Data empowerment key to customer experience in telecoms

As telecoms providers digitally transform, put customer-centricity at the heart of their business, data becomes the new battleground

Across Europe, telecoms providers are looking to unleash the power of their data. At no point in history has so much information been generated; smartphone habits, media consumption, customer service calls, online behave and interaction is all being collected. It’s a goldmine for telcos able to act on it -- and they increasingly realise its potential.

However, data protection and privacy issues are still looming large with the likes of the EU’s GDPR legislation holding sway. This sets clear boundaries for telecom players in Europe. Yet, when the customer experience is such a fiercely contested battleground and with so much more data being collated, it raises new questions. 

“Data is gold, but it’s not our gold, it’s the customer’s gold. So, we need to earn it via trust and do something useful with it,” says Urs Reinhard, chief digital and customer officer at UPC in Switzerland.

Trust is a key theme in terms of what data is collected, what telecoms providers do with it and how it translates into the customer experience. Aside from banks, telecoms providers probably have more data points on customers than any other industry. They are in a privileged position.

The aim is to be able to offer customers more personalised, intelligent and proactive services, without being intrusive or invading people’s sense of privacy, but achieving this is a very fine balance. “Some interactions are perceived as valuable; others are seen as creepy. There is a debate in the sector in terms of setting the right rules, the need to create transparency, as well as how to navigate those boundaries at the moment,” says Dirk Grote, senior director, industry advisory, communications for EMEA at Salesforce.

At the same time, customer expectations are skyrocketing. Data-enabled leaders such as Netflix or Amazon have set the bar high in terms of customer service, interaction and usefulness. This influences the expectations in other sectors of the economy, including telecoms. 

“These businesses are not typically competitors for telecom providers. However, they have set consumer expectations for good, relevant digital experiences. If consumers have high expectations that are not met on a telco site, it leaves people feeling disappointed. This is bad for churn rate, cross-selling and upselling,” adds Sami Helin, sales director for EMEA at Coveo.

Time for a more proactive experience

Most improvements in customer experience for telcos are incremental gains, including slightly better services, faster reactions to problems or more personalised recommendations. This comes as providers get better at mapping customer journeys, joining the dots on bundled services or sharing data between operations and customer service teams.

However, another battleground for providers involving the use of data, requires companies to pre-empt issues such as outages, problems with phone lines, repairs or configuring home wifi. A more proactive approach is needed to meet these challenges. This involves informing customers before an incident happens, sending out tools so they can self-diagnose problems or preventing incidents in the first place.

If a customer has to call a service centre, this costs money and eats into the bottom line. The less customer service time someone needs for solving problems the more revenue providers make -- more than on upselling incremental services. Avoiding half of the telephone calls that providers get a year and half of the interventions could see hundreds of millions of euros saved. This is worth investment from providers.

Everything we do in the future is about customer data. As telecom providers we need to get much better at understanding the data space, breaking down silos, promoting data cultures so we have an end-to-end view of the customer. This is vital

“The key here is to prevent the need for customer interactions, this is a crucial thing to achieve. The idea that you don’t need to call me, or you don’t need to try to find a solution by yourself because I know before you know that you’re going to experience something, and I can tell you how to solve it before you have to experience it. With data and technology today this is totally feasible,” says Jean-Pascal van Overbeke, chief consumer market at KPN in the Netherlands.

Van Overbeke adds: “I think the industry can do a lot better and a lot more. I think that it’s not extremely complicated. But we need to add value to the customer experience.”

Telecom providers across Europe are looking into extending their services whether it is acting as a media platform, offering telemedicine, smart-home solutions, home security, even electric vehicle charging. At the heart of this customer experience expansion is data and knowing what the customer really wants and when they need it.

“Everything we do in the future is about customer data. As telecom providers we need to get much better at understanding the data space, breaking down silos, promoting data cultures so we have an end-to-end view of the customer. This is vital,” says Reinhard.

Customers are not always willing to pay higher prices for telecoms services, it is treated increasingly like a utility, the market is therefore fiercely competitive in many nations across Europe. Investments needed for new services can also be high. This is where time-to-market for new products matters, where first-mover advantage is critical.

“As we get more data, and we can gain more insights from it by leveraging artificial intelligence and machine learning, this allows us to be able to deploy new products faster, react to customer needs more quickly with a focus on improving the customer experience, and getting new services into the market at speed,” says Dr. Mariam Kaynia, vice president and director of architecture, strategy and analytics for Telefonica Germany.

“There is another opportunity with data and that is reducing the cost of ownership. In order to be able to make the right trade-off decisions on where to deploy the next network upgrade or where to deploy the next euro investment to get the highest value back or how to automate our network deployment and operations. You need a lot of data connected end-to-end across all of your systems and containing all types of information, in order to make better data-driven decisions.” 

Data needs to be treated like any other critical asset. It must have priority at the top of the company, at the boardroom level. It is now about the c-suite, as well as all departments, understanding the ‘art of the possible’ with data. The business case for actionable data is therefore increasingly palpable.

Omnichannel issues

Data in the telecoms space is not restricted to one channel. Providers are now interacting with customers and collecting information in an omni-channel environment via chatbots, smartphone texting, webpages and audio calls. Joining the dots and being proactive with customer service can be an issue.

“How do you translate the fact that you see your customer going three times to the same webpage to try and solve a problem and yet using this information proactively can be an issue? Yes, I know, the customer is going to call me, you know something is going to have to be done to resolve this problem. But how do you use that data and be proactive without invading the customer’s privacy? This is still something that needs to be managed. The predictive part is something we are focusing on,” says Van Overbeke.

Further investments by telecoms providers to provide even better customer experiences that are more personalised, intelligent, intuitive, genuine and proactive should be expected. As should experiences that are more data-driven, with greater use of artificial intelligence and machine learning.

“What will happen in parallel is a debate in society. Where is the line that we want to walk as a society? What is acceptable and what is not acceptable? And how do we balance the benefits and the tradeoffs? And I would say there is a question over society’s contract with this, in terms of what we are willing to accept,” says Grote.

This is where trust comes in and how telecom players can create a better atmosphere of trust. This has to be earned; reputation is vital in this space. An excellent customer experience also breeds trust, and the best experiences are supported by simplified, straightforward services that win over hearts and minds. “Giving back the control to the customer so they are in control of the experience is crucial. Once we have done that and the customer feels that we are genuine in giving them control, it will enable us to not only improve the experience, but to start to add further layers of new services,” says Van Overbeke.

“More customers have the desire to be in control not only in terms of what data they share or don’t want to share, but also know when the experience happens. For instance, I want to be able to do it at night, at the weekend, whenever, I don’t want to be constrained by opening times. Any interaction with a brand needs to be 24-7, instantaneous and it has to work all the time.”

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