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E-Sales E-Service Feature Article
November 2002

Mobile Commerce And The Contact Center

By Sameer Kazi, The Customer Group, LLC

You are the golden goose. I've seen you everywhere ' walking down the street, driving your car, at the airport, at sports arenas, cafes, even at the gym. Chatting, tapping, jotting, clicking and buzzing in your 'mobile' zone ' connected and multitasking. You buy the biggest anytime minute plan and the latest equipment on the market. You spend a lot of money each month, you are a loyal customer and you rave about your mobile carrier to everyone in your path. You are the quintessential user.

For all of this, your expectations are very reasonable ' devices that are intuitive and user friendly, value-based pricing, prioritized customer care, someone to heed your opinion and an occasional loyalty perk. Instead, you are slammed with pay-per-call customer service, 20-minute hold times, invoicing errors, expensive, error-prone devices, inconsistent service in home areas and customer service representatives and management that just don't get it. Welcome to the world of wireless services in 2002!

In last few years, we have been bombarded by analyst reports and marketing campaigns touting the emergence of 'fat pipe' mobile data services as some sort of wireless nirvana ' the mobile Internet. These services would allegedly allow you to browse popular Web sites, have access to news, weather, sports and financial content, play games online, send and receive multimedia messages, and best of all, support the fulfillment of your consumer legacy by facilitating secure, online purchasing. All of this from the convenience of your miniature mobile phone while you are running to catch the bus. In 2001, The Yankee Group predicted that worldwide, consumers would spend approximately $50 billion in shopping transactions through the use of mobile devices. But are YOU really clamoring for all of this?

Popular analyst opinion in 2003 underscores the reality of what users already know. Not only are we not on target to achieve those types of numbers, AT Kearney reports in its recent Mobinet survey that 'in the U.S., consumer intent to purchase from a mobile phone declined the most, falling from 34 percent in June 2000 to 3 percent in the 2001 survey'.

Let's put these thoughts aside for a moment, allow me to dream a little and contemplate the essence of the mobile commerce space and its impact on customer care.

Mobile Commerce: A Primer
Mobile commerce (m-commerce) can be simply defined as wireless electronic commerce. Similar to e-commerce, m-commerce constitutes a set of applications that enable financial transactions that ride atop the mobile Internet (Internet services delivered over a wireless network). Rudimentary forms of m-commerce are prevalent today and largely constitute simple, one-hit transactions like the purchase of content (stock quotes, news), downloads (ring-tones, images) and messaging (e-mail, SMS). The dream as described in the previous section is to enhance these offerings by literally bringing the wired Internet to your mobile device.

Several factors affect whether carriers are able to transform this dream into reality by signing up sufficient customers and converting this opportunity into a viable and sustainable business model.

Speed. Early adopters of the mobile Internet were plagued by slow connections (9.6 Kbps) and this translated into dismal adoption rates across customer segments. Most carriers today are in the process of deploying packet-based networks (GPRS, 1XRTT) that not only offer higher speeds (40 to 75Kbps) but also a lower cost to the carrier per subscriber. These same carriers are also planning networks that are even faster with future rollouts of 3G-based hardware and services. Consumers demand that the service is fast enough to provide real utility.

Pricing. Traditionally, carriers have used different techniques to price wireless data services (cost per kilobyte or use-per-minute basis) but they all have had one thing in common ' they are too expensive for broad consumer adoption. Using models like I-mode in Japan (nominal, 'all you can eat' plans), wireless carriers must bring price levels down from the stratospheric level they are at today.

Terminals. A revolution in the design of wireless terminals is required to sustain the mobile Internet business. These devices must be light, packed with requisite features (especially enhanced battery life), intuitive and small yet easily configurable to allow larger viewing areas as needed. Sounds impossible, yet it is what is required if consumers are to adopt these devices from a usability perspective.

Security. Encryption technologies and legal agreements are the cornerstone for the proliferation of m-commerce in our wired world. In the wireless space, security continues to be an area of concern and addressing these concerns effectively is required in order to encourage transactional services. Carriers are in the process of implementing both infrastructure-based solutions as well as secure partnerships with banks and other financial transaction firms.

Content. 'Content is King' and although the delivery of content is an iterative process, it is easy to see that not all content valid in wired networks fits the bill for wireless networks. Limitations in devices as well as user activity deem that content must be appropriately selected and customized based on wireless lifestyle needs. Partnerships between branded content providers like AOL, Yahoo and carriers have begun to form the basis for successful relationships. Another unknown factor in the delivery of wireless content is the role of advertising and its effect on consumer adoption.

One thing is certainly true: mobile operators and carriers have invested heavily in the last few years to build out their packet-based networks and data offerings. Consequently, consumers will continue to be inundated with competitive mobile flavors until business models that offer both the right blend of user services as well as the ability to stabilize average revenues per user (ARPU) are uncovered.

Mobile Customer Care: A Business In Flux
Although m-commerce business models have yet to be fleshed out, the impact of these expanded services on the need and quality of customer care is projected to be massive. Carrier customer care centers have traditionally dealt primarily with voice-related billing and payment, provisioning and support, technical support and general customer care issues. Customer care continues to be a large cost center for all wireless carriers and in today's commoditization economy, several carriers have adopted a pay-per-call strategy to offset these high costs ' much to the chagrin of the subscriber base.

These higher costs are largely due to the wide range of calling plans and offers relentlessly being introduced as well as the complexity involved in the recent migration of older network customers (TDMA, CDMA) to newly rolled-out high-speed packet networks. These migrations have been painful for both subscriber and carrier alike and have demanded newer processing systems, revamped business processes and an entirely new profile of customer service representative ' one who is both astute in the handling of irate customers (victims of service interruption) and proficient in the communications of complex technologies to the layperson (proficiency in the technology and offered services).

Mobile Customer Care Complexities 
Enter m-commerce, and the customer care model becomes exponentially more complicated. It is highly unlikely that the m-commerce value chain is sustainable with the carriers having control of all of its components. The more likely scenario is that carriers will initially partner with participating vendors, financial processors, shipping agencies and device manufacturers. As consumer adoption rates increase, a much more open market model will emerge that will allow equitable opportunities for all players in the market.

Foremost, one change will be the graying of lines of responsibility in this new wireless environment. The questions posed will be: Who is responsible for end-to-end customer care? As a subscriber, when you have a problem completing a transaction, do you call the carrier and expect them to take care of your end-to-end needs or do you make multiple calls to all of the involved agencies and manually resolve the situation? The second suggestion seems implausible yet an alternative is not readily apparent.

Here's an example. Christen is the proud owner of the P5000, a flex form factor terminal that allows her to wirelessly browse the Internet at 384Kbps. As Christen walks past the local electronics mega store, her eye catches the latest flat-panel 82' HDTV, and Christen jumps in for a closer look. She scans the device's UPC code with the IR port of the P5000 and after reviewing its impressive technical specifications and a list of competitive pricing from multiple online sources, Christen decides to purchase the TV, offered to her at a competitor's real-time lower price. She enables private banking features on the P5000 and after completing transmission of the payment details to the store computer, the device displays the following message: 'Error in payment transmission. Please contact your carrier.' She calls the carrier's customer care number and explains the situation to the answering customer care representative. The CSR quickly realizes the complexity of the situation.

This may or may not be a simple issue to resolve. Some of the variables in play may be device problems, carrier network problems, communication with vendor networks, pricing re-confirmation through aggregators and transaction verification and annulment. CSR skills, work complexity and volume of contacts will likely cause customer care costs to skyrocket at least during the initial years of broad m-commerce adoption.

Mobile Customer Care Opportunities
The opportunity to capture and promote customer loyalty programs will be greatly magnified with high m-commerce customer adoption rates. These programs will promote a reduction in subscriber churn and in turn increase ARPU as well as assist in bottom-line benefits. These care programs will require specialized management and line staff and will need to be integrated into overall marketing efforts.

Technologies: The Dream Continues
Projecting further in this hypothetical m-commerce discussion, it is likely that the mobile Internet itself will promote a fundamental evolution of customer care. Increased speeds, higher bandwidth and a proliferation of worldwide coverage will diminish quality differences between wired and wireless phones. Brick-and-mortar contact centers may become defunct due to the high cost of operating these centers in some businesses. The mobile Internet will open a new avenue for providing customer care: the virtual knowledge worker (VKW). These contract-free agents will be equipped with high-speed data devices that provide them access to public and private knowledge repositories and will allow them take support requests via multiple interaction channels: voice, instant message, e-mail or even video. The VKW model will provide 24/7 support access, without geography or expertise limitations. 

Let me continue my example. When Christen contacts the customer service representative, what she does not know is that her CSR, Max, is sitting on a bus in Ireland. As a contract virtual knowledge agent, Max bids for Christen's business through an online support exchange (the exchange identifies Max's availability through location-based services or m-presence) and upon winning the bid, he is presented with the voice call. He uses his mobile device to securely browse multiple info bases while talking to Christen to help resolve her situation. At the end of the communication, he has sent Christen a text message detailing the resolution and before signing off, makes sure that all of her questions have been answered. Because his mobile device has a noise canceling feature, Christen is not able to detect any aberration in voice quality. At the end of the communication, Christen is presented with a simple subscriber satisfaction survey along with an opportunity to escalate the matter if not satisfied. Max is compensated on volume of calls, weighted by subscriber satisfaction score. He must maintain these scores within certain quality thresholds to remain a part of his particular support exchange.

In The End
Now, it's time to wake up and realize that m-commerce is not yet a reality.

The mobile Internet/m-commerce space is exciting, murky and still in the process of evolution. The opportunities and challenges are significant but what is not clear is whether the consumer can be cajoled into a change of lifestyle with the emergence of these new technologies. Unclear even more is how the business models and subsequently the customer care models will evolve, but rest assured a change from today's environment is imminent.

The author, a director and chief technology officer at The Customer Group, welcomes comments at [email protected]. It may take him a while to respond as he figures out how to cycle through T9 word assembly on his mobile phone.

[ Return To The November 2002 Table Of Contents ]

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