Microsoft announced the Teams Operator Connect program in early 2021 and launched it in late September. The goal of the program was so Teams users could more easily choose to add calling to their tenancy in locations not served by Microsoft’s own calling plans, or to provide customers with more choice in areas where Microsoft’s calling plans were available. Operator Connect made it possible for customers to choose traditional telecommunication providers from whom they already consume other services. It should be a simple process to choose the numbers, calling plans and activate their users with calling from a favoured provider.
Carriers would benefit by having customers choose and adopt their calling plans without having to engage a salesperson or assign a delivery technician – the ideal outcome would be volume profitable customers consuming high-margin services by leveraging prebuilt voice infrastructure via Microsoft’s Operator Connect interface. Teams Admins would select known providers from within a trusted interface via a simple, uninvolved customer journey delivered by purpose-built software based on Operator Connect-specific APIs.
As intended, from September 2021, an Office 365 admin should be able navigate into their Teams Admin Centre, drop down to ‘Voice’, select ‘Operator Connect’, and filter carriers by location to acquire phone numbers and calling plans then assign those numbers to their users.
The reality of that promised ‘seamless customer buying experience’ though, is very different. Many of the benefits touted for Operator Connect require significant carrier API and software development. This translates to integration work within telcos’ existing (and often archaic) OSSs/BSSs, which has proven challenging and has led to a deployment experience not dissimilar to direct routing for end customers.
Currently, every Operator Connect provider (bar one, which we’ll talk about later) instead delivers Admins to a web form to capture sales-ready leads, which disrupts the automated user journey and moves Admins back into a traditional sales cycle. So, much to the disappointment of customers, numbers aren’t natively available the moment an Operator Connect tile is clicked.
So why have large carriers traditionally struggled to provide Microsoft Teams Phone at not only scale and speed, but, more importantly, also with a mature customer self-service experience? This isn’t a business challenge unique to carriers delivering Microsoft products or Microsoft Teams Phone; it’s applicable across any next-gen carrier service that targets the corporate/enterprise space.
Feedback from carrier engagements suggest several key challenges:
- The sheer size and complexity of carrier infrastructure and portfolio breadth have dictated product development speed and execution. Telco products tend to start off as “minimum viable products” to seize market opportunities, and funding necessary future refinements is often challenging.
- The large technical debts that build up over years (if not decades) within these organisations and careful planning is required to minimise impacts on other systems and this reduces the ability to pivot to seize new opportunities.
- The core service offering of telcos (voice, data, mobiles) have not fundamentally changed, and so stability – with small, incremental advances – is often chosen over innovation which puts entire customer segments at risk as the choice of carrier is increasingly being driven from within the application rather than the length and breadth of the telco relationship.
Often new services that have been introduced can be as a result of acquisitions which has meant that culturally, telcos haven’t been focused on high-speed innovation. The preference has been to continue acquiring and re-contracting traditional commodity services – particularly while these services deliver healthy margins. The challenge for carriers is that the choice of traditional services is now being driven by the applications themselves or by advances in solutions which deliver innovative capability (such as Operator Connect Mobile for instance) – carriers need to be able to deliver these new services quickly and via the customer’s preferred method of acquisition:- this may not be the same as the carrier’s preferred method of customer engagement.
Accelerating the Operator Connect Carrier Journey
To Microsoft’s credit, they’ve quickly recognised these challenges. Last month in April, they announced the Operator Connect Accelerator (OCA) program in lockstep with a group of technology partners, which will help fast-track carrier service establishment through automation. PingCo’s TCAP is one of that group’s selected ISVs and will help carriers realise automated Teams Phone provisioning in a turnkey, packaged offering.
The program allows carriers to work with OCA partners to rapidly obtain an outcome more closely aligned with Microsoft’s vision of customer self-service. Carriers seeking to engage with OCA partners should look for features that go beyond automating initial pairing and phone number self-service.
These are features such as;
- Call plan selection: Go beyond just offering PAYG or Unlimited plans, particularly in highly competitive situations where an all or nothing plan is not going to get the best commercial outcome for the end customer.
- Call queue/auto-attendant creation: Microsoft’s TAC is still a work in progress when it comes to creating these lengthy, multi-screen call-handling rules. Providing click and deploy templates to automate and reduce that engineering time allows a carrier to redeploy Profesional Services to other revenue-generating tasks like discovery workshops and migration consulting engagements that can’t be automated but provide incremental value.
- OSS/BSS integration: The technical provisioning aside, a carrier will have many internal processes that need to be completed, both during the initial migration and run phase. Allowing automation to perform common tasks like number provisioning, number porting, account creation, credit-check, ‘Welcome’ emails and documentation delivery that are powered by “zero-code” ‘triggers’ can help co-ordinate the workflow involved internally to provision and activate a new customer tenancy.
- SIP trunk automation: Most customer environments are not vanilla – the want to allow their customers to interact as effortlessly as possible with their staff – whether it be via a high-productivity collaboration app like Teams, Contact Centres, legacy PABXs or simply the ability to call from an entry phone, lift phone or boom-gate. SIP Trunking enables devices such as ATA’s to seamlessly interoperate with the existing infrastructure, and a platform that delivers Teams Phone via Operator Connect should seamlessly pivot to Direct Routing deployments to enable SIP Trunks to these devices. Typically, configuring and delivering a SIP Trunk has required deep SBC skills and co-ordinating specific resources to perform the work. So there are great efficiencies to be gained by having a platform to provide a simple interface to customers or service desk staff to easily provision a SIP trunk within minutes consuming minimal technical effort.
- White labelling: With so many carriers now offering white labelling of their services, customers acquiring Teams Phone should see the logo of their chosen carrier or the reseller that they’re working with and not be confused by the vendors logo or FQDN. The setup should be straightforward and immediate, it should be simple for partners to resell with zero/minimal touch required on the carrier end to activate their partner community.
- Billing integration: Access to live and automated billing feeds for both partners and customers is the final (and perhaps the most important piece) for carriers to get right. The billing feed should be pre-rated, inclusions and exclusions considered, CDR’s from Teams and from the SBC fabric washed and billing-ready data seamlessly fed into the existing carrier billing/service management platform. Carriers have complex, legacy billing systems that have organically grown – integration of billing-ready data is a key requirement.
TCAP meets all these requirements – and more – but the ease of the customer journey coupled with the speed of automation are primary stand-outs. So – as a live instance of TCAP has been accepted into Operator Connect – let’s describe the Administrator’s workflow for selecting, buying and provisioning numbers using TCAP.
Step 1: Add TCAP as an operator in the Teams Admin Centre.
Step 2: Select ‘Start Your Free Trial’.
In this live example, the Admin would be delivered to the TCAP landing page, but instead of completing a WebForm and awaiting an eventual call-back, the Admin selects ‘Start Your Free Trial’ to select numbers and calling plans to onboard and activate.
Step 3: Click ‘Register’ to create a new customer account.
Once the customer is live, this is the same process to log-on to the portal to perform MACs and add SIP Trunks.
Step 4: Once the customer record is registered, the Admin logs into TCAP and clicks ‘Provide Access’ to pair the Teams Tenancy with TCAP.
Step 5: Choose your access method. TCAP supports both Operator Connect and direct routing simultaneously.
The Admin then chooses their preferred access method. TCAP supports both Operator Connect and direct routing simultaneously – Operator Connect for adding users, Direct Routing for adding SIP Trunks etc.
Step 6: Provide app authorisation access to TCAP.
Step 7: Choose a block of greenfield numbers.
Step 8: Select users and assign numbers.
There you have it: Once this is completed, TCAP populates the user data within the Teams Tenancy and the users are now able to make calls. Admins can also use the Auto Attendant template builder and Resource Account builder to complete the configuration of the phone system’s call handling to best suit the needs of the business. The carriers’ channel is not forgotten here either – for more complex solution delivery partners can curate this process on behalf of the customers and provide this as a managed service, with prebuilt charging structures already aligned with the calling plans for seamless delivery to the billing systems.
Interested in speeding your Operator Connect journey and transacting profitably on Teams?
Head over to the TCAP website and get onboarded today.