What makes a happy mobile network customer?

Ofcom, the UK’s media and telco regulator, conduct an annual review of customer satisfaction experienced by UK consumers of mobile, fixed and mobile telecommunication services. The most recent results came out earlier this month.

It’s no surprise that O2 topped the latest survey with a score of 81% overall satisfaction. O2‘s strong result is consistent with other customer satisfaction surveys conducted by Which? magazine and the UK National Customer Satisfaction Index

  Source : Ofcom: Customer Service Satisfaction Wave 4, Dec 2012, p51

Source: Ofcom: Customer Service Satisfaction Wave 4, Dec 2012, p51

Disappointingly, the Ofcom survey did not include MVNO Tesco Mobile, who consistently challenge O2 for the UK mobile network customer satisfaction crown.

I’m not sure it is widely appreciated how strongly Tesco Mobile perform in customer service surveys. They are consistent high performers, and are clearly doing something right in the way they keep their customers happy.

The big surprises from the Ofcom survey were a decline in Vodafone’s performance and a significantly improved performance by the 3 network.

3 have been perennial underperformers in customer satisfaction over past years, but the results from this current survey show a dramatic improvement in their customer satisfaction scores.

GFK notes:

“ There has been a year-on-year decline in satisfaction with Vodafone (from 78% to 70%) and corresponding rise in neutral opinion, while satisfaction with Three has improved significantly over time since 2009 (from 59% to 73%)”.

So have 3 finally turned the corner and got on top of their customer service gremlins? Further, what is driving down the Vodafone result?

Looking at 3, I still see them as having some major customer service challenges. Ofcom also track the number of complaints they receive from customers about their mobile network experience, and the latest results continue to show disappointing results for 3.

  Source:  Ofcom Telecoms and Pay TV Complaints
Q2 (April to June) 2012, p22 

Source: Ofcom Telecoms and Pay TV Complaints Q2 (April to June) 2012, p22 

Based on this data, 3 continue to be the poor performing customer satisfaction outlier with roughly double the industry average of complains lodged per 1000 customers. O2 remain the consistent star performer. (Again, it is worth noting that Tesco Mobile is not included in this survey, but I would expect their results to be around the level of O2

So how can Ofcom release two sets of 2012 customer satisfaction data for reports with such dramatically different results for 3? Are 3 customers happy or not happy with the service experience they get from 3?

My guess is that 3 offers a dramatically different customer service experience depending on which channel the customer chooses to access.

I think 3 provide a good customer service to their customers via their online service channels, so customers willing to manage their service issues online receive and report good service from 3.

Further, 3’s unlimited data tariff plans attract technology savvy customers whose first instinct will be to service themselves online or via 3‘s Twitter support channel, which in turn is staffed by responsive, enthusiastic technology savvy staff members who provide great service. 

3’s data centric customers are therefore driving the “good news” in 3’s results.

However less technology savvy 3 customers, who likely were attracted to join the 3 network by cheap voice prices, are more likely to prefer to service their accounts by calling into call centers. 

3’s call centre service appears to be disproportionately based overseas compared to other UK mobile networks, and the overseas call centre experience may be the main factor driving a high level of customer dissatisfaction with the 3’s overall customer service experience.

So my take would be that 3 are serving their data centric customers well, and their voice centric customers poorly.

On the other hand, surveys consistently name O2 and Tesco Mobile customers as the happiest of all the UK mobile networks. I think it’s no coincidence that O2 and Tesco Mobile are unique in being the only UK mobile networks that have 100% onshore call centres. This gives these two operators a competitive advantage in customer service, which in turn feeds into better customer satisfaction scores.

Given the cost pressures UK mobile networks have been under over the past decade, it’s not surprising several networks chose to save money by off-shoring customer care.

However there seems to be clear customer satisfaction impact flowing from this decision, making it harder for these mobile networks to compete with O2 and Tesco Mobile on customer service. 

This is dangerous, as customer service is one of the few points of differentiation available to mobile networks as mobile communication and connectivity becomes further commoditised.   

Mobile networks may need to start an honest dialogue with their customers about how they fund and deliver the customer service element of their brand propoistion going forward. 

This could take the form of charging the customer a premium for the option of UK based call centre service, or even shutting down voice driven customer service altogether and serving customers only via email, online and social media channels. 

And where does all this leave Vodafone? I have no idea what’s driving the poor Vodafone result. My experience with their retail and their web channel, are both positive and I can see that effort has been invested by Vodafone into re-thinking how to make retail and online channel experiences clearer and simpler for their customers. 

I haven’t used their call centres, but I wouldn’t expect the experience to be dissimilar to Orange or T-Mobile, both of whom outperform Vodafone in this survey.

Vodafone customers seem to be annoyed about something, but at the moment I can’t put my finger on what this might be.

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