Call Accounting Featured Article

Analytics and Dashboards Turn Call Accounting Into Usage Management


June 18, 2007

It used to be that a companies faced a pretty straightforward task when managing their communications asset—it simply entailed call accounting, or keeping track of desk  phone usage. Things aren’t so simple anymore. Because of the explosion in voice communications channels, call accounting has turned into usage management.
 
Usage management is the 21st century version of call accounting because there are now so many communications assets to keep track of; everything from long-distance tolls for desk phones to roaming charges for cell phones.
 
To find out more about what usage management entails, and what tools are available to help companies with this task, TMCnet recently spoke with Jeff Lumsden, product marketing manager at Avotus, a company with a mission to make usage management as easy as taking a quick glance at a dashboard.
 
Lumsden spoke about the different types of call accounting and communications data collected by Avotus’ solution, ICM Usage Management, and how analytics and dashboards make this information a snap to understand and utilize when making decisions about communications assets.
 
Collecting the Data
 
At the most basic level, Avotus’ usage management solution collects call detail data. This includes data for all calls made, whether using a landline, cellphone, calling card, smartphone, or conference calling application. What type of data is collected? Everything from the route the call took to details about who called whom, when the call occurred, and the duration.
 
This, Lumsden told TMCnet, is all pretty standard call accounting stuff. Where Avotus’ solution gets really powerful is at the usage management level. Robust analytical and tracking capabilities let companies generate detailed demand management reports and ensure compliance with policies and regulations.
 
Demand Management
 
Demand management is a big part of communications asset tracking for today’s businesses. This function of usage management can be viewed from two angles: the customer (in this case, employees of the company) and the company itself. The company wants to make sure it keeps expenses to a minimum; the employees need adequate services to do their jobs.
 
Whoever is in charge of corporate communications, then, requires tools to make sure the needs of both the company and the customers (fellow employees) are fulfilled. Achieving this goal requires demand management; monitoring various communications assets and making adjustments to contracts, deployment and availability in response to demand.
 
For example, it may become apparent that videoconferencing is not being used as much as was anticipated, whereas Web conferencing usage has skyrocketed. In response, the budget for videoconferencing can be scaled back and more money put into Web conferencing. Or, perhaps it becomes apparent that many employees are calling colleagues in another location, making it beneficial to establish a direct line to that office with extension-to-extension dialing (faster for employees, cheaper for the company).
 
Cell phone service plans are one area where usage management particularly excels at saving companies money. That’s because it allows the company to easily determine how many minutes employees are using, and taking that data to the carrier to negotiate the best possible rate. It also allows the company to offer employees a variety of different mobile phone plans, each with pre-set policies. This lets any given employee pick the best plan, without having to jump through a lot of hoops.
 
Analytics
 
Of course, Lumsden pointed out, demand management requires robust analytics tools to figure out what’s being used, and how, and the cost. Avotus’ usage management solution performs analytics automatically based on data collected, and displays this information using graphical dashboards.
 
Here’s an example: A company decides to add VoIP to its communications assets. The expectation is that VoIP will cause usage of other communications services to decline. Once VoIP is deployed, the company can use ICM Usage Management’s dashboards to view trending information and historical, month-over-month comparisons to see if usage changes as expected. If it doesn’t, it’s easy to drill down, see the cause of the unexpected usage fluctuations, and make whatever adjustment are necessary.
 
Another example is a company that switches cell phone carriers to get a better rate. The old contract ends May 31, and the new one begins June 1. The communications manager can use ICM Usage Management to monitor bills for the new plan. While doing this, something odd shows up: the company is still being billed by the old carrier. Rather than having to go mining for information about individual users and cell phones, the information is brought directly to the attention of the manager in an easy-to-read dashboard.
 
Dashboards provide snapshot views of a company’s communications asset usage. Problems are immediately visible, and therefore can be quickly fixed. If there are no problems, after a quick check the manager can get on with the many other tasks on his or her agenda. Dashboards essentially provide a visual portal into the communications system.
 
“It’s all graphical,” Lumsden said. “There are lines and graphs and charts and trending and red highlights for costs that are going up. I can click on anything that looks wrong and it will take me to the right reports in the application so I can drill down for more information.”
 
Saving Money in the Real World
 
Lumsden shared several examples of companies that, with Avotus’ usage management solution, were able to uncover and correct situations where money was being spent unnecessarily or inappropriately on communications assets.
 
One company found that six of the top ten numbers its employees were calling, when out of the office, were the corporation’s own 800-numbers. Employees were originally trained to use the 800 or toll-free number when traveling instead of paying higher rates for calls from a hotel or using a payphone. When mobile phones became the norm, most employees didn't realize the company was paying twice for the call--once for the cell phone and again for the 800 number. In response, the company sent an e-mail to its employees explaining the situation. Within a few days, the unintentional abuse ceased to be a problem.
 
Another company discovered that many, many of its employees had cellular plans with the same carrier. The carrier was aware that it was serving several thousand employees from the same company, but kept silent. Once the company found out, it used its buying power to obtain a group rate plan for its employees.
 
Yet another example is a company with a particularly large wireless spend. One of this company’s policies was to get every employee on the most cost-effective cellular plan for the region they worked in. Before deploying ICM Usage Management, this company was using Excel to expense mobile services. Once they started using the new solution, however, they found that one particular employee was costing $1,400 each month in cellular expenses. It turned out he had been using his personal cell phone based in an area where he’d previously lived; he was being charged $1,100 each month in roaming fees. The company simply gave him a new phone with a regionally-based plan, and ended up saving $12,000 annually.
 
One final example involved a company that figured out, thanks to analytics and dashboards, how to cut down on expenses by trimming back its calling card budget. This company looked at its calling card expenses, and decided they seemed kind of high. Drilling down for more detail, it was discovered that the company was assigning calling cards by default to most of its employees, even those who had no use for calling cards (support desk staff in the calling center, for example). Simply by adjusting its policies regarding calling card assignments, the company saved a lot of money.
 
Compliance
 
While analytics plays a big role in usage management, Lumsden told TMCnet, that’s hardly the only function it serves. Another area of major concern for corporations is compliance—both with company policies and with government regulations. On the policy side, the analytics built into ICM Usage Management let the company ensure that the communications assets it provisions are being used correctly.
 
“Corporate compliance is fairly straightforward because entails rules like not spending more than a certain amount, or not being allowed to call out of certain regions,” Lumsden told TMCnet.
 
When it comes to complying with Federal regulations, though, things can get a bit more complicated. This is especially true when it comes to matters of finance and stocks. The best warning example, Lumsden said, is what happened with Martha Stewart. The corporation needs to make sure that its brokers do not talk to people who sell stocks. Calling rules can be established to make sure the necessary wall exists, and then to prove that regulations are being complied with.
 
In the government sector, it is especially crucial for companies to be able to ensure that taxpayer money isn’t being used for personal call expenses. ICM Usage Management can generate reports showing which calls are work-related and which are not.
 
“Any personal calls, which we can identify, are tagged as such and paid for by the employee, not the taxpayer,” Lumsden explained.
 
For any corporation, no matter what sector, having accurate and easy to access call data is crucial whenever an investigation is launched into any type of matter. It doesn’t matter if the investigation involves employee harassment, a bomb threat, or information being leaked to the press: the need for accurate information about who called whom, when, for how long, etc. is vital to prove or disprove the allegations, and take appropriate action.
 
Lumsden related an example to illustrate the power of analytics for compliance. One of Avotus’ clients, a hospital, told him that UCM Usage Management had helped the hospital win a $10 million lawsuit. The hospital was sued in a malpractice suit, accused of not faxing medical information for a particular patient within a certain timeframe. Using call data and analytics, the hospital was able to prove that the information had indeed been faxed (data included the outgoing number, the duration of the call, and verification that the fax was sent). Why the fax wasn’t received on the other end was not known, and didn’t matter; the hospital had been vindicated.
 
The Power of Dashboards
 
Earlier in this article, some references were made to how dashboards are used in ICM Usage Management to make analytical information easy to view and understand. Lumsden spoke in great length about the benefits dashboards offer. Dashboards present information using month-over-month comparisons, trending and forecasting lines, threshold lines, and other graphical displays.
 
This makes it easy to see when, for example, a particular budget is close to topping off or has been exceeded, or if rules or polices have been broken. It’s also possible, from the global view, to drill down several layers, see why something happened, and determine if any action needs to be taken.
 
These tools, as shown in examples earlier, have helped many companies uncover a variety of usage violations, often unintentional abuses that were costing a lot of money.
 
“Virtually every Avotus customer has found devices that aren’t being used but are being paid for,” Lumsden told TMCnet. “Also, every single Avotus client has found employees with multiple cellphones. We help catch that, and put a stop to it.”
 
Analytics coupled with dashboards can also help companies simply manage their communications assets more efficiently. For example, a dashboard might uncover an authorization code that is no longer being used and should be reassigned.
 
For certain types of firms, especially those in the professional services, legal and healthcare fields, dashboards provide the benefit of highly sophisticated account code functions. Account codes can be assigned to individual calls, which means every eligible interaction can be billed to the client. Lawyers find this feature particularly useful, Lumsden said.
 
Hospitals, too, appreciate this level of billing control; a large amount of their revenue stream comes from renting out offices and communications equipment to doctors. With ICM Usage Management, accurate billing for these resources is a snap.
 
The purpose of dashboards is to make it easy for the communications asset manager to quickly assess the status of all resources, and easily drill down for more detail if a problem pops up.
 
“Dashboards tell you if there’s something you need to do,” Lumsden explained. “And if there’s not, everyone has a million other things on their list. We don’t want to be a hindrance; we’re here to help.”
 
To learn more about Avotus and its ICM Usage Management call accounting solution, please visit the company’s TMCnet.com channel, Call Accounting.
 

To learn even more about call accounting, check TMCnet’s White Paper Library, which provides a selection of in-depth information on relevant topics affecting the IP communications industry. The library offers white papers, case studies and other documents free to registered users. Today’s featured White Paper (News - Alert) is “Shift From Tactical to Strategic Focus,” brought to you by Oracle (News - Alert).

 
Mae Kowalke previously wrote for Cleveland Magazine in Ohio and The Burlington Free Press in Vermont. To see more of her articles, please visit Mae Kowalke’s columnist page. Also check out her Wireless Mobility blog.