Was there a press release or presentation at this year’s Mobile World Congress that didn’t mention customer experience at some point if only in passing? Of course the problem with customer experience – or CX seeing as we all love an acronym in this business – is that it can mean everything or nothing at all. Even slapping management on the end to give you Customer Experience Management (CEM) leaves you with a pretty slippery term.

In many cases CX or CEM were just being used as buzzwords, in the same spirit that “sustainability” or “convergence” was liberally quoted at previous MWCs.

However, beneath the fog of marketing-speak the landscape is beginning to shift. For one thing, all the major equipment vendors had brought something new to Barcelona or else were highlighting fresh trends and developments in the CX or CEM space. SQM also figured heavily in presentations. As one slightly off-message operator customer mentioned in front of his vendor of choice: “Last year not many vendors were talking about customer experience, but this year they are all talking about CEM”.

All the major vendors are looking to simplify customer interactions by ‘dashboarding’ or creating a single console to bring together a variety information sources. Analysing the network infrastructure itself is key but other sources of information include data usage intelligence, information on device capabilities, OSS/BSS intelligence, and CRM.

Alcatel-Lucent was highlighting its new CX portfolio, which like many other vendors this year it announced a couple of weeks before MWC. I’m assuming all the mid-Feb launches are because vendors are trying to beat the PR blizzard of Barcelona week rather than because they’d forgotten MWC was being held later this year. Taking the Motive software business it acquired in 2008 as its starting point for customer experience management, ALU is building more around it, including analytics, optimization and consulting services.

NSN – which has more to win or lose given that it’s staked a large chunk of its reorganization around CEM – was showing off the CEM on Demand offering it also announced a few weeks ago. The way different stakeholders can access the same data in different formats using this product is fascinating.

Also what is interesting with this CEM product as well as others is how vendors are seeking to map KPIs and KQIs on to customer experience, not just from a broad brush perspective but down the level of individual customers and services.

Indonesian operator Telkomsel was liberally mentioned by NSN not just as a CEM on Demand portal customer but as an IP transformation and consulting reference. There’s no space here to discuss individual deals but it strikes me that there is no lack of breadth and ambition in several of the operator-vendor relationships highlighted in Barcelona this year.

Ericsson meanwhile was showcasing services and products that allow operators to monitor and assure service quality and the end-user experience, including the first demo of its Managed End-User Services Assurance (MESA) offering. Optimization products of one type or another were also high on the list.

No Ericsson presentation is complete these days without President and CEO Hans Vestberg citing his favourite mantra that Ericsson aspires to be number one in the OSS/BSS space. Integration of Telcordia assets following its acquisition is apparently on track, with Ericsson pushing ahead with hardware and software decoupling, creation of a modular architecture and making products ready for deployment in the Cloud. A decision about the real-time charging roadmap also looms in 2Q12 given that the company has overlapping Ericsson and Telcordia products.

The major network equipment vendors not surprisingly stress the end-to-end nature of what they can deliver and that only a “handful” of companies can offer something that is truly modular. However, the number of software and support system vendors active in the CEM space suggests that they believe otherwise and are equally keen to move up the software stack and make good use of any real-time monitoring, notification and policy functionalities they may have developed.
Knowledge may be power but it’s what you do with it that is key, and many of the vendors I spoke to emphasised the importance of being able to deliver actionable insights rather than just intelligence. This is where the major equipment vendors also stress their services and consulting capabilities.

My colleague Peter Dykes’ write-up includes more detail on OSS/BSS announcements in Barcelona, but worth mentioning are a ‘Customer Engagement’ repositioning by Comptel following its acquisition of data analysis specialist Xtract last month and the release of a Customer Experience Analytics (CEA) product. Unfortunately I don’t have space here to mention more support systems vendors or for that matter big IT players such as IBM which are moving into this space with strong analytics offerings.

But certainly with such a profusion of different approaches the battle to define and own the customer experience has commenced.

Software & services no longer second fiddle
It’s extraordinary how much attention telecoms software and support systems attracted at this year’s MWC when you consider how much of a sideline it was only a few years ago.

Ericsson’s head of consulting and systems integration services claimed that almost every question he’d had to field during Barcelona week was linked in some way to both software and services. A senior Alcatel-Lucent speaker said something similar, pointing out that customer conversations were currently focused around both software and services, and the vendor is having to invest heavily in its software and services portfolio in order to stay relevant to customers.

Applications are now starting to be built in the network with IT helping to blur the dividing lines between applications and the network. The convergence of network, IT and apps platforms is also going to drive organizational and structural changes, with a greater role likely to be played by dynamic service or experience packages which expose operator platforms. The network becomes a platform, with everything offered as a service. Infrastructure as a business may be being squeezed but infrastructure as a service is set to offer plenty of new opportunities.

Furthermore, vendors are saying that whereas previously interest in customer experience has tended to occur at department level, they are now increasingly seeing coordination and interest at a corporate-wide level. CX/CEM is also expected to increasingly create service and consulting opportunities. Ericsson, for example, says it is currently actively recruiting in the consulting and SI space with a view to building up capabilities in this area.

Quotable quotes
A startling number of chief execs kept rolling out the same two quotes this year; William Gibson’s “The Future’s already here, it’s just very unevenly distributed” and Peter Drucker’s (or Alan Kay’s) “The best way to predict the future is to create it”. I think the latter just about came ahead in the popularity stakes.

How reassuring it would be if we really could predict the future from all those cramped caffeine-fuelled meeting rooms in Barcelona.

It may be less pithy but sadly the following quote from Nassim Taleb is probably closer to the mark: “To predict the spread of a technology implies predicting a large element of fads and social contagion which lie outside the objective utility of the technology itself. How many wonderfully useful ideas have ended up in the cemetery, such as the Segway”. Now that’s a Barcelona-appropriate quote if I ever saw one!

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