Giving mobile phone customers a reason to (happily) pay more

Giving mobile phone customers a reason to (happily) pay more

Telecommunications carriers can distance themselves from their competitors by looking closely at customers’ needs and developing new products and services to meet these needs.

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Giving mobile phone customers a reason to (happily) pay more

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Talk with telecom executives and investors and you’re likely to hear a resigned acceptance that the wireless industry is marching toward commoditization. The wireless market is nearly saturated, most “new” subscribers are just switching from one carrier to another, and price is the main reason they switch. For carriers trying to win market share, it’s become a game of inches.

However, if wireless executives follow the example of companies in the consumer products and airline industries—industries that also face commoditization—carriers can distance themselves from their competitors by looking closely at customers’ needs and developing new products and services to meet these needs.

Our research has borne this out: Based on a survey of 2,000 wireless customers in the US, followed up with 100 direct conversations in focus groups, we found that not only do wireless customers still have unmet needs, but, more important, they are also willing to pay more for new services that delight them.

Interestingly, while many customers told us they feel their carriers overcharge and underserve, when we introduced a few compelling new offers in focus groups, some of the same people, who had said they wouldn’t spend more, were interested.

To develop these offers, we conducted top-down and bottom-up research. Our top-down assessment revealed six distinct segments of wireless customers, each with various levels of engagement with their wireless service. Then, based on our work with clients and our customer research, we brainstormed 800 promising ideas for new wireless propositions. We then distilled that list down to four value propositions that we deemed broadly representative of customers’ unmet needs:

  • ubiquitous connectivity;
  • priority access;
  • mobile video; and
  • predictive assistance (that is, a virtual assistant that can anticipate what users need in real time).

Our focus groups and interviews helped us refine these hypothetical offersobviously, a carrier’s real offers may be differentwhich we used to build a nationwide survey to evaluate customers’ interest and willingness to pay. Of our respondents, 45% said they would be willing to pay $10 to $20 more per month for at least one of those features.

Interest varied widely by segment: Some groups of users, for example, were more interested in mobile video offers than others, by as much as threefold.

It’s worth noting that more consumers were willing to pay for tangible features. Half of survey respondents, for example, expressed interest in ubiquitous connectivity and mobile video offers. They told us they were excited about “knowing [their] connection won’t drop” and “being part of the conversation with [their] friends” as a live game streams on their device. Even for less tangible and more theoretical offers, such as predictive assistance, nearly a third of survey respondents expressed interest.

Our experience working with telcos suggests that new services that address customers’ unmet needs not only increase revenue, but can also boost customer loyalty, reduce churn, draw in new subscribers and improve a carrier’s reputation.

Other industries that have been threatened with commoditization offer encouraging examples. In 2005, Gillette injected new energy in the stagnant razor category by identifying an unmet need for higher-quality shaving, leading to the successful five-blade Fusion ProGlide razors while sustaining a substantial price premium over private-label substitutes. In the 2000s, airlines in the US responded to rising costs and price competition by learning more about their customers’ preferences and unbundling services that customers found valuable, allowing airlines to begin charging for features like extra legroom and priority boarding—fees that now represent a significant portion of the industry’s profits in the US.

In both cases, refocusing on specific customer needs counteracted trends toward commoditization.

To tap the value in customers’ unmet needs, telcos can get better at innovating by improving five capabilities within their organizations:

Advanced segmentation. Traditional “one size fits all” marketing, which often promotes speed and bandwidth, may have helped grow the pool during the past decade’s expansion. But now wireless carriers will need to develop more sophisticated analytical tools that can help track customer needs as these evolve.

Agile product development. Rapid innovation is critical. Technology and competitors move quickly, and customer needs are a moving target. Innovation must be a continual exercise, and carriers will need to develop the muscles to cycle through innovations every 6 to 12 months.

Cross-functional decision making. Effective product development will require the best joint perspective of marketing, product development, engineering and IT. Seamless collaboration by these groups requires clear roles and accountability for decision making and execution.

Balanced growth strategy. Carriers need to design a strategy that reflects a balanced approach to growth, generating more revenue from existing customers as well as acquiring new subscribers—all while controlling costs.

Cultural shift beyond price and cost. At many telcos, strategic and tactical discussions focus almost exclusively on cost and price, which translate into an intense focus of resources and attention on these priorities. But if carriers are to avoid a race to the bottom, they must broaden their focus to initiatives that restore value, such as more-detailed segmentation, keener insights into customers’ unmet needs and targeted innovation that delivers on those opportunities.

Customer-centric innovation is not a cure-all for the current challenges of the wireless industry, and it doesn’t eliminate the need for price competitiveness. But it does represent one path away from increasing commoditization and value erosion while giving customers new reasons to love their carriers and stay with them.

Written by Dan Kuzmic, a partner with Bain & Company in Dallas, and Peter Bowen, a Bain partner in Chicago. Both work with Bain’s Global Telecommunications practice. The authors would like to acknowledge the contributions of Jason Park, a manager in Bain’s Chicago office.


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