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.

How MVNOs can stand out in a crowded market

Telecoms.com periodically invites expert third parties to share their views on the industry’s most pressing issues. In this piece Freelance Technology Journalist Kate O’Flaherty explores how, amid increasing competition, MVNOs must offer innovative additional services.

The MVNO space is becoming crowded, particularly in the UK. Established brands such as Tesco and Virgin continue to gain customers, while major players such as Sky are also competing for opportunities to grab share.

But at the same time, mobile operators across the globe are increasingly launching ‘sub-brands’ that directly compete with MVNOs and target specific segments – such as Vodafone’s VOXI and Three’s SMARTY. So, how can MVNOs stand out?

According to experts, innovation is about much more than just price: firms need a strong value proposition including unique additional services. Take the example of Sky Mobile, which has taken steps to differentiate itself by becoming the first UK network to let customers cash in their unused data in exchange for savings on a range of phones, tablets and mobile accessories.

Another stand out offering is the Superdrug MVNO launched in June running on the Three network, says James Gray, Director at Graystone Strategy. He explains: “You have to be a member of the Superdrug loyalty scheme to join and it enhances your membership with initiatives such as double points.”

Solutions such as these are a recognition that MVNOs need to offer more than just minutes and texts, according to Kester Mann, Analyst at CCS Insight. But at the same time, the number of areas an MVNO can target is diminishing, especially in the UK, he points out. “The UK market is reaching maturity and saturation: We might see new players, but there will also be some casualties.”

Amid this competitive market, MVNOs need to think what they can offer beyond connectivity, says Gray. “If you are going to become an MVNO, you need at least one clear point of differentiation – and price probably isn’t it.”

Gray cites the example of ethnic MVNO Lebara, which addressed a customer need by adding money transfer services to its core offering. “It is about building in an iterative way: Start out, then update and add to the offering. You don’t need to launch everything all at once. You can bring things out and if they work, then great and if not, you haven’t lost anything.”

Reverent offerings

There are multiple solutions that can help to differentiate an MVNO. “It is about being the most relevant to the customer and the most strategic for the business,” says Shanks Kulam, Co-Founder, x-Mobility.

For example, AppVNOs such as Vyke offer additional numbers to customers. “Innovation is about using the features of an MVNO to offer the services your target audience wants,” says Iqbal Maricar, VP Far East, Vyke. “This is even more true now that an MVNO doesn’t need to be a replacement Sim but can instead supplement an existing Sim-based contract.”

Another MVNO innovating through its service is FreedomPop, which offers a free option on its basic plan. “Modern MVNOs need to be disruptive and flexible, and to provide mobile services that customers want,” says Nicholas Constantinopoulos, President of International, Freedompop. “The flexibility of the MVNO model means we can provide a completely free solution to subscribers, but we also give them the flexibility to customise it if they choose to pay for additional services.”

Meanwhile, cloud gaming firm PlayGiga offers a “Netflix of video games” as a white label service to telecoms providers. “Telcos are looking for content to expand their service, monetise the network, or reduce churn,” says the firm’s CEO Javier Polo.

PlayGiga’s service allows MVNOs to incorporate cloud gaming into their offerings without the need to invest in content or infrastructure, he explains.

The company can provide the service via a set top box, PC or smart TV. According to Polo, the opportunity for gaming services as an additional revenue source for mobile operators and MVNOs will increase as 5G enters the fray. “Telcos can include a Sim card in a set top box and fibre-like connectivity could be provided by 5G.”

Another way in which MVNOs can differentiate themselves is by bundling telemedicine and pharmacy savings with a rewards programme, says Rob Webber, CEO and Founder of MoneySavingPro. He cites the example of ROK Mobile, adding that he thinks more similar services “are likely to follow”.

An additional model could see MVNOs using data about their customers to offer services such as loans. Steve Polsky, Founder and CEO of Juvo says MVNOs can use data about prepaid subscribers to cross-sell and upsell alternative services, such as airtime loans and handset financing. “Operators can offer minor credit extensions and then – based on the subscriber’s payback behaviour – can begin to generate a financial identity, similar to a traditional credit score.”

Customer experience

In an age of competition around customer experience, MVNOs can also stand out by offering self-service capabilities. Michael MacAuley, General Manager at Liferay UK and Ireland, says GiffGaff has done well in this area, by providing customers with the ability to service themselves and each other.

It’s a competitive market, but there is huge potential for the MVNOs able to innovate through their solution and strategy. But it requires entirely new thinking, and a change in technology architecture, says Tony Regan, Head of Openet Consulting.

He points out that many operators are embracing change through ongoing digital transformation strategies. “The net result is more personalised services, better engagement and retention, and healthier revenues. MVNOs have to rise to the opportunities afforded by digital transformation journeys too. With a vastly reduced cost base and the freedom to move quickly, MVNOs have the most to gain.”

For now, Gray thinks it is important for existing MVNOs to examine their customer base and identify “what the next need is”. He explains: “If they have established their brand in telecoms, they can add new features. Consumers are becoming more comfortable and buying multiple products from one brand as long as they trust it.”

He points to Graystone Strategy’s research, showing 50% of customers would buy mobile services from their broadband provider, while 19% would buy from their gas and electricity supplier.

There are also many more vertical areas where MVNOs can specialise, especially on the enterprise side. Gray predicts growth based on internet of things (IoT). “There is an opportunity for MVNOs in that area. They tend to be a bit more fleet of foot and can react quickly to changing markets.”

Learn how you can differentiate, build partnerships and secure your place in a time of greater consolidation at the MVNOs Series events – including MVNOs North America and MVNOs Europe.

Will Vodafone usher in a new culture of customer service for telcos?

Either customer service is an afterthought for the telcos, or they are just genuinely terrible at it, but Vodafone’s new 30-day service guarantee sets to challenge the status quo of sub-standard service in the telco arena.

For new or upgrading customers, a 30 day trial period will be offered allowing consumers and small businesses the opportunity to cancel contracts without penalty if they are not totally satisfied with coverage, customer service or the performance of a new device. While coverage will be put to the test on a network which has had mixed reviews over the last few years, the focus here seems to be geared towards customer service. Areas which will come under the microscope include Vodafone’s 24/7 customer care, AI customer service chatbot, TOBi, the human customer service agents, biometric voice-recognition software and the effectiveness of the in-store tech team.

“We’ve been listening to what our customers want and over the last year have worked tirelessly to introduce new technology and initiatives to help us deliver great customer service,” said Nick Jeffery, CEO at Vodafone UK. “Now we’re backing our big improvements with a big promise – try us for 30 days and if you’re not impressed, you’re free to walk away.  No penalties, no ifs, no buts.”

While this is a promising step forward, whether it will have a lasting impact on the telcos depressing reputation for customer service remains to be seen. Considering the past experience of the telcos, stepping into the firing line is certainly a brave move for Vodafone.

In a recent survey from Which, Vodafone ranked bottom of the list for customer service satisfaction scores. This might be a damning reference for the telco, but it should be worth noting the other network owners scored pretty shockingly across the board. Vodafone scored 49%, while EE was the next worst with 56% and O2 as the fourth worst in the UK with 58%. Three fared better with 64%, though the top ranking spots were all taken by MVNOs.

This is not the first time telcos have been singled out for poor customer service, as it has been a pretty common story over the last few years. It does appear the telcos give little concern to this aspect of the business, perhaps due to the limited number of providers in the market, and the critical importance of connectivity in today’s society; if everyone is bad, the consumers will have little option but to accept the status quo, as going without is not an option.

Customer service has never really been a selling point for the telcos, but perhaps this is the kick-start which was needed. All you can eat data packages weren’t common place in the early days, though Three challenged the industry and forced the hand of competitors, while the same could be said of all-inclusive calls and SMS. Evolution of services doesn’t seem to be an accepted term in the telco space, usually it requires disruption for any notable changes to benefit the consumer; perhaps Vodafone breaking rank might spur the cumbersome industry into action.

Vodafone has certainly been re-evaluating the business in the last 12 months, and now it seems to consider itself in a position to tackle the UK’s leading telcos. It’s always amazing to think Vodafone was once the leader in the UK market, though with a new mindset in customer service, new spectrum for mobile and a new partnership with CityFibre to tackle the broadband market, it is shifting itself into a promising convergence position.

Liberty Global projects says telcos might have got the customer service memo

Liberty Global has announced the beginning of a new project which will transform it communicates with customers, leaning on the ‘conversational commerce’ idea championed by Amazon.

Considering it is such a prominent industry which spends so much on customer acquisition, you have to ask why it took the telcos this long to figure out that tolerable customer service is a good thing. Most businesses would tell you it is far more financially attractive to keep current customers happy and spending than it is to replace them with new ones, but idea doesn’t seem to have been received by the telcos. Yes, customer churn is a metric which measures the performance of a company, but have the telcos actually being doing anything notable to reduce this. We’re not too sure.

The first step in the process will be with Virgin Media in the UK, with customers able to text VM with simple questions and queries. It sounds like a really unassuming idea, but it is one which could make a notable impact on customer relationships. How many of the younger generations actually spend time talking on the phone nowadays? Texting is almost second nature, so would seem like a logical step in updating how a company communicates with its customers. The same strategy will roll out across Ireland, Germany, Austria, Switzerland, and the Netherlands.

“We understand that the lives of our customers are fluid and demanding,” said Melanie Longdon, VP of Customer Experience Operations at Liberty Global. “We simply don’t have time to wait for answers to our questions – that’s why we are messaging each other more than ever in our personal lives. Knowing this, we are using LivePerson’s market-leading  technology to ensure Liberty Global goes fully digital, and align with consumers, empowering them to use our services on their own terms and at their own pace, for a best-in-class experience.”

It’ll be interesting to see how this idea develops, as LivePerson (the company providing the SMS platform) offers quite a variety of ways to engage customers. SMS looks to be the simplest of the platforms, though the company does also offer a number of customer service bots which can be implemented in various scenarios including in-app, Facebook and web messaging. The fact that LivePerson claims to already work with 18,000 companies around the world shows how far behind the trend the telco industry actually is.

A couple of days ago The Institute of Customer Service released its latest UK Customer Satisfaction Index (UKCSI), which rated the telco industry as 74.2 out of 100 for overall customer satisfaction, which compares to an average of 78.1 across all industries.

In fairness, there are players in the industry who are trying to do something about this negligence to the customer. Vodafone has been implementing an AI-driven customer service solution called TOBi for quite a while now, though there are few other examples. We get the impression that telcos are more concerned about stealing market share off competitors to reduce p*ssed exiting customers, than actually doing something about customer satisfaction.

With perceptions like this it is of little surprise the telcos are heading towards the dreaded title of utility.

Striking the right balance between automated and manned customer service

Telecoms.com periodically invites third parties to share their views on the industry’s most pressing issues. In this piece Jeremy Payne, International VP Marketing at Enghouse Interactive looks at the growth of digital customer service and warns that a balance needs to be struck with the traditional channels.

Most businesses have accepted that digital customer service represents the way forward. It is happening, whether they like it or not.  What many organisations are wrestling with, however, is what is the right balance between digital and human? When should they use a digital and when a manual approach.

The bottom line here is that customer satisfaction is always key. If companies get their automation versus manned service balance wrong, they will end up impacting customer satisfaction – which could cascade down into their brand perception; transaction volumes and value – with potentially disastrous results.

The starting point for any business, therefore, should always be understanding and then optimising the customer journey. How do they best set up the customer journey to ensure they achieve the right blend of speed, efficiency, customer effort and lower cost?

That requires a great deal of care and attention. To succeed in this undertaking, organisations need to adopt a carefully pre-planned approach. They need to spend time upfront ensuring they get to know their customers, their likes, dislikes and preferred interaction modes. They need to think about customer personas and how they can segment them by type.

These personas and the process of segmenting them will be key when considering the kinds of customer journey types to put in place. It might be, for example, that most customers are millenials who are heavy users of Instagram and are used to using AI and automated systems and interacting in a visually-based way. Conversely, it might be that they are mainly baby boomers who continue to favour face-to-face or traditional fixed-line interactions. Either way, the key characteristics and preferences of their core customer base will likely have a significant influence on the kinds of interaction channels that businesses implement.

Onward March to Self-service

That said, the direction of travel is towards more self-service and automation. Back in 2011, it was analyst Gartner that predicted that by 2020 customers would manage 85% of their relationship with the enterprise without interacting with a human. A growing number of customers are demanding service anytime, anywhere, anyhow from the businesses with which they are engaged. In response, these businesses are happy to invest more in automated self-service in order to empower their customers to do more of the routine and straightforward interactions themselves over channels like Interactive Voice Response (IVR); webchat, and text message.

The natural progression of this move to a more automated approach is the gradual emergence of AI in customer service applications and we are now beginning to see this happening. The advance of cost-effective speech recognition and real-time speech analytics is helping signpost a new age of customer service, where robots are starting to mimic or emulate human-like behaviour. Moreover, many businesses are now using chatbots to kick-start customer conversations and, if the query is straightforward, to provide quick and easy answers without the need to involve humans at all.

The Importance of the Human Touch

However, self-service, automation and robotic technology do continue to have their limitations. Where they continue to fall short today is on those occasions where there is some kind of issue. Straight-through processes may work well for many operational tasks on 95% of occasions but for the other 5%, a human touch will always be necessary.

Interactions that are both complex and heavily regulated will typically need an element of human intervention. An individual taking out a life insurance policy or a mortgage for the first time is a classic example. It’s a major decision likely to be set in stone for many years while also incurring large amounts of fees. While you can often initiate a starter process online you are unlikely to be able to finish it without the help and advice of a human adviser.

The other key area where a human touch will always be necessary is where interactions cannot be handled effectively by normal, straight-through processes. Even with optimum planning and engineering of the customer journey, there will always be some customer engagements complex enough to require human involvement. It’s important that organisations not only recognise this but put sufficient skilled resources in place to manage it.

The final area is what McKinsey terms “moments of truth: those interactions – for instance, a lost credit card, a cancelled flight, a damaged piece of clothing, or investment advice – when customers invest a high amount of emotional energy in the outcome.” Customers may become agitated, stressed and even angry. In such scenarios, it is unlikely to be the correct decision to leave them to deal with a robot. Humans are better at empathy. They can understand the customer’s concerns, put themselves in a comparable situation and offer advice that is not just accurate and informed but reassuring and calm. Customers who receive such service at these ‘moments of truth’ are also ultimately likely to demonstrate much higher levels of long-term loyalty to the business.

It’s clear then that while the ongoing move to self-service, robotic technologies and AI will undoubtedly continue, there will always be a place for humans within the contact centre and as part of a customer service offering more generally. The businesses that succeed in this complex new customer interaction environment will be those that strike the right balance between the automated and the manned.