If you look at any list of the top telecom technologies of 2010, you'll probably see 4G wireless networks way up there, in addition to whatever Apple and Google are going to release.
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With serious issues surrounding handset compatibility, standardization and backhaul upgrades to accommodate the much higher bit rate, 4G wireless networks still have some way to go before they become as widespread as 3G is now. But in addition to the technical concerns surrounding 4G, another area that has spiked my interest is customer experience.
We've always known that customer care -- or the lack of it -- can make or break a service provider. Every year we see independent surveys that track the level of customer care by the top operators. If you're low on the list, you'll be vilified by the press and consumer watchdog groups.
So how do things change with the advent of 4G? With 4G trials underway and deployments beginning in earnest by year's end, I think we're fast moving into a world with increasingly complex service portfolios. As services evolve, there has to be a way to track the customer experience accurately.
Keeping real-time track of 4G wireless customer experience
Look at it this way: If you roll out 4G and are investing in network infrastructure and network management tools, you want to get a as quickly as possible. The logical way to get that pay-off is to start offering video and more sophisticated content services than are currently available. This will require a transformation of an operator's business model, and perhaps even bringing in mobile advertising to cover some of the costs.
Of course, once you've switched over to these complex services with lots of ads going out to users,
how do you keep track of whether your users are happy and getting the services they are supposed to get and having their expectations met? How do you do that automatically and systematically?
These are not easy questions, and because 4G is still on the drawing board in many places, they're not easy to answer. But as with traditional customer experience models, operators don't want to sit back and wait for complaints to start rolling in to their call centers. Instead, they should be investing in what I'm calling systematic customer experience management so they can track customer experience based on a whole set of parameters, not just what's happening in a particular incident. The key is that it all needs to be in real time.
Billing issues will balloon with complex 4G wireless networks
It should be no surprise that almost 75% of all customer complaints with communications services revolve around billing; so imagine how that will multiply when you start deploying more complicated services. Operators will be more likely to make billing mistakes if they keep everything else the same. For example, back in the day -- and perhaps even today -- you could call an operator and complain about a billing error or another issue, and because the operator has no way of verifying your story, you'd be refunded in due course.
This has been used as a ploy by students who were short on cash and didn't want their phones disconnected, but the larger issue is that operators could not corroborate their stories. The same thing will happen with more complex services unless operators make the investment to build in a comprehensive way of measuring Quality of Service (QoS). QoS directly impacts customer satisfaction, so the more time and effort spent on service quality up front, the fewer calls you'll get complaining about the service and demanding a refund.
In the past, billing has been a huge roadblock to innovation. You'll have a marketing team that comes up with 20 new services and then tells the billing guysto find a way to charge for them, and in many cases, they can't. A lot of these challenges have been overcome, but today if you're offering thousands of products, you could easily end up with revenue leakage and not even know it.
Arming parents with a child protection 4G customer experience
A tangential issue related to customer experience is protecting young kids from certain content. This is very much a customer experience challenge because it entails giving parents a way to set up a profile for their children's mobile phones and other devices and define what content they can access. It requires being able to build policies and proactively manage them rather than waiting for irate parents to call.
The bottom line is you can't just look at 4G in a vacuum as a cool new high-speed network. In the end, even the fastest network is useless without solid customer experience and other underpinnings to ensure that customers are getting the correct services at the correct price. Without this holistic view, you may as well forget about taking your infrastructure to the next level.
In early March 2010, the TM Forum will be publicly announcing the launch of an important new 4G initiative involving leading service providers and equipment vendors in early March 2010.
About the author: Martin Creaner is the president and chief technical officer of the TM Forum and has worked in the communications industry for the last 18 years. Creaner held various executive positions with BT and with Motorola, where he led the 2.5G and 3G OSS solutions development activities. He sits on the board of a number of telecom companies and is the chairman of Selatra Ltd.