What do you do when customer service delivery lags behind product innovation?

Africa's Mobile Youth present a new challenge for customer service delivery as Innovation on mobile skyrockets
Africa’s Mobile Youth present a new challenge for customer service delivery as Innovation on mobile skyrockets

With over 8 million registered customers in the telecommunications mobile space in Zambia, this presents a challenging service delivery environment. The pace of customer expectations is evolving more rapidly than the service delivery capability of mobile operators. This lag effect between expectation and delivery is a bone of contention and emanates from 3 possible sources, namely;

  1. Network quality: This is simply the ability to make a call or transact on the network using any of the advertised services provided by the operator.
  2. Device manipulation: This refers to type of phone or handheld device. Whether or not it delivers the correct customer experience as purported by the manufacturer of the device.
  3. Customer education: This is whether or not the customer understands the service they have subscribed for and that it is delivering as promised. It is also largely dependent on their ability to effectively use the features on their device as purported by the manufacturer.


Today’s mobile user does not distinguish between any of the above when they use their devices. If the experience does not meet the expectation of the customer, there is a backlash on the service provider regardless of the source. It is not unique to the Business to Customer (B2C) space only but prevalent in Business-to-Business (B2B) relationships too. We saw this when Verizon cried foul when Netflix started to debase Verizon for slow Internet download speeds.  Some mobile Apps namely Klout with its famous “shaking fist at network operator” also enjoy this behavior.

With the growth of the Internet, the customer expectation is changing. Now customers are looking for instant gratification, instant solutions and more importantly instant resolution of complaints. We have observed with some joy and pain the efforts by Airtel and MTN to have self-care webpages, and Zamtel promises the coming of ZTE billing and customer relationship installation will offer online account management capability. However, the pain of trying to use the existing online platforms for managing one’s account for simple things such as topping up, purchasing a data package, or getting in touch with a customer service person via chat, takes away a great deal from the customer experience when the service fails.

The role of customer service has to evolve to respond to this. How the customer service and public relations functions engage with well-informed customers has to change. Use of digital and social media to achieve this has to take into consideration it is a double-edged sword that can steer positive and/or negative conversation around any topic. Just look at how customers go off topic on any given post. This presents a challenge for the Operator to sieve what is constructive feedback from what is simply trash from trolls.

This is becoming even more prevalent with the youth who are the next generation of movers and shakers. To engage them is simply not enough you have to come armed with a plethora of streetwise language, be tech-savvy enough to understand their basic needs, and also be open enough to their ‘hacks’ to understand that what is presented as innovation/flawless is something they know something about and will take apart to either make it work better, look cooler or at worst ‘free.’

Existing infrastructure to engage the customer are listed below:

  1. Call Centers: where customers call in and have their queries addressed by an agent or IVR (Interactive voice recording). These are often difficult to get through and responses tend to be standardized. The quality of the interaction varies and is inconsistent.
  2. Walk in Shops: These tend to be too far and few between. They represent a better customer experience and likely to give you a more informed and better quality customer contact.
  3. Company sponsored web pages: Most operators have a Facebook and Twitter platform. Their level of engagement and response time to customer queries varies. More often than not in Zambia we have seen this as more of status symbol rather than a serious service engagement interaction.

Given that mobile telecommunications have been in Zambia for 15 years plus now. The pace of innovation in service delivery has not changed much, when compared to the level of product innovation. Products have moved from 2G to LTE, from voice only to video streaming and online TV, whilst the service element remains at a snails pace. Needless to say the device revolution has evolved from the old Nokia “brick” to the smart Samsung 5. All spheres have innovated and stepped up with service delivery left frolicking in the doldrums.

Outsourcing of call centres and franchising of retail shops was undertaken to improve service delivery and hailed as the answer to improved customer experience. Customers saw this as the “same horse with different jockeys.” The move has not produced any significant results from a customer perspective. You still cannot get through to the call centre and the IVR still infuriates you when you do. What then happens when the customer knows more about yours and competitive products than your Service Agent. So what’s the role of a Service Agent in this new environment and can they engage with the very-well informed customers, whose reason for calling is also changing? They are no longer engaging for the customer experience but for a particular matter or issue which they require resolution.

The youth of today know what they want hence the need for mobile operators to think differently about how they train their service agents, what tools they give them, what service information they have access to. Today the number of offers mobile operators serve up intoxicates the Zambian customer. Needless to say the Service Agents themselves nurse offer hangovers and at best of times doing their best to keep up.

Operators need to think about promotional offer presentation and pricing in a way that limits the need for contact with service staff.  Some pointers below

  1. Move away from commercials to infomercials. Take time to educate your customers in your communication. Balance the mix of hard sell information with basic how to use.
  2. Move from service experience to service first time right resolution. Bring to market robustly tested products that match your hardware and software. System crashes and upgrades in the first week of introduction of a product or promotion are a definite No!
  3. Move from control to empowerment of front-line service agents. Start trusting the frontline staff to make decisions. Too often simple resolution is referred to the back office for authorisation, whilst customers wait.

Only by doing this can service evolve and catch up with product innovation. This in itself is just the first step in getting on to the service delivery innovation highway.

When a business becomes too BIG it loses the personal touch and the basic fundamentals that made them BIG in the first place. Mobile operators are no exception. When they are small they are attentive, close to the customer, responsive and see you the end-user as part of the family. Over time they fail to scale up this behavior to match their growth and lethargy sets in, and the end is inevitable. Step back and think of all those great things you did when your business was significantly smaller. How then can you repeat the same, now that you are the leviathan business that you are? This is what is required.

Customers will not spare you for falling behind in service delivery innovation. Read your online Facebook page! Simple questions such as how long does it take to resolve a problem and how much time do I spend queuing for service are becoming more important. Life is to short to be spent on resolving mundane service delivery issues. After all when you enrol or subscribe for service let it be a full 360 experience.

Successful companies become successful because service delivery is in tandem with product delivery.  Zambian mobile operators need to purposefully and deliberately break out of their comfort zone, try new things, such as open-source development, things that they typically wouldn’t do as a very large business if they were to remain relevant to the customer of today. We have seen so many new products and promotions being introduced on the old same suffocating customer service platform.

It is time service innovation caught up.


Image credit: www.comminit.com