Google beats mobile operators at the customer care game

[Mind the gap! Are mobile operators allowing Google to take over territory in customer (self) care? Guest blogger Wouter Deelman looks at the present situation and what mobile operators can do to regain lost territory.]

Google support

You might not have noticed, but behind the scenes mobile operators are quickly losing territory in customer (self) care to Google. Operators consider customer ownership one of their primary assets, and make great strides in reinforcing their brand at each and every customer touchpoint, from logos on the handset plastic, to on-device portals, branded retail stores and exclusive handsets. Such marketing moves are very visible and make industry news headlines. Yet, mobile operators don’t seem to be aware that Google is staking out territory in the field of customer self care.

Traditionally, customer support was provided by operators through call centers. But with costs of on average 10-15 EUR per phone call (source: Mobile Handset Analyst, November 2007) and decreasing ARPU levels, operators have been reducing call center resources in favour of web based customer self care. But most end-users don’t bother visiting the website of their mobile provider for support, let alone dialing its call center. Finding relevant information on a mobile operator website is is challenge, despite significant investments in staffing, content management systems and good looking website designs.

In response, consumers just apply the survival strategy they learned when dealing with a crashing program on their computer: just Google! So what is today’s situation, how are mobile operators faring when it comes to customer (self) care? Qelp conducted a small, simple test for six of the UK’s largest mobile operators.

Suppose you’d like to get email working on your Nokia N96. More and more consumers just Google the error message or for example “Nokia N96 email set-up”. The table below summarizes your experience when you are based in the UK: searching the operator’s website versus a search with Google.

Option A: Search operator website for “Nokia N96 email setup”
Website results Help section results
O2 Generic email instructions Generic email instructions
Vodafone Commercial product offers “We couldn’t find any pages etc.”
Orange Commercial product offers Generic email instructions
T-Mobile Mostly commercial offers Mostly commercial offers
3 No results Blackberry and generic email
Virgin Mobile No results No results
Option B: Search with Google for “Nokia N96 email setup” + operator name. What are the results on Page 1?
O2 No results for o2.co.uk
Vodafone Result nr. 3, vodafone.co.uk forum: “Go to Nokia.com for internet settings”
Orange No results for orange.co.uk
T-Mobile Result nr. 1: product offer for Nokia N96 from t-mobile.co.uk
3 No results for three.co.uk
Virgin Mobile No results for virgin.co.uk

The above results speak for themselves. For an end-user seeking help to get a service up and running on his mobile phone the answer is not just a few clicks away. Also the mobile operator seems ‘invisible’ for Google, unless it comes to commercial offers. If one looks somewhat closer at the Google results, result nr. 1 at page 1, lists a site called ‘Know Your Mobile’ with detailed instructions for email setup on a Nokia N96, almost exactly what we are looking for. (however the instructions are still generic and we still need to find the correct settings to access the mobile network).

Vodafone and O2 use forums, apparently in an attempt to let customers sort out their issues among themselves, facilitated by a moderator. But, is it good marketing for a mobile operator if a customer is overloaded with the frustrations of other customers while he is trying to hook up his shiny new smartphone to the network?

The stats behind the chaos
To appreciate why customer service is such a complex issue for mobile operators, it is worth looking at the following stats:

– For the first time in mobile history the handset market is shrinking. Yet smartphones, abundant with complex functionality, are still a growing segment which now represents 13.5% of the global market.

– A study by Mformation revealed that “Set-up issues prevented 45% of people from upgrading to new, more sophisticated phones” while “61% said phone set-up is as frustrating as changing a bank account.”

– The complexity of mobile internet set-up on a new mobile phone is illustrated by this top-10 device management challenges which Qelp put together based on experience with multiple operators.

– “Only 20% of a phone’s services and features are used regularly” found a study by WDS Global in September 2008.

– Already in 2005 a study by Olista reported that only “2% of end-users would seek assistance from their mobile provider” to get mobile internet working.

Recently Google has been rolling out a new search feature called Options, allowing users to filter results more quickly. Our test for the search “Nokia N96 email setup” now shows “Forums”, “Reviews” and “Videos” as filters. These options do not bring us any closer to a meaningful answer for our issue today, but one can expect web shops, forums and blogs to act upon this change and ensure that they rank even higher when applying these filters.

Can operators get their act together?
Is there anything mobile operators can do to stop Google’s invasion of their territory? Shouldn’t operators have the ambition to help customers get any service up and running at first attempt within 3 minutes? Smartphones represent only 13.5% of the market, what if this number grows to 20 or 30%? How are mobile operators going to stay “in touch” with customers and deal with the growing complexity of their questions?

There are still options, but operators will have to get their act together. Here’s a few suggestions:

1. Significantly improve the user experience of their websites. For example, by using better site search and helping visualise complex user instructions. End-users love YouTube, Maps, Streetview, Flickr and  know a how picture tells a thousand words. Operators already use such tools in marketing, so why not in customer self care as well?

2. Ensure that mobile operator websites are discoverable for Google by applying search engine optimization (SEO) techniques. Mobile operator KPN has been optimizing parts of their website for Google indexing. A recent experiment of KPN showed that some 30% of end-users try Google first to get their phone problems sorted out. (disclosure: KPN is a Qelp customer).

3. Be present in social networks, forums, blogs, even on an experimental basis – this would give give operators bonus points with early adopters. See for example how Comcast is using Twitter.

4. Provide on-device, mobile phone based, customer self care. Voice search and device based solutions are becoming available from companies like Nuance (SnapIn), Ydilo/Movidilo as well as Qelp. But also Google is entering the game with voice search for iPhone and of course Android phones.

Some of the above would even help operators obtain a first mover advantage rather than remaining in a defensive mode. A mobile operator is in the best position to know the user’s phone number, their device, voice/data usage and their location. Who would be in a better position to address the user’s need for support?

– Wouter

[Wouter Deelman is founder and CEO of Qelp. Qelp delivers mobile operators on-demand software to help increase revenues per user and reduce call center costs.]

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