How to (mostly) succeed in Asian telecoms

If there's a telco exec who deserves a hearing on his Asian experience, it's Sigve Brekke, the man who leads the most successful non-Asian telco in the region.
 
Brekke, Telenor executive vice president and head of the Norwegian telco's Asian operations, shared his top four tips at the GSMA Mobile Asia Congress on Wednesday. 
 
His credentials? He's been with Telenor's Asian business for more than a decade, building out operations in Bangladesh, Pakistan, Malaysia, Thailand and, most recently, India (more on India later). 
 
Some 90 million of Telenor's 195 million global subscribers are in Asia. The crown jewel is GrameenPhone, its Bangladesh JV, worth $6 billion following an IPO last year.
 
Counter-intuitively, Brekke says his biggest priority is not satisfying the customer, or keeping sweet with his business partner, but getting and retaining talent.
 
That's because as operators outsource their networks and everything else, they are becoming sales and marketing machines flogging near-identical products. Staffing is the one clear differentiator.
 
 
Brekke asks his CEOs to identify and cultivate top talent. At any time he has 100 senior execs on secondment to other markets around the region, cross-pollinating expertise as well as developing the skills of those managers. (Related to this, Telenor doesn't impose a uniform brand or service suite across its operations, allowing businesses on the spot to get closer to their customers.)
 
Tip no. 2 is using business intelligence to better target customers to slash churn in what is often a “multi-SIM card environment.” Despite the immense amount of detailed data telcos have on their customers, Brekke notes that the industry sees its market in crudely broad terms, like pre or postpaid.
 
Brekke puts a BI dashboard in his office delivering not weekly but daily sales, subs and other metrics. With the pace of the mobile business in Asia, execs need to be able to monitor and adjust on a daily basis.
 
Third, he's bullish on the potential for the net in emerging Asia. It's the biggest opportunity for cellcos if they can price it right. That means adopting what Brekke calls “prepaid logic” - meaning very low-priced data rates, like 5 rupees (11 cents) a day for some Indian customers.
 
Tip no. 4 is about cutting cost. He sees more infrastructure and even spectrum sharing on the way, and reckons he there's room to cut the top-line promotional budget.
 
Of course, if Brekke knows so much about Asia how come he's doing Telenor's money in India? Investors are demanding the company bail out of the 2G operation, Uninor, which lost 3.4 billion kroner ($556 million) in its first nine months. 

Brekke says he “really thought hard” before going ahead with the investment. Like everyone else, he's there for the “growth potential.”

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