ORMS Today
December 1999

Validation That We're Not Crazy

By Vijay Mehrotra


"Just remember that ideas last longer than people or things. Your ideas will go farther if you do not insist upon going with them."

— Jerry Kaplan, "Start-Up: A Silicon Valley Adventure," 1994

I could hardly believe my ears. I was visiting a telecommunications giant's offices for a day of meetings. Until the last few minutes, I had been in my own personal hell, trapped in endless discussions about integration alternatives, development road maps, probable product release dates, open issues and action items about which I was only faintly interested. Suddenly, without warning, the conversation in the conference room had turned intense, passionate, charged.

The topic was simulation. Or, to be more specific, call center simulation.

"You must have a simulation tool that accurately reflects the real routing of the system in order to have a real understanding of system performance," cried the product manager from Marketing.

"The simulation model is the key to the whole application suite. It's what the customers use to build their call routing and to test their designs," asserted the program manager from Product Development.

"People really seem to use the simulator an awful lot," chimed in the technical support specialist. "We get a lot of calls asking about what it can and can't do."

In their fury, these people all looked at my colleagues and I as if we were heathens. They seemed to feel that we had assaulted the very foundation of their sophisticated call routing product suite, all because we had made some innocent statements about the relative importance of the simulator.

There was tremendous irony in this. For most of the past five years, I have been advocating the use of discrete event simulation for call center planning and analysis. We have used simulation in our call center consulting practice and written papers for Interfaces about its benefits. I have published articles in call center trade magazines, given seminars, made presentations at industry conferences, and taught call center managers and executives about simulation at Purdue University's annual Call Center Campus.

Our firm had conceived of the idea of a call center industry-specific simulation package, championed its cause and eventually got this product to market through a collaboration with a larger firm. A colleague from this firm, who had for years listened to me rant and rave on the subject of why simulation was the key to call center planning in the 21st century, had recently taken to referring to me as "Moses," because of the nearly religious fervor that I display about this stuff.

So it nearly brought tears to my eyes, just listening to these people from Marketing, Engineering and Technical Support stand up and make such compelling cases for simulation as the critical tool for call center planning. At times, I could swear that they were quoting directly from stuff that I had written. They really seemed to understand the importance of using simulation to accurately represent the complex system that their sophisticated call routing technology was creating, and they brought an exceptional amount of energy to the subject.

Most importantly, their company had educated their sales force on the importance of simulation for ensuring that customers were able to successfully deploy and manage their call routing products. When you've got an army of direct salespeople and channel re-sellers out selling a conceptual story along with a product, the result is what consultants and strategists call "thought leadership" as the customer base gets educated far more rapidly than by papers in INFORMS journals. The reinforcements had arrived! More than vindication, more than triumph, more than anything else, I felt a wave of relief wash over me.

When you work on something for a long period of time, feelings of despair and doubt are bound to attack you, sometimes more than occasionally. When you are trying to promote a relatively new concept to people whose responses range from polite indifference to outright bewilderment, you can become downright despondent. I had often felt like a fool for having pushed this idea so hard, especially in the early days when market acceptance was meager. Though sales of our product had eventually improved somewhat, it was clear to me that my initial conviction had been shaken.

So it was a great relief to hear these folks talking up the importance of call center simulation, to read back the same kinds of exclamation points that I had been trying to strike for so long. Alas, it was also extraordinarily painful.

Why painful? Because this large multinational corporation, with vast resources at its disposal, had chosen not to build its own simulation technology, but instead to license one from another third party, one whose product competes directly with ours. "Why, oh why?" I wanted to cry out. "How could you? Why did you? Ours is better, faster, cheaper, hipper, cooler, smarter. Don't you know?"

Not that it would have mattered. There were a number of reasons that another simulator had been licensed, but the primary one was that our competitor had scoped out the market and had a better vision about how to get their product out to more people faster. Rather than trying to sell to scattered end-users who understood and appreciated simulation, they instead focused on embedding their simulation tool inside a technology that would demonstrate the business value of simulation. Good call, guys.

As it turns out, the key developer from this competitor's company had attended a talk that I made about call center simulation several years ago, and had taken the time to come and thank me. It was, he told me, validation that they were not crazy. More importantly, he felt that growing the market's awareness of this new technology would help us both.

Only now do I understand exactly what he was saying.



Vijay Mehrotra is the CEO of Onward Inc., in Mountain View, Calif. He can be reached via e-mail at vijay@onward-net.com.





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