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June 14, 2012

Cenoplex Actionable Audio Messages Helps Mobile Operators Tackle Customer Care Costs

By Peter Bernstein, Senior Editor

History is replete with tech companies, industry leaders, and start-ups  stumbling in the market. Disruptive, ”game changing” products or services just never catch on. And, while failure to gain market traction can be attributable to many things — poor marketing, under-financing, bad execution, etc. — reality is that many times failure was because the solution was “technology in search of a problem to solve.” 

Recently, I spoke with executives from Cenoplex (News - Alert). The Austin, Tex.-based company is on a mission to help mobile operators communicate better with their customers enabling them to reap the rewards of lower costs and more loyal customers. It has identified a real problem, and come up with a unique solution, Actionable Audio Messages that is an example of designing for the problem as well as the future.   

The challenge   

Cenoplex recently published a white paper in conjunction with research by CentraForce entitled, “Solving the Wireless Customer Management Dilemma with Actionable Audio MessagesSM.”  It is simultaneously a fascinating and a bit disturbing look at the current state of affairs. 

It found that operators currently have live customer care costs estimated at $15 billion per year. These are escalating in real terms as well as a percentage of revenues. This is in no small measure a result of increased complexity of interacting with customers with smartphones. At the same time, mobile customer care professionals are under pressure to produce increased cost savings while simultaneously improving customer care efficiency and perception.  A few factoids from the white paper are eye-openers:

The average cost per live customer support query is almost double for smartphones at $20.70

  • Only 5 percent of polled wireless subscribers consulted self-service resources such as website support
  • 90 percent of subscribers do not think their wireless carrier understands them
  • 40 percent of subscribers say they are being charged for things they don’t want
  • 20 percent of subscribers say their bills are wrong
  • Customer churn amongst the top ten U.S. carriers has reached 23.7 percent annually
  • In the past 12 years, ARPU for wireless carriers has dropped from $98.02 in 1998 to $48.71 in 2010

In essence, mobile operators are creating problems for themselves by not managing the customer experience well from a cost containment or customer loyalty perspective.    

We have reached a saturation point with traditional approaches

The conventional approach to attempting to resolve the challenge above to improve customer interactions has been through improving contact center agent performance along with outreach via voicemail and text messages to reach subscribers directly on their mobile devices. However, these channels are saturated and mostly ignored as subscribers use their devices for personal communications and entertainment, and see other interactions as distractions. The white paper details this saturation:

  • Americans spend more than a billion hours annually recording, managing and listening to more than 70 billion voice messages
  • More than one-fifth of all voicemails are never heard
  • SMS text messaging is the most widely used data application in the world, with 2.4 billion active users, or 74 percent of all mobile subscribers 
  • The average American now sends 357 text messages annually compared to making only 204 mobile phone calls
  • In 2011, mobile subscribers sent 7 trillion text messages, which translates to 192,000 SMS per second

Plus, Cenoplex also notes that as mobile operators gear up to begin implementation of the Consumer Usage Notification Guidelines (which go into effect this fall) they need solutions that increase compliance and yet deliver a competitive advantage. For the uninitiated these are designed to assure customers are alerted to potential plan overages. Operators also need to enable customers to more effectively self-manage many issues that end in calls to live agents. In fact, a recent Amdocs (News - Alert) survey found that at least 50 percent of all calls to a mobile operator’s call center are preventable or should not have required live customer care for resolution.

Enter Actionable Audio Messages (AAMs)

 What are Actionable Audio Messages (AAMs)? Without going into the details, AMMs are a solution that augments traditional customer care interactions that gives carriers the ability to insert a four-second message into the pre-call set-up gap of an outbound call. Why is this important? The simple answer is because during those four seconds a provider has the customer’s undivided attention 100 percent of the time. The benefits are substantial. 

The AAM solution uses smart behavioral, geographic and demographic data profiling that grows deeper over time. A caller’s profile is utilized to select and serve a personalized message in concert with a related action item which leads subscribers to more effective, targeted resolution paths. Cenoplex believes that this will enable operators to cut through the clutter of subscriber over-communication, reaching mobile customers at a time when they are focused, engaged and attentive. As a platform completely independent of personal and entertainment messaging, subscribers are more likely to connect with, act upon and remember AAMs.

Cenoplex makes the case

As I said at the top, I was delighted to discuss the market and AAM with Cenoplex executives and advisors: Gregory O. Welch, president & CEO, Denise Archer, chief partnership officer, Bob Balascio, former executive director of strategic planning at Verizon Wireless and member of Cenoplex’s Board of Advisors and Danny Bowman (News - Alert), former president of the Integrated Solutions Group and iDEN at Sprint Nextel and member of Cenoplex’s Board of Advisors. 

While expansive, I thought readers would find the following useful.

Q: How do you create compelling value propositions for new technologies and services to reach the right decision makers in the wireless value chain?

Archer: You have to listen very closely to what customers, operators, and their end-users are saying and want. The important thing is to be creating and developing products that meet the higher priority challenges. For end customers, this is getting problems solved easily and fast. Operators must be able to do the same but in the context of cutting the number of live agent calls even as the complexity of questions increases, and do so in a manner that can do things like increase loyalty and create the permission environment to up-sell.

Welch: While there have been attempts to leverage call-set up time before, this is also a matter of being in the right place at the right time, focused on something that impacts the bottom line in a multitude of ways and is not just another excuse to push advertising. There is real value here. 

Bowman: This is a value prop challenge. How do I take cost out of business? How am I going to change the customer experiences? How do I communicate with the customer base? How can I take advantage of a small time snip it and not interrupt the customer from other tasks? I think once they are exposed to the solution and understand it is not intrusive customers and carriers, they will evolve to this quickly. 

Welch: The value prop from a customer perspective is about getting vital information. This needs to be done carefully. First, applications we are talking about include things like emergency alerts and things relating to credit and collection. Plus, it can’t cost customers money. Operators are going to need to follow up with customer as to whether they heard it, saw it, and responded. 

They will need to keep it specific and important to the customer. We also see a big opportunity with pre-paid notification which has not come to wireless. It is important to understand that the solution for customers and carriers may not be the same. Staging will be critical rather than offering a portfolio. 

Bowman: Let’s add that from my carrier experience this must be very lightweight on their network which AAM is.

Q: How do you overcome skepticism and objections, and work with slow sales cycles with well-designed use cases and financial models that win over carriers?

Welch: Pain and or fear cause people to make decisions that can have significant consequences. The cost of care has skyrocketed; AAM is a solution that can mitigate pain and fear for carriers while enhancing the user experience if the rollout starts by providing information user value highly. 

Archer: We get attention just by explaining how to cut churn by making people feel better that their operators understand that the more information the customer has about the status of the bill, the more satisfied they are likely to be with their service provider.   

Balascio: Denise got it right. Carriers becoming more sensitive to the need to better communicate to stop churn. They need to change the conversation and make what I call “psychic strides.”    

Welch: At the end of the day the way to overcome skepticism is to explain why this is a win/win. For customers, it is getting answers to questions. For carriers, it is about what is important to them, saving money both in terms of hard saving and the time costs of money as well.

Think about how much can be saved from shrinking credit and collection times, and the opportunity of providing alerts for pre-paid represents in terms of creating customer loyalty and profits? There is also a lifeline services play as well since you could alert users of when they were about to exhaust their minutes. The fact is these notifications will ultimately be viewed as welcomed calls. Once trust is established the types of messages can be expanded in untold ways.

Q:  How do you craft sales strategies that build momentum behind adoption, and translate client needs and success into smart, timely product evolution?

Welch: We have a first mover advantage. And, our ability to make the solution smarter as volumes increase and apply the business insights generated is a big edge.

Archer: It is all about creating trust. Think of the goodwill of proving service interruption notification ahead of time, mitigating against bill shock, letting people know about phone upgrades, and new rate plans. There is also an important role to be played during disasters.

How much is too much?

As stated at the top, the Cenoplex AAM solution shines in how tightly it seems to fit in terms of solving what all mobile operators know is a problem. They realize the status quo of customer care is broken and not addressing it could be a large ingredient in a recipe for catastrophe. 

Our discussion ended with an interesting dialog about how much might be too much. After all, as Facebook (News - Alert) and others are finding out, customers have expectations about how they experience their mobile devices and looking at ads, particularly a flood of them, is turning out to be an experience they can live nicely without.

Are audio alerts too much? I tend to agree with the Cenoplex folks that if done in a measured and thoughtful way, providing customers with information that they have indicated they would like to have, think of this as an audio concierge, on things they say they need to know is a great augmentation for traditional customer care outreach. It provides the assurity of being heard for the operators — a big problem with voicemail, text messaging, e-mail and snail mail as well as being a huge cost — with the benefits of engendering greater trust. 

This may be a new spin on the old concept of attempting to use every part of a communications session to interact with customers, but when combined with the monitoring and analytics capabilities it is certainly an innovative way to tackle what is a significant challenge. I will close by saying that Cenoplex indicated they have been overwhelmed by mobile operator interest. They certainly had my attention.

Edited by Jamie Epstein
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