Tom Alexander is a man reluctant to reveal targets. He cautiously looks to the PR men when specific questions are raised and is usually met with a stern shake of the head.
But he puts his neck on the line for two audacious targets: making Orange the operator with the lowest churn by 2011, and topping the JD Power customer service charts by 2010. In this year’s survey, Orange came last on both contract and prepay. Customer service is the foundation of Alexander’s vision of Orange, and he knows he has got an almighty job ahead of him.
The company was the shining light in the dotcom bubble of the mid-1990s for customer service and innovation. It was sold by Hutchison Telecom to France Telecom in 2001. Since then it has suffered a series of blows, regularly being singled out for poor customer service in mobile and broadband – two markets with tarnished reputations.
Orange’s UK CEO has just finished a six-month review of the entire business and has put together a blueprint on how the company will, to use his words, ‘return to its former glories’.
‘I make no apologies for spending the time since I started on 7 January on understanding the business, the marketplace, and looking at the real opportunities,’ he says.
‘This is a big business and is so complex that we could have continued the review for another six months, but I wanted to get on with it as soon as possible.’
Alexander agrees in part with some of Orange’s trade partners who have told Mobile that Orange has been muddled in recent years, with no coherent strategy, jumping from one idea to another, and even ‘desperate’ resorts to bargain basement deals to rack up customer numbers.
City analysts say that Orange has performed well on paper in terms of customer results, but it has been the most severe example of mobile operators chasing volume at the expense of taking a hit on its margins.
However, Alexander says all that is about to change in a ‘back to basics’ strategy that starts with two key areas: a substantial restructure of the organisation and the senior personnel, and realigning the business to service and brand.
‘I’m not interested in market share for the sake of it. All those things will come if you get the basics right.’ Alexander says that if Orange followed the existing plan, it would remain in third place even in 2011.
Critically, Alexander has been given an autonomy that none of his predecessors have enjoyed, as parent company France Telecom acknowledges the damage done to the brand, and the need to be sensitive to the market dynamics of the UK. Alexander is understood to have made the need for local empowerment a key condition before accepting the job from global boss Olaf Swantee, underlining that success will hinge on understanding and responding to the specific needs of the UK market.
The Orange CEO job was seen as a surprise move for a man already privately wealthy and with a solid reputation from his success at the helm of Virgin Mobile.
He says the big draw was the challenge of resurrecting Orange, and steering a brand that was once revered so highly by consumers but has lost its way so badly in recent years.
‘We need to be customer-centric. Everyone says the same thing, but it’s even more important for us. The expectations around our brand and providing the right service are huge.
‘We want to be the best loved communications brand – that stretches from the moment you buy to if, heaven forbid, you have any problems.’
That will mean a priority for stores. Around 50 more will open this year, taking Orange’s tally to 400. More significantly, stores will have a bigger focus on service. A new online store is also in the pipeline.
Staff will be retrained, the environment in stores will be modified to account for service, and the systems in stores will be tweaked so customers can have their problems sorted out in stores rather than be given a customer services number.
Alexander is also phasing out the off-shore call centre in India, and bringing it all to the UK. A new instant messaging service will soon go live to give another way for customers to contact Orange customer services. Five million pounds is being spent to make Orange the market leader for customer service. It means that 500 new UK staff will be recruited for the call centres and new stores.
The quality of Orange’s 3G network is an important plank of Alexander’s ‘customer experience’ strategy. Another 350 cell sites will be installed in the coming months, with a further 100 to come. The network share deal with Vodafone will be worked upon to create what both companies hope will be the best coverage in the UK.
Alexander is credited in some quarters for rescuing the network share deal with Vodafone from the brink of collapse earlier in the year.
‘I think the pub test is really important. I want customers to tell their friends: “You know, the service in the Orange store was brilliant, the network is amazing, they sort out my problems really easily and check out this whizzy new service on my phone”.’
The biggest brand relaunch since Orange first launched will kick in in about two months; Alexander is itching to reveal the changes but is keen not to spoil the surprise.
The organisation will also see a major shift. The separate entities of mobile, broadband, prepay and postpay will go, and the business will be carved up into two divisions: consumer and business.
Part of the plan is to scrap large chunks of the business – with the cost of 450 jobs. The roles involved business planners as well as duplication and overlap across different departments. ‘I won’t tolerate needless bureaucracy,’ he says.
‘None of the roles we are losing are customer facing. There are lots of silos in the business and we don’t want that. There will be more general brand teams delivering across the business,’ he says.
Under the old regime, departments were working on projects that failed to see the light of day, or on expensive briefs which bore little impact on Orange’s strength in the market.
Alexander has applied one brutal question to every department: ‘Does it enhance the customer experience? If not, why are we doing it?’
He adds: ‘When I was at Virgin we had to prioritise because we didn’t have the time or resource to do everything. But at a company this size you can often do things that might not be so important, and that is a danger.’
Alexander is keen to point out that he has no plans to scrap Orange’s fixed line agenda that has been so difficult, earning considerable notoriety in customer service reports.
In fact, he will introduce laptops into Orange’s portfolio as part of a new ‘totally connected’ strategy, as he spreads his message internally and to the market that Orange is a total communications provider.
Alexander is keen to build the mood internally. Orange staff have privately talked of flagging morale as the brand has dipped and Orange has suffered criticism for customer service.
‘Getting the brand right is so important internally,’ he says, talking with experience of his time at Virgin Mobile. ‘It creates the buzz internally. We’ve got some great people here and it’s great fun when you’re achieving. That success will breed success. I want people to have that buzz here.’
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