Telecoms companies are going through a period of reinvention as they shift from products to services. Elevating customer experience has never been so important
Telecoms markets across northern Europe are shifting rapidly. Product democratisation is entrenched. Loyalty is rock bottom in some countries, while many customers don’t have a deep relationship with their operator. Yet this represents a paradox. Since the pandemic hit, connectivity – via telecoms – is one of the most important aspects of people’s lives.
This is one of the reasons why telecoms providers are looking to redefine customer experience. It’s a new battleground not just for consumer markets, but small business and enterprise sectors as well. Providers are now trying to offer best-in-class experiences, monetise them and become more valuable to their customers. The crucial issue now is how to stay relevant.
“The pandemic really changed the world as we know it. If you think of the way telcos engage their customers, the past model was designed around traditional channels such as in-store or via a phone, so we had direct access. Now we don’t have that direct access mechanism anymore,” says Jasmina Misljencevic, industry solutions lead for comms, media and utilities at Salesforce. “That’s why telcos are really looking to focus on digital experiences right now.”
Delivering on rising expectations is also an issue. One in three consumers, according to research by PwC, say they would walk away from a brand they love after just a single bad experience. Yet fresh investment is tricky. The global telecoms sector is seeing low growth; the industry is constrained and competition is fierce. At the same time, providers need to pay for new technologies such as 5G, software-defined networks or IoT-enabled devices.
“On the one hand, customers are expecting more personalised and relevant digital experiences. On the other, companies must provide those better experiences at a lower cost often with minimal resources. These are pulling companies in opposite directions. All of this is putting tremendous pressure on telecoms companies,” says Sami Helin, global account director at Coveo. He adds: “You cannot match a service person to every customer at scale, it just doesn’t work. You need to look into smarter ways of doing things with modern technologies and trust partners.”
He adds: “You cannot match a service person to every customer it just doesn’t work. You need to look into smarter ways of doing things with modern technologies.”
Companies are raising the bar
Companies such as Amazon, Netflix and Uber have redefined digital and customer experiences and expectations. They’re highly personalised and treat customers as an audience of one. This is creeping into B2B relationships as well. The need for personalisation has raised the bar across every sector, telecoms included.
“What we’ve also seen is the connectivity paradox, ever since Covid. Connectivity is part of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, connectivity to do work, to teach children, to be connected to family and friends. To do leisure and entertainment. It is a core need,” says Filip Nuyts, chapter lead customer experience and product design at Telenet.
He adds: “We are currently offering a highly valued product and service, but we don’t succeed in establishing a deeper relationship with customers. This is where we believe the next frontier of customer experience should be about. It should be about re-establishing the healthy relationship that operators have with their customers.”
One solution to this challenge is for telecom providers to become more customer-centric; to pivot brands so that they are focused directly on answering the needs of customers and clients. This reorientation is happening in parallel to the digitisation of the sector.
“What is different now is that more companies like Ericsson are putting more investment into transformation, particularly digital transformation. The ability to be successful with that is to really understand what a human-centric approach looks like. Companies should be linking the experience better both for your customers and your employees, while you are making these changes,” says Tabitha Dunn, chief customer officer at Ericsson. “You shouldn’t look at customers and how you see them but instead looking at their experiences in terms of how they see you.”
A duality in customer experience
There has been a huge acceleration in data capabilities among telecoms providers, making them increasingly able to offer an improved digital experience. Some providers have also carried out customer journey mapping and research to understand how they can become more customer centric.
“I now see a duality in the customer experience needs,” says Kati Riikonen, vice-president, head of online, marketing and analytics at Telia Finland. Some customers now prefer self-service using a web-based portal with little or no interaction with company representatives, she says. But others require a high-touch service, particularly with more complex product combinations.
Riikonen adds: “Behind the scenes you need to develop artificial intelligence and machine learning, as well as robotics to maintain these costs at a reasonable level.”
It’s not just the consumer space that is evolving at speed, B2B telecoms is also changing. Enterprise customers are transforming to become digital-first and more data-driven, where connectivity is essential to every part of the business. Telecoms providers are seeing this as an opportunity, where their services fit hand-in-glove with the clients they serve.
“If we look at the customer needs today, I see a real shift. A lot of companies and organisations are under pressure to change their operating and business models. Technology is key to this. As they go through a digital transformation themselves they are looking for a partner. Being able to build a relationship is critical, so is building trust,” says Sofien Ben Sassi, head of enterprise digital channels at Proximus.
He adds: “It is about focusing on the ease of doing business, every interaction should be as easy as possible, providing speed, transparency and proactivity to customers. Digital plays a vital role. How we are organised therefore matters. It’s about employee behaviour, culture and our operating model.”
Time to become a trusted partner
Becoming trusted partners with customers in their bid to achieve connectivity is therefore a key opportunity for many telecoms providers in northern Europe. Elevating the health of the relationship is vital. Automating and augmenting some processes and services can free up call centre and customer relationship staff to add more value in answering customer queries.
“The experience needs to be consistent. Technology plays a key role in helping providers automate where possible. But also, in equipping your workforce with the right tools. It is about innovating fast and understanding your customer needs and providing this to them in a much faster way. They are not going to wait two years until you get that relationship right,” says Misljencevic.
Artificial intelligence can now draw out more value from customer interactions. It can recognise consumer types and learn what typical customer journeys look like eventually offering them more personalised experiences based on data analytics and machine learning.
“Customers are not happy with one-size-fits-all. It needs to be something that is relevant to me; what I have done before and what I’m doing right now. What’s the customer intent? That is where machine learning can play a massive role to understand what that intent is. AI can then predict behaviour,” says Helin.
He adds: “I always say, wouldn’t it be nice if a customer came to a telcos site, ecommerce site or support site and they were provided with relevant information proactively for that individual rather than make them click through 15 sub-categories for them to find out what they are looking for?”
There is also likely to be a new sweet spot for telecoms providers – the so-called augmented intelligence that marries the best of technology with the best of human intuition when it comes to customer service – achieving which could mean a lot for telecoms providers.
“If the telecoms industry can digitalise in a way that converges the best practices of the traditional ways of handling customer experience, and the best practice from AI-powered, data-driven experiences and find a good balance of injecting technology as well as our human capacity and skills, the opportunity is great,” says Sibel Aydogmus Bahadir, vice-president, global customer support offering at Ericsson.
A future of new partnerships
Another prospect for telecoms providers in the future looks at value-added services, either in 5G services or smart home solutions. Many customers in both retail and business sectors still have unaddressed needs.
“No consumer or entrepreneur wants to spend their time figuring out how all of these new technologies and services work. We see opportunities in adjacent services around what we call ‘out of boundary’ questions, such as installing and servicing smart home solutions. We believe operators can play an important role here,” says Nuyts. “We have a service and billing relationship, we have field technicians out there coming into people’s homes, this is an interesting starting point to start exploring these solutions.”
Similarly, Telia Finland now provides toolkits for parents on security and privacy for their children. It also generates crowd insights. This provides anonymous and aggregated data that can help cities, authorities and businesses see how crowds are moving, where there are congregations of people and where they aren’t; a valuable tool in a Covid-concerned world. “It’s a breakthrough in terms of what operators can offer in an ethical and legal way, open the network and data to the benefit of society,” says Riikonen.
What will be needed for telecoms providers to excel in this new era customer engagement and experience – as well as monetising new value-added services – will be innovative partnerships. “Telcos will need help. They will need to create strong partnerships with companies that will enable them to make that step forward,” says Misljencevic.
However, such partnerships that could raise the bar in customer experience are not without issue. “It is difficult enough to make a seamless end-to-end customer experience with your own company. Try doing that when it involves multiple companies trying to work together to create that same seamless, wonderful customer experience,” adds Dunn. “This is why we have to rethink how we work together on what makes a great customer experience and how we take a thoughtful approach to co-creation.”