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Customer experience: The final frontier

By June 8, 2017 No Comments

Excellent customer experience, however – hard to define but easy to recognise – is a space where an operator can innovate in ways that aren’t easy to copy. So why are so few doing so?

A month ago, Openet assessed the state of play in telecoms customer experience through a survey of operators, vendors and analysts, asking – is the customer’s experience of telco improving, and if not – why not? And what are operators doing to raise their profile with their customers and the market?

So first, the bad news – notwithstanding some improvement, half of all operators believe customer experience in the telecoms industry has remained static or has actually got worse over the last 12 months – which, given that customer experience is such a widely acknowledged battleground and market differentiator, seems indefensible.

But what’s impacting on customer experience? What do service providers have to fix?

In terms of culprits or contributors, network quality still leads the way, cited by 20% of respondents – but not by much. In fact, if we sum the respondents that pointed to the quality of mobile and fixed products & services, they would be an even bigger problem for operators. Billing issues are clearly still an issue too – 15% of respondents see them as the number one problem – though this percentage is falling as bills get simpler (and harder to make confusing).

When it comes to communicating with the operator, it’s clear there’s little that customers love less than a call centre. Almost two thirds of respondents see it as the biggest pain point in the customer experience (and that’s the polite version).  Of course this may be at least partly a reflection of the fact that the call centre is more widely used than any other channel, but we know that online apps are also increasingly heavily used, and only a handful of respondents cited apps as a significant problem.

So operators seem to be able to get the automated response working well, but struggle with the human interface – and this was verified later in the survey when we just asked operators about the experience they believed they delivered through various channels. Perhaps not surprisingly, customers seem to prefer self-service to waiting in line and ploughing through seven circles of IVR hell before going through the same process again with a CSR. Perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised that operators are pushing customers towards self-service apps at every opportunity – why spend a lot of money giving them a bad time?

So why is it so hard to delight the telco customer?

For some service providers, cost is the issue, though as we see when looking at the different channel experiences, many are spending a lot of money on initiatives that are never going to make the customer very happy.

For others, their legacy systems are the problem. Challenges here are well documented, but lack of agility from systems that weren’t designed to respond in real-time or to interoperate with other systems and platforms is likely to be a key issue. We see this reflected in the inability of operators to provide a consistent customer experience across all touchpoints – something that was cited by many respondents.

Another major problem is simply knowing how well you’re doing – and whether or not you’re improving. Ten per cent of respondents felt that their inability to measure their customers’ experience was their biggest challenge.

So what levers should operators be pulling to improve customer experience? Where do they have advantages that could be exploited? Leaving aside the perennial need to work on network coverage and quality (which will always be with us), two elements stand out where operators have room to improve:

  • Presenting a consistent face to the customer is very important – whether that’s through the call centre, the store, the online portal or the mobile app – one that has up-to-date and consistent information about the customer and any ongoing dialogue that the customer is having with the operator.
  • Personalisation was cited by almost 20% of respondents – making services fit with customer needs and context – or perhaps even better, allowing customers to do this for themselves (after all, if they prefer self-service, they’re likely to prefer ‘self-tailoring’ their own bundles and products).

But are customers willing to pay for a better experience ? More than two thirds of respondents said that they were – in other words, that they valued their experience over the lowest price. So improving the customer experience can also be seen as a way to avoid being sucked into a price war. If the experience is good, price turns out not to be everything.

Turning to our operator respondents, we then looked at where they are in terms of optimising customer experience to give them the best possible return.

Only 36% regard the customer experience as integral to everything that they do – despite it being widely recognised as the single most important differentiator and contributor to retention and lifetime value. For most operators, customer experience is only integral to certain parts of the business – likely to be the primary customer management functions – but not others. We would argue that almost nothing should happen within the business without asking ‘how will this impact on the customer experience?’

Lack of strategic integration also came up later when we asked operators about their barriers to success. Absence of a clear customer engagement strategy was cited most often, along with a shortage of skills to deliver. Conflict across departments was mentioned by many. All of this suggests that strategic leadership for customer experience is widely lacking. How many operators have dedicated customer experience responsibility at executive level?

In terms of meeting customer requirements, a small majority of operators – around 60% – believe they have a proposition that is broadly relevant to their customer base. Far fewer, however – only around a third – believe they do a good job in terms of making their services easy to use, provoking a positive emotional response from their customers or generally meeting their customers’ needs. Fewer than 25% could send highly contextualised communications to their customers across all their channels of communication – communications that recognise the customer’s service context and situation – though many analysts and indeed 75% of our operator respondents say that these are prerequisite to establishing real emotional connection with customers.

So what does our survey tell us about customer experience in today’s telecoms market? ‘Good in parts’ might be the simplest answer. Improving for sure, but improvement is patchy, and likely to vary considerably from operator to operator. Still plenty of room for improvement, and the key area that jumps out is in automation and digitalisation of the customer interface. The call centre remains unloved and the rising generation of users, accustomed to slick, simple and intuitive interfaces, intolerant of wait and delay, will do anything to avoid it.  Investment in customer self-service for everything from onboarding to service tailoring is likely to improve the customer experience faster than any other initiative, with a knock-on effect on retention, spend and NPS. And with a much quicker payback than investment in customer call centres.