We recently won an award for the end to end digital platform we built for managed WAN, IT services, and monitoring. This platform was central to our aim to be the best managed network provider so we thought we would outline how we did it, and why.
But let’s start with a mystery
In a previous company I took on responsibility for WAN and network services to the SME and mid-markets. We delivered MPLS, VPLS, Dedicated Internet and point to point Ethernet services - mainly managed networks.
We regularly invited customers to events, at which we’d show them what we were doing and talk to them. As a group, these customers were friendly but long-suffering, and it emerged over time that they all had something in common with their managed networks.
In short, they had a distinctly lacklustre service experience.
This was something of a mystery to me. How could so many customers have a poor experience? It took me a while to get a handle on it. Cutting through the complexities, the most common issues that kept appearing were:
- It took a long time to deliver circuits, with unexpected delays and a very limited ability to mitigate them;
- There was little visibility of what was going on with the network and very limited proactivity in alerting customers when things went wrong;
- It took a long time to acknowledge and agree to change requests;
- It was difficult to get updates on faults;
- It was difficult to get an accurate bill.
Now the mystery deepened: why were so many issues so common?
It took some time to work out the underlying causes, because, collectively, the issues looked like a general malaise, and this obscured detail. Here is how I would summarise the causes (which I believe are common for most network providers) ...
Network providers (typically the major carriers) have evolved multiple complex processes over the years, some manual, some supported by discrete systems. This can lead to paperwork overload and poor customer experience driven by accuracy, data integrity and response time issues.
Businesses then face many problems that derive from the complex systems and processes used to deploy and manage their networks. I have listed some of the problems above, but in summary, there are three major challenges faced by most businesses:
Delivery – Corporate networks are complex to deliver. Network providers with manual processes take months to deliver, causing disruption and cost.
Service experience – Network providers are notorious for delivery errors, slow changes, unfixed problems and billing errors. The status of faults and requests for changes are rarely visible to customers. All this makes the network painful to run.
Performance – Companies seeking agility build applications to digitise their processes. Frequently these applications run very slowly over their networks, wasting time for hundreds of staff, and the business struggles to diagnose and remedy the performance problem, jeopardising the investment they have made.
I’ve been referring to Network Providers so far, but many businesses avoid managing the network themselves. They use a Managed Network Provider who offers a managed service on top of the wires-only services from the Network Providers.
Now, If a managed network provider also has manual processes and discrete systems then this simply compounds the issues.
How did we fix these network challenges?
I wanted to build the best managed network service possible. After casting about for fixes to our issues, I started to use SAS for bespoke managed network support. I liked their network service model (which had a number of features that worked really well for customers) and eventually used them to underpin a new Managed Network service.
So what were the characteristics of a 'best managed network provider'?
A number of things stood out for me. Here were the ones most-often cited by customers when we captured feedback.
- A Network designed from the ground up for great user experience - designed around users, their applications and bandwidth requirements, and integrated with existing infrastructure
- Flexibility to meet all needs in all locations – by the use of multiple carriers and technologies (ie. Hybrid networks)
- A network delivered reliably and quickly – using best-in-class processes and network-skilled resource
- Sites connected in days – by using multi-sim, multi-carrier 4G WAN services that provide an equivalent to fixed line circuits in a fraction of the time.
- Performance problems identified and solved fast – by seeing the whole application path and alerting proactively.
- Easy to do business with – ranging from technical account managers who really understood each customer’s network, to billing that was right every time.
But with Hybrid Networks, managed network providers need to go further
For those old enough to remember the Remington ads, I liked the service so much that I joined the company. Now that I’m at SAS, I’ve been watching a new trend emerge.
We increasingly blend networks from multiple network providers to give customers the benefits of what are known as Hybrid Networks. Unfortunately, this exacerbates the problems I outlined above.
Simply, with multiple carriers and technologies, the issues from a single carrier are multiplied. In fact, they're more than multiplied: there can be a non-linear increase in issues when different issues from different providers interact and compound each other.
As more companies seek to digitise their businesses by building applications and moving to the Cloud, it is increasingly hard for them to put up with network providers who exhibit the problems outlined above.
We set out to mitigate these issues by transforming our business with new processes and an end-to-end digital platform
With the increasing use of Hybrid Networks, we recognised that to maintain quality while growing, we needed a digital transformation - an end to end Enterprise Resource Planning (ERP) system and new processes. So we designed an end to end system from marketing and sales through delivery and service to billing. Highlights included:
- We built deep practitioner experience into our systems and processes;
- We specified that we should hold great detail about our customers’ networks (150 pieces of meta data per site);
- We banned spreadsheets (which create errors and isolated data islands) in favour of integrated systems and processes and a single data set;
- We focused on end-to-end processes and a great user experience.
We sought several benefits:
- Governance – Reduced commercial and technical risk;
- Delivery – Reduced customer dissatisfaction;
- Support – Reduced effort;
- Finance – Better real-time performance tracking;
- Marketing – Better tracking of performance and Return on Investment;
- Sales – Faster and more accurate, with better customer experience
What we created
We created a market-leading network monitoring platform for our customers' network, infrastructure and applications, integrated into a management platform that is digital from end to end.
The management platform is real-time and self-service. It combines everything required to provide our proactive managed service: pricing; ordering; provisioning; inventory; Customer Relationship Management (CRM); live ticketing; billing.
The monitoring platform shows customers every element of their network, infrastructure and applications within a portal. Our staff and customers can see everything they need within a single dashboard.
Several elements stand out.
- Our Advanced Reporting Module (ARM) lets IT teams drill down into the full detail of what’s going on with their network. We store real-time information forever, so we (or customers) can track back to trace difficult and intermittent problems, and examine trends for long-range planning.
- Critical Path Monitoring helps make sense of complex, potentially overwhelming data sets. We show the health of each critical application with a simple traffic-light summary. We zoom into a simple topology showing the entire data path of the application, each component colour-coded according to its health. We then allow further drill down to all of the underlying data.
- We built deep integration between our own internal systems and market-leading third party systems such as SolarWinds.
We were delighted to win IT Europa's European IT and Software Excellence award - SME Solution of the Year award, in recognition of these developments.
Benefits for customers
Having reviewed the results of our new platform, we found our managed network customers reported the following benefits:
- They have a better experience. We deliver networks faster, we are more responsive, and we have fewer errors and lower cost;
- They have a clear view of their networks and applications: They can see the whole data path of each application, and drill down for further detail;
- They are clear about issues and change requests - both are visible within the portal;
- They can plan ahead. Their portal maintains fully detailed historic data on their IT estate, which allows trends to be shown for long-range planning.
Benefits for SAS
The new platform also delivered benefits for us as a managed network provider:
- We have greater insight on the networks and IT that we manage: we flag 95% of issues proactively and can drill down from high level to investigate issues;
- We know our customers better. Their records contain all the current and historic information we need;
- Our operational staff are clear on what they need to do. Each has a personal dashboard, detailing their tasks and progress;
- We removed the effort and error of re-keying data. Data is drawn from service catalogues and is entered in standard formats, and it lives on through the life of each contract;
- We deliver fast. We manage our work using real-time data, such as location and forecasting for installation teams, Work In Progress (WIP) reporting, and change requests;
Key savings from our digitalisation
- Data integrity: Up from below 70% to 99%
- Sales order time: Down from days to 1 hour
- Sales order effort: Down from hours to 20 minutes
- Sales touch points: From 5 departments, 6 people down to 1 department, 1 person
- Sales accuracy: Up from below 70% to 99%
- Sales Paperwork: Down from 5 manual documents to 1 manual and the remainder automated
- Avoided having to recruit multiple staff as we grew
Becoming the best managed network provider is a never-ending pursuit
The developments I outlined above took place over a considerable period of time, but they're just part of the wider activity required to be deserving of our customers' business.If you're interested to explore further, you might like to read more about how our customers use 4G WAN to connect sites fast or recover from unexpected provisioning delays and outages.
You may be interested to find out more about how monitoring can elevate a network to new heights. This video gives a sneak preview of critical path monitoring.
Finally, if you'd like to know more about hybrid networks, what's new in monitoring and how 5G will affect networks, you might like to consider our CIO event: