Telecoms operators are moving towards a model where the customer is at the centre of everything they do. This is primarily happening as a result of the industry adopting an omnichannel approach, ensuring that customers are able to get the full value from the services they consume. It’s also a result of fostering consumer trust in areas such as privacy by giving consumers more control over how their personal data is used. These are some of the key findings of a study conducted by Assembly Research for ETNO, which was presented in Brussels on 2 October 2019. The debate that followed the presentation of the study showed that, despite understandable differences, stakeholders are not too far apart and broadly agree with the direction in which the sector is heading.
A recognition that progress is being made
Stefan Lechler, Deputy Head of Unit, Electronic Communications Policy at DG Connect within the European Commission noted that customer satisfaction is getting better, although the current situation still leaves room for improvement. Focusing on one of the findings of the report that consumers are increasingly taking bundled services and are more satisfied as a result, Lechler noted the Commission’s data has shown bundles can cost more, with complaints coming from consumers as the lifetime of the contract goes on. Carina Törnblom, Advisor to the Director for Consumers at DG Justice and Consumers within the European Commission echoed Lechler’s remarks by saying that there is no reason to be alarmed, and the importance of the sector ends up keeping telecommunications companies under the spotlight. Törnblom noted that complexity is still an issue, particularly for more vulnerable customers, and that the sector must keep going and build on recent improvements.
Stronger engagement and an emerging concept of fairness
Lechler also argued that industry should feel free to propose a new set of indicators, beyond surveys, to show policymakers the sector in a different light. Indeed, as the study suggests, customer engagement could be a sensible criterion to adopt, due to the increased prominence operators are attaching to it and the implications it will have for consumers’ satisfaction. Telcos’ recent tendency to adopt an omnichannel approach, as shown extensively in the study, will likely result in more engagement from customers as operators make it easier for them to interact on a regular basis, in the way of their choosing. There is also an emerging concept of fairness, where operators are voluntarily committing to making improvements to the way customers are kept informed about the service they take, and the options they have when their contract is up for renewal. They are also striving to rely on goodwill in solving disputes when they arise, rather than going to court, in order to avoid legal costs and keep customers happy despite the complaint.
Regulation is an agent of change, but telcos are going beyond mere compliance
One of the talking points during the debate was, perhaps unsurprisingly, the role played by regulation in the changes the industry is bringing about. Lechler and Törnblom, as representatives of the European Commission, highlighted the importance of regulators’ watchful eye on operators, and the role of regulatory measures in enhancing standards in consumer protection. They questioned how much operators would do absent of regulatory pressure. The truth is probably somewhere in between. While it took something like the Roaming Regulation for industry to take a new direction, there are now clear signs of proactiveness coming from the industry as operators see the benefit of establishing better relationships with the customer. One example is the effort operators are making in the area of privacy and trust, where they recognise the role played by regulation in building a privacy-friendly business model, but are also striving to give customers the tools to take greater control of their own personal data.
The need for a more holistic view of the sector and wider digital economy
Malte Firlus, Senior Manager EU Affairs at Deutsche Telekom and Chairman of Digital Economy and Consumers Working Group at ETNO noted that the telecoms sector is not the only one to suffer from problems, and is in fact dealing with them in a better way than other markets to which it is often compared. For example, operators are already working on ways to ensure existing customers are treated as well as new customers and offered advantageous deals; and, unlike key players in other industries, telecoms operators have physical shops where customers can meet company representatives in person. Firlus suggested a more holistic view of the industry is needed, which considers all the players in the digital space, and not just telcos. He pointed out that Facebook is the biggest bundle, and complexity is not only a problem of the telecoms industry, as tech companies get customers to accept lengthy and unclear terms and conditions. Danielle Jacobs, CEO of the Belgian Association of Digital Technology Leaders (Beltug) echoed Firlus’s remarks and highlighted the need to look at competitive bottlenecks in other markets such as software and applications.