Telecoms.com periodically invites expert third parties to share their views on the industry’s most pressing issues. In this piece Brendan O’Rouke, Head of Design at BriteBill, attempts to tackle the perennial telecoms problem of churn.
We’re operating in an experience economy where success is not just determined by the best brands in the communications and media industry, but by the best across all industries. So how do you stack up?
Low levels of satisfaction in telecoms fuels churn
According to the latest UK Satisfaction Index , published in July 2018 by the Institute of Customer Service, UK satisfaction with businesses across all verticals stands at 77.9/100. The score for telecoms is 74.3, making it the lowest scoring – apart from transport (72.5). Industries that achieve higher scores are doing so by delivering a consistent experience throughout the entire customer journey.
The low level of satisfaction in telecoms translates into an industry with high levels of churn, which are exceptionally high in prepaid, and significant even in the lucrative postpaid sector. According to a new TM Forum Quick Insight Report sponsored by BriteBill, An Amdocs Company, postpaid churn currently ranges from 5% to 32% per year.
The report analyses the links between a consistent customer experience and churn rates in 36 service providers across 24 countries. This revealed an enormous 27-point gap between the best performing and worst performing service providers. The reasons for this gap might not just be due to variations in customer satisfaction, but also to the service provider’s attitude to churn. Any service provider can reduce their churn rate almost overnight if they are willing to invest enough money into customer retention efforts. But therein lies the problem: if they are already losing money, can they really afford to spend such significant sums?
The cost of churn is substantial
Calculating how much to spend on acquisition and retention is something of a black art. If too many customers are lost, revenues will plummet. If too much is spent, margins will suffer unduly. But big money is at stake. Research by Tefficient shows that the average service provider in a mature market typically spends 15-20% of service revenues on acquisition and retention activities. That’s pretty staggering. To put it into context, McKinsey says average CAPEX spending on infrastructure (networks and IT) is 15% of revenues.
What makes the situation even more challenging is that since there are few new customers in mature markets, service providers must acquire them from their rivals. And, with more service providers chasing the same group of out-of-contract customers, the Subscriber Acquisition Cost (SAC) of recruiting new customers is rising. With SAC a key metric for shareholders to measure the health of their investment, this can be daunting for service providers.
Deutsche Telekom, for example, revealed that its SAC increased by 8% across five of the markets it operates in – Germany, Greece, Romania, Czech Republic and Slovakia – between FY2016 and FY2017. If Deutsche Telekom is spending an industry average proportion of revenues on acquisition and retention, an 8% rise equates to an extra 1-1.5% of revenue being swallowed up, simply to maintain their customer base – wiping out a substantial proportion of any revenue growth they manage to achieve. In a double-edged blow, Deutsche Telekom also revealed that its retention costs fell by 34% over the same period.
Deutsche Telekom’s figures exemplify that service providers need to focus on retention, not acquisition. An acquisition focus fuels churn by only focusing on the customer until the contract is signed. A retention focus ensures customers receive a consistent experience and are nurtured throughout their journey, paying dividends in terms of far higher customer lifecycle values.
There can be huge differences between the cost of retention and acquisition. Take Canada’s BCE and Telus, for example. They revealed in 2017 that it cost almost 50 times less for them to keep an existing customer than to acquire a new one, with retention costs of C$11.04 and C$11.74 respectively, while average SAC in Canada weighed in at a whopping C$521.
Billing should be a retention tool, rather than a churn agent
It seems like a no-brainer. Retaining and nurturing existing customers should be our priority, with SAC fueling net additions and not just replacing churning customers. Of course, the $64,000 question, as always, is how can service providers retain more of their customers?
This is a complex question that doesn’t have a simple answer, but often the reason for churn lies in the most obvious, simple and prosaic of things.
Take the humble bill, for example. Currently, it’s more of a churn agent than a retention tool. The change in tone from the warm messaging of sales to the harsh, impersonal tone of billing can create a jarring effect on customers. Customers often find bills boring, hard to understand and stressful. According to a study by the in June 2018, one in six mobile users haven’t even checked their bill in the last six months. When asked why, 18% or 1.3 million mobile users said they couldn’t be bothered.
It’s hardly surprising. Even if charges are correct, they are often confusing and unclear because of factors such as device leases, proration (billing for part of a month), billing in advance for some services and in arrears for others, overages, confusing and vague descriptions of charges and so on. And while we may have spent many millions upgrading IT systems to support the digital customer experience, outputs such as the bill are frequently overlooked. Too often, the bill remains old-fashioned, poorly designed and unengaging, creating an inconsistent digital experience for customers.
Taking a fresh approach to bills, however, can pay measurable dividends. Cricket Wireless, for example, a wholly-owned subsidiary of AT&T, rolled out a campaign called ‘Let’s Look Inside Your Bucket’. They used a video-based approach to communicate information, offers and a good dose of humor. It was incredibly successful, leading to a massive 37% reduction in early customer churn.
Three has taken a different approach. They focused on using bills to demonstrate the value delivered to individual customers by revealing how much they’ve saved using its Feel At Home roaming offer.
Sprint’s Mark Edwards, Director Applications Development, says that his company recognizes how important the first ten days of the customer relationship are, and has been working to ensure consistency between what’s promised in the sales cycle versus what’s delivered and what’s billed for. This means working to ensure the customer understands their charges, which in turn reduces enquiries and increases satisfaction.
So, what can service providers do to transform their bill from a source of stress, dissatisfaction and churn into a retention tool? The TM Forum says it boils down to three things:
- Communicating billing information accurately, clearly and concisely – the aim of the bill is to provide answers, not generate questions.
- Demonstrating value – rather than being a source of negative information (a demand for payment), bills should be a way of demonstrating value and savings.
- Communicating new information – with customers increasingly unreceptive to promotional material, the bill provides a regular opportunity to make them aware of new products and services that are relevant to them.
The challenge is to remove inconsistencies in the customer experience by changing the bill from a 1990s paper artefact into a digital era asset, thereby transforming it from a churn agent into a valuable retention tool.
The TM Forum notes that service providers who can do this will have customers that “have a lasting positive impression that takes them beyond contract renewal time and sees them advocate their service provider”. And I’m sure we can agree, that’s a win-win for everyone concerned.