Telecoms providers are quickly realising that experience will define their relationship with business customers as the market for connectivity and technology changes rapidly.
In an age of heightened consumer expectations, the digitalisation of many organisations, the commoditisation of telecoms products, as well as the fallout from the global pandemic, have all had a profound effect on customer experience. Right now, in business-to business telecoms, CX has become the single biggest factor driving customer loyalty, and therefore revenue growth.
A number of factors are driving profound change. Many business leaders are getting younger, with Millennials and Gen Z rising through the ranks. These digital natives are raising the bar for operators. They are impatient and have zero tolerance for poor service, expecting to be served on their own terms, whether via self- or automated-service or through in-person service agents.
“Customer demand is changing massively, we now have a different generation moving into positions of power. If they don’t get a good experience they move their business elsewhere. At the same time, telcos are sitting on a lot of technical debt and legacy systems as they try to fulfil this need – this is why they need to get their act together relatively quickly,” says Dirk Grote, director industry advisory for communications EMEA at Salesforce.
Business-to business (B2B) players now show attitudes once reserved for the consumer market. Convenience and simplicity are key words. Heightened expectations are also rampant for enterprise customers all the way through to the small-to-medium enterprise (SME) sector. Telcos are being measured against the likes of Netflix or Amazon, which are completely unrelated businesses, yet they shape expectations globally.
“B2B buyers in the evening, when they stop working, become consumers. As they use a lot of these types of services there is then a higher expectation for personalised services. At the same time there is a cost pressure for telecoms providers. This is pulling them in the other direction. The question is how do you deal with opposing forces in a successful way?” says Sami Helin, global account director at Coveo.
A lot of long-established, incumbent telcos players have issues delivering one-to-one, customer services that digital-first, disruptive and data-powered innovators find easier to achieve. Legacy systems, complex product and service portfolios, across multiple acquired companies plague many telecom companies. The cost of transforming and unifying everything with customer data at the core would be too costly and take too much time. This can result in poor customer experience.
“There are huge levels of remediation to be done. We’ve all experienced this. A lot of the telcos are trying to go digital-first. However, during the pandemic a huge mirror was held up to organisations. When contact centres were shut down and people were sent home, it was a very true reflection of an organisation’s capability. Customers experienced how good, bad or indifferent a company’s self-service and digital experiences were and how agile their operations were,” says Rob Allman, vice president for customer experience at NTT Ltd.
A shift to customer-centricity in B2B
However, telecoms providers are evolving at pace in order to answer the needs of their business customers. They are mapping out customer journeys, businesses better understand what customers want through market research, data analytics and feedback. There is a realisation that actionable data on customers is crucial if telecoms players are to up their game. In the B2B space, where there are a lot of complex services and products, it is also about knowing what to offer and when.
“People need to have an intuitive experience that is supporting their day-to-day rather than be bombarded with a tsunami of technology, which can create more suffocation than support. This is really important to bear in mind. We need to help human beings use the technology and not to be paralysed by it,” says Rukmini Glanard, executive vice president for global sales, services and marketing at Alcatel Lucent Enterprise.
The global pandemic was an acceleration event in this regard. It spurred on the adoption of more digitalised services, self-service and automation.At the same time, Covid-19 also revealed the lack of resiliency in many organisations, specifically in how telecoms providers engage with business customers and deliver differentiated experiences.
“It has provided impetus to think about things in a different way. The pandemic has certainly accelerated the consumerisation of the B2B space. It now has to be digital first. But it needs to be digital first in a way that the basic stuff is really seamless, the basics must work. Then you use human interactions to really augment the overall experience,” says Katy Pearce, head of customer experience at Vodafone Business.
One focus for Vodafone Business has been to assist SMEs, many of which had to pivot significantly when the pandemic hit, to become digital-only operators when routes to traditional market were closed. Some did not have a website, others had only a limited online presence. Covid shifted this sector dramatically, as well as boosted its dependence on telecoms services.
“Remember smaller businesses don’t have a whole IT department, they don’t have separate people that understand security, cloud services or connectivity. They are just trying to run their businesses. It’s therefore about helping these businesses use technology in the best way possible. The pandemic has been a massive wake up call, not just for telcos but for all businesses,” says Pearce.
The pandemic also created new challenges in B2B relationships for some telecoms providers. The shift to remote and hybrid working meant that fewer business mobile handsets and desktop phones were needed. If more employees use Zoom, Teams or Google Hangout, deploying more unified communications solutions, they don’t need as many physical devices.
“Even when businesses returned to the office they continued to use unified communications. This was a big challenge for us, if fewer people use phones we don’t need to produce as many. We had to be very fast and creative by inventing something new. For instance, we now have a cordless phone that connects via USB to a computer that employees can now use with Teams or Zoom,” says Jörg Brühl, senior vice president for marketing at Gigaset.
“Certainly, we need a lot more speed within our business cycles, we need the ingenuity and the excellence of our engineers to translate the demands of our customers into technology within our products.”
A vital year ahead for business-focused telecoms
Where are the opportunities within the B2B space for telecoms? If providers are to become trusted partners – which appears to be what all players want – they will have to add a lot more value, up their game, and provide more human-centred services.
The first hurdle is for telcos to make it easy to do business, by resolving problems and issues at lightning speed. No businessperson wants to spend days on a phone to a call centre to address a telecoms fault or get caught in an unresolved query online. Everyone wants their connectivity glitch dealt with instantly, otherwise it can cost corporations business and money.
“It’s about three things: simplicity, simplicity, simplicity. How do we make the user feel he or she is gaining time in their daily tasks? People don’t expect to fight against technology, they expect technology to adapt to what they need,” says Moussa Zaghdoud, executive vice-president, cloud communication business division, Alcatel Lucent Enterprise.
There were fears before the pandemic that telcos were becoming commoditised very quickly, where price was the main determinant for most products and services. Perhaps, Covid shifted the dial. Telcos now play a role similar to that of utilities companies; they are taken for granted, yet when they’re turned off, customers realise how crucial they really are.
The next year or so is therefore a key time for telecoms providers to prove they offer a vital utility, add value to people’s business and up their game. “The biggest opportunity coming out of the pandemic is the perceived relevance of connectivity. There is now a turn around when it comes to relevance. Everyone realises that telecoms are a lifeline for their business or consumer lives,” says Grote.
Telecoms providers will need to be proactive in this process, contacting business users, mobilising data and providing a more personalised experience. “If there are issues, reaching out to customers and resolving them is crucial. People welcome that. This proactive approach changes the whole shape of the experience if you are on the front foot, and you are getting in touch with people. Trying to anticipate issues or points of satisfaction, renewal and potential growth; this is critical,” says Allman.
Certainly, the use of artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning can help, as can a more customer-centric approach, where telecoms services and products are reengineered with the customer at the forefront and centre. Design thinking is crucial here.
“Smart AI technology can also now understand where everything is within legacy and siloed systems and can serve the relevant information to the customer. Telcos salespeople can now do their job better if they have access to real-time information about the customers, services and pricing. Customers can also have a consumer grade experience. Today, this can now be provided by machine learning without having to transform all of the back-end systems,” Helin says.
Telecoms providers can also learn from what has been deployed at the cutting edge of consumer markets and implement these strategies within B2B sales. Adding value will also depend on taking a more human approach to telecoms or specifically an augmented strategy where customer service personnel work hand-in-glove with technology platforms.
“We’ve just provided self-service to consumers, so why shouldn’t we do the same for business customers? They are also humans. In the end, there is no difference between B2B and B2C we just have human relations that we are managing, and technology will help us to provide the best user experience,” says Nils Stamm, chief digital officer for Deutsche Telekom.
Therein lies the opportunity for adding value in the business market for telecoms and customer experience, if providers are to become trusted partners they have to get the balance right between automation, agent interaction and delivering on what really matters to businesses.
It is a fine balance.