Optimizing the customer experience

It's one of the oldest business cliché in the book: "The customer is always right." The saying originated in the early 20th century either via American department store magnate Marshall Field, UK-based Harry Gordon Selfridge, or possibly even French hotelier César Ritz, who said in 1908, "Le client n'a jamais tort" ("The customer is never wrong"), which is pretty close.

Whatever the origin, the concept of customer-centricity is over a century old, yet for the telecom sector it's a comparatively recent development. Telecoms markets only began privatizing and liberalizing in the mid-80s - in Asia, most didn't get started until the mid-late 90s - and it's not necessary to be customer-focused when you're the only game in town.

That's changing rapidly as competition reaches fever pitch, markets become increasingly saturated, and technologies evolve to the point where having the fastest broadband connection isn't the differentiator it used to be. And in the age of Web 2.0 where end-users are empowered to drive internet content and services over networks, it's little wonder that an increasingly common theme at any given telecoms industry gathering is how the biggest market differentiator for service providers will be the ones who can deliver the best overall customer experience.

But it's also becoming clear that there's a lot more to the customer experience than cool new services, a state-of-the-art billing system and a decent call center - particularly for companies that have traditionally seen their end-users as little more than ARPU generators, and especially as innovation cycles get faster and faster. It's one thing to get into the heads of customers - it's another when they're a moving target.

Where to start? Telecom Asia asked the experts from around the industry. What follows is seven key tips for service providers to consider as they plan their customer-centric strategy and get to grips with providing the best customer experience in town.

Tip 1: Get a CEO (chief experience officer)
Tip 2: Pre-emptive customer service
Tip 3: Faster feedback + seamless delivery
Tip 4: Change your corporate culture
Tip 5: Accurate data experience metrics
Tip 6: Flexible customer service assurance
Tip 7: Invest in analytics

Get a CEO (chief experience officer)

Customers see the entire experience. Appoint someone to see what they see

It would be easy enough to dismiss the ideal customer experience as "whatever the customer wants", or as something that cannot be defined, let alone managed or transformed. But a recent Yankee Group consumer survey demonstrated that customers want their experiences to be:

Transparent. The relationship should be evident and in plain sight at all times, but "fine print" restrictions and caveats are almost always present in customers' experiences with their CSPs. Customers want simpler offers with fewer gotchas. In fact, 54% will even pay more - up to 10% - for bills that do not have surprises.

Consistent. When CSPs promise customers certain coverage, quality, pricing or availability, customers expect consistent behavior from the network, customer care, billing, provisioning and all other touch points.

Dynamic. CSP actions that affect the customer experience must be rapid, personalized, immersive and competitive. Eighty-six percent want contact center agents to be able to see the state of their experience - including network performance - in real time. They want these agents to be able to diagnose and where possible remedy the issues right away.

To date, however, most transformation efforts have been either too CRM- and care-focused, too network-focused or too IT application-centric. And in all cases, they have been driven by cost-reduction goals. Clearly these have benefits, but customers see the entire experience, not just a speedy, efficient CSP infrastructure.

So how to get started? At the highest level of discussion, start by identifying a new CEO - that is, a customer experience officer.

This person should have the organizational clout to work across all lines of business and functional domains to make things happen. They can identify customer-driven measures of performance and experience (not just satisfaction). This allows them to clarify the CSP's business model and simplify the number of offers down to the most important ones, further freeing the company from the burden of the hundreds and even thousands of offers they currently support and to focus investments on the most important changes to be made.

Everyone in the company must have some portion of their annual compensation tied to forward progress of the transformation program and ongoing improvements in the customer experience measurements. This is a simplified view, to be sure, but transformation requires a return to these grass-roots discussions to focus energies on a better overall experience.

- Susan McNeice, VP of software research at Yankee Group


Pre-emptive customer service

Better pre-sale device management and self-service portals can improve customer service

With telcos broadly offering the same products and services across similar price ranges, it is the experience customers receive through customer service and service delivery that provides one of the few differentiators.

However, complications arise because customer expectations are conditioned outside the telecom vertical. They are informed by online and telephone banking, or the 24/7 online retail experience that allows them to choose the hour of delivery. Telcos currently don't offer these levels of flexibility.

For most telecom customers a live customer service representative (CSR) in a call center is the preferred option and first port of call for customer service. However, customers tend to be dissatisfied with the call-center experience. They want shorter waiting times, more CSRs and more knowledgeable and empowered CSRs providing right first time resolution. It is not easy or cheap to meet this requirement.

Across industries the fully loaded cost of answering a customer call across all industries can be between $4 and $6 per live agent call. This is higher for the telecom vertical due to greater product complexity. As high-speed broadband data services become available, the specialist support costs and call duration will escalate. Telcos need to tackle this potential rising cost and hit on the customer experience in two ways.

Firstly, while a large portion of calls to call centers start out as a billing query, the root case is often poor provisioning or a fault with the device. The solution is to preload provisioning and assurance software before distribution, and pre-configure advanced services on smartphones.

Secondly, the telco should offer a personalized self-service portal so the customer can use one ID to activate, change or upgrade their account and pay their bill. They could also use the portal to access a wider support community.

Addressing the ease of access elements in the customer experience equation delivers customer satisfaction. It also removes costs for the telco and improves their operational and process efficiencies, and thus protects the margin.

- Clare McCarthy, lead analyst for telco operations at Ovum

Faster feedback + seamless delivery

Social networks and service delivery standards can fortify your customer experience strategy

Service providers are recognizing that the customer must be thought of as a consumer, not just as a subscriber. In other words, they react to brand message and value choice, and often they are only one unsatisfying experience away from abandoning the relationship. The cost of customer acquisition is significantly higher than the cost of retention, so it's imperative to reduce churn rates.

Data analytics are indeed critical, but service providers no longer have the luxury of time. Running mass studies at the end of a billing cycle is not sufficient to react to customer behavior, because consumer decisions may be made very rapidly following a negative experience.

Instead, we are seeing service providers looking for much more rapid feedback on the perceived customer experience. Increasingly, social networking groups are influencing customer buying decisions and are being "mined" for multiple purposes by CSPs, such as: identification of product advocates, identification of influence leaders, early detection of dissatisfaction, competitive intelligence, etc. It's also becoming possible to target individual customers with offerings that have a high likelihood of purchase/consumption via sophisticated segmentation and campaign management solutions.

However, while CSPs face this new challenge of understanding and paying more attention to customer perceptions and behavior in new, innovative and rapid ways, the service delivery environment is also changing. Increasingly, services are created, delivered and monetized in value chains. The whole app world, content world and cloud world is part of the wider digital economy that everyone is talking about and that telecom is increasingly becoming a part of.

So the other critical and complex CSP focus area is how to ensure seamless delivery of products/services, right across the entire delivery value chain to the end device through the integration of processes and systems with a myriad of suppliers and partners, and how to do this while minimizing the cost of service delivery.

A standards-based approach is critical in this kind of situation - reducing costs through economies of scale and opening up markets with operational standards and frameworks for a wide range of value-chain based business functions that cover the underlying business processes, the information content that is passed to make those processes functional, and the systems that do the work.

- Aileen Smith, VP of collaboration and R&D at the TM Forum

Change your corporate culture

Everyone from low-level employees to top management must be customer-focused

Leaders of the region's telcos are becoming increasing concerned with the concept of customer-centricity. The telecom market is reaching saturation point in many countries; this means that differentiation will become a key weapon for operators as they compete for business. They recognize that focusing on customer satisfaction could be more important than simply trying to expand their subscriber base or market share.

Many in the region have launched initiatives to "put the customer first". However, while slogans such as "Our goal is your satisfaction" or "Unlike our competitors we value our customers and it shows" abound, few companies are as yet achieving their customer-centric aspirations.

In companies where customer-centricity is embedded in the corporate culture, employees make customers the priority and are motivated to make the business successful.

Unfortunately, many still misunderstand the fundamentals of customer-centricity, believing it to be a mere tactic to improve profitability. Others make the mistake of narrowing down customer-centricity to one of its best-known components, customer relationship management. CRM is not an end in itself; it is, rather, a two-way communication gateway between a company and its customers.

That said, however, the CRM system and associated customer information file (CIF) applications are an essential tool for achieving the goal of customer-centricity. They are the medium of dialogue between the company and its customers. Most important, though, is what the company does with the data about and from its customers.

In a customer-centric organization the goal of customer-centricity is completely integrated within the corporate culture, engaging the entire social pyramid from employees to top management. "Customer" is the most commonly heard term within the organization (i.e. "What does the customer want?", rather than "What do we want?").

A well-functioning CRM (and/or CIF) system needs to be leveraged throughout the organization to meet both customer expectations and company objectives. Customer-facing streams, such as marketing, sales and customer services, need to cooperate in analyzing data collected through CRM and defining and executing appropriate actions to satisfy the customer. Each stream's goals should be linked to the overall objective of delivering customer satisfaction, rather than to individual financial or operational goals as is typically the case in a profit-centric organization.

- Zoran Vasiljev, managing partner at Value Partners

Accurate data experience metrics

Know what your data customers are experiencing before they experience it

The ability to define service performance metrics tends to be a key challenge for mobile operators. It is therefore imperative that customer-centric service assurance solutions help guide operators to handle this task effectively.

Today, most operators do not have well-defined metrics for monitoring data performance on a wireless network. Mobile operators are still struggling with exactly how to move from monitoring voice-specific parameters (e.g. the number of dropped calls, voice mail response time, ineffective attempts) to data-specific parameters (e.g. throughput, packet loss, latency). Mobile operators' performance management systems typically monitor packets discarded, errors, throughput, and trunk/port utilization to determine performance. However, most operators lack a good understanding of how to merge these metrics with RF metrics to illustrate wireless data performance accurately.

Real-time correlation of network data with location, profitability, service status and behavior of the customer can provide service providers with unparalleled decision making capability. For example, operators can monitor individual subscribers and corporate customers and their transactions on corporate access point nodes (APNs). Operators can get immediate information on provisioning and configuration issues of corporate subscribers trying to access APNs.

Operators can also identify a potential MSC failure and reroute traffic of their most valuable customers to a different MSC to avoid service degradation while notifying their less profitable subscribers of potential problems and providing them with an estimated timeframe of when the connection and service will be restored.

By combining and comparing dropped calls, service metrics, latency for video-based services, etc, with best-practice KPIs and connecting them with dynamic and static subscriber information, operators can identify cell towers, MSCs and HLRs that are performing badly and impacting service experience of their VIP customers. That will help them take preventive actions like capacity increases, network upgrades, using OTA to update device patches, etc, before the experience of high value customers is negatively impacted by potential service degradation or service failure.

- Ari Banerjee, senior analyst at Heavy Reading

Flexible customer service assurance

There are multiple CSA models. Recommendation: incorporate all of them

Customer/business monitoring and network troubleshooting models have changed significantly over the past five years. Three dominant approaches have emerged. While each is related to the other in meeting the management demands of business operations and focus on the customer, one model is better suited to address the needs of a particular problem than another.

Resource-oriented approach. A few years ago, the network was the service. All parts of a service package were met through the network; hence monitoring the network to make sure everything was fine was good enough to guarantee the quality of a service. Node-related information or call- or session-related information was collected, analyzed and correlated around a network definition.

Customer-oriented approach. This model focuses on individual customers or special groups of customers. It provides excellent insight about the service characteristics experienced by such. In a real-life example involving a mail server failure, a pure network view showed, on average, that 50% of all customer access attempts to the failed primary server did not complete, but because there was a back-up server functioning normally, there was no real customer impact and, at best, a marginal network resource utilization concern.

Service-oriented approach. IP-based analysis provides extremely useful and complete end-to-end service metrics, but it must be combined with telecom-related information, such as user and device IDs or location information, to be truly effective.

The key to an effective customer service assurance strategy is making available and presentable the data that runs all three models through a common user interface, with the flexibility to switch between models to address part of a problem through the lens of one and part of the same problem through the lens of another.

The ultimate goal of this process is to transform huge amounts of data into actionable intelligence through a series of data collection, correlation, reduction, and presentation capabilities. Today's customer-centric business focus demands it. Failing to meet this challenge will ultimately reflect on customer confidence and choice of the best service available.

- Karl Whitelock, Stratecast's director of OSS/BSS strategy

Invest in analytics

The payoff isn't just happier customers, but better business partnerships

Winning and keeping subscribers happy requires CSPs to understand the behaviors of their customers and act upon that intelligence.

For example, understanding failed connections of voice calls or web browser sessions requires intelligence. Billing and customer care platforms, network management, optimization appliances, firewalls and even routers are part of the intelligence infrastructure of a CSP.

Leading CSPs are working to understand these points of information collection and decision-making in their infrastructure, and a key engine for improving the customer experience is investment in analytics - pulling those pieces of data into a common data platform, and automating real-time or historical analysis of full end-to-end operations.

Today only a small handful of people within CSPs have the ability to synthesize information. With advancements in IT technologies and communications industry practices, a systemized approach to analytics is emerging to better serve the customers. Analytics systems are a key step for CSPs to learn how to make their customers happy.

Apart from actually improving the customer experience, however, analytics investment will also serve as an engine for revenue growth. To help open up new opportunities, CSPs will partner with target companies potentially including content owners and vertical industries such as automotive, financial, healthcare and others that intend to work collaboratively with the CSP to deliver services. In doing so, one mechanism of such a business partnership will be aggregated, packaged information.

One important dimension of how analytics investment serves as the engine of customer experience improvement is on the supply side: the relationship between the CSP and its suppliers. For both managed professional services and third-party suppliers, CSPs need to stay aware of and gather information about their infrastructure as well as the value of the services delivered. This means that suppliers to CSPs - especially managed and outsourced suppliers - need to raise the stakes in the information that is shared.

CSPs need business partners to help feed their analytics systems and decision-making efforts. Often well functioning partnerships can be a better arrangement than a "cool" partnership: information (not raw data) is something that can drive and smooth such a relationship. In some cases, CSPs will try to understand their results compared to others using the same services. CSPs will accelerate their use of analytics to push their suppliers for excellence in services-based delivery.

- Elisabeth Rainge, research VP of NGN operations at IDC