Tele operators strategy shifting in Africa

October 2, 2011

Officially, Africa is the second largest mobile market in the world and the growth is unstoppable bearing in mind only 30% of continent population owns mobile phones.Over the past month, I have met more than six top executives working with mobile network operators in sub Saharan Africa who revealed to me that their immediate focus is to improve customer service. This is a mantra in the telecommunications industry right now and there is plenty of room for improvement in Africa as well.Complaints to the Telecommunications regulators in different countries have ballooned in recent years as the complexity of telecom products has grown and customer expectations have risen. A good case is in Tanzania where roughly a month ago Tanzania Communication Regulatory Authority came under heavy public outcry because of poor network coverage and congestion.The same has been the case in Uganda.In Zambia a friend who works with a mobile operator told me that the situation is dire.In west Africa,the same applies especially in Cameroon and Nigeria where the government has been forced to intervene.Africa’s major operators, hands on hearts, have sworn to do better and two of the executives swore to me I will see the changes next time we meet.Of course,they are not doing this as an act of charity. They have learned the hard way that bad customer service is expensive to provide.It drives bad volumes within the business like complaints that raise cost and promotes expensive customer churn.As many would say,what is bad for customers is bad for the telcos too. So why haven’t Africa mobile network operators already achieved the win-win outcome of better customer service after a decade of astronomical growth?There are plenty of reasons.One of my main observation is that many operators’ legacy IT systems weren’t designed to cope with the rapidly changing multi-product nature of the modern telecommunications business.This is prominently evident in Uganda,Nigeria,Ghana,Zimbabwe,Tanzania, Zambia and Rwanda.

The problems are even worst where stove-piped business units fragment the operators’ view of the customer and add complexity to the task of customer management like has been the case with Kenyan network operators. Many operators still don’t fully know what data they have, where it is, or how to get it to front-line customer service. Even if they did, they often don’t have the business processes to use this information to respond to customer needs in real time.Solving these problems requires a multi-pronged strategy of IT investment and business re-engineering that is, unsurprisingly, hard to execute. This all has to be done while the business is running at full tilt, without disrupting the services the business provides.By working with tele operators in some of the projects,I have gained insights into the challenges facing network operators in Africa which is one of the fastest growing market globally. Customer service has to be one of preoccupations to any CEO in Africa although it may take a year plus for significant and quantifiable change to flow through.Africa telco’s strategy should focus on three main components which are process simplification, customer service improvement, and cost savings because all three are closely related. What mobile operators in Africa should know is that bad volumes in the company are drivers of cost, and are often caused by poorly-designed process. While talking to one of the executive, it was very clear that there were no silver bullets where attention could be focused and instead most mobile network operators have gone through a painstaking process of process re-engineering and IT investment.There is no doubt such improvements are off a base of poor customer service, so there is still a lot of work to do.Where there’s muck there’s brass and if Africa mobile operators are to succeed in cleaning up their customer service act, then Africans will be winners as well.

Contador Harrison