The Middle East satellite television market could best be described as cutthroat - competition for subscribers is fierce, rivals poach top shows and rights from each other mid-run and premier movie rights are snapped up.
Showtime is one of the main players in this arena, and over the past year the company has embarked on an ambitious plan to boost its share of the market. Part of this has revolved around re-launching its channel packages - and crucially securing rights to the English Football Association (FA) Premier League, one of the most sought-after prizes in pay-TV thanks to its often fanatical following of supporters.
Another major plank in Showtime's strategy has been to make sure its customer service is up to scratch, not only in terms of developing and training its contact centre staff, but also its technology. The company decided to upgrade its Dubai and Cairo contact centres late in 2005, and wanted to bring in a converged IP-based system to offer its customers and staff the latest features on the market.
Showtime's vice president of operations, Steven MacDiarmid, explains how the broadcaster's programming and infrastructure strategies came together: "The FA Premier League is fabulous news for the programming team, and for the sales guys - when you get to the guy who runs operations, the question is ‘how on earth are we going to deal with this?'
"This is the most important football league in the world, it's the most watched - it's going to attract a lot of attention. And it will bring extreme peaks of activity; We have interactive applications, and suddenly at 7pm - it's Manchester United and Chelsea about to kick off, and tens of thousands of your customers want to interact with you. The investment in Avaya was a strategic step we made over a year ago, to get ready for this moment," MacDiarmid says.
When Showtime made the decision to upgrade, the business looked at a number of different options, according to Saleem Riaz, head of IT at the broadcaster. The company considered four different vendors initially, narrowing down the field to three: Avaya, Cisco, and Alcatel, Showtime's previous provider.
"We compared prices, features - the main decision behind going with Avaya was their experience in the call centre arena. Along with Alcatel, they're the most experienced in call centres," explained Riaz.
"Cisco's a relatively new player - while they're doing very well, and the system is good, we didn't feel that the system had enough maturity; while we were doing the tendering process, Cisco changed their operating system about three times. It shows they're improving, and working very hard - the upgrades were feature-related, not function-related. But in a call centre you want something stable, that already has all those features and is known to work in other areas."
Showtime's main drive to upgrade came from a need for more telephony features, especially a more comprehensive and stable interactive voice response (IVR) system. Riaz says the previous system, at around five years old, did not offer a sufficiently stable IVR to support expected customer demand.
Once the Showtime team had decided to go with Avaya for the US$1.2 million project, they went on to choose East Meets West (EMW) as the integrator, at the recommendation of Avaya, along with Servian, an India-based company, as the testing partner. Showtime placed the order in December 2005, and took delivery in January 2006.
"We did the implementation in two phases," says Riaz. "The first was the telecom system, all the normal call-centre operations, and the rest of the office - that was done in four months, and went live by May 2006. The second phase was integrating it with our CRM (customer relationship management) system and IVR, so people could order home-cinema movies, pay their accounts with credit cards and so on. That took about two months to complete - it went live in June 2006."
In addition to the Avaya telephony system, Showtime also upgraded some of its network infrastructure components; it installed Juniper routers for its core, as well as Foundry switches.
"We originally had a mix of HP and Cisco in the back end; we had to replace all of our switches, as they weren't compatible with VoIP, they didn't have Quality of Service (QoS) enabled on them," Riaz says. "So we looked into Cisco, Foundry and another vendor - we decided the Foundry switches offered the right mix of price and performance. We still have some Cisco routers dotted around, but our core environment is now on Juniper routers and Foundry switches."
The infrastructure implementation was fairly smooth according to Riaz; because the Avaya system would use the data rather than the telephony cabling system, there was no disruption to the existing Alcatel system, which continued to work well. Riaz also says because of the parallel implementation, Showtime was able to deploy the new phones to desks a month before the go-live date. In terms of the back end, Showtime and EMW needed to ensure the system would be flexible enough to cope with future demands.
"On the hardware side, the most important part of the implementation was getting QoS right across the building - making sure that all the voice traffic is prioritised over other types of traffic, which also have their own priorities," Riaz explains. "We have floor-based VLANs as well, so we needed to make sure that was set up correctly. On the Avaya PABX side, we had to set them up to deal with our very complicated call flows, which change frequently - we had to design it in such a way to make sure we could change it easily; in the past year we must have changed the call flows at least 15 times. It's not major changes, but small changes here and there."
The call flow structuring meant Showtime and EMW needed to work out in advance how the flows might change over time, and programming this into the system at the start of the process - this will avoid the need for major programming work later, according to Riaz: "If you look at the documentation for VDNs (vector directory numbers, used to direct incoming callers to particular agent groups) in our system, it's several inches thick; I'm sure it could have been simplified, but that wouldn't have given us the flexibility we needed."
The final stage of the hardware deployment was to switch incoming calls from the Alcatel system to the Avaya system, something Riaz says was as simple as pulling the telco's cables from the old system and putting them in the new one. The project team carried this out at around 4am in the morning - the quietest time for the contact centre - and by 6am the switchover was complete. Riaz says this was largely trouble-free, with only a few mis-routed calls to tackle - there were no lost or dropped calls at all, though.
The integration of Showtime's CRM with the new telephony system, a critical part of the implementation, was one area which took longer than Showtime's staff initially expected, according to Riaz. He says this was down to expectations within Showtime about the ease of the process - something which EMW and Servian changed at the start of the project.
"The developers, not knowing the system and how it would interact, wanted to do a more thorough job and make sure they covered all the angles," says Riaz. "Also, being a small development team within Showtime (a team of three), we don't do as much QA and testing as the developers EMW brought in to do the work."
The main challenge with the system was not in the end an IT issue, but a training one - Showtime and EMW needed to train staff both in the call centre and business to acclimatise them to the new features and phones.
"So the users would say ‘I used to be able to do this in the Alcatel system - it used to take two steps, now it takes three', but then another 10 features would be quicker on the new system," explains Riaz. "We needed them to understand that not everything would be perfect, that it wouldn't be an exact copy - you'd have to check your voicemail in a different way, for example."
Showtime is now starting to reap the benefits of the implementation, in a number of different ways. From a financial standpoint, the improved IVR is reducing the number of calls coming through to agents, allowing the business to slow or freeze its call centre recruitment.
In addition, MacDiarmid identifies the new telephony system as a key part of the dramatic increase in pay-per-view movie purchases the broadcaster has seen: from 40,000-50,000 before the implementation - and Showtime's marketing drive - the firm's subscribers are now ordering around 100,000 movies per month, with 90% of the orders through the IVR or by SMS short code.
"Before the Avaya system, IVR use always stuck around the half-way mark - the previous technology was not as reliable from a technical standpoint," says MacDiarmid. "People have to find it easy first time, every time - the old system tended to go down occasionally, and customers would have a bad experience and call a human, because they knew they'd at least get through. Now, they're buying twice as many movies as they used to, and the customers are also giving a vote of confidence to the technology by using it 90% of the time to order the movies."
MacDiarmid also says overall customer satisfaction has improved by 10% since the deployment, as well as the average number of calls to resolve a problem dropping from 2.1 to 1.5 - a figure which MacDiarmid says compares very favourably with his previous employer Sky TV in the UK, a large and successful satellite broadcaster.
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