In the current climate of retention customer services is hiking up the agenda at the networks. O2 has historically been the front runner in giving its customers quality care, but its rivals have started to concentrate more on customer services and are beginning to catch up.
Letting people choose the way they want to communicate with customer services is the centre of the operators’ focus in improving customer care, with email, instant messaging and self-help forums in the pipeline.
Caspar Tearle, director of service industries at research company JD Power, says: ‘They are all thinking about giving more choice. It’s a growing trend.
‘Operators are beginning to bring in new ways of communicating with their customers. They are aware that not everyone is comfortable calling up.’
With fewer areas for networks to differentiate their offerings, customer service has become a key focus for keeping existing customers. Giving a satisfying customer care experience for contract customers is especially crucial, not only because they are more valuable to networks but also because they are more likely to ring up the call centres. According to Tearle, over two thirds of contract subscribers call up customer services in a 12-month period, while only 32% of prepay users would get in touch during the same period.
Operators are also channelling their efforts into trying to increase the value of a customer-care call by selling new services or offering free trials during calls. Although the likes of Vodafone and O2 insist that anything they try to push during the call is relevant, customers don’t often warm to this.
JD Power hasn’t measured this aspect of the mobile industry, but of other industries with similar practices Tearle says: ‘Customers are not generally very happy about the ways these kinds of calls are treated, especially when the call hasn’t gone well. It’s like rubbing salt into a wound. It’s a different skill set with selling and customer services.’
Vodafone interview: Taking care of business
Under Jane Hext’s stewardship, Vodafone has radically changed its customer service operation. The customer services director claims vast improvements in terms of new ideas, as well as results.
Hext (above, right) is familiar with the curse of the customer services division; that it is not a direct revenue-generating part of the business, but a cost.
‘I can completely understand that. It was the perception historically but it’s changing,’ she says.
Hext believes that with retention soaring up the agenda at Vodafone, it has pushed customer services into the foreground. ‘There is recognition here that customer service is critical to what we do, and the experience we provide to customers is fundamental to being different in the market.’
She claims that upgrades through customer services have doubled – a clear demonstration, in her view, that customer service is not just a cost.
‘We are addressing people’s complaints faster and more effectively, and then with that experience, taking customers to upgrade.'
As well as upgrading, Hext says that the next step has been increasing customers’ spending. A call to Vodafone’s customer service number has tended to culminate with an offer to trial mobile internet, pitched to appeal to the idea of taking Facebook mobile, and cutting data costs.
Hext says: ‘We are solving problems and talking about services we can offer based on what we know about you.’
She adds: ‘The amount of take-up is double from the previous year.’
However, the general picture of customer services is changing from the stereotypical perception of an agonising experience on the phone for an hour hoping to get through to the right person to sort a rudimentary issue.
Hext defends IVRs (the automated numbers that require the customer to press different buttons), and says if used intelligently they can be a fast way for a customer to get a basic problem sorted out, for example, with a prepay top-up. She claims IVRs successfully field 500,000 calls per week; a staggering number, and one, she believes, underlines why IVRs work for certain services.
However, she says that the world of customer services has moved on. Hext champions the case for choice in how customers wish to contact Vodafone, and particularly tapping into modern means of communication, such as social networking and email.
‘Our website has a lot of self-help services, and we’re keen to develop that.
Online forums, where Vodafone customers can help each other, have been available since the start of the year, and have racked up 17,000 views per day after just the first two months.
‘Customers help each other, and it is moderated by us, so we can intervene if necessary.'
An email service is already up and running where customers can contact Vodafone. An instant messaging service is also being touted where customers can have a conversation with a Vodafone specialist on a particular field.
She says that the new online routes are so far incremental to the traditional call centres, and do not suggest call centres are on the decline.
Another new scheme planned for Christmas is to use customers’ phones as a means of initiating self help directly through the handset.
‘It will be information on billing, and information on the handset. We’re working with the manufacturers and already have agreements with two of them. It will be just high-end handsets at the moment.’
Hext says that her top priority isn’t so much developing new ways to interact with customers, but ensuring problems are quickly sorted out, or, in her words, to ‘get it right first time’.
She makes no apologies for using a 150-strong Indian-based workforce for a small amount of the work. ‘It is email work, and the people we use there have a tremendous work ethic and the education level is excellent.’
But she says that is a small part of a customer service operation that apparently employs 3,500 people – including in-house and out-sourced staff.
The entire call centre operation for Vodafone’s enterprise unit is in the UK and in-house, and 35% of the consumer service operation is in-house.
Vodafone was perhaps not as badly affected as some rivals by the chaos around mis-selling and cashbacks in the latter part of 2007, but it prompted an emergency situation for Hext’s teams.
‘We became aware of this as soon as it started to happen, and we wanted to see how we could help our customers. We ended up moving resources around the operation to deal with the emergency,’ she says.
It is understood that several hundred Vodafone customers have been affected by the collapse of Dialamobile (estimated to have involved as many as 90,000 unpaid cashbacks) and Mobile Media Systems (around 40,000 unpaid cashbacks).
‘We heavily discounted people’s bills and had to swing into