amazon and eBay, which are more traditional e-commerce platforms, where you buy a book and it makes recommendations from past or similar purchases. In the future, this is something that can be applied in provisioning portals when identifying customer ordering patterns and then helping them by prompting the user with their usual orders. This helps to simplify and speed up the process, making it more of a seamless experience for the customer by using a form of automation which is datadriven.”
Colt Technology Services’ Sabir said the most interesting aspect of machine learning from current applications is how we utilise the data we have to figure out patterns, such as those around utilisation, behaviour, and various other initiatives. “One example of this is, ML can be used to understand a customers’ tone of voice, such as how unhappy they are, and organisations could extrapolate this information to decide how problems should be prioritised and handled by customer service teams. This area is currently very embryonic, and I expect it will be a while before the telecoms industry adopts it more broadly.”
The rise of marketplaces
“Quite simply, I think it’s a reflection of the way that people are working – not just this year with Covid but also over the last few years,” Treharne said. “By providing marketplaces with all the information the user needs, you can give the user control over the purchasing journey and you can help guide them at their own pace. It’s a different type of purchasing to a sales-led or a consultative purchase.”
Law added, “ITC’s have always been under pressure to get more done in less time, but since Covid-19, the situation has added significant pressure on them to do things in the most efficient way possible. This rise in marketplaces comes from this demand for efficiency and the desire to get more done in less time, giving the ITC more time to spend serving their customer.”
Sabir feels that as an industry we’re seeing less diversification. “There’s now some recognition that organisations have core competencies and should partner with a specialist to provide capabilities beyond their own expertise. The marketplace model is emerging because customers want an integrated solution, but from a supplier’s point of view it’s better to focus on what you’re individually good at and bring in other organisations who are experts in the different components to provide an integrated solution.”
Matt Dykes, COO at Abzorb, said provisioning portals are essential for resellers to operate in today’s market, especially when taking the simple route to success. “Today more than ever resellers want to simplify how they do business in this fast paced, forever changing world. Technology such as AI and automation enables people to automate mundane administrative tasks which frees them to focus on more high value complex activities.
“Our portal enables resellers to simplify business providing them with the flexibility to order, fulfil and automate day to day tasks and receive alerts in real time. Resellers can select what mobile and unified communications technology their customers require whether that’s hosted IP telephony, SIP, mobile, fixed lines, or DSL – it is all available on a single portal. Providing customers with choice and simplifying business for resellers to offer services their way. We also recognise that resellers want to deliver solutions branded as them, so we offer ‘white labelling’ as well presenting them with the capability to become a virtual services provider.
Dykes added that Abzorb is focusing on how to simplify UC and mobile propositions for resellers. This, he explained, is all about keeping the solutions on offer simple “in an increasingly complex world”.
Moving forward, Sabir expects to see an increased focus on standardisation. “It will be a longer journey than just the next 12 to 24 months, but the seeds will be sown during this initial period. I think we will see tighter integration across the entire supply chain, leading to a more seamless experience. There’s still a long way to go in this space as there’s a lot of work to be done, but the foundations of this and the technologies – especially APIs and DLT – needed to get there are now in place.
Sabir added that self-service will also become increasingly prevalent – pointing to now having the ability to call a car via an app or order an item and have it delivered within two hours. This will change customer expectations and demand in the b2b world and will impact on the wider supply chain.
Law thinks we will continue to see an accelerated use of the Cloud. “Covid-19 has acted as a catalyst for users to demand more of a seamless interaction. When considering the use of automation, particularly looking at end organisation self-service, there is room to make this process more efficient for the ITC, so that they can enable their customers to self-service more. The provisioning portal can be extended out to the end organisation in order to remove the need for the ITC to deal with day-to-day issues, freeing up their availability to handle more strategic challenges for their customers. The use of automation and creating a frictionless environment is something that we see growing over the next few years.
“There will also be increased use of analytics. By bringing data together around the cloud products themselves and the benefits they are delivering, such as if and how they’re being used, you end up with a single pane of glass, sharing the information via one portal. Therefore, thismakes the ITC’s life easier, as well as gaining an enhanced understanding of the value customers are getting from their products.”
Treharne thinks the future is hard to predict. He said, “I’m pretty sure that whatever I thought today was going to look like a year ago isn’t where we are right now with everything that’s going on! I think the last six months have fundamentally changed the relationship between employer and employee, particularly for information workers. A lot of people are realising that working from home is not just a “nice to have” but actually brings tangible and measurable improvements in quality of life – and it’s not just something for senior managers anymore. Nuvias has always encouraged a cloud-first approach, so our resilience plans were just an extension of our everyday work for us – but I also realise that we’re privileged to have access to a range of devices.
“Finally, I think we’ll see the power of the true value that some organisations bring. Companies who have been pricefocused instead of value-focused will struggle and even potentially fail. I think those of us who look at how we can enrich the value chain from supplier all the way to end user will flourish.”