Differentiators in the battle for the 4G customer

UK mobile operatorsMobile operator EE has enjoyed a near year-long monopoly with its 4G cellular service in the UK, launched in October 2012.

That dominant market position comes to an end this week as rival mobile operators Vodafone and O2 begin to roll out their own 4G services from today, starting in London.

Or does it?

The Financial Times has an insightful report that assesses the options for the mobile operators, setting the scene with this perspective:

[…] EE now covers almost 100 cities and towns in the UK, and at speeds that it promises will be much faster than those of rivals, even if those faster services also carry higher prices.

Daniel Gleeson, analyst at IHS, says consumers will probably find differences in four main areas: speed, coverage, data caps and content. EE has in effect seized the advantage for the first two for now, meaning that rivals have needed to focus elsewhere instead.

While Vodafone’s and O2′s 4G coverage from the start will be in the tens of towns, EE actually covers 105 towns and cities now, according to a company announcement on August 28, covering 60 percent of the population. It also has double speed 4G – meaning, they say, potentially up to 60 megs download speed in the 20 towns and cities across the UK where it’s currently available. That’s faster than most consumer cable broadband speeds.

The FT story discusses what EE’s competitors may do to attract customers in ways that are credible: of the four main areas the paper mentions, network speed may do it, but coverage can’t yet match EE’s, so the FT suggests they’ll likely focus on data caps and content as differentiators.

As someone who’s been using EE’s 4G services since last December, courtesy of EE and the ambassador programme I’m participating in, I can say right now that the two most important areas of all are speed and coverage – in that order.

Until you’ve experienced cable broadband speeds on your mobile device, you won’t really appreciate what a massive advantage a really fast mobile internet connection can be as it enables you to get things done faster.

And faster in a magnitude of fives or so. Upload pics to Instagram in about five seconds rather than nearly 30 when you use 3G, for instance, on a 4G smartphone like the Samsung Galaxy S3 LTE I’ve been using. Highly-spec’d hardware and software play a role so I bet it’s an even better experience on newest devices like the Galaxy S4 LTE.

Of course, that’s my perspective – I have friends who have EE’s 4G and they swear by content (apps, games and online services in particular) as the most important thing, more than speed or coverage.

So expect Vodafone and O2 to have some amazing content deals to persuade you to sign up for their 4G service. I wouldn’t be surprised if EE comes up with some attractions to match.

And what about Three? They’re not due to launch their 4G service until later in the year. And maybe their differentiator will be price as they say there will be no price premium for their 4G (as a paying customer of Three, I find that most appealing).

In fact, I bet a price differentiator will be of major interest to customers from whoever gets the balance compellingly right – high speeds, broad coverage, unlimited data (or generous amounts), great content – all at a terrific price.

And therein lies an ongoing dilemma for customers – so much choice and how do you pick the best deal?

Cue opportunities for imaginative communication and great story-telling that give consumers the powerful reasons why they should choose you and your offering rather than the other guy’s. I wonder how social media and a social approach to engagement will support that communication  beyond the expected traditional marketing and let’s-sell-you-an-experience stuff.

There’s quite a time ahead if you’re on the lookout for a new mobile device.

Related posts:

The future can be rosy for advertising and mobile

I must have walked past Ronnie Scott’s Jazz Club in London’s Soho scores of times over the past decades, yet I’ve never enjoyed the moments of being inside. Until last Wednesday.

On March 20, the iconic venue was the place where some 200 people in advertising, marketing, PR and the mainstream media came together to hear the CEOs of the three biggest mobile operators in the UK talk about how they see the future of advertising and the role of mobile in that future.

Mobile CEOs
Pictured above, from left to right: panel discussion moderator David Jones, Global CEO of Havas; Guy Laurence, CEO of Vodafone UK; Olaf Swantee, CEO of EE, the new mobile operator combining Orange and T-Mobile; Ronan Dunne, CEO of Telefónica UK (owner of O2); and David Sear, CEO of Weve.

The event was a leadership breakfast panel discussion as part of Advertising Week Europe, the near week-long conference event taking place in London for the first time.

The breakfast session was organized by Weve, a joint venture between the UK’s three largest mobile operators: EE, Telefónica UK (owner of O2) and Vodafone UK. Between them, they represent over 80 percent of UK mobile customers.

As you’d expect, all of the discussion was pretty upbeat. I was left in no doubt of the belief, articulated in what those mobile CEOs said – together on stage for the first time – that we’re on the cusp of a major transformation of advertising and media and a major opportunity for brands.

Indeed, Weve CEO David Sear was clear regarding the ambitions of the joint venture with its combined customer database of 15 million users and the latest technologies shared by each venture partner.

One of those technologies – 4G – is already being established throughout the UK by EE which launched its 4G/LTE service last October in a dozen towns and cities (EE says it now covers 37 across the UK plus rural Cumbria). The other operators plan to roll out their 4G services during this year after acquiring licenses from the government in the 4G spectrum auction held earlier this year.

4G is unmistakably significant to the plans and intentions spoken about in the panel discussion. As a user of 4G mobile devices – I’m part of an ambassador programme for EE who have provided me with 4G devices at no cost to me – I can attest to the huge benefits I can clearly see from both a user perspective as well as from the advertising, marketing and PR perspectives.

Make no mistake, being able to just get things done quickly when mobile – do your email, post pics to Instagram, update your social status, check-in on Foursquare, watch or upload a video, etc – in a similar speedy way you can (and expect) when on a fast broadband network via fixed or wifi connectivity is an absolute boon to your productivity.

Not only that, you tend to use your fast connectivity more, especially for the kinds of things that really do need a fat and fast broadband connection – streaming video, for example – because you can.

At one point in the discussion, EE CEO Olaf Swantee noted simply that he’s seeing a “surge” in the way people use their phones with 4G. I agree – I hear that from everyone I know has has a 4G device.

Some of the snapshot points I noted especially from the panel on Wednesday include these:

  • There will be a billion NFC-enabled phones worldwide by 2016, said Vodafone’s Guy Laurence
  • “It’s not about the technology, it’s about the broadest access” (can’t remember which CEO said that)
  • There’s huge growth in online shopping with the advent of 4G, said EE’s Olaf Swantee

Two mainstream media reports on the event that I’ve seen are worth a read: Weve’s EE, O2 and Vodafone invest ‘tens of millions of pounds’ to woo brands by MediaWeek; and Vodafone UK CEO Guy Laurence: Join Weve or miss out by MobileNews. And there’s some relevant insights in some of the comments to the Twitter hashtags #Weve and #AWEurope.

EE’s Swantee wrote an opinion piece in LinkedIn yesterday, talking up Weve, what it’s doing and its plans. One thing he said especially caught my attention:

[…] The key is to ensure that mobile advertising draws on the creative opportunities that mobile screens and superfast networks provide and, critically, to ensure it is never intrusive, never unwanted and always relevant.

This exciting new world of personal advertising and mobile instant payments poses big questions around data security and trust. But get that right – which WEVE will – and the opportunities for driving creativity, economic growth, and customer satisfaction are huge.

And there is the bigger challenge for brands, advertisers and mobile commerce enablers (ie, the mobile operators), revolving around the sentiments of “never intrusive, never unwanted and always relevant.”

If all of the players are able to see this Brave New World as more than just another advertising medium or marketing channel, and consider genuine consumer empowerment opportunities, then the future Weve envisions can look very rosy indeed.

(Picture of the panel discussion participants by Gabrielle Laine-Peters, used under Creative Commons License.)

[Update March 24:] From my vantage point seated in Ronnie Scott’s club, I took quite a few photos of the panel during their discussion, all snapped with the camera on a Samsung Galaxy SIII LTE smartphone from EE.

Thinking of what to do with the pics – they’re not really special in terms of sharing them: some are a bit blurred as they were taken at zoom length with not too steady a hand – I thought of making them into a simple audio-visual play using Animoto.

And here it is – a ‘mood video’ with music of “The Mobile CEOs”:

(If you don’t see the video embedded above, watch it at YouTube.)

Vodafone #FAIL

powertoyouI wrote the other day about delighting your customers not just pleasing them. The focus was all about behaviours and leadership, not technology or social media tools (although all of those things are intertwined in so many ways).

“Delighting the customer” is a phrase foreign to Vodafone in the UK, if my recent experience is any guide. Indeed, for this mobile operator, giving the customer an expectation of only the bare minimum of service seems equally foreign.

To be fair, I know many who are delighted with Vodafone and its service. I don’t know how many of those delighted customers have used Vodafone’s customer support service, though. Right now, I am the opposite to my delighted friends – I’ve had an appalling experience with Vodafone this past week that, as I write this, is still only partially resolved.

I wrote a long email to Vodafone support today, and decided to publish the text here on my blog in the hope that such public transparency might help a conclusion arrive.

If you have comments, thoughts, ideas,etc, feel free to offer them, here or anywhere you prefer online, an offer I have also made to Vodafone.

Thanks.

[Update Sept 26: Also see the Updates at the end of the post.]

Dear Vodafone,

Today is one week since I upgraded an out-of-Vodafone-contract iPhone 3GS to a new Vodafone contract with an iPhone 4S, arranged in your Reading store. It’s also a week that we’ve had this phone sitting in its box, unable to be used: unable to make or receive phone calls, unable to send or receive text messages, and unable to synchronize the device with iTunes, install iOS6, use apps, etc.

In sum, we’re unable to enjoy the benefits of a device for which I paid an up-front sum and signed a contract on September 18 – when the meter started running, as it were, on the good and services you were to provide under the terms of the contract. As you have all my details, you’ll know the contract number, phone number, etc.

As our email correspondence, our exchanges on Twitter and a few telephone conversations make clear, the new microSIM card for the iPhone 4S was not properly activated in your store and attempts to activate it at home, following your website instructions, have failed. In one of our phone conversations last week, one of your team members did tell me that the SIM card was faulty, one of a batch that were faulty, and a replacement card would be sent. You’ll know from your records that this promise was made twice on different occasions.

So a full week has passed by without my wife being able to enjoy her new iPhone 4S. The replacement SIM card finally arrived in the post today; more on that in a minute.

[Read more...]

Vodafone pays the price for lack of communication

asystemupdateisavailable If you want to know how to seriously upset your customers and get lots of bad press in one easy move, look no further than Vodafone in the UK and what happened when the mobile operator rolled out a bespoke system software update this week to its customers who have the popular HTC Desire smartphone, as I do.

I did the upgrade when it was offered. It wasn’t upgrading the phone’s operating system to the new Android 2.2 version aka Froyo, as many people initially thought, that’s already rolling out from phone manufacturer HTC.

No, it was apparently “system stability and performance improvements” and “operator feature enhancements” according to the information displayed on screen.

If you visit the Vodafone website, you’ll find no information about this update. So without any other details to hand to tell you what all of that means, you take on an awful lot of trust when you go ahead and tap the ‘OK’ button. You assume that Vodafone isn’t going to do anything that messes up your device, change any settings or, heaven forbid, install a bunch of apps on it without asking you first.

Well, guess what!

Here’s what I’ve experienced on my Vodafone HTC Desire since the update:

  • Slow boot-up.
  • New splash screen at boot-up with the Vodafone logo.
  • The HTC boot-up tune is gone (which is probably a good thing)..
  • A bunch of Vodafone apps under the Vodafone 360 brand have been installed – none of which works (and none of which can be uninstalled).
  • No more audible notifications of SMS, email and Twitter messages.
  • Swype text-entry software stopped working: I had to uninstall and reinstall it to get it working again.
  • Switched the home page of my mobile browser to the Vodafone 360 log-in page.
  • The update added some new bookmarks, some of which I can understand have offended people, eg, dating websites (I just deleted them).

A lot of misplaced trust, it seems, judging from the howls of outrage posted by phone geeks in the Vodafone user forum. While many of the comments there are simply expressions of opinion, many other customers are genuinely aggrieved at what Vodafone has done. All the comments highlight the fact that many customers are very unhappy both with how Vodafone has gone about this update and the distinct lack of any effective communication from Vodafone about it other than a forum post after the fact.

saynotovodafone360 Gadget and mobile blogs have been alive with posts and comments, all critical of Vodafone. The mainstream media picked up on it with headlines like “Vodafone angers HTC Desire owners” in the Daily Telegraph. A Facebook page  “Say No To Vodafone 360 Spamware On The HTC Desire” was swiftly set up.

Now, Vodafone has suspended the update while it is “looking into customer reports into the possible impact of the software on device performance.”

What’s next? Well, maybe an interim update of some kind that fixes all these issues (but don’t hold your breath). Then, the Android 2.2 update that I mentioned earlier.

If Vodafone’s goal with this botched update was to open up a channel of selling new services (the Vodafone 360 deal) to customers, I can’t imagine anyone would think they will now succeed, certainly not by pushing out “operator feature enhancements.” I would imagine most people (me included) will be highly suspicious of anything from Vodafone on a mobile device unless there’s detailed information explaining what it is and what it does before you click ‘OK.’ Oh, and asking your permission first whether you want it or not.

You might be surprised, Vodafone: if you ask first, many people will say ‘yes.’

If they don’t do that, I think many customers will ‘root’ their phones, especially if it gets easier and there are more online guides on how to do it. I’ve resisted that as I haven’t found a truly compelling reason to do it as well as rooting your device will void the warranty. But if I had to go through this experience again, I may well choose that alternative.

All of this drama could so easily have been avoided with some common sense communication with customers beforehand.

Waiting for Vodafone for my Nokia update

Last September, Nokia released updated firmware version 30.0.018 for its N95 8GB model, the one I have.

Today, some six months later, running the Nokia Software Updater application shows that the updated firmware version is still not available on my phone.

nsu1

Running a manual check on the Nokia website by phone product code number confirms the non-availability of that updated firmware.

nsu2

That’s because my phone is tied to a particular mobile operator – Vodafone in the UK – who obviously have not yet approved this firmware for installation on an N95 8GB that connects to its network.

That’s how it works – Nokia publishes new firmware but Vodafone has to test it first, according to this post from Vodafone on a Vodafone forum earlier last year:

[…] The reason that Vodafone take more time in releasing new software versions is because they have to be tested with all of our services and applications first. Given the amount of products that Vodafone have in place, from Sat Nav, Music Station, Vodafone L!ve and many more, I am sure you can appreciate the amount of testing involved.
Once testing is complete we then have to make any changes needed to the Vodafone firmware version including possible documentation changes and then re-writing of the firmware itself. Vodafone have to be very careful with this procedure as even the smallest mistake could result in services becoming unusable.

I get it, Vodafone, and thanks for being so focused on customer service. I appreciate it (and I mean that sincerely).

But six months? That’s ridiculous! Doubly so when I see that a newer firmware version was released by Nokia even more recently.

nsu3

Version 31.0.17 for the N95 8GB.

How long will it be, Vodafone?

[Later] Never, by the looks of it, to answer that question.

A comment from Twitter buddy Jim Taylor points me to this statement from a Vodafone employee called Tom in November on that Vodafone forum I mentioned earlier:

[…] As the N95 8GB isn’t a product we sell any more, and the firmware version currently available is known to work well on the device, there are no plans to release the newer version 30 firmware.

Hmm, I wonder why he says “As the N95 8GB isn’t a product we sell any more” when it’s still listed on the Vodafone website as a model you can currently get from Vodafone UK.

But so much for that customer service I referred to earlier – I have a phone that someone at Vodafone obviously thinks is now obsolete.

Quite a bit of further comment in that forum discussion, leading to this subsequent post from Tom at Vodafone:

Hi everyone,
To confirm what I’d said previously we aren’t planning on releasing a Vodafone version of this firmware.
I appreciate you wanting to get the latest versions, but the answer we’ve received is that we won’t be releasing the updated version. As this is the definite answer on this topic I’m going to close the thread.
If any of you are having problems with your handsets at the moment, please feel free to start a new thread and we’ll get the problems sorted for you

Notwithstanding the fact that the firmware Nokia released contains some bug fixes in addition to new features and enhancements to benefit the user..

A few choice words spring to mind to describe my opinion of the arrogance of this Vodafone feller and his colleagues.

Remind me to think hard about which mobile provider to talk to when I look at renewing my mobile monthly-contract deals (I have a few including my wife’s), all currently with Vodafone.

Or maybe I’ll just shift over to an O2 deal with iPhone. With the iPhone, it just updates the firmware as it needs to, no messing about with whether the mobile operator thinks it needs to test it first with a load of apps.

I think Apple/O2 have the better business model in that regard.