When the UAE announced it was considering suspending services on Blackberry mobile phones, one of the first things local operator Du did was organise a press conference.

As the media jostled for space, Du did not offer the political or business insights many journalists were hoping for. Instead, its address was aimed at its customers. In the newsroom, Du’s chief executive officer, Osman Sultan, unveiled and explained new deals and special offers. Contracts for its current Blackberry Live updates were simultaneously released on social networking site Twitter, so that customers could follow the events for themselves.

Strategic reassurance

“Du has endeavored to cater to the needs of all our Blackberry customers and have developed customised assurance plans to address the concerns of our individual and business Blackberry customers,” Osman said.

Aiming to secure and reassure its 100,000 current Blackberry users, Du offered competitive discounts on alternative smart phones, free texts and six-month waivers.

UAE mobile subscriber base 
Subscriver base vs growth (per cent) Q1 2009 Q2 2009 Q3 2009 Q4 2009 Q1 2010
UAE mobile subscriber base (millions) 10.09 10.17 10.58 11.22 11.45
Quarter-on-Quarter growth (per cent) 3 0.8 4.1 6 2.1
Q=Quarter. Source: Company Reports & Global Research

The previous day, the UAE’s other mobile operator, Etisalat, had unveiled similar offers, such as free smart phones with new 12-month contracts, unlimited texts and data packages.

The actions of the country’s two mobile phone operators reflect the increasing intensity of competition in the market. With penetration levels in excess of 100 per cent, the market is saturated – and as operators compete for market share, they must now fight for customers.

“Customer care – traditionally perceived as a ‘necessary cost’ – is rapidly becoming a key success factor,” says Zoran Vasiljev, managing director at management consultancy, Value Partners Dubai.

He urges businesses to spend wisely. Telecoms operators that have increased customer care budgets by 15 per cent over a two- to three-year period do not always see corresponding increases in customer satisfaction.

As customer care models are placed under increasing scrutiny, the automated interactive voice response, once a preferred approach, is being rejected as a result of diminishing returns and its persistent failure to produce a sustainable competitive advantage.

We have seen clients increase sales by customer care agents by 70 per cent [and reduce] costs by 17 per cent

Zoran Vasiljev, Value Partners Dubai

Value Partners suggests that the introduction of animated Human Digital Assistants may provide an alternative solution, observing that visual technologies are popular in the Middle East. But, reducing the need for customers to make support calls in the first place is becoming the number one priority.

Ensuring customers are given detailed information at the sales stage can reduce later queries. Building up customer profiles can also help providers to discern and solve potential issues quickly, says Value Partners.

“Through intelligent mapping of the customer journey from pre-sale to ongoing post-sale needs, operators can reduce the number of issues the customer needs to raise,” it says.

Companies are recognising that long and multiple support calls exacerbate customers. Furthermore, ‘Recallers’ often account for up to 35 per cent of incoming calls, which have a negative impact on operating efficiency and profits.

Some operators are considering introducing service updates via email or SMS to reduce the need for follow-up calls. Clearer scripts for ending calls alongside incentives for agents have also reduced repeat calls in several cases to as low as 15 per cent, says Value Partners.

Handset innovations

With mobile handset sales expected to stall in 2011, telecoms operators will need to shift towards more innovative models, which can improve customers’ experience while simultaneously achieving cost efficiencies.

“We have seen clients increase sales by customer care agents by 70 per cent, while concurrently reducing costs by 17 per cent,” says Vasiljev.

The newest of the UAE’s two telecoms providers, Du, which was founded in 2005, has already introduced numerous innovative special deals to muscle its way into Etisalat’s monopoly. During the first quarter of 2010, Etisalat saw its subscriber base drop by 30,000 while Du saw a rise of 262,000.

As the business climate becomes more challenging, creative marketing campaigns and special offers will need to be accompanied by a comprehensive understanding of individual customer needs – as well as the support service to satisfy them fully.

“We are continuously working on expanding our customer care networks to reach customers whenever and wherever they are, in order to facilitate their experience and maximise their convenience,” said a Du spokesman.

A customer-centred approach to business is here to stay. The good news for customers is that they will be the ones who will benefit.