BT gets personal on speed guarantees

BT has announced a new initiative, Stay Fast Guarantee, which will aim to hyper-personalise speed guarantees for new and re-signing customers.

When a new customer signs-up for BT’s broadband service, or an existing customer renews a contract, they will be given a bespoke speed guarantee for their home based on the estimated capability of the line. Should the service fall below these expectations, the customer will be able to apply for a £20 refund.

The initiative also promises that if it is believed a broadband customer could get a faster line speed, BT will first remotely optimise broadband performance, or an engineer will be dispatched to improve performance.

“With our new Stay Fast Guarantee, we don’t just guarantee customers’ broadband speeds, we constantly check and optimise them, so they’ll get reliable broadband speeds all day every day,” said Kelly Barlow, Marketing Director at BT.

“If a customer’s broadband falls below their personal speed guarantee then we have an expert team of service agents on hand to get things back to normal as soon as possible – ensuring they get the best and most personal broadband experience.”

While it does sound like a promising initiative, as with all these glorious promises the fine print has to be examined.

Firstly, BT is giving itself an exceptionally wide-berth to fix any faults. Customers will only be eligible to receive the £20 refund should BT not be able to fix the fault within 30 days of it being identified. Whether this is considered a reasonable window is open to debate, though for us BT should perhaps hold itself more accountable to deliver the promised performance; 30 days is a long-time for a customer to wait for the service he/she has paid for.

Secondly, customers can only apply for the refund four times a year. If problems persist, customers are left in the lurch until the end of their contract.

Finally, ‘outages, connection faults and home wiring outside of BT’s control’ will be excluded from the refund. Although this is commonplace for all telcos when offering some sort of refund, the generic and all-encompassing nature of the language offers a lot of wiggle room.

Where BT should be congratulated is on the attempt at personalisation. Catch-all statements and promises generally fail to deliver, therefore such a granular approach to performance and customer satisfaction should be applauded.

Slowly the telcos are staggering towards what would be deemed acceptable customer service. This is a good example of such initiatives. More of the same please.

UK MNOs suck compared to MVNOs – Which

Consumer publication Which asked its members to rate UK mobile operators and found the small ones tend to do better across the board.

Vodafone sucked the most, according to Which, managing only a one-star rating for each of customer service, value for money and technical support. 19% of Vodafone customers surveyed said it was poor value for money, while 18% said its customer service was poor and 13% thought the same about its technical support.

There are various other unflattering datapoints attributed to EE and O2 too, but you get the general point. It turns out that market leaders can be a bit complacent, which challenger brands try harder. Who knew? Thee UK, accordingly, scored better than the other three MNOs, but MNVOs such as Giffgaff scored more highly than the lot of them.

“The continuing reign of smaller networks over the big players goes to show exactly how important customer support and value for money are to mobile users,” said Natalie Hitchins, Head of Home Products and Services at Which. “If you think you are paying too much or are not getting the level of service you expect from your provider you should shop around for a better deal – you might find you save yourself some money and probably a lot of grief too.”

Great advice Natalie, thanks. Some other people said things that amounted to much the same. In response Vodafone sounded contrite but EE defiant. Which also had a look at average contract prices and found that the bigger operators have the nerve to charge more for their substandard service.

Complacent UK telcos to be hit with compensation costs

From today, all UK broadband and landline customers will be entitled to compensation for connectivity delays and faults.

It could turn out to be quite a headache for the telcos, as while it will only cost £5 a day to compensate customers for any delays in providing services, the sum of the costs would have been £142 million for the industry across 2018. Today, April 1, is the first day of Ofcom’s new Automatic Compensation scheme.

“We think it’s unacceptable that people should be kept waiting for a new line, or a fault to be fixed,” said Ofcom CEO Sharon White.

“These new protections mean phone and broadband firms will want to avoid problems occurring in the first place. But if they fall short, customers must be treated fairly and given money back, without having to ask for it.”

For customers who have signed up to a new provider, for each day connectivity is not delivered past the agreed upon date £5 will be paid in compensation. The customer will also be given £25 as a one-off payment for the missed appointment. Those who have reported a fault, two working days will be given to the telco to perform any work, but from then on compensation will be set at £8 a day.

In comparison, Ofcom figures suggest there are 7.2 million cases each year where broadband or landline customers suffer delayed repairs, installations or missed appointments. Financial compensation, totalling around £16 million, is generally paid out in 1.1 million of these cases, with customers receiving an average of £3.69 per day for loss of service, and £2.39 per day for delayed installations.

BT, Sky, TalkTalk, Virgin Media and Zen Internet had already signed up to the scheme, which is currently voluntary, though these providers account for 95% of customer relationships across the UK today. EE has theoretically agreed to the scheme, planning to pay automatic compensation next year, as has Plusnet. The compensation outlined in this scheme will be 9X the amount which was received by customer in 2018.

“The voluntary auto compensation scheme is a great step for consumers in the UK, but hopefully, in time, it will become part of the process for all internet service providers as treating customers fairly should be at the core of any organisation,” said Richard Tang, CEO of Zen Internet.

Although this is one step on the journey to a customer service-orientated business model which should be already expected from the telcos, there is plenty of room for error. In theory, customers should not have to do anything to receive the compensation, aside from report the fault, but it is highly likely something will go wrong with the mechanisms over the next couple of weeks.

It will be interesting to see what Ofcom has to report over the short- to medium-term. Hopefully this scheme will force the telcos to perform better, reducing the number of delays, though the amount of paid compensation will also be an interesting comparison to 2018.

Which pans UK broadband leaders for woeful service

Consumer publication Which has slammed the UK broadband scene, pointing towards the unacceptable and consistently poor performance of market share leaders for customer service and performance.

According to its latest broadband satisfaction survey, BT, Sky, TalkTalk and Virgin Media supply broadband services to almost nine in ten of UK broadband customers, but these are the worst performers when it comes to meeting customer expectations. The satisfaction score has been built on whether customers are satisfied with their current service, and whether they would recommend it to anyone else.

The satisfaction score for TalkTalk and Sky stood at 50%, while BT was only marginally better at 51% and Virgin Media collected 54%. Year after year the heavy-hitters of the broadband segment have shown customer satisfaction is a low priority, with these results just emphasising the point.

At the top of the list, Zen Internet collected the plaudits while Utility Warehouse sat in second place. The challenger brands clearly recognise there is an opportunity to secure customers through customer service and experience, as opposed to competing in the dangerous race to the bottom or over-promising on speeds.

“It’s outrageous that the biggest providers are still letting their customers down with shoddy broadband, especially when we know that longstanding customers are the most likely to be overpaying,” said Natalie Hitchins, Head of Home Products and Services at Which.

“Anyone who is unhappy with their current provider should take back control and switch to a better deal – you could get better service and save hundreds of pounds a year.”

This is perhaps what is most frustrating about the status quo. With the telco industry geared towards aggressive customer acquisition as opposed to building a successful business through retention, profits must come from somewhere. Customers are lured into the traps with the promise of under-cutting current providers on price, but it is the loyal customers who are getting punished with price hikes.

Looking at performance, 27% of TalkTalk customers said they experienced slow speeds, below the telco’s promise, while this number was 22% for Sky customers and 20% for BT. 20% of BT customers also said they experienced network drop-offs, while 17% of Virgin Media customers said they had been left without a connection for hours or days at a time.

While the tendency to favour new over existing customers is unlikely to change at any point in the future, Ofcom is currently working on new rules which will force telcos to be more communicative with their customers when it comes to contract expiration and is also considering pricing practises. Both of these factors could have a big impact on the business with many customers already stating they will switch providers.

The other factor to consider is the emergence of alt-nets around the country. In days gone, customers dissatisfied with a poor performing provider would only have the option of other poor performing telcos, though there is increased competition emerging. The likes of Vodafone, making use of CityFibre’s fibre networks, Hyperoptic and Gigaclear are growing quickly, providing alternatives with satisfied customers.

“Unfortunately, the UK broadband industry is notorious for awful customer service, mid-contract price hikes, and poor value for money,” said Richard Tang, founder of Zen Internet. “Too many providers in this industry put short-term profit ahead of the customer, but at Zen we continually work to ensure that consumer happiness comes first and to reward the loyalty of our existing customers.”

The market leaders are seemingly happy in their current position. Many will state customer service is a critical aspect of their business, but year after year customers are dissatisfied. These numbers suggest no-where near enough is being done to evolve the profit-centric organisations or there is a level of incompetence present when devising new strategies.

TalkTalk takes swipe at competitor over pricing fairness

TalkTalk has launched its Fairer Broadband Charter calling into question whether competitors know the definition of simple concepts such as honesty and fairness.

According to research from TalkTalk, 87% of customers feel it is unfair providers raise prices mid-way through contracts, with 54% of consumers supporting a complete ban on these price hikes. While these might seem like obvious statements to make, they do fit quite comfortably upon the beautifully groomed high-horse TalkTalk CEO Tristia Harrison is trotting along currently.

“Telecoms companies have been ripping-off consumers for far too long,” said Harrison. “The industry has to change to rebuild trust with consumers. We led the way two years ago and became the first provider to guarantee no mid-contract price rises. It’s proved hugely popular and today we’re going even further. Our Fairer Broadband Charter sets out three simple ways we’ll put customers first. I’m challenging our rivals to follow our lead so that the whole industry can rebuild trust with customers.”

While any research conducted or commissioned by a telco should be taken with a plate full of salt, TalkTalk does have a point and the Fairer Broadband Charter should create a position where customers do feel valued. What is quite interesting is a challenger brand actually offering something of value to a customer, instead of initiating a race to the bottom. While lower prices are often appreciated by customers, margins are realised elsewhere perhaps explaining poor performance and woeful customer service. It could be seen as somewhat of a hollow victory.

The Fairer Broadband Charter is essentially a challenge to the industry, with TalkTalk hoping to set the pace with other telcos following suit. Perhaps marketing campaigns down the road will be built on the ‘look what we made everyone else do’ or ‘they all needed to copy us’ messages. It isn’t necessarily the worst idea we have ever come across for a challenger brand.

Looking at the three pillars, the first is a continued commitment to maintaining the agreed upon prices throughout the contract. Sounds simple, but all major ISPs have introduced a mid-contract price hike to some degree over the last 18 months according to TalkTalk. Secondly, a connection guarantee will be introduced, allowing new customers to ditch the contract in the first 30 days if they are not happy. This is not necessarily a new one, as Vodafone introduced such an idea recently. Finally, the TalkTalk team will contact customers before their contract ends to ensure they do not get automatically put onto a higher priced plan upon automatic renewal.

These are of course all nice ideas, but it shows the woeful state of affairs in the telco industry if this new Charter is deemed going above and beyond. In most other industries, this would be considered the status quo or bare minimum requirements. For too long customer satisfaction has been an afterthought, instead focusing on enticing new customers with embarrassingly-poor Kevin Bacon adverts which make the brand seem dated, desperate and as creative as a dull shade of worn leather.

The tide is beginning to turn but the traditional telcos, in both mobile and broadband, are having their hands forced by challenger brands.

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.

Maximizing Value from Digitalization and Virtualization

Telecoms.com periodically invites expert third parties to share their views on the industry’s most pressing issues. In this piece the MVNOs Series team explores two of the key terms used to describe the next phase of the digital journey: digitalization and virtualization.

We are living through an age of digital transformation. Since the development of the first digital computers in the middle of last century, the march of the byte – the basic unit of digital information – has been unstoppable, infiltrating virtually every aspect of human activity.

It is tempting to look around and see our lives as fully digitized, what with the prevalence of computers and laptops at work and in the home, smartphones and other mobile devices, the internet and the Cloud, and the perceptible shift of activities that once took place exclusively in the physical world into the virtual.

But all the signs are that we have perhaps only just reached the end of the beginning of the digital journey. The potential transformational impact of emerging technologies – the Internet of Things (IoT), artificial intelligence (AI), Big Data analytics, virtualized networks – could dwarf anything that has gone before. And the mobile industry has a central stake in all of them.

According to joint analysis from the World Economic Forum and Accenture, if the right opportunities are grasped in the right ways, the combined value-add of digital transformation to industry and society over the next 10 years stands at $100 trillion. Such is its critical importance as enabler and carrier of digital progress, providing the “access, interconnectivity and applications” on which it is built, telecoms stands to benefit to the tune of $2 trillion in additional value.

Put simply, connectivity is a vital ingredient in the joined-up digital world we are emerging into. Thanks to its ubiquity and scale, no technology is better placed to deliver than mobile.

Understanding Digitalization: Transforming Operations and Business Models

Defining the meaning of the term digitalization attracts some debate, a reflection of the fact that it is a relatively new concept where consensus and shared understanding is still emerging. Some of this controversy centres on whether the term should describe the use of digital technology to change/upgrade specific business operations or the creation of entirely new business models, and how it therefore relates to the concept of digital transformation.

Behind all the semantic wrangling, it is important to acknowledge that digital technology is having a significant impact on the mobile industry at both an operational and strategic level. Under pressure to keep up with consumer demand, to not be left behind in the digital arms race and to arrest the slide in declining revenues from traditional voice services, operators view digitalization as both a means of protecting margins by cutting costs and of creating new revenue streams with innovative services geared for new markets.

As well as these competitive pressures towards internal transformation, the mobile industry also has a special relationship with digitalization in the wider economy. As connectivity is widely accepted as an essential ingredient in delivering smart, integrated, hyper-networked digital systems, mobile has been described as the glue which can hold digitalized operations and services across all sectors together. The mobile industry therefore controls a resource that is critical to the entire concept of digitalization – a key part of the digitalization experience for mobile operators is therefore how they can cash in on that value.

Digitalization of mobile

Another factor which muddies the waters when it comes to getting to grips with what digitalization means for mobile is the fact that, across many industries, digital transformation is often viewed as synonymous with cloud migration. If that were the case, then large swathes of the mobile industry, particularly MVNOs that operate as online-only, cloud-based businesses, meet the criteria for having already undergone digital transformation.

The Cloud is undoubtedly an important part of digitalization. Online-only MVNOs gain certain benefits from being based in the Cloud, such as lower overheads from having neither network infrastructure nor physical stores to burden them, plus the agility to get close to niche markets and respond rapidly to shifting demands. But should we define an online MVNO which is simply selling voice and data packages from a digital store – in other words, operating the same business model but via a different channel – as fully digitalized? Does that model maximise the full potential digitalization offers to mobile operators in terms of value?

When asking what digitalization can achieve for mobile, industry insiders frequently refer to companies like AirBnB, Uber and Netflix to provide a yardstick. More than just adopting a cloud-based operational model, these are companies which have used digitalization as a defining strategic principle and have been so successful they have transformed entire sectors.

From MVNOs’ perspective, the lesson that these digital start-ups have managed to shake enterprise-sized incumbents out of their positions in the market should also no be lost.

For mobile operators, then, the Cloud represents an important first step on their digital journey, providing a platform for further change in terms of cost reduction, flexibility, technology adoption and service innovation. But if we were to write a recipe for ‘full’ digitalization for a mobile operator, a process strategically geared towards maximising the benefits, there would be plenty of other ingredients to add to the mix. Here are the staples:

Strategies built around consumer demand

The reason why Cloud migration alone – old models in a new channel – does not amount to ‘full’ digital transformation is that the Cloud offers the freedom and the technology to do so much more. Mobile operators are now able to reshape services and customer experiences to deliver exactly what the customer wants, which logically should therefore be the centrepiece of strategy. In an industry where both customer acquisition costs and churn are high, giving a reason for loyalty through improved customer experiences carries a high value.

Gary Bunney, CEO of BSS and analytics service specialist MDS Global, says that the modern digital consumer, given so much choice and power in all other areas of retail and commerce, is no longer so inclined to accept fixed, off-the-shelf mobile packages. “We believe customers are demanding more control to create the plans they need,” he said. “And they want this control across a range of different networks, services and applications. With this control comes the ability to action. To change, amend, add or terminate without contractual restriction.”

Applications and platforms

The key to delivering on customer demand is software. Bunney talks about enabling customer control via a “self-service application”. Amol Phadke, Accenture’s MD of Global Network Strategy and Consulting, likewise describes the most innovative, disruptive digital MVNOs adopting a ‘software-driven operating model’ that is “dependent on automation, analytics and AI.

Software plays a key role in driving flexibility and value in mobile services by decoupling services from physical infrastructure. Moreover, as the sophistication of software increases, the cost of both development and delivery through the Cloud decreases, offering businesses and consumers alike more for less.

Data

Of the three specific technologies Phadke names, automation and AI speak of the customer empowerment and ‘self-service’ control Bunney recommends, but also of efficient, fast convenient services. Analytics, meanwhile, gives digitalized MVNOs the opportunity to fully personalize service based on all the data that becomes available via applications and platforms. Jaco Fourie, Head of Product Management at BSS specialist Qvantel, says: “Digital solutions allow for more rapid shifting of data gathering tools. This enables more data to be collected and analysed … and used to personalize the customer journeys in digital touchpoints automatically for superior customer experiences.”

Bespoke services

Fourie goes on to argue that analytics “paves the way for rapid and real-time offers and deals that can be tailored and modulated to match the trends and data that is being gathered on them.” The marriage of software and data in a Cloud environment allows mobile operators to create dynamic customer experiences that adapt to changing demands. It also allows them to throw off the shackles of voice and pure data packages and innovate with new potential revenue streams from new services.

Federico Homberg, Head of Mobile Wholesale Business Development at Deutsche Telekom Germany, told us that he sees an increasing trend in virtual operators moving away from “branded reselling” to a “full MVNO” model. “With a full MVNO you have no constraints when it comes to building your own products,” he said. This alludes to another significant trend in digital transformation for mobile players, the move towards DevOps operations, where programming and development skills are highly sought after to enable operators to build their own bespoke software and platforms.

As well as looking at the impact on the mobile industry, the report Maximizing Value from Digitalisation and Virtualization opens the discussion up to look at the broader role of mobile as digitalization continues apace across industries and in consumer lifestyles. It assesses what kind of services mobile players, and MVNOs in particular, are able to offer to support the increasingly digitised demands of both B2B and B2C markets, looking at areas such as IoT provision and Over-the-Top (OTT) value-added services as routes into brand new revenue streams.

Its analysis also focuses on the potential for mobile companies to transform service levels as well as service types, redefining customer and end-user experiences in innovative, dynamic ways which tie in with the expectations of increasingly digitised audiences. Finally, the research evaluates the risks and rewards of all of this, the challenges MVNOs face in embracing what amounts to significant technological, operational and cultural change, and what they can do to maximise the benefit.

This in-depth report also offers analysis on mobile as digital enabler, the new horizons in customer experience and service personalization & differentiation. Download the full report and discover how you can make the most of this opportunity.

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. 

Google sneaks into the chatbot world with Onward acquisition

Google has made a somewhat sly entry into the chatbot segment with the acquisition of Onward, an automation start-up based out of San Francisco.

Founded in 2015, Onward states it can parse and extract meaning from complex natural language messages to create customer service chatbots and import data from other sources to ‘empower’ agents to respond based on the metrics that matter most. And to make things even better, customers do not need to know how to code to build advanced flows that tailor answers to their own customer responses. The Onward technology already links into other enterprise platforms such as Salesforce, HubSpot and Shopify.

For Google, this is typical of its acquisition strategy; purchase a relatively unknown organization just ahead of the boomtime. Think of Android (which reportedly bought for $50 million) in the mobile OS space, or Deepmind (purchased for $500 million) in the artificial intelligence field. Both these acquisitions are bargains considering the value they offer the business. This time the Googlers are seemingly eyeing up the world of customer service chatbots.

While this might be a surprise acquisition for some, what is worth noting is work experience. Prior to founding Onward (or Agent Q as it was originally known), CEO Pramod Thammaiah was a Product Manager at Google, working on projects such as UI development for Shopping. During his time at the internet giant Thammaiah led the Development and launch of the first mobile and tablet Shopping UIs on Google.

“Today, we’re announcing the next step on that journey — Onward is joining the Google family,” the team wrote on its blog. “With Google, we’ll be able to expand the reach of the technologies that power Onward. These core technologies are what got us excited in the first place, and we are excited to bring them to Google.

“We began as a bootstrapped start-up working out of our living room in a Brooklyn apartment. From there, we relocated to San Francisco and were fortunate enough to grow the Onward team and expand to clients across the globe.”

Chatbots in the telco world have become increasingly popular over the last 12-18 months, not only because there is an opportunity to decrease overheads but a chance to further engage customers, with the potential to increase loyalty. Vodafone’s TOBi is an excellent example as an attempt to increase loyalty through customer engagement, while DT has been using automation as a means to slash jobs.

The first key benefit is simple; if you deploy a chatbot alongside human customer service agents customers can choose to wait in-line to speak to someone or interact with the chatbot and skip the dreading on-hold music. The telcos are empowering the customer with a choice, but also reducing waiting times and the burden on the often resource-strained customer service department.

The second point is all about knowledge. These chatbots are not only a front-line tool, but can be used to amass information in-front of the customer service agent. It can be a back-office tool collecting customer history, reacting to how the conversation is progressing, while also accessing relevant promotions and offers to increase up-selling. In both instances, the customer is content. Firstly, reduced time on the phone and secondly, the telco is demonstrating it knows the customer as an individual.

Google clearly recognises there is an opportunity here, not only in the telco world but every sector which interacts with customers, or wishes to do so. The interesting aspect here is the power (technology, resource and financial) of Google; this is an acquisition which could cause a significant disruption in the space.

Firstly, Onwards looks to be a useful tool, but when you marry it to the power of Deepmind and the deep learning algorithms the team are developing in that corner of the Google universe. The Deepmind engineers are using their AI smarts to add value in every aspect of the Google business and it is ensuring the Google business units remain continuously relevant as customer demands and trends evolve.

Secondly, looking at the resource, the Moonshot Labs in Silicon Valley have been a hotspot of innovation for years. Google employs numerous engineers to play around with new ideas, knowing that every now and then an idea might have the potential to scale into another multi-billion dollar business. These engineers are generally given as much freedom as commercially viable to explore new ideas, which makes you wonder what they might be able to come up with when chatbots are given prominence.

Finally, looking at the financial side, Google has shown numerous times it is willing to spend big in pursuit of the next big thing. Google Maps is an excellent example of where it works, and Google Fiber is one where it didn’t. However, both business units demonstrated the exact same enthusiasm for trying every single angle before deciding it is throwing good money after bad. Google is not afraid of an idea if the massive profits do not emerge immediately. It’ll carry on plugging away until it cracks the market (Maps) or finally decides the market has beaten its ambition (Fiber).

With companies like IBM attempting to corner the chatbot market with its Watson AI providing the foundational intelligence, and others like Amdocs trying to leverage experience in the telco world to capitalise on the burgeoning segment, Google’s wanderings will come as somewhat of a concern. Google is one of the most powerful, wealthy and innovative companies on the planet, we’d be willing to bet it makes some sort of splash in the telco chatbot segment.

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.