Arrogance before the fall of telecoms greats

Whose demise was more dramatic – Nokia or Blackberry (RIM)? Perhaps mobile operator MTN now takes the baton – shares plummeting 18% last week, in a series of such drops.

The word arrogance springs to mind in my extensive personal experience with all three, whilst working at MTN for 10 years (since 1998).

Nokia’s arrogance regularly left a bitter taste in my mouth (as the ‘customer’). They dictated on many fronts, and were inflexible on issues that mattered to us operators. RIM’s rep reminded me frequently (as the ‘liaison’) what a favour they were doing for us, simply by letting us distribute their ‘wonder product’.

MTN’s telling moment was to publicly tell customers why we were collectively in the wrong – why high pricing was good for us.

I see the signs of a dying company even as it is still growing. Parkinson brilliantly outlined the early-warning signs of corporate demise, back in 1958. The fall can take a decade or longer. The same maxim stands as for a market crash, “the fall starts later than you expect, but is then faster than you expect”.

Brazen, Trump-like (or perhaps Stephen Jobs-like) confidence has its place in the world of big corporates, who must believe in their vision and stand their ground on all fronts. But understand the difference between confidence and arrogance. Too few companies maintain the centrality of the customer within their corporate culture. Many openly defy customers or actually leave a bitter taste in their mouths? The distinction is more subtle with distributors and partners, who are both rivals and customers.

I can equally read the signs of corporates on the up.

Huawei virtually lived in our building. They were eager to sell 3G dongles, and so happily customised small shipments for us. Nokia would not customise without unrealistic minimum commitments. Huawei rapidly usurped the dongle market from Nokia.

Samsung were mature and operator-friendly in a most refreshing way. They added specific and relevant value. They understood pressing issues for operators (like surplus stock management), and embraced the problem together (a problem Blackberry ignored). Samsung rapidly gained handset market share.

Look around to see which companies are building future relevance in their customer base, and which are too busy riding their own wave of self-importance. It’s easier to judge other companies, but also consider lessons for your own company.

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Wireless operators shoot themselves in both feet

I recently concluded a Wi-Fi research publication and was struck by a double irony. A key finding is that any customer using a smartphone is now almost entirely untethered to a single cellular operator. The smartphone customer is truly king (as they say).

Thanks to Wi-Fi, a smartphone customer can access data at home, in the office and many places in between from personal or commercial Wi-Fi hotspots (in fact, most of the places where data is actually needed). Wi-Fi is in many cases cheaper, faster and more available whilst indoors. In other words, a smartphone user for the most part does not need cellular data.

Customers can also choose Wi-Fi to make voice calls. The common services we rely on for our daily messaging, also offer free voice services (often the better quality ‘high definition’ voice) and the iPhone 6 could take this to a new level.

The irony is that Wi-Fi uses radio spectrum which phone companies themselves proclaimed decades ago (at the height of their monopolies) should be license-free. They even pushed for their ruling to be made global. That was the very radio spectrum that now carries most of the world’s wireless traffic!

Dozens of smaller operators are now taking on the few larger players – and many times winning. I could have called this article ‘Goliath hit by his own stone’.

The second irony is that the cellphone operators have been driving into the market, the very phones that have Wi-Fi and can therefore offer customers new levels of freedom. Operators were clambered to sign distribution deals for the iPhone – the phone that led the pack in popularising Wi-Fi.

Of course, the wireless ‘battle for the customer’ is only just beginning. However, as a smartphone user, I should score whatever the outcome.

Christopher Geerdts

Career Experience

Benefit from my Experience

“Spine Chilling” Efficiency

My blood ran cold as I felt the hand tap my shoulder and a voice in a foreign accent asking if I was Mr Geerdts

Stories abound of harrowing experiences with officials in foreign companies, and I felt doubly vulnerable as I was travelling with family – small kids and a bunch of luggage. To be accosted by a uniformed official who knew my name, had to be ominous. My family was checking in for the long-haul home and the idea of being held back unnerved me.

However, apprehension quickly turned to relief and then amazement as the well-dressed representative of Singapore Airlines explained she had noticed I was checking in and wanted to settle a refund that the Airlines owed me.

Within minutes, in her office, she had me sign a pre-completed document, authorised a colleague to dispense a wad of dollars, and sent me back to my family – smiling very broadly indeed.

That memorable highlight in my customer journey is a tribute to the powerful use of technology, process and corporate culture to deliver an experience truly exceeding customer expectations.

A few countries earlier I had reported a damaged suitcase to Singapore Airlines, who had promptly given me a repair voucher. When I phoned them to explain I had no time to effect the repair, they had promptly offered cash, and when I had missed the official at my point of departure, they must have flagged me on their system for urgent assistance whether I appeared.

That was one of the many proactive and service-oriented experiences on Singapore Airlines that highlights for me what is possible for companies with the courage to take the road of transformation to gain the customer edge.

Passionate about the customer

It was the lectures on Lean that kindled the spark for me.

I went in thinking Lean was a dumb name, but came out buying books and researching the topic well after that course ended. My vision of MTN as a customer-centred operator (a systems thinking approach) became a dissertation which graduated me top of my Executive MBA class.

I was overjoyed to be nominated as customer champion for my business unit in MTN, where I galvanised my team and fellow managers to achieve the highest audit score and dramatically improve the customer KPIs.

Sure I have been on CRM steercos, managed sales and support teams, devised marketing strategies and go-to-market plans across Southern Africa. I’ve even been CEO of a company. I also love technology. However my passion remains customer-driven transformation as the fundamental basis for growing the brand, profits and innovation.

May the insights from this Blog give you – the customer edge

Christopher Geerdts

Career Experience

Benefit from my Experience