Smart buys

The ‘out-of-box’ experience is often seen as the starting point for the mobile customer relationship, but in reality the journey begins long before with the purchasing process. For many customers the retail environment and economic factors, such as the discounts or rewards available to them, represent one of the most significant parts of the overall user experience.

This is true at all levels of the market. Low-usage customers with little technical knowledge are reliant on the retail environment to provide them with information and guidance on the most appropriate handset and tariff for their requirements. At the other end of the market, pricing and special offers can have a significant effect as ‘power’ users shop around for the best upgrade pricing on the latest handsets.

Operators in the UK have been slowly improving their retail offering, providing services such as complimentary in-shop handset charging in a bid to enhance customer relations. They have also introduced specific in-store experts for business customers and ensure the staff are supplied with the latest handsets to familiarise themselves with new technology.

There are signs the online sales process is improving too, particularly in the US. This research from Compete, Inc. found online sales grew by 90 percent in the first part of the 2005 holiday season. This improvement was recorded despite a year-on-year decrease in web traffic – fewer customers were looking, but more were buying: i.e. the conversion rate was much higher than before.

Compete cited “notable improvements made to many wireless shopping sites’ purchase experiences,” and “competitive, targeted promotions to acquire new customers and to grow existing customer relationships,” as the key reasons behind the rise in sales.

However, there are still major shortcomings. You may remember my experience of trying to purchase a Vodafone 3G Mobile Connect card last year…two hours of phone calls, five different departments and eventually it was only the intervention of the company’s corporate relations team which managed to solve the problem.

At the time Vodafone’s spokesperson acknowledged they were in the process of implementing an internal project to improve customer care. Five months on, however, it seems that curious anamolies remain.

I went into a Vodafone retail store a couple of months ago to upgrade my handset. After supplying them with my mobile number they were able to pull-up my account details and provide me with pricing for the new handset. Given the amount I spend with Vodafone each month, it seemed a little high and I asked the assistant if there was anything she could do to reduce it. “No,” she said, “But if you telephone the upgrade call centre, they will probably give it to you for free when they look at your bills. We have a minimum price we have to charge for handsets at retail.”

As it happens, I decided not go ahead with upgrade at that time. However, just before Christmas, I wanted to change to the Sony Ericsson W900i. Remembering the advice of the Vodafone retail assistant I was all set to call them for the best upgrade price, but since I was passing a store I decided to stop in and take a final look at the device before I made the decision to buy.

This time the salesman told me I could have the handset for free, there and then. As he went off to the stockroom, I looked at the computer screen which was authorising him to offer the free upgrade. Interestingly, it also listed a number of other special offers he could provide to keep me as a Vodafone customer – ranging from a GBP 100 credit on my bill to reductions on tariffs and line rentals.

Armed with this information and the knowledge that the telesales department could often offer a better deal, I was curious to see just how far the operator would go to keep me as a customer. So I left the store and phoned the call centre.

This time it was a very different story. The telesales people wanted to charge me a couple of hundred pounds to upgrade. I told them I had just been to one of their retail outlets and been offered the device for free. “Oh,” the lady said. “Well that’s a different part of the company. We have a minimum price we have to charge for handsets. But if you go into a shop, they’ll probably give it to you for free and give you a better deal on tariffs.”

And, of course, that’s exactly what I did. I got the handset I wanted – free – and a much more competitive deal on my monthly bills.

This is hardly what I’d call a seamless purchasing experience. It is an example of how organisational silos are deliveirng an inconsistent message to customers, forcing users to actively navigate their way through a complex network of departments, corporate policy and special offers to get the best deal. The overall result is the same: Vodafone kept me as a customer because they were able to offer a sufficiently competitive upgrade package, but the journey I had to make to get to that point was a waste of my time and left me frustrated.

A good user experience starts with a good purchasing experience. If your company has invested in supporting multiple customer touchpoints – whether those are retail stores, call centres or a web-site – it is essential that the user is able to receive the same level of service from each one. From the customer’s perspective, they are all part of one entity – the customer doesn’t care which department is responsible for the web-site or which department looks after the retail presence, they just want to get something done, quickly, painlessly and in a way which makes them feel rewarded for doing business with you.

Exploring the importance of the purchasing experience will be a key topic at the MEX conference in May 2006. I’m interested in speaking with anyone who works in retail or mobile customer relations to learn more about the issues affecting this part of the business. Please email me at if you’d like to discuss.

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