The pre-paid market needs to learn how to say yes

Telecoms.com periodically invites third parties to share their views on the industry’s most pressing issues. In this piece Steve Polsky, CEO and Founder of Juvo, examines some of the things pre-paid operators can do to reduce churn.

Since the dawn of pre-paid time, churn has been problematic. Customers switch from carrier to carrier chasing the best deal, which the industry has not done the best job of slowing by using one simple word: yes, instead of no.

Trusting their customers, and in turn, establishing a relationship with them based on mutual respect. Instead it has paid, over and over again, to attract and retain the same customer offering ever increasing discounts and incentives. Talk about a race to the bottom.

Now more than ever, in every market around the world, mobile network operators are struggling to keep up with declining average revenues per user (ARPUs), increasing costs, and saturating markets.

As PwC points out, no region is immune. Customer churn is a major contributing factor. Across Asia, Africa, and Latin America, approximately two billion prepaid customers rely on cash rather than credit to make purchases. Consumers pursue this means of transacting due to lack of access to banking systems and credit, fraud and corruption. Because they don’t have access to credit, 78% of the mobile users have only one option – prepaid mobile service, purchasing SIMs and top-off minutes on an as needed basis.

Here’s the problem. When a user is out of minutes, he or she faces choices. Is there time to head out of his or her way to top-up? If they do, is there any reason to remain on the carrier they are on at the moment? Do they feel any loyalty at the very moment that that carrier has just turned off his or her phone?

The answer to all of these questions is generally a resounding no. If a carrier has just said a big fat no to a customer, the chances that the customer says yes to them is almost non-existent.

Mobile minutes, a basic service that has become wildly commoditized, have telecommunications companies fighting over subscribers in markets that are becoming more saturated. It’s not enough for companies to compete on price, PwC explains:

“This process can be tracked by looking at two key metrics: changes in the spread between the wireless operators with the largest and smallest shares of each market’s subscribers, and changes in the spread between the one with the highest average revenue per user and the one with the lowest.”

To counteract churn, telcos need to invest in new technologies and think outside of the box. Which is why Juvo has decided to build an entire economy around the concept of saying yes, and earning loyalty in a new and exciting way that goes well beyond just airtime lending.

Changing market dynamics

For decades, telco leaders have recognized the importance of the emerging markets as a viable revenue stream. Just ten years ago, phones were brand new to the developing world. Prepaid SIMs were the most economical and efficient path for user acquisition in cash-based societies. Since then, this push has resulted in high mobile adoption but low carrier retention outside of the western world.

Today, prepaid subscribers represent a lost opportunity to MNOs, with up to 60% of new users turning over within the first 30 days, every 30 days. In hyper-competitive markets, where access to mobile phones is growing, some MNOs lose up to 80% of their prepaid customers within 90 days, and telcos are paying to acquire the same customers, over and over. The economics haven’t made sense for MNOs to build loyalty programs. With churn as a given, the path to building a successful loyalty program wasn’t clear.

But what if churn wasn’t a given, and loyalty was proven to drive revenue? What’s getting in the way?

Those operators who have tried to introduce customer loyalty programs have been ineffective because market incentives have pushed operators to compete with each other. On the ground, agents selling mobile services encourage users to switch SIMs to take advantage of a better deal. These same agents may be ill-equipped to explain the benefits of one carrier over another. When a person needs to top-up his or her minutes, he or she is going to rely on an agent to them find the best deal.

What’s important to keep in mind, however, is that this market dynamic is changing because the way people engage with technology is changing. Take Ghana, where mobile money adoption is on the rise. There, mobile money transactions have doubled to $35B. Throughout the region, the number of banks has been failing, and people are relying on their mobile phones for transactions that power their everyday lives more and more.

The mobile phone is taking on a new role in developing nations beyond Ghana, where the way banking gets done, is changing, and that is making the role of how customers choose to top-up move well beyond the agent relationship. This is an opportunity to re-write the rules of the relationship of the pre-paid customer and the carrier.

Responding to this market opportunity

It’s time for telcos to start tackling the core reason for churn, which is the lack of loyalty. But customers in developing markets have new incentives to stay on with mobile carriers—to access financial services.

Customer satisfaction is an under-represented metric that telcos in developing nations need to optimize. A shift in emphasis is needed in order to eliminate prepaid churn. This focus will result in higher ARPUs and more efficient cost-models for user acquisition. Telcos should also be looking at the relationship between net promoter score (NPS) and customer lifetime value. There’s revenue in that number, and it’s a lot more efficient than spending to earn the same customer over and over. Saying yes to customers that can be trusted, based on their good behaviour, provable by data science, is a win-win for both parties. Loyalty goes up, churn goes down.

If operators want to remove the influence of the agent, they must meet their customers at their exact moment of need, before they head down to visit the agent. Operators should leverage today’s cloud technology to understand the value of every single, individual subscriber relationship and enable consumers to graduate up to higher value, more loyal post-paid like relationships.

To continue to consumer regardless of their in the moment core balance – to break down the hard line between prepaid and postpaid behaviour to enable deeper more trusting, higher value relationships. And this is usually starts as soon as, or when they are close to, reaching zero balance. Keeping subscribers connected, recognizing the value of their relationship and giving each and every subscriber the chance to graduate to higher value plans helps them remain engaged. Operators need to reach subscribers with deals and offers before they have a chance to set foot near an agent if they are to truly mitigate the risk of churn.
A framework and pathway
The way to do this is understand the subscriber’s behaviour – much like an operator would understand the behaviour of a postpaid user. MNOs operate on the assumption that prepaid users are completely anonymous to them. The truth is, MNOs do have data about their prepaid subscribers that could prevent them from churning. But, there is a lack of infrastructure in place to manipulate this data into something meaningful that can be used to drive engagement and loyalty. But data science can provide a solution.

In fact, many telecommunications companies in emerging markets including the Caribbean, Asia, and Latin America have seen notable metrics so far. In one implementation, we’ve seen new prepaid user churn drop from 62% to 11% between SIM registration and first top up and from 85% to 34% in the first 90 days.

By implementing the top-up process directly with the consumer through their mobile device, operators meet the consumer at their time of need. And the moment of truth is brought forward. Operators are able to engage with a customer early and take the power away from the agent and place it firmly back in their hands.

This type of early interaction and focus on customer engagement, rather than a preoccupation with “churn”, can assist in stopping the bucket from leaking.

The result of this framework is the ability to pre-empt churn within the first 30 days of a customer receiving a SIM card. Through an identity scoring model, it’s possible to unlock significant value in prepaid markets, through a model that emphasizes customer satisfaction while working more constructively with agents.

Rather than saying no, sorry you’re out of airtime, what if at their very moment of need, carriers had a way to say yes? What if instead of saying no and turning away a consumer, operators said yes, we value you as a customer – in fact, we value you so much that we’d like to offer you the opportunity, a pathway to gain access to higher value services? It all starts with a simple yes. Need a smart phone? Yes, we’ll finance that. Need a scooter to get to work? Yes, we can help with that. Small business loan? Here you go, you’ve proven you’re good for it.

The more we start treating people as if they deserve more yesses based on a credit profile built on their actual behaviour, the faster we get to a world of financial opportunity. Who’s going to say no to that?

 

Steve Polsky Hi ResSteve Polsky is the CEO and Founder of Juvo. Steve founded Juvo with an overarching mission: to establish financial identities for the billions of people worldwide who are creditworthy, yet financially excluded. With over 20 years’ experience, Steve’s career has centred on founding, launching and managing early stage technology ventures across the mobile and consumer internet sectors where, prior to Juvo, he was most recently President and COO at Flixster/Rotten Tomatoes.

Trufone and Redtea among the first to exploit the Apple eSIM opportunity

Apple’s support of eSIM in its latest iPhones promised to kick-start that market and a couple of specialist companies are leading the way.

UK outfit Truphone, which recently raised £18 million in funding, valuing the company at £386 million, has just launched what it claims is the first eSIM app for the new iPhones. The app exploits the ease and flexibility promised by eSIM to allow users to purchase instant local connectivity for their devices in 80 countries.

“eSIM technology represents a step-change in users’ relationship with their network operator,” said Trufone CEO Ralph Steffens. “By letting people run multiple plans and change operators without having to wait for a traditional SIM card to be delivered, the eSIM is swinging the power balance back in favour of the consumer. By offering our ready-to-go SIM provisioning platform to other mobile operators, we are facilitating a new era of consumer-first mobile plans.”

But Chinese company Redtea Mobile has been doing this stuff for a while too and has a service called eSIM+. It’s a fairly straightforward web platform that allows you to buy connectivity in over 60 countries and requires you to scan a QR code to activate it. Redtea has apparently already activated 100 million eSIMs in China and is now looking further afield.

Possessing only and antiquated Samsung Galaxy S7, we have been unable to put either service to the test, but they both seem pretty straightforward. Trufone’s app seems easier and more intuitive than Redtea’s web platform/QR code combo , but then again you can get 1GB in the UK on eSIM+ for $13, while the deal will cost you £15 with the Trufone app. Both seem worth a look if you have a new iPhone.

Telarix and Starhome Mach merge to offer global wholesale telecoms portfolio

A couple of companies involved in the areas of operator interconnectivity, roaming and general wholesale action have decided to merge.

The combination of Telarix and Starhome Mach inevitably claims to offer a full end-to-end set of wholesale solutions for operators, covering voice, SMS, clearing, settlement and fraud prevention. The new company has 450 customers in 130 countries. All this mucking about with telecoms plumbing also creates business opportunities in BSS, subscriber analytics and that sort of thing.

“CSPs must manage their complex partner ecosystem from negotiation to traffic management, to billing and settlement, while at the same time, providing differentiated services to consumers, businesses and IoT.,” said Telarix CEO Marco Limena. “This merger will enable the development of new  innovative solutions overcoming the complex challenges of today’s digital transformation era to drive desired business performance.”

“Our success in launching SaaS versions of our leading roaming and clearing platforms introduced a variety of other innovative solutions in real-time anti-fraud, Network Function Virtualization and the Internet of Things,” said Starhome Mach CEO, Itai Margalit. “Bringing our offerings together with Telarix’s solutions will bring new solutions to the market and we see a huge opportunity to accelerate company growth.”

“Telarix and Starhome Mach have been very successful in their respective markets,” said Steve Pusey, former Group CTO and Senior Board Advisor to Telarix. “The joining together of this expertise creates a unique opportunity to address the market demand for full spectrum solutions.”

While positioned as a merger this looks more like the acquisition of Starhome Mach by Telarix. Private equity is involved one both sides but only Vista Equity Partners, which is behand Telarix, will remain involved, it will be based in Telarix’s home of Vienna, Virginia, and Limena will be the CEO of the new company, with Margalit becoming President of the roaming silo. You can read further analysis of this move at Light Reading here.

Churn is breaking the telecoms market: here’s how to fix it

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.

UK MNOs accused of using handset subsidies to rip off their customers

Research from Citizens Advice reckons four million people in the UK are still paying back their phone subsidies after the end of their contracts.

This will come as no surprise to anyone who has reached the end of a postpaid contract that came with a subsidised handset. It’s universally understood that such things are part service contract and part financing on the device, but MNOs are generally deficient in contacting their customers when the contract period is over.

They do get in touch, but usually with misleading offers such as ‘free’ new handsets, when in fact they’re merely calling for the customer to initiate a fresh postpaid contract, complete with a subsidised handset. An honest exchange would also offer a SIM-only deal that would offer far more data for far less money in the absence of a new device.

Citizens Advice specifically calls out EE, Vodafone and Three, implying O2 does a better job on this matter. It reckons these four million mugs are being overcharged, on average, by £22 per month, which seems about right. It also found that most of the time we’re paying more for the handset by getting it subsidised by the operator than if we just bought it on the open market, but there’s no surprise there.

“It is unacceptable that mobile providers are knowingly overcharging customers for phones they already own,” said Gillian Guy, Chief Exec of Citizens Advice. “We’ve heard a lot of talk from government and the regulator but now we need action. Other companies have already stopped doing this so we’re looking for these three major providers to follow suit. In the meantime, consumers should check their phone bills to see if they can save money with a SIM-only contract or upgrade to a new phone.”

Like most studies accusing utilities of ripping off their customers this ultimately comes down to telling them not to be lazy and check their contract every now and then. It’s not difficult to give yourself a reminder to renegotiate your contract when it expires so those who don’t should receive limited sympathy. On the other hand, from an industry that constantly wrings its hands about churn, this is hardly an example of customer service best practice.

Ericsson lands $3.5 billion T-Mobile US 5G contract

Kit vendor Ericsson has announced a major deal win in the form of a $3.5 billion contract to bring TMUS into the 5G era.

Not much detail has been offered up, but it involves Ericsson hardware such as ERS and plenty of involvement from the Digital Services silo, including dynamic orchestration, BSS and Ericsson Cloud Core. The chances are a spot of managed services may well be chucked in for good measure.

“We have recently decided to increase our investments in the US to be closer to our leading customers and better support them with their accelerated 5G deployments; thereby bringing 5G to life for consumers and enterprises across the country,” said Niklas Heuveldop, Head of Ericsson North America. “This agreement marks a major milestone for both companies. We are excited about our partnership with T-Mobile, supporting them to strengthen, expand and speed up the deployment of their nationwide 5G network.”

“While the other guys just make promises, we’re putting our money where our mouth is,” blurted TMUS CTO Neville Ray in the approved corporate style. “With this new Ericsson agreement we’re laying the groundwork for 5G – and with Sprint we can supercharge the 5G revolution.”

That’s the long and short of it, but Ericsson couldn’t resist another plug of its main USP, stressing that T-Mobile’s installed base of ERS radios will be able to run 5G NR technology with just a software upgrade. There is likely to be a bit of a PR arms race over big 5G deal wins among the kit vendors, but we won’t be seeing any of that action from Huawei in the US. Or Australia.

Ciena strengthens its software suite with DonRiver acquisition

Optical and IP transport company Ciena acquired software and service company DonRiver to shore up its Blue Planet portfolio.

One week after its CEO explicitly said it was on the lookout for new software M&A, Ciena announced that it has entered a definitive agreement to acquire DonRiver, a privately-owned software and service company specialised in federated network and service inventory management solution.

Ciena reported a strong quarter, but its software business suffered a 3% year-on-year dip. Although the SDN-based network management suit Blue Planet only accounted for a minor share of the total software sales, high hopes have been banked on it. When talking to analysts at the quarterly result call Ciena’s CEO Gary Smith said, “With Blue Planet, we’ve done a lot of learning over the last two to three years, …the bookings were very encouraging. And we should be able to come into the year — next year with a backlog for 2019.”

Similar to Ciena’s recent acquisition of Packet Design, DonRiver has been a partner to Ciena, so its technology knowhow is well known to the latter. Despite that it has a couple of A-list clients including Telstra, Comcast, and Rogers, it is not DonRiver’s clients or the revenues that was driving the acquisition, Ciena told Telecoms.com.

“The combination of Blue Planet and DonRiver will enhance our ability to deliver closed loop automation of network services and the underlying operational processes across IT/operations and the network,” said Rick Hamilton, senior vice president of Global Software and Services at Ciena about the latest acquisition. “With this new set of technology and expertise, we can help customers realize the full benefits of network automation by helping them move away from highly complex and fragmented OSS environments to those that accurately reflect the real-time state and utilization of network resources.”

Specifically, what DonRiver could bring to the Blue Planet portfolio, especially the Analytics & Intelligence component, is its capability to bring a holistic view of the network inventory. With networks getting more complex, stacks of OSS are being added to the architecture, making it increasing difficult for the operators to know what exactly is happening in the layers of networks. The vastly improved visibility and accuracy enabled by DonRiver’s expertise will strengthen Ciena’s value proposition to help operators optimise the OSS environments. As Ciena executives said to Telecoms.com, DonRiver’s engineers can do much more than network inventory, they are OSS experts.

The terms of the acquisition were not made public.

A design-led approach to billing creates new opportunities for service providers

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, explores what CSPs can do to make the billing process more positive for their customers.

With the pace of customer experience now being set outside the communications and media industry, the ability to deliver outstanding experiences is now a moving target. Becoming a top performer, such as Amazon requires service providers to consistently deliver exceptional experiences across all customer satisfaction measures, according to the Institute of Customer Service.

“The top 10 organizations [in terms of customer satisfaction] perform better than other organizations across the full range of customer experience metrics. There is continuing evidence that consistently outperforming the sector average for customer satisfaction is linked to better financial performance.” The Institute of Customer Service, UK Customer Satisfaction Index, July 2018   

The fiercely competitive nature of service providers in mature markets, combined with customers’ increasing propensity to complain or churn, throws down the gauntlet. Service providers need to act fast to address notorious and persistent customer experience blackspots such as billing, in order to deliver the consistency of experience that unlocks loyalty, recommendation, trust, reputation, and ultimately, better financial performance.

 Competition fueling the need for better experiences

The hypercompetitive environment in mature markets, means that service providers are shifting their focus from customer acquisition to customer retention. This requires them to work harder than ever to meet their customers’ expectations and consistently deliver the experience expected.

With four mobile network operators (MNOs) and more than one hundred active mobile virtual network operators (MVNOs) in the UK, which collectively support over 13.5 million customers (or one in seven mobile connections), competition has never been fiercer.

MVNOs differentiate themselves and consistently outperform MNOs, not on network quality or coverage but on products, tariffs, offers and the customer experience they provide. For example, Which? Magazine’s annual consumer satisfaction report revealed that customers are increasingly snubbing the big four MNOs in favor of MVNOs such as Utility Warehouse – partly because they’re pocket-friendly, but also due to higher rates of customer satisfaction delivered.

Billing remains a customer experience blackspot

Let’s face it, no-one likes receiving a bill; they can stimulate such negative customer reactions that we’ve even coined terms for these, such as ‘bill-dread’ (fear of high bills that cause customers to alter consumption patterns) and bill shock (the emotional impact of receiving a higher than expected bill). They remain one of the most digitally untransformed areas of experience, and are so boring that many customers have given up reading them.

To deliver greater consistency of experience, service providers are now focused on improving the design of their bills, which according to The Institute of Customer Service is one of the top three areas that service provider customers want improved.

Design-led approach to improving customer communications

Customers perceive bills to be boring, confusing and stressful. Aside from additions and extensions, the service provider bill has changed little since the 1990s. This means the format of many bills are packed with too much information, making it hard for customers to locate and process the information they require. Since these bills are generic, much of the information squeezed into them may not even be relevant to an individual customer. For example, warnings about late payment and the stern tone of a cold demand for payment may seem rude or even insulting to a prompt payer, and does nothing to enhance the relationship.

Bill design shouldn’t be an accidental evolution, but should be carefully planned to achieve the goals of the service provider. Since its job is to subtlety enable information to be more effectively communicated, service providers need to employ a range of design techniques, including:

Aesthetic enhancements

  • Using size, color and weight to create a hierarchy of information that places emphasis on key elements within the bill.
  • Aligning elements on an axis to create a visual connection between them. This prompts eye movement, as well as adding order and stability to bill design.
  • Arranging elements within a given space to ensure there is a comfortable balance. With an equal distribution of weight, the bill design will feel more harmonious and approachable to customers.
  • Repeating visual elements throughout the design such as fonts, weights, lines, colors, icons and images. This creates unity and consistency throughout the bill and customers will automatically come to recognize and expect these patterns.

Transforming customer data
Although aesthetics are great steps towards improving a bill design, there are further techniques to improve the customer bill experience. If you look closely at a customer’s billing information, you can learn a lot about their activity and behaviors. So why not turn this into an engaging interaction? For example:

  • Customers can access an incredibly long list of calls they made over a period of time. Extract and present insightful information, such as:
    • Who was called most frequently
    • Most expensive calls
    • Longest calls
    • Most active call day of the week
    • Three premium numbers dialed, costing USD7.50 for example
  • Let’s say a customer is regularly exceeding their data usage allowance. Why not display a trend graph that spans the past three months, highlighting at what point in each month they exceeded their plan, and what the extra cost is per month? To further inform the customer, this can be used as an opportunity to present add-on options or alternative plans that better suit their behavior.

Functional customer messaging

This is vital to achieving a conclusive billing experience. By introducing contextually relevant messages at key points, you will transform the bill from a generic and impersonal piece of communication to a more personalized experience for each and every customer. This can be as simple as a standard greeting for a long-term customer: ‘Hello Jane, this is your March bill, and everything looks in order. Thank you for being one of our most loyal customers.’ The tone in this case is positive and slightly informal.

Another example would be a more sensitive message, such as a request for an overdue payment. The tone here needs to come across as knowledgeable, formal and to the point. ‘Your account is past due, please pay USD112.00 immediately.’

Throughout the bill, it is imperative to be as pre-emptive as possible. For example, to reduce customer bill shock, why not display key information in a prominent place? This will enable customers to identify excess charges that would normally drive questions to customer care. The first thing the customer should see is a concise explanation of why their bill is higher than expected, such as:

  • ‘You added a service last month, resulting in a partial charge of USD15.00 this month. Please see page 4 for details.’
  • ‘You were charged a late fee of USD13.95. To avoid this charge in the future, please sign up for direct debit at provider.com/direct-debit.’
  • ‘You have high usage charges of USD22.12 this month.’

A design-led approach to billing means always thinking about how your design affects the customer and putting them first. This will result in clearer and more usable bills, and ultimately fewer calls to care. When designed to meet individual needs, the bill is not only a welcome tool for regular communication, it also provides the customer with a window into their relationship with the service provider.

Transforming bills from an experience blackspot into an asset

For many service providers, bills are already an experience blackspot. With the ever-increasing volume and variety of services, experimenting with charging models, and delivering more one-off and personalized offers, the potential for customer confusion is bound to increase. This is where design-led thinking plays an essential role in creating ways to deliver greater depth of information effectively and attractively.

 

Five Tips For Better Bills
  1. Know your customer
    Excellent design begins with understanding your customer. Service providers should know and understand the history they have with each customer, including how long they have been a customer and the services they have purchased over their lifecycle. They should also know and track the usage patterns of each customer. This will enable the service provider to deliver personalized billing content to each and every customer.
  1. Focus on clarity
    If a customer can’t understand a piece of communication or can’t perform a basic action without frustration, then there are failings in the bill design. The design should be simple and clear throughout. It should save the customer time and provide all the answers they need. This is achieved by disclosing more information when needed and not overwhelming the customer with useless content. Some customers will spend 10 seconds reviewing their bill, others will spend up to four to five minutes. The bill design should cater to all.
  1. Remove technical verbiage
    Systems-driven language is typically difficult for customers to decipher and is often perceived as dishonest. If a customer purchases a device from a service provider or signs up for a new service, there is an element of excitement. This feeling is soon replaced by confusion and discontent when they receive a bill with a different product description to what was expected, and in some cases a complex pricing structure that makes no sense. Aligning old legacy terminology and pricing with what’s sold will help deliver on brand promise and keep the customer experience positive.
  1. Don’t allow technology to restrict design
    Design should not be added retrospectively to try and fix outdated billing processes or be force-fitted into existing technology. Instead, the presentation should be at the core of the billing platform. Design should drive questions such as, ‘what other systems or feeds should be integrated?’, or ‘how can we identify or tag this data to display it as we want?’ If the customer experience is the reason behind a bill transformation project, then all areas of the business need to agree on this common goal.
  1. Don’t forget the business needs
    With the bill being the most regular form of customer communication, why not use it to help support the business needs? The bill can easily deliver content from departments such as sales, marketing or legal. It can also be designed to help reduce print costs. More importantly, it can re-enforce the value of what each customer is getting for their monthly charges. In addition to ensuring customers are connected around the clock, service providers are constantly offering promotions and rewards. So why not educate customers on these benefits and affirm why they should remain your customer?

 

Happy birthday roam like at home: Impacts and opportunities one year on

Telecoms.com periodically invites third parties to share their views on the industry’s most pressing issues. In this piece Mikaël Schachne, VP Mobility Solutions at BICS, takes a look back at the first year of no roaming charges in Europe.

The EU has again picked June for a well-timed summer-holiday-coinciding telecoms-themed announcement. At the start of the month, governors and lawmakers in the European Union proposed capping the cost of calls and texts between Member States.

The yet-to-be decided move follows the abolition of roaming charges, announced in 2017 to the delight of many holidaymakers. In addition to avoiding ‘bill shock’, if signed off in the autumn, subscribers travelling within the EU will pay a maximum of 17p per minute for calls and 5p for text messages.

The EU’s move marks a further shift towards a model of borderless connectivity, which could soon be replicated on a global scale. This shift not only presents opportunities for operators – through encouraging more international calls and less restricted device usage – but also delivers sizable benefits for consumers and businesses.

However, the transformation in telecoms is not without its challenges. These include negative reaction to roam like at home (RLAH) from some in the industry and the need to make up for any losses in revenue.

800% growth in data roaming traffic

RLAH has certainly been a hit with consumers, evidenced by the massive increase in data roaming traffic last summer. The period June to September 2017 saw a 600-800% increase in LTE data roaming traffic in the EU, compared with the same period in 2016.

Note that this is data traffic, which was the main driver in the overall increase in roaming traffic in the EU. European subscribers have clearly been enjoying the same kinds of OTT messaging apps and entertainment services on holiday and on business trips, as they do at home. Since April 2018, this has been made even easier, thanks to the EU’s content portability regulation. Those who hold accounts with OTT content services – like Netflix, Amazon Prime or Spotify – are now able to access videos, TV shows, music etc. on their accounts wherever they travel in the EU.

In addition to humans roaming with smartphones, there is also a growing number of connected devices and ‘things’ which need to remain ‘always on’ as they move from country to country.

Global connectivity is a crucial enabler for machine-to-machine communications and the wider IoT, unlocking a major revenue opportunity for operators. Many businesses will be looking to extend their connected business beyond domestic borders and achieve a global machine-to-machine network footprint. This could encompass anything from tracking packages to ensuring a connected car is able to send and receive data wherever its driver takes it. These new business cases will rely on operators’ roaming services and global networks, helping to drive revenue and replace that lost through the falling use of traditional voice and SMS services.

But what kind of implications will low-cost roaming in the EU have for other regions? Subscribers will quickly become accustomed to a seamless, high-quality service whether at home or away, with border-crossing no longer interfering with or restricting connectivity. Subscribers travelling outside the EU will expect a similar level of service, at a similar price point.

‘GRLAH’?

Fortunately, many operators will be able to offer a similar level of service, thanks to an increase in the number that now support LTE services. Global LTE traffic more than doubled in 2017 with a total of 562 operators offering LTE services; an increase of 25% on 2016. LTE in Africa in particular has really taken off, with a growth in the number of MVNOs and tier three/four operators introducing LTE roaming services in the region during 2017, helping to kick-start wider roll-out.

But just because subscribers can access LTE services in more global destinations, the high cost of roaming in many non-EU countries will result in a high number of ‘silent roamers’ when they travel – or huge phone bills.

This issue was recently brought to the fore, with uSwitch predicting that football fans travelling to Russia for the World Cup could face roaming charges of up to £3,696 over a two-week trip. In response, some operators have launched global roaming packages, where subscribers can pay a fixed daily fee to access the same data, minutes and text allowance in a number of regions worldwide.

RLAH has opened operators’ eyes to the wants of today’s consumer: seamless, high-quality, worldwide connectivity, at low cost. This has in turn opened up the possibility of ‘GRLAH’: global roam like at home. For this to happen, regulators considering implementing similar policies must collaborate with mobile operators and the wider telecoms industry. Dialogue should focus on how overall mobile usage can be increased and should ensure that any changes in legislation (and potential revenue losses) are balanced by methods to boost/future-proof revenues in other areas of business.

Silent roamers: an opportunity worth shouting about

One way to balance the books in light of RLAH is to ‘awaken’ silent roamers outside of the EU. RLAH will have highlighted the comparatively high costs of roaming in many global destinations, serving as a prompt to many subscribers to switch off their data roaming, or switch off their smartphone altogether when outside of the EU.

Operators should draw on the vast wealth of subscriber data they have access to and offer personalised roaming packages which incentivise subscribers to remain connected to a network, wherever they are. This could involve identifying a phone user’s normal pattern of usage and preferred services, and creating a tailored bundle (which is both affordable and convenient) based on the findings.

To allay fears of post-holiday bill shock, operators can also provide subscribers with greater visibility into their data roaming usage. Real-time consumption monitoring, the ability to set and manage usage caps, and notifications relating to this can all help empower consumers and foster a positive operator/subscriber relationship.

Demand for roaming services shows no sign of slowing. Following a positive reaction – and mass uptake – in the EU, subscriber demand for access to low-cost, high-quality services worldwide will also grow. Operators must adapt to this new paradigm by unlocking new opportunities in the provision of IoT roaming services, stimulate mobile usage through tailored services, and optimise the user experience. The industry must band together and maintain an open, ongoing dialogue to deliver global connectivity, and future-proof the business of telecoms.

 

Mikael Schachne 2018Mikaël Schachne joined the international division of Belgacom in 2001 which was then spun-off and merged with Swisscom International and MTN International. After having successfully led the product development and management of new international mobile data services such as Signalling, GPRS Roaming eXchange (GRX), SMS Hubbing, MMS Hubbing, Instant Roaming and Open Connectivity Roaming Hubbing, he’s now in charge of the Mobile Data Business at BICS. The portfolio which has been built across the last 10 years is now supporting international mobile communications needs for more than 400 Mobile Operators and MVNOs across the world.

Amdocs and Openet settle baffling, endless patent dispute

After eight years of ensuring expensive holidays for their lawyers, rival telecoms software companies Amdocs and Openet have decided to call it a draw.

An extremely short announcement from Amdocs said “Amdocs and Openet today announced that they have settled a patent infringement dispute in the United States Federal District Court for the Eastern District of Virginia.  As part of the confidential settlement, Amdocs agreed to license certain patents to Openet.”

Back in 2010 youthful Light Reading hack Ray Le Maistre spoke to (then and still) Openet CEO Niall Norton in a bid to find out what Amdocs’ problem was. Norton, however, seemed to be as baffled as everyone else by this act of unilateral legal aggression and chose to conclude that it was merely a measure of how intimidated Amdocs was by the plucky Irish BSS upstart.

“[Amdocs] is a good company and a ferocious competitor,” said Norton at the time. “It’s good to know they’re thinking about us as much as we’re thinking about them. We’re open-minded about what might happen next. Our lawyers say this could take anything between three and 12 months to sort out.”

That’s what they always say Niall and then, before you know it, eight years have gone past and they’re the only ones with any cash. To be fair the case does seem to be especially arcane. A spot of light Googling revealed one case that was apparently resolved in 2016 and another that came to a conclusion a month or so ago. Both accounts seem like very effective cures for insomnia but we don’t feel any more enlightened about the merits and outcome of this litigatiathon as a result of enduring them.

In essence Amdocs accused Openet of infringing on some of its patents and the fact that Openet is now going to shell out some license fees would seem to vindicate it to some degree. But if we assume Amdocs’ intention was at the very least to force Openet to entirely abandon the technology in question, and maybe even to force it out of business, then the case seems to have been a failure.