Jeff Gordon: Operators need to warn customers when they’re
reaching a threshold — or make them offers of special roaming
Mobile operators need to be proactive in helping their customers identify mobile broadband problems — not just when they’re spending too much on roaming, but also when they’re so worried about the possible cost that they turn roaming off entirely. Or when they want roaming but just can’t get it to work at all.
Jeff Gordon, CEO of Syniverse, lists these as three of the top problems experienced by users of mobile broadband services, and they are all problems that operators can help to resolve — earning not only their customers’ confidence and gratitude, but some extra revenue as well.
“It happened to our former chairman of the board,” says Gordon when discussing customers who can’t get roaming to work. “He was in Europe on vacation and couldn’t get his phone to work.” When that happens customers find it impossible to contact a call centre to sort it out. “It could be a problem with the HLR, the SIM card, the rate plan or something else, and when it happens it can take a day to resolve.”
With the former chairman of Syniverse, the operator didn’t get that opportunity. As soon as the executive got home to the US, he changed operator.
Gordon has been with Syniverse since 2008, but took over as CEO in the second half of 2011, when former CEO Tony Holcombe became vice chairman. He believes operators have an “amazing appetite” for the services that Syniverse offers them, largely aimed at simplifying the complexities of mobile operation.
“We ask: ‘How do I identify and resolve problems?’ We think we have identified a real opportunity,” says Gordon, who started at the company as CTO after a career that included Bell Atlantic — one of the ancestors of Verizon — and Convergys.
Gordon has been trying to persuade operators that they have an enormous amount of information about their customers’ usage of services that they can use to help those customers. “They should make sure they understand what the subscribers are using and what are the monetary implications,” he says.
Syniverse has been helping some of them monitor what he calls “extraordinary usage patterns” — the sort of thing that mobile operators get bad names for when customers get bills for $1,000 after a week on holiday. When the customer complains, sometimes the operator has little option but to write off the debt — “but they can’t write off the wholesale charge”, the payment the operator has to make to the roaming operator.
“We look for times when a customer just crosses over their normal threshold.” The operator alerts the customer “in a real-time and highly accurate way”, and the customer can then decide to switch off roaming at a point when the bill is still affordable.
That means fewer disputes about shocking bills weeks or months later. “One customer reduced its write-off rate by 50%. The whole investment was paid for in four months.”
But sometimes customers want to roam, but they are having problems. According to Gordon, Syniverse’s technology allows an operator to identify and resolve problems proactively. “An operator should have a VIP list or a list of top corporate customers and try to make sure their experience is perfect. If they fail to register on a foreign network they should ask why. The customer isn’t going to be talking to the contact centre.”
The operator may detect that a customer has gone to a hotel’s wifi network — cheap, but possibly with poorer performance. “For certain customers best efforts is right, but for your high-value customers you want to manage the environment and control the bandwidth.”
And then there are those customers who present an opportunity for roaming revenue, but are avoiding the risk. With the right offer, says Gordon, some of them can be won over.
“I can tell an operator that they have 100,000 customers roaming in the UK, and that most of them are generating voice and SMS traffic but only 25,000 are using data services,” he says. “That means the others have data turned off.”
Targeted data plan
But probe a little deeper and the operator can see how many of those with data turned off today had been using data on a previous visit. “You can see perhaps that this is their third visit to the UK. Take advantage of that and send them a text offering, say, a two-day data roaming plan for their visit to the UK for a one-time payment.”
That allows an operator to create what Gordon calls “a laser-guided price” for one specific customer and enable roaming in a few seconds. “Many people are scared to use data roaming. Not a week goes by when you see an article about the costs.”
By targeting customers and offering them customised deals operators can persuade international travellers to start using roaming data again, he says. “And the operators are just using information that is in the industry now.”
The challenge is going to get bigger as the demand for smartphones and applications takes off, he says. “Over Christmas and New Year there were 1.2 billion apps downloaded to 215 million iOS and Android devices,” he noted on the first working day of January 2012. People are moving from regular feature phones to smartphones and tablets, and they are becoming more engaged with their devices.
But many operators haven’t caught up. “Their customer relations management is mired in 2G days,” he says. “Customers are moving faster and faster, but operators’ ability to serve them is no different from what it was in the mid-1990s. The customers are running so far ahead that you can’t keep up with them.”
Customers want mobility, “and the role of the operator is to enable the promise of mobility”, he says. An operator has a 360-degree view of the customer. “The mobile network operator is the enabler and the steward.”
Customers want operators that understand them, he says. “Over time, segmentation will become more critical.” That’s why we are seeing a rise in the number of mobile virtual operators, created to serve particular market segments. MVNOs need to have a view of their customers just as much as regular infrastructure-based operators, he notes — though in these days of infrastructure sharing the distinction is blurring.
All are feeling the challenge from customers needing more and more data capacity, he says, and he warns operators against a temptation to offload traffic to wifi. “You need to manage the environment, and control the bandwidth and how you allocate it,” he says. “Operators need to sophisticate the wifi experience.”
Later on there will be the challenge of LTE, he warns. Already the three biggest US operators are committed to LTE “and every operator in Asia is actively engaged” though “it is slower in Europe”. In developing nations Gordon is noting signs that some want to short-circuit the process of taking up 4G instead of 3G.
But there is a lot of work to do: “Tons of issues with 4G roaming,” he notes. “We’re briefing 100 operators on LTE strategy.” Among the issues people are worried about are coordinating classes of services between different operators. “How do you map those and how do you deal with this at the wholesale level?” he says. “And how do I make sure customers get the service they are paying for?”
As the market develops other issues will emerge. Gordon already has a few on his notepad. Here’s one example: if a customer wants to download some high-definition content, but is roaming, how do you ensure the local operator provides the right quality of service in terms of latency and jitter?
And do you need to deliver the content across thousands of miles or can you source it locally to reduce costs? “The roaming partner may be a competitor, and do you want to ship your policies around the world to your competitors?” It’s not just a matter of quality and cost, he warns.
Each operator in the industry has a lot of information about its customers — but it could be making much better use of it to improve the service it gives them as competition becomes tougher. GTB
Further reading from Global Telecoms Business:
Bringing operators closer to their customers in real time 26 Sep 2011
Carlyle to buy Syniverse for $2.6bn 29 Oct 2010
Syniverse and Telcordia set to share India's mobile number ... 09 Mar 2009
Syniverse spends $175m on VeriSign unit 25 Aug 2009