By some measures the global mobile telecommunications business is in very good shape. There are six billion mobile phone subscriptions worldwide. Mobile data rates are nearly doubling every year. Vodafone, the world's largest mobile telco group, made profits of $18B in 2011. In some parts of the world, mobile has leapfrogged conventional fixed line telephony infrastructure. India, for example, now has an astonishing 870M mobile subscriptions compared to just 33M fixed lines.
However, in other respects, and especially in developed markets, life is becoming difficult. The rise of the smartphone has weakened the relationship mobile telcos have with their subscribers. Years ago, people would ask what network one used. Now, it's all about what smartphone one uses. Widespread number portability means end users can move networks easily. Up to 40% of a network's subscribers move to another network (or "churn") each year. SMS, for a long time a reliable source of revenue, is declining. Ovum, a telco analyst firm, recently estimated that revenue from SMS services was down $14B in 2011. This is down, again, to smartphones and their support for free instant messaging networks.
In summary, mobile telcos are in danger of just becoming bitpipes to the Internet, and as such viewed as utilities together with those providing electricity and water. Essential yes; differentiated no. Mobile telcos hate this.
So what to do? In my discussions with telcos one theme is coming out loud and clear. Telcos need to get vastly better at becoming responsive to how their end users are using the network. Better at understanding their usage habits, their service problems, predicting when users are about to churn and becoming a more intrinsic part of one's "mobile life". And vital to this is responding to user usage patterns in real-time, not hours, days or weeks later. Telcos see this as a key way to not only re-establish their brand with end users but as a key way of increasing revenue, reducing costs and reducing churn.
The approaches that telcos are taking fit into, as I see it, two broad areas, the first being customer care.
Anyone who's used a mobile network has experienced a dropped call. The unexpected termination of a call midway through a conversation is always intensely frustrating. Of course, some are excusable, such as when making a call on a train when it enters a tunnel, but if too many occur too regularly confidence in the network lapses.
Mobile telcos know this, and monitor networks for dropped calls. Conventionally this is done using a historical data analysis approach which means that by the time a set of dropped calls is spotted and the user is communicated with it may well be too late. At best user confidence in the network will be reduced, at worst the user will already have churned.
This is where a more responsive approach is critical. Not only do the dropped calls need to be spotted immediately - for example 3 sets of 2 dropped calls within 30 minutes - but they need to be responded to immediately. If a subscriber receives a text message acknowledging a problem as the situation is occurring, it is far more relevant and meaningful. It looks as if the telco is on top of things and, furthermore, actually cares. A message apologizing for poor service days after the event is worthless.
Customer service benefits from spotting an individual's dropped calls. But by correlating many different instances of dropped calls it's possible to identify wider issues too. Perhaps a set of users within the same cell are having repeated problems, suggesting a problem with the cell itself.
Reducing churn, reducing costs
There are other customer service indicators too such as whether a user's calls have dropped in frequency or duration. Social networks can be examined for current sentiment. And customers having problems can both be communicated with and also be sent loyalty offers to further increase the chance of retaining their business.
A more responsive, real-time view of customer service reduces churn so reducing the costs of acquiring new customers. Furthermore, the costs of running customer help centres is reduced as fewer disgruntled customers will be calling in to complain.
Dealing with customer service problems is one clear way that telcos can re-establish a closer relationship with their customers. Another is becoming far more core to a user's whole mobile centred experience. I'll be writing about that next time.
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