Soft Cell

Not too long ago, “customer acquisition” was something of a dirty term in the cellular industry. Operators were queasy with the hangover from their land grabbing activities and the focus turned to customer retention as they sought to identify the highest value customers and keep them in the fold.

The industry operates on cycles, though, and acquisition has now come back to the fore—driven, as much within the industry is today, by the arrival of the smartphone era. That era, of course, was ushered in by the iPhone and—yet again—Apple’s influence can be detected in some of the key shifts that we are witnessing.

While retail is once again a key priority for operators, the focus is less on shifting boxes and signing up cud-munching consumers than on using this first point of contact as a launch pad for the somewhat ephemeral Customer Experience. The ideal is that everything the operator’s brand stands for can somehow be distilled into a retail experience that leaves each customer feeling so happy with the product they’ve bought that they never want to churn. Nowhere else in the mobile operator’s business is the ideal more divorced from the reality.

Network technology, broadly speaking, works. And when something goes wrong with it, the problem can be identified and fixed. This is because technology obeys laws of physics. People are an altogether more unpredictable element of the operator’s world—employees as well as customers—and this is what makes customer experience management in general, and retail in particular, such tricky games to play.

Nonetheless, the retail phase of the customer lifecycle is benefiting from a great deal of analysis and investment as operators try to refine their acquisition activities. Greater sophistication in the retail process is necessary because of greater sophistication in the devices and services being retailed—and the blend of channels being used by operators to initiate contracts is a delicate balancing act.

In addressing the retail experience they offer as smartphones become more pervasive, operators need to look at potential retail outcomes. According to Tim Deluca-Smith , VP for marketing at customer experience specialist WDS, there are four potential destinations in retail, and only one of them is good.

The first sees the customer taking ownership of the device and finding, after some initial experimentation, that they are defeated by the complexity of the handset and/or the associated services. The user then reverts to basic service use, such as voice and text. In the second scenario the initial experience is the same but the user is more motivated to overcome their difficulties. In being so, however, they become a support burden to the operator. A third customer might simply return the phone—resulting in wasted time or even churn—while in the fourth, ideal scenario, the customer is well matched to the product and services they have bought, and is well set up to become a profitable user.

“Getting things right in that first retail period will really shape the profitability of the customer,” Deluca-Smith says. “When we do root cause analyses as part of a support contract, it’s amazing how many of the issues can be traced back to a deficiency in the retail phase. Products are too often incorrectly matched or mis-sold.”

The importance of properly aligning customers with products is driving some operators to promote their physical stores in the retail channel mix. Online and call centre sales may well be more convenient and cost effective, but person-to-person interaction is now seen as extremely important by operators looking to inject the customer experience into the retail process.

The influence of Apple’s retail stores cannot be overestimated here. Vodafone’s director of content services, Lee Epting, says that, “in terms of retail customer experience, Apple set the bar with its Genius Bar.” This facet of Apple’s retail environment, where a number of in-store agents are trained to an expert degree in the firm’s products and solutions, enabling them to answer any customer query or demonstrate any process, is a defining element of the firm’s customer experience. There is a very short evolutionary line between Apple’s Genius Bar and O2UK’s Guru programme, introduced in 2010.

In the run-up to Christmas 2011, there was a two-week waiting list for an appointment with an O2 Guru at the firm’s flagship store on London’s Oxford Street retail centre, which shows demand exceeding supply, if nothing else. O2 has also set up a YouTube channel for its Guru project, in a bid to catch the overspill of customers looking for that extra level of tuition.

As more and more subscribers upgrade to more sophisticated devices, it seems unlikely that the renewed importance of the physical store will diminish anytime soon.

The average in-store device sale across the industry is getting longer, according to research from WDS, and now sits at around 40 minutes. As more and more subscribers upgrade to more sophisticated devices, it seems unlikely that the renewed importance of the physical store will diminish anytime soon.

This may be a difficult reality for some within operators to accept. For an executive tasked with increasing efficiencies in the retail process, the duration of the sale is a KPI that needs to be reduced, not extended. The longer a sales agent spends talking to a customer who has already decided to buy a device, the less time they will have to convince the next person that comes into the store. But if the extra time spent with that first customer deflects one or two future customer support interactions, it is time well spent.

Programmes like O2’s Gurus are motivated in part by public relations, and rely on glossy visibility to create a sense of the brand values the operator wants to project. But putting the customer experience into the retail phase of the customer lifecycle has to be done throughout the operator’s processes. As WDS’ Deluca-Smith has it: “There’s more to a good retail experience than a shiny store full of good looking people. “

This is especially true given that not all retail activity happens in-store. While Vodafone’s Lee Epting argues that remote retail channels “will never be that significant overall,” because, “users want to be able to touch the devices and discuss them with knowledgeable staff,” the fact is that, for some customers, online retail, online chat and call centre sales are actually preferable.

“These kind of channels were originally introduced as a cost reduction,” says Igor Sarenac, VP for communications at Convergys. “But things have changed. The younger and upcoming generations simply prefer the web channel. And that’s the generation that will be around for a very long time.”

These users might not research their purchases in store, preferring to rely on online comparisons, social media and unofficial user feedback to help them make their decisions. They will then look to make the purchase online. Clearly in this environment it is more difficult for operators to inject customer experience into the retail process than when they are presenting users with an in-store ambassador for the brand.

Most operators have automated, database-oriented systems that allow users to create what they’re told is a “bespoke” package by selecting services they like to use and the volume of minutes, text messages or data they might consume (largely useless in the last case since almost nobody understands the correlation between content consumption and data consumption). But these are inherently restrictive and, if an operator wants to project the customer experience through online chat or call centre retail processes, flexibility and dynamism are paramount.

Perhaps ironically, given Lee Epting’s comments, one of the carriers most adept at this—according to Igor Sarenac—is Vodafone. “They try to be able to respond to anything a customer wants in real time, to be as dynamic as possible,” he says. “What they try to do is to say “yes” to customers.” Clearly injecting customer experience into the retail process is about moving away from price as a differentiator, rather than simply meeting customer’s tariff demands, but Sarenac suggests it is a more subtle approach.

“The idea is to create a positive relationship with the client, to say “yes” even when you don’t really mean it. You might be saying that certain things are possible, but explaining to the customer that there are certain requirements that have to be met in order to get those things,” he says. “Clients are much more receptive to this approach than to being told that they’re not eligible for something, or not entitled to it. Operators need to satisfy customer needs in a way that suits their business. Don’t turn down the client, given them a choice. Because if you push back, the client will go somewhere else and never come back,” he says.

Operators are now using online chat sales agents to snare potential customers that are browsing their retail sites comparing tariffs and handset pricing. The offer of a chat session is triggered automatically and the potential customer is questioned by a real person and responded to in real time. The appeal of this channel for operators is that, in a world where consumers have rejected off-shore call centres because of language and accent barriers—and because of a feeling of remoteness—it offers the best of both worlds. Written communication skills can be higher in off-shore environments than spoken communication skills, drawing a veil over the fact that the transaction is being conducted across a gap of thousands of miles.

Native speakers of the language might see through the veil, though, as operators in some cases are carefully scripting the responses that their agents are permitted to give, in line with their desire to create a positive “yes” environment. Indeed, according to Sarenac, ‘soft skills’ is an area drawing increasing investment from operators looking to set themselves apart on customer experience.

But retail is not an environment in which many people look to forge a career. Even in a flagship store in a European capital, the staff are likely to view their roles as transitory—12 months to two years to earn some money, and then off they go to do something else. Retail is a high turnover environment and yet operators must invest in training to ensure that their sales agents are winning the customers personal investment as well as their financial one.

And this is the biggest problem with customer experience in retail: An operator can have the best systems in place, the most dynamic approach to tariff building and a chief of retail sitting in head office who genuinely believes in the sales environment they are trying to create. But it simply cannot be guaranteed that the person standing face to face with the customer, on the other end of the phone, or typing responses into the chat window, will be motivated to act as an ambassador for the customer experience.

Customer experience is people dependent—and people are nowhere near as dependable as the technology mobile operators employ them to sell.


One comment

  1. Avatar Henrik 27/02/2012 @ 4:58 pm

    Hi Mike,
    great article! It is rare to find someone writing this openly about the real challenges with on- and offline customer experiences.

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