Award surprises, Apple interface guidelines & our challenge for operators

Surprise winners at Mobile Choice awards

Yesterday’s Mobile Choice awards in London provided some interesting surprises. The coveted title of ‘Dream Handset’, where readers of Mobile Choice magazine were asked to vote for their ultimate, money-no-object device, was awarded to Nokia’s N95, ahead of the Apple iPhone. It would appear UK consumers at least favour the technological superiority of Nokia’s popular N-Series smartphone over the Apple marketing whirlwind.

There’s no denying the N95 is a more capable device. It really does represent a turning point for the mobile telecoms industry: a bold statement to define the cuttting edge of what’s possible. I’ve been using one for some time now and, despite spending my working life observing trends in the mobile business, I am frequently amazed by what it is able to do.

My N95 is on the 3 network in the UK, which is currently going through a nationwide upgrade to HSDPA. I’m blown away by experiences like browsing mobile web content at these speeds or connecting to my SlingBox video stream to view my home TV channels. Combining integrated GPS mapping with in-car music playback is also an impressive experience.

However, I am acutely aware when using the N95 that I do so from the priveleged position of having a reasonable understanding of the technology. It is not yet a polished enough user experience for the mass market. The N95 may be the dream product for the enthusiast readership of magazines like Mobile Choice, but it has not captured the imagination of the wider public in the way Apple manages with successive generations of iPod and now the iPhone.

Apple and the human experience

Nokia has started taking out double page advertisements in major American newspapers, contrasting the ‘openess’ of the N95 with the proprietary nature of the iPhone. To me this another indication of the wake up call the iPhone has delivered to the mobile telecoms business. Nokia executives may dismiss the Apple product with big figures – the current favourite seems to be contrasting the iPhone’s 1m first quarter shipments with the 1m handsets Nokia sells each and every day – but in private they are fully aware that the iPhone has established a user experience benchmark significantly more powerful than suggested by raw shipment numbers.

I bought one of the new 8 Gb iPod Nanos a few weeks ago. I was giving it to someone as a gift and when they opened it at the dinner table, all 20 of our fellow diners – male and female, young and old – crowded around to take a closer look.

That kind reaction is engendered by a combination of design, capability and sheer coolness. It is not a tangible quality you can measure or compete against with a feature checklist. It’s about the deep understanding of human psychology and passion for user experience which is ingrained in the Apple DNA.

If you want to get an understanding of how seriously Apple takes the issue of human interfaces, download the 50+ page PDF explaining the guidelines for developing web applications for the iPhone. Here’s an extract:

“Simplicity and ease of use are fundamental principles for creating all types of software, but in iPhone content they are critical.”

Some of the section titles include: ‘iPhone and Its Place in the User’s World’, ‘Design for Your Users’ and ‘Make It Obvious’.

The very fact that Apple has bothered to produce such a document and communicate these principles to developers targeting the iPhone web platform is testament to their commitment to the overall user experience.

Back at the Mobile Choice awards, another surprise was the Blackberry Curve beating a wide field including the Nokia E90, Sony Ericson P1i and Samsung i600 for the title of ‘Best Smartphone’.

Customer service as the ultimate differentiator

Virgin Mobile also deserves special recognition for winning the ‘Best Customer Service’ award – as voted for by the readers – for a record 7th consecutive year. The Virgin team should be genuinely proud of this feat.

We are seeing a trend emerging within the operator community for customer service as the key differentiator. We believe it will be one of the major challenges for operators as the scope for competing on price and technology diminishes. It sounds simple, but there are few signs that the mobile business has woken up to reality: in a mature industry it is the quality of customer relationships which provides the greatest opportunity for putting distance between you and the competition.

If a user can choose from any number of highly specified handsets, packaged with any number of bundled voice minutes and text messages from any number of operators and MVNOs, how do you stand out from the pack? In this kind of competitive landscape, where there is little scope for technological differentiation, it is absolutely critical to ensure that you make the difference through customer service.

I recently ended a 10 year relationship with Vodafone and switched to 3. I have been thoroughly impressed by the difference in customer service. Throughout the pre-sales and switch-over process 3 was responsive, courteous and appeared to value my business. This has continued in the first few months of the contract, with queries answered promptly, sensible customer communication channels (e.g. confirming address changes by text message rather than the typicale rigmarole of sending in signed letters) and good self-service options via web and mobile.

As a result, I now find myself making personal recommendations on their behalf when friends and family ask me whether they should switch networks. The state of customer service among so many telecom providers in the UK – fixed and mobile – is so poor that even getting the basics right is enough to make you standout from the crowd.

Operators should see this as an opportunity. Hiding behind technological innovation has allowed them to treat their customers so poorly for so many years that they have created a culture of zero expectations. Working from this low point, any operator that makes an investment in improving customer service will benefit from a big competitive differentiator.

Our challenge for the operators

I’d like to challenge operators to start getting the basics right:

Treating customers as individuals (take note Orange, I don’t know anyone who considers themselves to be a Dolphin or Canary!)

Communicating with customers in their own language (e.g. no-one knows what you mean when you say things like ‘you need to call the customer retention department to obtain your PAC code for the network transfer’)

Providing consistency across customer touchpoints (e.g. customers shouldn’t be told one thing by staff in a retail store and something completely different by your telephone helpline – these may be separate divisions within the company, but in the customer’s mind it is all part of the same brand conversation)

Recognising customer priorities start with value, service and simplicity; three letter acronyms are almost always bottom of the customer’s list, yet are often the first thing on the lips of the sales agents

We’ll happily provide newsletter coverage for any operator that wants to respond to this challenge and can actively demonstrate they are making a difference for real customers on the ground. Next time you’re sitting down at a strategy meeting, how about raising these issues on the agenda rather than looking at how you can stop churn by squeezing 50 more minutes or 100 more ‘free’ texts into your tariff packages?

With thanks to XL Communications and Fly Mobile for hosting our table at the Mobile Choice Awards yesterday.

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