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Intelligent Customer Engagement – why are telcos so bad at this?


Recently, I attended another interesting seminar organised by the European Communications team. This time, the topic was customer experience – but given the more grandiose title of “intelligent customer engagement”. Sometimes, such events are little more than an opportunity for vendors to blow their trumpets, but EC has a good track record in this regard and, on this occasion, they surpassed themselves by bringing together a range of speakers from our industry – and, crucially, from outside. Without doubt, the stars of the show were Moo.com and the UK Institute of Customer Service (ICS) – and I mean no disrespect to the others, all of whom gave a good account of themselves and their companies.

The reason for this is that our industry turns out to be very bad at customer service – this may not be surprising to some – but it should be worrying. Operators are inclined to make all sorts of assumptions about the relationship they have with their customers, but the facts suggest they are woefully behind other sectors.

A key issue, for me at least, is that while almost everyone in the audience will laugh appreciatively at yet another example of poor service delivery from an operator, it’s likely that the operators present all have a sneaking feeling that they are somehow different. We like anecdotes but do so because we imagine the joke’s not on us. As a result, there’s a great risk that our industry collectively thinks it’s better than it really is.

Well, research from the ICS, pleasingly presented towards the end of the morning, fatally undermines this assumption. According to the data presented, guess which sector offers the worst customer service in the UK? Telecoms. And, before those of you from outside the UK think that’s just us Brits being bad, the results are more of less the same across Europe.

So, putting anecdotes to one side, we need to do something about this. Why? Well, it makes a financial impact – as the ICS puts it, “there is compelling evidence of tangible links between customer satisfaction and business performance”. In other words, better service leads to better satisfaction and better business results. The results of the ICS survey can be downloaded here and they make interesting reading.

This matters. At the beginning of the session, the EC team presented findings from a survey it had run on the topic. Those findings are available elsewhere, but they had some interesting points. Apparently, call centres are a major pain point for customers and providers – and some major telco players are throwing money at them to increase resources.
But that’s not necessarily the best answer – Giffgaff, which scored highest in the telco sector in the ICS report, has no call centre at all, so perhaps the manner of the service offered matters more than how it is delivered.

A bad call centre is likely to cause more frustration than none. After all, poorly designed IVRs, selections that don’t really result in expected outcome, and a complete inability to match known data to callers to ease identification, just result in a bad experience (yes Vodafone, that’s you).

Certainly, technology can help and we heard from vendors that all contribute to evolutions that will doubtless have an impact, but it seems that other factors are just as important. Take culture, for example. Moo.com has no phone support, no complex forms and works mainly by live chat. This seems to work well, but what really matters, as I discovered when I spoke to Dan Moross, Director of Customer Experience, in the coffee break, is that there is no prepared script for responding to customers, even through the medium of live chat.

This idea of not using scripts is one that is being embraced in many other sectors – we reported on this from some other events we attended last year – so why aren’t telcos doing the same? Oh, we argue, we deal with complex products and need to follow a process to check that, say, your broadband actually has a fault and hasn’t simply been switch off, or something. Yes, but frankly speaking, life insurance is a bit more complicated than that and many of these providers seem to manage quite well without scripts these days.

Technology innovation is all very well, but if you can’t get basics such as the right way to have a dialogue with a customer right, then it’s not going to deliver the expected rewards. Of course, some operators are trying to make a difference – both Colt and Croatia Telekom spoke engagingly about what they are doing to try to improve – looking outside the industry for lessons and a rigorous focus on customer needs and those of customers’ customers, are great examples, but they seem to be quite rare signs of a more positive approach.

And, this should make us stop and think. When I buy from Amazon (top of the performance charts, according to the ICS), all sorts of things happen to encourage me to buy more. There is frequent engagement and there’s just enough of it to be relevant, so that I don’t simply opt out. Yes, it’s a bit too frequent, but all the same, they know quite a lot about me and I keep buying, despite my preference for local bookshops.

I also receive regularly customer satisfaction surveys from providers. For example, our corporate car rental company sends a simple survey after each rental period. It has one question and a free space in which I can write my own comments. But, I know that the answers are used, as the people in my local branch often mention it – as did the staff in a previous branch, who had been called by the UK Marketing Director as a result of comments we had provided. Every so often, Vodafone sends me a survey. The assessment is based on simple numeric scores, transmitted by SMS, so the results can easily be analysed. Not once has anyone contacted me in response to my negative feedback. What do they do with it? Who knows.

And, where are my loyalty points? Every time I buy from Waterstones, I get two things. First, points on my card, which I can spend at leisure and, second, stamps on a voucher, which I can exchange for a £10 discount for each £100 I spend. I’ve been a BT customer for 20 years and a Vodafone customer for more than 10 – and yet have never received any such incentive or reward from them. Just for signing up to a newsletter recently, I received a free glass of champagne at a restaurant (yay!) – that’s service and I shall return but why aren’t telcos taking steps to deliver something more? BA gives me miles, which save serious amounts of money. I could go on.

It’s all very well complaining about the OTT threat but there are real paying customers who use telco services. At RMA, we spend close to £5000 per year with Vodafone alone, goodness knows why. However, we’re too small a business to qualify for a group package, it seems. Or, if we do, no-one has come to us to offer a better deal. They should know – after all, our payments come from the same bank account (that’s some useful data, which they already have but which their analytics engines miss completely). And yet we haven’t received any thanks or rewards for our loyalty.

Customer service is clearly difficult and takes effort, but there’s little that’s intelligent about the service offered by most telcos. It’s not just our experience – the audience, composed of people within our industry agreed. Everyone has ideas about how to do this better, but it seems no-one is taking action to do it. Yes, technology can help but there’s so much wrong that it’s simply diverting attention from the real problem – service culture and values that take time to build, and which need to be delivered through a well-motivated team.

Analytics and machine learning are great, but they can only enhance the business if other factors are also addressed. Telcos need to think about every aspect of customer interaction and to start thinking about people and their needs. Reducing the amount of calls to the call centre is great but what happens when you get there? If you know a customer’s birthday, why not give them a present? Why not empower your call centre or support teams to offer rewards when people are unhappy? Moo.com does this, as do others. It’s not difficult, it’s not costly and a little goes a long way.

Intelligent Customer Engagement will obviously include systems and processes, but a truly intelligent company will recognise that this extends to all touch points and to the people who deliver the service. With all the tools and solutions available, something has to change – but it must ensure that the processes and people change too. Empowering them to do so is a key step that simply has to happen. A reliance on technology is not the answer – but the rewards are clear. Better service boosts customer retention. Better performing companies enjoy better revenue. Just ask the Institute of Customer Service.