Don’t talk to me about customer experience until you stop taking me for a fool

I always vowed never to write a piece based on my own personal experience as a telecoms consumer. But I am excusing myself just this once because two things happened to me in the last week that have caused me to question whether operators really are committed to improving the customer experience. And just to be clear, I am adopting a broad definition here of customer experience rather than the narrow big data and analytics part of the equation.

Strictly speaking, the first thing happened to my partner rather than to me. My partner has never been a big fan of mobile phones. She was late to get her first mobile phone and late to start texting. But like many such people she couldn’t now live without her mobile. Last week when her phone kept crashing every time she tried to delete a text message she called her service provider to ask for a new phone. It turned out that her (two year) contract had expired a month ago and, as such she was due a free upgrade. So far, so good.

But when she asked for the same type of phone as her current one – a Nokia feature phone used just to make calls and send messages – she was told by the customer service representative that there were no feature phones in stock and that he could only offer her a touch-screen smartphone or a Blackberry. He recommended a Samsung Galaxy S because “I’ve got one and I really like it”.

When my partner told me about her experience I suggested that she did what every discontented UK mobile phone subscriber does and call her operator back and tell them that she wanted her PAC code to change service provider. By this time she had done her homework and checked out the best deals available in the market. So when she was put through to the disconnections team she knew exactly how hard she could negotiate. And lo and behold, she got her Nokia feature phone (the one which was not available when she called the day before) and a much cheaper monthly bundle (£8 per month rather than the £26 she was originally quoted).

The second thing that happened to me last week was a far more positive mobile operator encounter.

On Saturday morning I noticed that I was getting no signal on my phone. I had to go into my local high street to run some errands and took the opportunity to pop into my service provider’s retail outlet to see if they could diagnose the problem. They checked the SIM in another phone, discovered that it wasn’t working and gave me a new one there and then. The shop assistant called up customer service from inside the store and told me that the SIM should be working in a few hours. Staff in the shop were thoroughly efficient, knowledgeable and we then talked briefly about my phone and what I was thinking of getting when I next upgraded.

Such experiences have a big impact on what we think of our service provider. Research by Informa Telecoms & Media indicates that roughly half UK mobile smartphone users do not contact customer services at all over a 12-month period. As such, the touch points that customers do have tend to shape their views of their service provider.

My partner’s experience with her service provider is troubling on a number of levels. Why was she not contacted before her contract ended about an upgrade? Why did the customer service representative not offer her a feature phone? And why did he not try to sell her the benefits of a smartphone or Blackberry rather than just pitching them as “nice to have” phones. I am sure that my partner would welcome having email on her phone but she needs to be persuaded that it is easy to set up and use.

I also wonder why we have come to accept that you only get a good deal on your upgrade if you know the rules that the operators play by and have to go through the rigmarole of saying that you are leaving. Should good customers get good deals or only the ones that are prepared to shout loudest?

And is it surprising that many people distrust their service provider? This opinion is reinforced by operator policies towards overage (out of bundle usage) where users can often end up doubling their monthly spend if they fail to keep track of how many calls they are making, text messages they are sending or megabytes they are using.

The irony is that this approach often backfires because there is nothing that people dislike more than the feeling that they are being exploited. Would mobile users drive such a hard bargain if they had a little more respect for their service provider?

My own experience made me think about how operates exploit their high street presence. Should operators view their retail outlets as shops or as an extension of their customer service? When I visited my shop at the weekend it was empty so there was no cost to them of sorting out my SIM card. Why don’t operators get proactive about using their retail presence more strategically? How about offering their most loyal high-spending customers the chance to road-test some of their new devices before deciding on an upgrade? Could shops be doing more to persuade prepaid users to upgrade to smartphones and data plans by showing them how easy it is use email or Facebook.

Customer experience management has become a strategy priority for mobile operators over the last one to two years. A lot of work is now going into loyalty programs and CEM solutions which allow the operator to respond to (and predict!) mobile usage trends and habits. But such approaches will only prove successful if all the customer-facing functions see the benefits of working together to provide a consistent and positive experience to their users.

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