Differentiating with customer care

With customers today demanding full control of their mobile services, seamless mobility and outstanding convenience, operators have no choice but to focus on improving customer interaction.

Looking after the customer will be the real differentiator for operators moving forward since good customer care is more difficult to duplicate than new services or price plans, Comptel's Olivier Suard told Telecom Asia.

The results of a Telecom Asia-Stratecast survey of operators across Asia Pacific show that more than 60% of respondents indicated that customer care/self-care and customer experience management (CEM) are the customer-oriented functions receiving the most attention. For both functions this is 10-percentage-point jump from a year ago (see charts on next page) and reflects operators increased focus on providing a quality customer experience across multiple services.

A survey of mobile operators in the UK showed that MVNO Virgin Mobile had a higher rating overall than the network provider. "It came down largely to customer service (good or bad) is what sticks in customers' mind, and therefore has a direct influence on propensity to spend and churn," Suard said.

The increased attention on self-care is obviously driven in large part by costs advantages but also the need to put the customer in control at his convenience. This is required to guarantee customers' instant access to their personal profiles and account information, said Andreas Freund from Orga Systems.

"Self-care solutions make life easier for both the carrier and subscribers. Offering several easy-to-choose query choices and profile update options, subscribers can gather information on their bonus or account queries, request to change tariffs, update of frequent numbers, or can carry out a self-registration."

Turning back to customer-oriented functions getting the most attention, business analytics together with business intelligence (BI) was a distant third - with 32% of respondents saying the area was a receiving the most attention, down from 36% last year.

In a major change from a year ago, content partner management moved into fourth place from eighth last year, with the percentage say this is getting the most attention doubling from 15% in 2009 to 31% this year.

Operators were giving less attention to interconnect and cost management (down to 23% vs 33% last year) as well as revenue assurance. Despite being combined with fraud in this year's survey, only 22% said it was getting the most attention (compared to 38% last year for RA alone) - falling to eighth place from third just a year ago.

Looking at companies' top OSS/BSS initiatives this year, this year's survey results showed a continued focus on service quality, which was ranked top for the second straight year - after jumping sharply last year to overtake new services (see chart at the left).

There was little change in the priority of these initiatives compared to last year. But one shift was the rising importance of service bundling, which ranked eighth in 2009 and moved up to fourth, with 43% of respondents saying it was the most important initiative.

Quite simply, bundled services have moved up because operators are beginning to understand what customers want.

"It isn't just about voice, or video, or broadband access," insists Karl Whitelock, a senior consulting analysts with Stratecast, a division of Frost & Sullivan. "It's about providing customers with choice and rewarding them with discounted offers if they choose the same operator to fulfill their needs."

He said we're going to see this concept take on even more significance in the months ahead as competitive offers increase, networks become more integrated, and as operators better focus on meeting customer needs which goes way beyond simple "technology only" offers.

Losing significance was FMC, which dropped from fourth to fifth - only 27% said it was a top priority compared to 37% a year ago. Process changes also dropped - from 27% saying they were the most important initiative last year to 21% this year.

Network upgrades/convergence again ranked the No. 2 priority, with 58% of those surveyed saying it was most important. And faster launch of new services was third, with almost half of respondents considering it a high priority.

In charge of CEM

The number of operators indicating they are running a CEM program has doubled over the past two years - from 34% in 2008, to 58% last year, to 66% in 2010. Whitelock said this represents the continued emphasis on customer service quality as a significant part of operators' business strategy.

Customer-care departments are increasingly leading CEM programs - from 26% last year to 38% this year (see chart above). Sales and marketing was No. 2, controlling 24% of the CEM programs (up from 21% last year).

The increased interest in CEM from customer-facing teams is attributed to operators starting to invest in real-time communication and customer interaction capabilities.

"Direct communication solutions have to provide operators with a wide range of applications and products to ease service usage and to enhance subscriber self-care capabilities. Continuous interaction is the necessary tool for operators to establish a closer and deeper relationship with the customer," said Orga's Freund.

Network departments also were more likely to lead CEM teams (from 9% a year ago to 13%) while both the executive office and IT where less likely (see chart above).

The survey found that 72% of those polled said they use data analytics and BI to better anticipate customer needs - almost a 10-percentage point gain from a year ago.

Sales and marketing departments were the most frequent user of this capability, representing half of all users (up from 36% in 2009). Customer care and product management both dropped off sharply from last year - falling to 13% from 25% and 8% from 15% respectively (see chart at the left).

The telecom industry has typically lagged behind many industries in its understanding of customers and use of BI. Consider how well large retailers know their customers, whether as groups or individuals, said Suard from Comptel.

For every retail buying decision, the consumer has a choice from whom they will buy, so unlike operators, retailers have to fight for every transaction and cannot lock their customers into contracts.

"But the trend going toward is a model where customers will have the choice for every service they want. Operators need to develop a much better understanding of their customers so that they can personalize services to incentivize them to buy from them," he said.

For the past three years, 22% of respondents said they are struggling with systems integration and process automation but no action has been taken. Some 49% said it's a concern and action is being taken (up from 44% last year, but down significantly from 58% in 2008).

The question is why have more than a fifth of operators been unable to address this problem? The issue of integration has been the cause of escalating costs and indeed the cancellation of projects as long as OSS and BSS have existed, Suard explained.

"Integration is typically more complicated than operators, vendors and integrators think or admit. Typically, OSS and BSS systems touch on many other systems, some very old, some undocumented, some on completely different hardware and software platforms, some simply not designed to be integrated with."

He said that with costs scrutinized carefully, you would expect integration issues to be looked at carefully and potentially radical action taken.

Trust in the cloud

With people using cloud-based data storage as an economical and simple way to access their information, the issue of security is currently a hot button. Business customers store sales, management and production information while consumers upload personal content.

Asked how secure they'd consider this information, the results shows almost an even split between "not convinced it's secure" (32%), "well-protected and have no worry" (31%) and "secure but concerned about access" (30%). Another 8% said it would be "easily accessible by anyone that wants it bad enough" (see chart below).

Making the equation more personal by asking if they would store personal content or their company's data to a cloud-based site, almost 50% said "yes for some things but not for sensitive or strategic data". A total of 19% said "no, this is not something to do under any circumstances" while another 19% said "no, the data would not be secure enough for our purposes". Just 12% said the data would be secure.

Some 36% of those surveyed said real-time charging is very important for cloud-based services so they can charge on a per-use basis. Twenty percent thought it was extremely important. Just 11% felt it wasn't important at all while 33% said it was somewhat important but not essential because most cloud-based services are offered as regular subscriptions, not on a per-use basis.

To support cloud-based services, more than three-quarters of respondent said they need to improve or replace their billing and customer care offerings while 64% said that service delivery and activation need attention before they could launch cloud services.