The case for effective field force automation is pretty much a slam dunk. It’s clear that compared to manual paper-based methods, automated field management saves time, allows operators to hit tighter service windows, more often gets services operational while the tech is at the premises, and better matches his or her experience with the job at hand. Those all are great advantages. But just because something makes sense doesn’t mean it’s easy. Insight deploys Insight Communications is using C-Cor’s workforce management platform in Louisville and Lexington, KY. The Louisville system launched the service in November 2002, according to director of technical operations Mickey Beard. The first year was difficult, he said, because the staff was so accustomed to paper. Now the volume of work has grown 14 to 15 percent—while a bit more than half the dispatchers have been redeployed. The C-Cor software, which links to Conversys’ ICOMS billing package, takes a stew of factors such as type of job (trouble ticket, installation, reconnect, upgrade, etc.), the area the job is in (determined by zip code), and employees’ schedules and skill sets. The C-Cor software then schedules the staff—and reschedules them as everyday dynamics take over. Beard said the cost of implementation is a challenge. So is the fact that technicians can play rough with the personal digital assistants (PDAs) they use to automatically activate services and perform other tasks. Currently, the system is in its third generation, with 250 Samsung PDAs having been given out. The operator has considered ruggedized devices, but they are too pricy. The matching of skill sets to jobs is particularly important as the industry’s offerings grow in variety and complexity. "It’s getting more difficult to get the right technician to the right job," said Chris Martinez, the director of broadband consulting for software vendor Mobile Data Solutions. He said that it is important to "break down (skill sets) from tech to tech. Some might know high-speed only, while some are tenured and trained." To make sure that jobs are done correctly, services must be activated while the tech is still at the location. To do so instantaneously—and without relying on dispatchers—requires deeper application programming interfaces (APIs) between the field worker and the internal databases. Insiders say that billing companies are doing a better job of opening their software to allow these interactions. Big (but boring?) savings Perhaps the biggest corporate obstacle to adoption is operator attention. "I think many MSOs are up to speed on the supposed benefits automation can offer them," said Greg Gray, the vice president of sales for PointServe, a workforce management software vendor. "I guess the issue is that they are moving so quickly to stay ahead of the game to offer advanced services." Bottom line revenues from sexy services such as voice over Internet protocol (VoIP) and high definition TV (HDTV) may be more attractive than operational savings from smart field force deployments. The trendy applications also may more easily get buy-in from across a decentralized infrastructure. "Operators are so focused on leading- edge deployment such as VoIP," said Ken Wright, CTO for C-Cor, "the challenge is getting them to think of back-office solutions." Operators who doubt the value of field force automation may lose some of their skepticism after looking at Wright’s numbers. Field forces save on average two hours per day per tech when properly managed. This can add two to two-and-a-half jobs per day to their itinerary. Time savings for dispatchers—who are freed from myriad tasks supporting field personnel—perhaps is even more impressive. Wright said on average a dispatcher can save four hours and 40 minutes in each eight-hour shift. At the end of the day, these new tools enable operators to do something that is old fashioned: Please their customers. "It helps tremendously with the initial customer experience," Gray said. "It shows cable is high tech." —Carl Weinschenk Cox Communications is embarked on an ambitious three-year drive to shift its back-office focus from the premises to the customer. The enabler is a new layer of enhanced software that will transition in on top of—and along with—the existing software overseeing the company’s converged triple-play offerings. "It’s changing the engines in flight, but it’s changing them one at a time, so the old version and the new version have to work together," said Tom Guthrie, vice president of IT Operations for Cox, speaking at OSS & Billing World in Philadelphia in May. In other words, this process entails both disruption and continuity. "The old engines have to continue to work," said Guthrie. "We’ll have to put the same kind of fuel in them, same kind of maintenance, care and operations; have operations staff that knows about batch jobs, maintenance windows and things like that." It is, Guthrie admitted, a daunting task. "We certainly bet the farm … and it has to be successful." No predestination, or joking Cox was using Convergys’ ICOMS platform to support its fixed voice, video and data services and will migrate that to its next-gen Infinys platform as the result of a vendor bake-off that the billing and support services company won. "Cox has not been famous for doing RFPs," Guthrie said. But Convergys answered the RFP and won. "Some might argue that that was predestined (because Convergys was already in place), and I’m here to tell you that it wasn’t," he said. All the vendors probably thought Cox was joking when it suggested what it sought from next-gen software, Guthrie said. "We needed to … be focused for the first time on the individual who is owning and using the service," he said. "To recast an architecture for a piece of software that’s a million lines long from the home-based to the customer-based … you can just imagine what a mind-bending experience that is" for a vendor. Thus, vendors might have perceived the customer-based requirement as a "throwaway." Instead, Guthrie said, it’s an unbending core component, and "we’re adamant about that being the very first delivery of software." Adding wireless service as a quadruple-play element played a large role in the software specifications, he said, noting the truly individual nature of wireless made the original premises-focused triple-play integration "almost trivial." The new software will take over "almost in the background" by augmenting existing technology starting this year with customer-centricity and usage-based rating for new services, Internet protocol (IP) and content. Next year, back-office capabilities will streamline order entry and automate service fulfillment through enhanced user interfaces. The third stage in 2007 will complete the integration of Convergys’ Infinys billing and finance capabilities across all products and services, Guthrie said. "Cox is not traditionally an early adopter type of technologies or processes. In this particular case, we’re out there," Guthrie said. —Jim Barthold

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