The mother of all shows

Mobile World Congress in Barcelona really is quite the event. This year saw somewhere in the region of 110,000 attendees cram the halls, bars, and restaurants of what is a marvellous city. The crowd in the 90k-capacity Nou Camp stadium for Barcelona’s league game on Wednesday was small compared to the show – and it was easier to get onto the Metro train afterwards as well.

I wrote in a Facebook post that you have to praise the event. It is a commercial runaway express train. I’ve never seen the halls as crowded on the first morning of the show as they were this year. And although it is a very different show to the one I first went to in Cannes 22 years ago, some things don’t change – but more of that later.

The Cannes event, with its few thousand delegates, was a place were the mobile infrastructure vendors looked to meet and seal deals with network operators, and where smaller innovative companies in the same space tried to sell to the bigger players – other vendors, integrators or the operators themselves.

These days the headlines at the show are usually grabbed by handset vendors launching new devices, or by driverless cars, or keynote speeches by star names from the Internet – this year it was the CEO of Netflix. The exhibition halls are awash with smart toys from Swiss watch companies or drone manufacturers, and with video glasses, and Virtual Reality headsets; most of which have very little to do with real mobile infrastructure.

But despite the high profile nature of the event these days, I actually felt this year’s show was a little light on headline news. Blackberry’s handset launch garnered some attention, but in a relatively young industry the wave of nostalgia that surrounded the return of Nokia to the handset market with its retro 3310 was in some ways as disappointing as it was fun.

When the innovation on show is a return to past glories, that does seem at odds with an industry that is constantly looking forward. Having said that, the warmth and goodwill that accompanied the launch was fun to see. Of course, sales will be the final arbiter of its success, but it would be great to have a strong European brand back in the handset market.

On the conference stage, the news that incoming GSMA Chairman Sunny Mittal of Bharti Telecom intends to scrap roaming charges during his time at the helm will be welcomed by businesses, consumers, and regulators all over the world. However, not all operators will be smiling and the move will throw up some interesting commercial as well as technical challenges – especially for subscribers living close to land borders.

And while on the giant booths of the big infrastructure vendors and operators, the talk was all 5G; in the corners of the booths and halls, and in small meeting rooms, the old show still very much exists. One relatively small UK start-up I chatted to had held eight, one hour-long, meetings every day in its cubicle-sized meeting room in Hall two. They had been back-to-back without a break and often had to send one or two of the team to have parallel meetings in the coffee bar.

Which means, that despite all the glitz and the glamour; at its heart, MWC remains THE place where the mobile industry comes to do business. After more than 20 years, that’s quite an achievement in itself. And next February, we’ll gather to do it all again.

Peace breaks out at telco pantomime

Peace eventually broke out after a pantomime style opening to a panel session on reinventing the telco business model moderated by AsiaInfo’s VP of Global Product Marketing Andy Tiller at the Total Telecom Congress last week.

It started when Fernando Nunez Mendoza, the founder and CEO of Spanish firm fonYou Telecom, delivered the ‘oh no you can’t moment’ when he said operators shouldn’t innovate because when they did – “it doesn’t work.”

Unfortunately, joining Mendoza on the panel was Telefonica’s MD of digital commerce, Robert Franks – who just happens to be the executive charged with helping the global operator develop and deliver innovative new services.  Mendoza had explained that he thought telcos should concentrate on finding the right partnerships and should leave the innovation to those companies.

As might be expected Franks delivered the ‘oh yes we can’ reply to Mendoza’s opening salvo.  He agreed that partners were important to the future operator business model but also spoke about the need for operators to be active themselves and to look for new areas of business to develop and grow.

Andy had started by asking the panel, which also included Vivian Woodell, chief executive of the user-owned and run MVNO The Phone Co-Op, whether the traditional telco business model was doomed and how they saw the saw it evolving?

Woodell’s view was that, while the giant global telcos can often stifle market innovation from the smaller players; by concentrating on business rather than technical innovation, he believed that smaller telcos could in fact thrive and create their own market niche.

Mendoza picked up on the point and cited a service fonYou is developing for operators in Latin America. He said that they were providing real-time credit scoring and analysis for pre-pay operators to enable them to issue micro-credits and therefore maintain data connectivity to targeted customers even if they had a zero balance.

“There is no need to deprive a customer of data connectivity for one day when you know from your credit analysis and scoring that they will have funds tomorrow,” he said.

And Franks admitted, with a tip of the hat towards Mendoza’s opening comments, that with all the innovation on offer from smaller nimble players in the market, it was hard for operators to find gaps in the market for new products.  He did however highlight some O2 successes – including GifGaf, the Just Call Me conference call app, and the Voice over WiFi services that could be offered to the 23m O2 UK WiFi customers.

And, in a sentiment that moderator Tiller and all the panellists agreed with, Franks also said: “While connectivity has never been more important, operators must not allow their business model to drift down to a simple commodity service based on price.”

This led Tiller to ask whether operator innovation should be based on monetizing customer insights and collaborative services with third-party players.  I was interested to see how the answers from the panel matched AsiaInfo’s own research into these areas.

Not surprisingly, both Mendoza and Franks thought that monetizing that data through partnerships had tremendous potential for innovation and carefully targeted growth.

Franks, in fact, explained how O2 already uses bulk, anonymised customer data in its Smart Steps service – which provides transport and planning authorities with detail on the mass movement of people.  Mendoza meanwhile outlined a service his company was developing with operators in South America looking to carefully mine customer data in order to provide targeted offers or services to customers.

In contrast, Woodell instinctively felt, that monetizing its customer database was against the principles of The Phone Group and its member-run ethos.  However, he accepted his business wasn’t particularly representative of the industry and he also didn’t completely shut the door on the idea; instead saying that he was open to the idea of working with some ‘ethical” data mining companies, but only with full transparency and the agreement of the full member base rather than just its management team.

Despite the apparent disagreements at the start, the panel did come together and peace broke out on the innovation issue with everyone agreeing that innovative operator thinking was certainly required, that the telco model would continue to evolve, and that partners were going to be crucial to the process.

And the way the discussion developed, it certainly seemed that the collaboration initiatives, that companies like AsiaInfo are looking to help telcos deliver, are exactly what is needed to support the business model transformation that is undoubtedly underway.

Vodafone fails the Omni-channel test

I’ve been a pretty loyal Vodafone customer over the years but just now, the company is doing a good job of demonstrating that its various sales and customer service channels are not joined up – not at all.  Omni-channel CRM?  Vodafone seems either unable to implement the concept or unaware of it altogether.

This story actually begins with some great customer service.  At renewal time, I made a list of what I wanted from my next contract and took the challenge into three phone stores one morning before heading off to some meetings.

The Vodafone store contacted me that afternoon with an offer.  The other two stores took much longer. That very day, March 10, I went back to the store and sat with two helpful assistants who walked me through some options.

I left that store happy.  I had renewed three mobiles and paid for the new handsets. In addition, on their advice, I had taken out two new data-only SIM contracts which could share my much larger monthly data bundle.  The existing Vodafone SIM in my iPad was removed and replaced with one of the new data SIMs, with the other one going into a new MiFi device so my laptop could connect independently.  I now had five accounts not four, and was paying a larger monthly fee, but I was happy with the deal and the service.

I wrote an email of thanks to the store team, and gave them full marks in the Vodafone text survey.  Then I got my April phone bill and found I was still being charged for the iPad SIM the store had removed and replaced with a different one.

I contacted and visited the same helpful store staff, who said this was a mistake and they would get it corrected. I believe they have tried many times. Nevertheless, the May bill arrived with the same six-number charge.  I wrote to the support service online.  I spent a long time on a customer service helpline and then on a business one.  I took to Twitter.  At every turn I had to go through the story from the beginning.  Surely I said, you can see this on your screens against my account.

Finally, last week, the social media team emailed me to say they had sorted the problem and the May bill had been credited to remove the charge.  However, I would have to pay for April as “usage was made that month”.  Apparently, in April, I used the SIM that the store staff removed on March 10 and threw away. I have naturally pointed this out, again.

Meanwhile, at the weekend, I received the final evidence that proves Vodafone is failing the omni-channel CRM test.  It’s the standard disconnect letter – would I like to reconsider they ask?  After all, they have some very attractive offers and might be able to save me some money if I stay with Vodafone.  Really? I haven’t left Vodafone!  Did nothing flag in the system to say – don’t send that letter to that customer.

A true omni-channel CRM system would allow Vodafone to associate my store presence, with my business account enquiry, with all my live account numbers, and with my social media profile.  And it would remove the need to have to keep going through the same story.  Sadly, Vodafone’s current system is clearly not up to the task.