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.

T-Mobile US finds a new way to troll AT&T and Verizon

T-Mobile US is testing out a new way to mock AT&T and Verizon by inviting the duo to its own TEX Talks seminars and panels on how to improve customer service.

Taking place on 24-25 October at its Charleston customer experience centre, T-Mobile US will host various companies from around the US, offering advice on how to improve relationships with customers and reduce churn. Of course, never missing a chance to poke fun at AT&T and Verizon, CEO John Legere has made it clear they are invited to the event, even if they are currently ignoring his calls.

“As the Uncarrier, we’ve always been about changing this industry for good…with Team of Experts, we’ve done it again,” said Legere. “And we won’t stop with wireless. Customer service is utterly broken in this country – it’s a mechanized mess. We’ve completely changed the game for customers, and we hope every brand steps up to do the same.”

While Team of Experts might not be the most exciting of Uncarrier moves, it certainly seems to be having a notable impact on the business. T-Mobile US has stated Net Promoter Score (NPS) is up 60% since introducing the new focus on customer service, while asynchronous messaging with care is up 34% and churn of customer service staff is down 48%. It’s not the headline grabbing Uncarrier move of yesteryear, but goods things are happening.

Announced back in August, the aim of the Team of Experts Uncarrier move was to revamp customer services and improve loyalty. The industry has come to expect big things from wild-eyed Legere when launching new Uncarrier moves, though this is not exactly the blockbuster we’ve gotten used to. However, three months on, the ‘rock star treatment’ for customers does seem to be working.

It might not be the venture into the world of content many were expecting, though it is a welcome surprise. The telco industry is traditionally awful at customer services, choosing to lock in customers with long contracts and create a red-tape maze for those who want to leave. Loyalty was enforced by making churn so difficult as opposed to creating a proposition customers want to be a part of. This move seems to be challenging the status quo.

Customer services can be a differentiator moving forward as the price wars seem to have come to a conclusion. There will continue to be undercutting and promotions, though the telcos cannot go much lower on tariffs and maintain the profit margins desired by investors. T-Mobile US has done a great job of disrupting the industry and capturing subscriptions, but momentum will run low if the same message is played on repeat.

There has been signs across the world telcos are starting to care more about their customers, Vodafone is a great example in the UK with its own customer services initiatives, though these are still the exceptions not the rule. More work needs to be done to correct years of wrong-doing.

That said, Legere’s trolling is always a bit of fun.

Bill presentation is an untapped opportunity for telcos – survey

A survey of telecoms professional commissioned by BriteBill has found they reckon they could be making much better use of bills to improve the customer relationship.

Now we know what you’re thinking: a company that specialises in optimising phone bills has commissioned a study that concluded we need to optimise phone bills. That’s what we thought too so we spoke to Becky Byrne of BriteBill and Teresa Cottam of Omnisperience, who conducted the survey.

They directed their questions at senior execs working for the largest operators but in non-technical roles including those responsible for digital, customer care, marketing and finance. The questions focused on their views on the bills their company produced so, while this was a highly targeted study, we’re satisfied that the resulting data stands up by itself.

Cottham said her company wanted to get a snapshot of operator attitudes to how phone bills are presented and concluded that it remains an afterthought for most operators. This shouldn’t be confused with billing itself and all the other stuff handled by BSS, the actual physical or digital bill itself hasn’t really evolved much over the years. You can see a summary of the findings below.

One of the biggest missed opportunities regarding bill presentation, according to Byrne, lies in using it to interact with the customer. Apparently 40% of people read their bills but only 4% read marketing material, so in other words you’ve got ten times more chance of getting through to them through the bill. And it should just be used to flog them stuff either, regular communication about the benefits of their contract can do a lot to reduce churn, a big chunk of which can be directly attributed to billing issues.

“It’s good to see that service providers understand the importance of customer experience to their digital transformation and innovation programs,” said Byrne. “However, in the rush to transform their businesses, many have completely overlooked the bill’s role as the most common and critical customer touchpoint. Improving and innovating their customers’ billing experience is one of the most tangible ways service providers can communicate the benefits of digital transformation and innovation. This in-turn transforms bills from dull financial statements into strategic customer engagement tools.”

“Service providers face conflicting investment demands, from upgrading their networks to creating new revenue streams and enhancing the customer experience, which can take years to show value,” said Cottham. “However, they’re beginning to realize that by focusing resources on customer experience blackspots such as on boarding processes and billing, they can make a more immediate impact for often modest levels of investment.”

At a time when operators are more worried about new competitors such as OTTs than each other, CEM seems like an obvious area of differentiation. Not only can the bill be a more useful, functional thing itself, in the digital era the operator app through which people increasingly access it is a clear opportunity to engage with them in loads of other ways.

Britebill infographic

Is your automated technology a threat to customer relationships?

Telecoms.com periodically invites expert third parties to share their views on the industry’s most pressing issues. In this piece Neil Hammerton, CEO of Natterbox looks at the pros and cons of increased automation when it comes to customer service.

We’ve all been there: trying to call our bank, GP, or local job centre, and having to press an infinite number of keys to get through to an automated voice that will make us wait on the line while letting us know that we’re number 20 in the queue. Companies claim that automating communication with the customer is making their journey much more efficient and streamlined. But is that really the case or are companies just putting a barrier between them and their customers?

It seems almost impossible nowadays for customers to get through to anyone on the phone when calling a company. Bearing in mind customers are likely to only pick up the phone when they want to sort something out quickly or they have a problem, this poor experience is probably going to have a damaging effect on brand perception and loyalty.

A Times investigation for instance recently found that Britain’s Big Six energy suppliers were taking more than 20 minutes to answer customer phone calls in some instances, prompting many to switch suppliers. In today’s competitive market, businesses cannot risk losing customers because of poor service. They need to develop good relationships rather than relying on technology to do it for them. They need to stop hiding behind automated processes and chatbots and distancing themselves from their customers.

Forcing customers to communicate with robots through several layers of filtering and recorded voices can make them more frustrated and their lives more difficult than a quick conversation with a customer service agent. For customers, there is nothing worse than feeling like the organisation they’re trying to reach isn’t prioritising their needs. Avoiding unpleasant conversations by hiding behind technology only makes it harder for customers to trust the brand and build a positive relationship.

Fortunately, we live now in an age of unprecedented technological advancement; which means that for every pain point that an organisation has, there’s usually some technology available to solve it. Advancements in telephony technology mean that businesses have the resources to make the phone experience much more enjoyable and insightful for both their customers and their staff. Businesses no longer need to see the phone as the conduit for difficult conversations, but as one for insights that benefit the business.

The first thing organisations need to keep in mind, when it comes to their customers, is that they want to have the company’s whole and undivided attention. This means a personalised experience, which entails knowing your customers well enough to provide that experience. When customers know they’re being cared for, they start thinking positively about brands, and might be inclined to expand their conversations beyond complaints or issues. When conversations become more pleasant, this is an opportunity for brands to build positive relationships with their customers and gain more insights.

Technology can also help businesses provide greater job satisfaction to customer service agents by ensuring their skills are properly used and they get the training they need. Skills-based routing can for instance allow customers to be automatically directed to an agent equipped with the skills needed for that particular customer’s profile; this is made possible thanks to artificial intelligence collecting and analysing data from previous interactions between the customer and the brand.

But AI can also be used to determine good calls from bad calls, allowing companies to then provide the necessary training for agents to best perform their job. This, ultimately, means less time wasted trying to redirect or inadequately answer a customer’s query, and more time available to work on building relationships – which an automated phone system cannot do by itself.

The automation of phone services does have benefits – if companies use it properly. Technology must be used in ways that will enhance the performance of contact agents, freeing them up to do their job: be the first point of contact in an organisation and build positive, lasting relationships with customers.

 

Neil Hammerton (08.18)Neil Hammerton, CEO and co-founder of Natterbox, and has been in IT for most of his working life. A serial entrepreneur, Neil began his career as a research laboratory apprentice with British Telecoms where he obtained an HND in electronics. The idea that became Natterbox occurred to him when he realised how poorly a big company he was working for dealt with incoming phone calls. Working with two co-founders, Neil launched Natterbox in 2010. Neil is passionate about the telecoms industry, technology and what Natterbox is helping its customers to achieve. He considers Natterbox the biggest success of his entrepreneurial career to date. 

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.

Vodafone dubiously tries to fix AI/job loss conundrum

Is the cost of profitability and efficiency worth the PR damage caused by automation and redundancies? That’s one of the difficult questions facing companies in the AI era.

If you listen to the people creating the AI applications, the opportunity is simple. Create technologies which take care of the time-consuming, monotonous tasks, freeing up staff to concentrate on tasks which add more value and revenue to operations. This is an optimistic view. The pessimist (or realist) would suggest business owners and management teams would use the technology to tackle the biggest overhead of any organization; us.

The smaller a workforce, generally the more profitable a business is proportionately. Amazon knows this, it is investing in cashier-less supermarkets and robots to run its completion centres, while public transportation services have been offloading jobs in favour of technology for decades. When there is an opportunity to spend less money but make the same amount, businessmen would bite your hand off.

At the Future Ready press conference last week, Vodafone unveiled an interesting idea. Those who are at risk of losing their jobs to the automation craze, customer service agents, will be reskilled as coders and developers.

Known as the Code Ready initiative, it is a great idea on the surface. Retraining employees to take advantage of the fast growing craze which could eventually make them redundant, though we have our reservations. Coding it complicated and not for everyone. You have to be a very specific type of person with quite a tailored education to suit the role, and we wonder how many of those who work in Vodafone call centres meet the criteria.

Without sounding disrespectful to the employees currently in the call centres, coding to the specifications and quality Vodafone needs to ensure its software, services and applications meet the demands of the cut-throat digital economy will be a challenging task. Perhaps the technology orientated universities or app trade shows would be a better place to look than the customer service centres.

Neil Blagden, Director of Digital & Commercial Operations at Vodafone UK, will point to TOBi, Vodafone’s customer care virtual assistant, as precedent for the initiative. Six customer service agents contributed to the development of TOBi, though we suspect the heavy lifting and critical aspects we completed by those who have a bit more experience than these six.

Applications such as TOBi have the power to make a genuine difference to operations. Not only is the Vodafone customer care operation more efficient since TOBi, Net Promoter Score has been growing as well. Clearly there is an advantage to integrating such technologies, though a poorly constructed application will only lead to frustration and customer churn. To avoid this scenario, Vodafone will need to ensure it is hiring the best people possible.

The idea is a nice one, but we suspect it is nothing more than a shallow publicity pitch from the Nathan Barley wannabees in the marketing and PR team. There might be a few success stories, but these will only be pumped as gloss to sheen over the redundancies the firm is bound to make as automation takes a stronger grip.

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.

DT turns to biometrics for authentication and fraud detection

Deutsche Telekom has selected Nuance’s biometric technology to help the team offer customers simplified authentication processes when calling the customer service hotline.

Once the inevitable bugs have been worked out of the system, customers will be able to speak their requests naturally instead of navigating a complex phone menu, while the sound of their voice can also be used to confirm their identity. It is still early days, but the cumbersome process of typing in long account numbers and trying to remember complex passwords with a capital letter, number, punctuation mark and human sacrifice, could be a thing of the past.

“We’re proud to be leading the way as the first German telecommunications provider to deploy voice biometrics on our service hotlines and making this advanced technology available to our customers,” said Ferri Abolhassan, Managing Director Service at Telekom Deutschland. “We can identify our customers quite simply and quickly by the sound of their voices and there will be no more time wasted searching for contract numbers. The procedure is one of the most secure available.”

As far as stereotypes go, the DT management team must be giddy imagining how efficiently calls will be directed around the customer service centre.

“It is no secret that consumers today have higher expectations and demands for the type of service they receive from the companies they do business with,” said Robert Weideman, GM of Nuance’s Enterprise Division. “Our conversational AI solutions enable Deutsche Telekom to power more natural customer service conversations and deliver individuals the help they need quickly and securely.”

Although there will of course be sceptical customers who will rigidly stick to the old cumbersome ways, those who embrace the technology will simply have to say ‘Bei der Telekom ist meine Stimme mein Passwort’ (which means ‘At Telekom my voice is my password’ in English) to identify themselves. It’s simple and efficient, the way customer services should be.

Voice biometrics work by digitizing a profile of a person’s speech to produce a stored model voice print. Each spoken work is reduces to segments composed of several dominant frequencies called formants, with each segment subsequently having several tones that can be captured in a digital format. The tones collectively identify the speaker’s unique voice print, which the Nuance technology will allocate to a specific customer.

Aside from reducing call times and improving the experience when attempting to find the right department, the technology can also help prevent fraud. The voice print itself is similar to a finger print in that they are unique to individuals. While no system is ever going to be 100% fool proof, the voice print certainly does sound more secure than security questions, the answers to which can be worked out by effectively profiling a potential victim.

AT&T is a company which has faced complications in this area recently. Michael Terpin is suing AT&T for $224 million following the theft of $23.8 million in cryptocurrency tokens which were transferred out of his account following a SIM swap con. To do this, the fraudsters would have had to gain access to Terpin’s account by answering the security questions. Getting around these questions has become somewhat easier in recent years, as more user information has become available through social media.

In theory, fraudsters could research what the answers would be by look at Facebook interests, employment history on LinkedIn or holiday snaps on Instagram. Security questions are hardly the most creative and this is an area most companies should look at addressing. Using a voice print to authenticate the identity of customers should remove a substantial amount of the risk associated with such con jobs.

While this is an interesting and useful development at DT, it is slightly behind on the times. Voice biometrics have been used by numerous organizations, with Royal Bank of Canada, Santander, TalkTalk, and Vodafone Turkey among those who have each enrolled more than 1 million customer voiceprints after implementation. That said, it is a nice development.

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?