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Vodafone decides to get serious about customer services

Vodafone Demonstration

As the mobile world becomes increasingly competitive Vodafone is focusing on the one area is has cost most conspicuously wrong in recent years – customer services.

It might sound like a tried and tested idea, but we are talking about the telco industry here, which is routinely at the bottom of customer satisfaction surveys and where frustration is accepted as the status quo. How many of us have had to waste away hours on the phone trying to speak to someone? To be honest, it’s a coin toss as to which is worse; calling your mobile provider or your local council.

But when other providers are looking to tired celebrities to boost the brand or buying content offerings to create the impression of more, Vodafone is tackling the customer services challenge as a means to retain customers.

“More recently, my remit has been to address the customer services challenges,” said Neil Blagden, Director of Commercial & Customer Operations at Vodafone UK. “We haven’t been great at customer services in the past and that needs to change.”

Over the last couple of years, Vodafone has been one of the worst offenders for poor network performance and customer satisfaction. November 2015 was described by Blagden as the peak of the challenge; the company’s Net Promoter Score was as low as -36%. Even for the telcos, that is pretty poor. But the team claim this is now firmly in the past.

In a couple of weeks, Ofcom will release figures for the best and worst when it comes to customer complaints. These figures are under embargo right now, but Blagden hinted the Vodafone performance is better than in previous quarters. Maybe in line with the industry average, whereas it has been four times as high.

Almost all of this is down to the last 18 months work. It has been a period of fixing problems as opposed to doing anything proactive, but considering the position Vodafone was in…

According to Blagden, they have been fixing about 100 problems a month, whether they be system, procedure or policy. The team have closed 12 contact centres which we either underperforming or undersized. Moving forward, the contact centres will be consolidated into larger and more efficient machines (six will be in the UK, while the other four will be in Egypt and India), while the team will also be taking more control of the partner sites

Another big change will be on the digital front.

“We been in the wilderness from the digital perspective, if we’re honest about it,” said Blagden. “We want to change this so we can recruit good people and be seen as an innovator.”

The first idea is the Message Us initiative, which is essentially Vodafone’s own chat service for customer service agents. It’s basically an instant messenger service which is available through the Vodafone app and Facebook Messenger. It’s a different way to engage with customers which offers a bit more flexibility, and it was pretty good from what we saw in the demo.

Rule number one is that the customer is connected to the same agent when possible. It provides consistency and a more personal element to the conversation. Should the agent not be available, the customer is given the option to transfer to another agent, or wait until the next working day should the issue not be that pressing. The history of previous conversations is also saved in the chat screen, and should you close down the window it doesn’t mean the conversation ends. You’ll receive a notification on your phone and can pick up the conversation as and when.

It’s a very simple, but effective idea. Not only does it work for customers who want to do other things at the same time, but the agents can also deal with other customers at the same time. The agent could be dealing with up to 20 customers at a time, depending on how quickly they are responding.

Another very clever idea is the implementation of sentiment analysis technologies. Throughout the conversation, the sentiment of the conversation is being analysed and should it detect that there was a negative relationship between the agent and the customer, the two will not be paired next time the customer gets in touch. Again, simple but effective.

Voice recognition software will also play a bit more of a significant role here, both from an authentication and time-saving perspective. For authentication, customers will be given the option to create a vocal signature which can be used instead of the normal data protection questions. And on the time saving side of things, you’ll be able to tell the system what you want to do as opposed to going through the painful process of pressing one, then two, then one again etc. etc.

Once you’ll told the system what you want to do, and then verified yourself through saying ‘My voice is my password’, the agent is notified of your query and the fact you have actually verified yourself. In theory, there is no need to repeat anything and you can kick straight on. Once again, a simple but effective idea.

This feature will be launched in the near future (as an opt-in), and while it is only for those customers calling contact centres for the moment, there are plans to expand it to other touch points, like the app for instance.

The final area is TOBi, a virtual customer services assistant who will assist customers with the more simplistic requests. It is a chatbot, but the team are hoping TOBi will be able to deal with up to 70% of requests, some as simple as locating the nearest Vodafone shop. TOBi can answer simple queries which are tied to a database, but it can also go into a customer’s account and verify other aspects, such as how much data is left or whether a customer will be charged for using their phone abroad.

At the moment, it is pretty simplistic transactional conversations, but there is scope for more. TOBi can help with 11 ‘customer journey’s’ currently, though the team are testing new ideas and making the system more advanced. As with everything related to artificial intelligence, it is a trial and error process, collecting data to make the system more efficient.

Sentiment analysis will also be applied here in both the conversation and customer history. Should TOBi detect the conversation is going negatively, it will suggest connecting the customer to a real person. This will also be logged as a preference for that customer moving forward. For the fourth time, a simple idea, but an effective one.

Vodafone has long been known for being pretty bad at customer services, though it is one of the few which is putting such a level of attention into improvements. Some might argue that this isn’t necessarily a massive improvement, it is simply bringing Vodafone in line with the expectations of other verticals, but you have to start somewhere.

Overall, a lot of simple ideas. But the simple ones are often the best ones.


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