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Feature Article
October 2001

Pervasive Customer Service In A 3G World


South Korea -- perhaps arguably -- has won the global race to roll out the first live third-generation (3G) network. With this, and subsequent milestones from Japan and Europe, the world is moving slowly but steadily to universally available, "always-on" connections and multimedia, interactive services delivered through mobile handsets. Consumers and businesses can look forward to inexpensive electronic transactions, location-based services, mobile video and personalized "info-tainment," multimedia messaging, and more.

Debate abounds on how far and how fast 3G will go. The UMTS Forum, an international group that represents the interests of third-generation wireless players, forecasts that revenue from worldwide 3G services will top $1 trillion by the year 2010. Meanwhile, Cahners In-Stat predicts that 3G services will grow to 50 percent of the worldwide wireless market by 2005, up from 4.7 percent in 2001, while cautioning that Japan won't have nationwide coverage until at least 2002 and that Europe won't see even moderate subscriber growth until mid-2003. But Japan's NTT DoCoMo, an early innovator in mobile Internet services with its iMode service, is projecting 6 million subscribers for its 3G service within three years.

What's not under debate, however, is one fact: 3G networks will create an entirely new generation of "pervasively connected" customers -- customers with expectations of similar customer service.

This connected customer could present an expensive and unwieldy challenge to broad-based deployment of 3G networks to businesses and consumers.

Vendors of personal computers, applications software, and Web applications have wrestled with the "connected customer" phenomenon over the last several years, all with varying degrees of success. But the pressures faced by these vendors pale to the pressures 3G network operators and service providers are likely to face. Unlike early users of PCs and the Internet, 3G network subscribers are unlikely to put up with glitches and poor service in the name of being pioneers. For one thing, 3G network subscribers will be paying a premium for their services. For another, subscribers' service thresholds have been conditioned by their "invisible service" experiences with the latter-day Internet and with telephone service.

Combine high service-expectation thresholds with new, complex network technology and always-on connectivity, and you've got a recipe for disaster. Compounding the problem is the 3G network operators' need to recoup their substantial investments in spectrum licenses and infrastructure costs. In 2000, wireless carriers invested more than $8.5 billion in 3G technologies, according to In-Stat. DoCoMo alone plans to spend $8 billion on base stations and equipment over the next three years. So, 3G network vendors will be under tremendous pressure to reduce customer churn and speed ROI.

The trick for 3G network operators and follow-on value-added services providers will be to figure out how to deliver pervasive service without eroding profit margins. Clearly, vendors won't be able rely on classical help desks with telephone, e-mail, call-in, or chat. These methods are ill-suited to 3G both technically and financially, and they can't easily scale to meet a rapidly growing, demanding customer base.

Rather, vendors will need to rethink the concept of what it means to serve. They will need to weave customer service into the customer experience to provide instantaneous "point-of-problem" assistance, while putting in place scalable service organizations on the back-end.

3G customers are most likely to encounter problems or have questions at four key points:

Service Provisioning
Initial registration, setup, and provisioning may involve complicated procedures or forms. Customers will demand fast, precise answers to complex questions. To make loyal customers of early adopters and lay the groundwork for mainstream market penetration, 3G operators and service providers need to make device and core service provisioning as painless as possible. Operators and service providers that can't fulfill this demand will risk losing customers to competitors.

Customers may encounter problems or have questions when completing a stock trade, loan payment, retail purchase, or movie rental, and they will expect to get assistance without leaving the transaction. Some questions may be highly application-specific, even requiring the help of live experts.

Low-cost transactions are one of the most anticipated benefits of 3G networks. UMTS projects that advertising and transaction revenue will create a new income source for 3G operators, contributing 20 percent of their total revenue. Banks, retail firms, and other service organizations will extend their e-commerce applications to 3G-connected customers, adapting them to the user interface and network architecture. Established and entrepreneurial network service providers will also be creating new services that tap into the broad base of 3G users.

Technical Support
Customers may have problems with 3G handsets or with configuring services. New handsets and other 3G devices can initially be expected to be expensive, unfamiliar, and buggy. We've already had a taste of this, as trials in Japan and the UK were reportedly delayed by equipment problems. Customers may also run into software- or connectivity-related problems, particularly with the advent of more sophisticated equipment and advanced services that will be available over 3G networks.

In all of these situations, customers will expect immediate resolution. They will be intolerant of any service processes that ask them to navigate through several screens, or leave the transaction or application to dial another telephone number or send an e-mail. They will be equally loath to return a handset to the network operator or physical service center for troubleshooting.

They will also be intolerant of any noticeable "buck-passing" between the service provider, hardware vendor, and/or value-added service provider. Multi-vendor coordination could be one of the more formidable challenges to pervasive service, and we can expect a crazy quilt of vendors with 3G networks. For example, telecommunications policy-makers in Germany recently announced that German companies with 3G licenses would be able to share key parts of their network infrastructure to spread the cost. Multiple vendors will also be collaborating in the delivery of actual products and services.

The pervasively connected mobile customer will perceive that he is receiving one service, when in reality a number of vendors may be involved. The issue of multiple vendors impacts every phase of the customer lifecycle. The customer doesn't know, nor does he care, who bears the responsibility to help him when he has a transaction or application problem -- he just wants his question answered or problem fixed. Yes, applications or services providers are technically responsible for supporting their transactions. But network operators or core service providers whose brand names are on the main screen may inherit the "service monkey," even if it isn't their responsibility. 

To prevent customer dissatisfaction and churn, 3G network operators and service providers must provide customers with instant access to relevant, dynamic,
self-service answers based on the context of what they are trying to do. Ideally, with one click, the customer should be able to connect and interact directly with
specific service assets -- including live humans, if necessary -- with expertise in the specific problem areas he is experiencing. Network vendors should also be able to pre-empt problems whenever possible. For example, the ability to proactively broadcast simple messages about service disruptions or upgrades could ward off thousands of service problems.

Clearly, this will demand a much more intelligent, less binary approach to service delivery. First, operators and service providers need to stop thinking of service delivery as a discrete, separate, and people-bound process: Instead, they need to think of it as a highly automated process that's threaded throughout the customer experience. Second, they need to put on their "customer hats" when designing customer service delivery processes to accommodate customers' workstyles and the limited size of the screen and keyboard on mobile handsets.

On the plus side, the bandwidth and speed of 3G networks is ideally suited to intelligent service processes that make extensive use of automation, collaboration, and rich-media technologies. And 3G vendors aren't starting with a blank slate: Commercially available technologies for intelligent service delivery exist, as do techniques and "best practices" emerging from early adopters in the PC, telecommunications, financial services, and other industries.

Principles Of Intelligent Service
In-Band, In-Context Service

Customers should be able to get assistance with a task "in-band," or without leaving the task screen. To achieve this, service processes must "know" the context of what the user is doing -- that is, who he is, what task he is involved in, what steps he has already tried, and so on. Wherever feasible, providers should be able to "take over" the handset and solve problems remotely by sending automated fixes over the network -- a process known as self-healing.

Service Continuity
Customers need to receive the right type of service for their problems, including self-service, automated fixes, or escalation to a live expert when warranted. 3G service providers need to render all service options as part of one continuous, smooth process that can provide "cradle-to-grave" coverage of both the four key customer pressure points and of the stages of each individual type of service request. Should one form of service fail to solve a problem or answer a question, service processes should automatically move the customer to the next step, along with all the contextual information about the service request.

Vendor Transparency
Vendors will need to collaborate on customer service, just as they collaborate on delivering products and services over 3G networks. All of this behind-the-scenes activity must be invisible to customers. 3G network operators will need to connect and consolidate points of service delivery into "service networks." Service networks have been able to connect manufacturers, resellers, and suppliers of PCs and PC peripherals together to provide service to one customer. 3G wireless vendors will need to do the same, putting in place platforms that enable diagnosis early enough in the service request cycle so that the request can be routed to the appropriate service asset.

Intelligent service isn't just a "nice-to-have" feature for the pervasively connected customer; it will be critical to service providers' profitability and leadership. Customer ROI will depend upon the ability to reduce the cost of serving, without reducing customer service quality. Building service directly into the devices and services and enabling digital collaboration among service assets and personnel will enable customers to get accurate, timely resolution to problems -- regardless of where they are in the service-delivery process.

This, in turn, will help ensure customer satisfaction, reduce churn and ensure widespread success of one of the most powerful but potentially disruptive technical advances to come along in decades.

Bruno Teuber is managing director-Europe for Motive Communications, Inc., a provider of intelligent service delivery software. Motive's customers include Adelphia, Compaq Computer Corporation, EDS, Fujitsu, Great Plains, Hewlett-Packard Company, Merrill Lynch, Target Corporation, WebLink Wireless Inc., and Wells Fargo.

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