Enough navel-gazing – telcos need to focus on their customers’ needs , Digital Platforms and Services

Now that network transformation strategies and the cultural shift from communication service provider (CSP) to digital service provider (DSP) is well under way, it’s critical that network operators move their focus away from their networks and internal processes and more towards properly addressing the needs of their customers. Not only was that the key takeaway from the final panel session at Telecom TV’s recent DSP Leaders World Forum 2024, it was also a recurring theme throughout the two days of debates and discussions at the event.  

The final session of the forum, which was held at The Fairmont Hotel in Windsor, UK, focused on why, overall, the telecom sector still has a great deal to do regarding basic customer care and all too often seems to enjoy biting the hands that feed it. Just about every pronouncement any telco or service provider ever makes is replete with references to how customer-centric every one of them is, how they always put the customer (consumer or enterprise) at the top of their agendas, and how they strive to make the customer experience second to none. But, as everyone in this industry knows, backing up those statements is, for most service providers, nigh on impossible. After many years of marketing waffle, there is still a massive disconnect between the service providers and their customers, whose expectations of how they will be treated by their communications service suppliers remain very low. In addition, it would seem, confusion still reigns over the mismatch between what customers really want and what they actually get.

The panel comprised five members of TelecomTV’s DSP Leaders Council, all of whom are senior executives from the global telecom industry. They grasped the nettle proffered to them and agreed that telcos still take customers for granted and, all too often, simply fail to solve the problems that plague enterprises and consumers alike. 

Alexandra Foster, an independent member of the DSP Leaders Council and until recently head of BT’s Division X, which focuses on building new business opportunities with enterprise customers using technologies such as 5G and AI, got straight to the point. She commented: “I think so often we talk about the D and the S of a digital service provider, but quite often for customers it actually stands for ‘dire service’ and that is absolutely not what they need. 

“If we think about that word ‘customer’ and we break it down as an acronym,” continued Foster, “then the C will stand for complexity,” something that the customers wants reduced, and “the U is understanding,” as in the need to understand their business not the service provider’s business… The S in customer can stand for security and it can certainly also stand for sustainability – both of those have to be implicit in absolutely everything that we deliver. The T is transparency – transparency in terms of the communication about what we are delivering, when we’re delivering, when we are changing it, and actually being really clear about the service, the pricing and the billing as well,” continued Foster, who had clearly come very well prepared! 

“The O in customer is for optimisation – that’s the performance, the flexibility, the scalability. They don’t want to know that you’re going to upgrade them to the next service. It just has to be implicit by design. M is for management – it’s our responsibility, not their responsibility, to manage it.” E is for edge and “is absolutely implicit for APIs and real-time data, but it’s also around Experience. And finally the R stands for absolute reliability.” 

That, in a nutshell, is a check list of all the things that service providers need to be sure they are better at and are delivering to customers.

Neal McRae, chief network strategist at Juniper Networks, built on the foundation outlined by Foster and added that customers want vendors and DSPs “to walk in their shoes” and to “help customers that are trying to leverage things on the network”. In terms of APIs and AI, customers say it would be “really helpful if we could have an API on the home gateway so we can see what’s going on,” and that, said McRae, is an example of taking the customer perspective and walking in their shoes.” What customers need is the equivalent of a weather map “to show what the network weather looks like – if we just gave them visibility, it would make a massive difference for customers,” noted McRae, who of course has lots of experience from the service provider side of the fence too from his time at BT and other network operators.

Andrew Coward, general manager of software networks at IBM, said that at his company “we pride ourselves in spending a large amount of time with our enterprise customers and indeed bringing them to telcos to solve the connectivity part” of what they need. “I think there’s a massive disconnect between the languages that telcos speak and the languages that enterprises speak… It’s like telcos are from Mars, enterprises are from Venus. It’s that level of disconnect. Enterprises want the applications [that can support their business]… they want  to be able to manage the latency and security and they want to understand it in application language, not networking language. The answer to an application story isn’t ‘How much bandwidth would you like?’ it’s ‘How can I improve the uptime efficiency and service for this application that is strung out across a global infrastructure’.” 

Coward added that it is “deeply frustrating that we cannot cross that threshold and have that level of conversation with enterprises about their needs mapped to what they understand and not to what telcos understand. And if we were to solve that over the next few years, that would be a massive shift in how the industry is understood by enterprises.”

Geoff Hollingworth, Rakuten Symphony’s chief marketing officer, made the point that telcos have always taken their customers for granted because “they have always been there”. However, the Rakuten Group’s attitude to relationships with its customers is different because it understands the immense value of the data it holds on its subscribers, and its relationship with customers is not purely a technological one. For Rakuten it’s also a matter of the integration of the experience: “Once you understand how to integrate, you can actually partner in a much healthier way.”

Susan James, vice president of innovation for mobile connectivity at American Tower, pointed out that it’s necessary for telcos to use the tools they have at their disposal to examine how their customers are using the network, what they are truly trying to do and what kind of an experience they either enjoy or endure. Once DSPs have that knowledge, they should build products based directly on real, rather than assumed, customer needs. Such a system will be built on “simplification and communication and making things easy. One of the nice things about going to American Tower is that I work with lawyers and I work with accountants. So, working in the technology organisation for me is like, how do I translate this into a way that anyone in the room can actually understand? And I think that has been one of the blessings of my journey in telecommunications. I’ve spent half my time translating technical speak into layman’s terms so people can understand what it is that we’re actually trying to do, and something that simple [would] be a good start” for the industry.

The DSP Leaders Forum panel members spoke frankly, openly, amusingly and sometimes trenchantly about a persistent problem that is, all too often, either brushed under the carpet by a telco’s PR department or, when actually addressed as a serious subject, is painted around and camouflaged in such broad, bland, beige, brush strokes as to be rendered all but invisible. 

Take a look at the TelecomTV coverage and, for a change, see a perennial industry bugbear examined in detail in full colour under the bright lights where things can’t just slip away into the shadows in the hope of being forgotten: You can watch the session on demand right here

– Martyn Warwick, Editor in Chief, TelecomTV

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Enough navel-gazing – telcos need to focus on their customers’ needs , Digital Platforms and Services:

Now that network transformation strategies and the cultural shift from communication service provide…