Vodacom service: Experience the dancing bear

Signing up with Vodacom for an iPhone: it worked, but only just. Next to Apple’s amazing user experience design, Vodacom’s service design looks distinctly shabby. Sorting it out would benefit customers and shareholders.

A “dancing bear” is Alan Cooper’s term for a piece of technology that gets accepted because it does something valuable – not because it does something well. The miracle is that the bear dances. But if you needed a dancer, you wouldn’t hire a bear.

The Diamond RIO. It played music!  Amazing. But it was a pain.

The Diamond RIO. It played music: Amazing! But it was a pain.

A classic example. The Diamond Rio: dancing bear. iPod: Prima ballerina.

Service design is another form of experience design. And it can have dancing bears too.

See the bear dance

So low are our expectations of South African mobile service providers, that we applaud when they manage the absolute basics of their business: connecting new customers to their service so they can make money out of them. A service provider that actually tried to provide a real customer experience? We can bearly imagine it.

The actual Vodacom experience (as braved by my wife, Debre):

  • Folk in the Vodacom store didn’t seem to want to sell her anything and weren’t clear about how to port the numbers from Cell C.
  • Folk at Cellucity were confused about which price plans were available, and what exactly you got for them. (But at least they were eager, and got us phones in 1 day.)
  • We got telephone service, but they didn’t activate the 3G connection. Not too bright when you’re selling someone a smartphone.
  • To activate the 3G connection, we had to call someone. He told us to use their automated menu system by stepping through a series of menus on the phone screen. The menu system told us that it had auto-detected our handset as an iPhone 3Gs, and that data services were not available for that kind of phone. So we called again and once we got through, they sorted the problem out by hand.
  • Next morning, I got a text message telling me that my request to activate APN had been successful. I still don’t know what APN stands for.
  • And finally, with my new iPhone standing proudly beside my bed, acting as alarm clock and ready to take emergency calls from Gran, they sent me a text message at 1:37 in the morning to tell me that they were going to debit my first payment. 1:37! Who scheduled that? And how was it supposed to create customer delight?
Vodacom communication - incomprehensible and inconsiderate

Vodacom communication - incomprehensible and inconsiderate

Improve service design: make more money

You think I’m a moaning Minnie? Well, here are three reasons why it matters.

1. Vodacom is wasting money. Shareholders money. Customers money.

  • If the products are too complex for the staff to sell effectively, every sale takes longer – and costs more – than it should. Reduced margin.
  • Every call to the customer support line costs money. In the UK, when I worked on projects for Vodafone, we noted that a single helpline call could easily wipe out a months profit from a customer – a month’s revenue in some cases. Reduced margin again. The calls in the story above were “error induced”. That means that we, the customers had to make them to recity the mistakes that Vodacom had made. That means they are avoidable.

2. Vodacom is wasting opportunity. There are three players in the RSA market. They are all equally shoddy. If Vodacom got service right customers would stay longer. They might even buy more. They might tell their friends. The marketer’s holy grail follows: loyalty. Loyalty reduces customer acquisition cost, increase business stability and boosts growth.

3. Mediocrity does not generate prosperity. If we continue to accept bungling service, shoddy workmanship and faulty products, we are allowing South Africa to get away with being second rate. I’m sitting down here in the Silicon Cape, helping companies take on global markets and global competition. For them, second rate won’t cut it. They can’t afford it.

It can be done

In the UK, O2 has become market leader by focussing on customer experience. In a recent Financial Times article, Ronan Dunne, chief executive of O2 UK says “My day-to-day focus, unequivocally, is kicking the hell out of the competition in the UK and giving a great experience to the customers.”

It has taken years of work and difficult culture change [PDF], but it is paying off: O2 gained 0.6% in Q1 2009 to achieve a market share of 28.3%, second placed Vodafone loses 0.1% to settle at 25.3%. (In Q1 2008, they were neck and neck.)

Service design

Mobile service provider complaints on helloPeter

Mobile service provider complaints on helloPeter

Vodacom is neck-and-neck with Cell C on complaints on HelloPeter. If they want to climb the league table, here’s a suggested approach:

  • Research the customer experience. Go be a customer and try doing all of the major customer activities, all round the country, online and via the call centre. Note the hard errors, and the soft let-downs.
  • Envision the ideal customer experience. If all the worries about systems and processes and people were removed, what would you *really* want the customer experience to be like? Map out key journeys. What should happen to the customer at each stage? What opportunities are there to create customer joy?
  • Design the customer experience. After that, you can think about how you can make it happen. In detail. Systems, processes, people. It will require lateral thinking and a determination not to take no for an answer.
  • Create a culture of improvement. You’ll never get the whole thing right in one go. You need to put in place systems that help you listen to customers and *act on what they tell you*.

And and more lesson from Apple: Narrow your product range.

Apple has very few products really. Because they know that getting any product designed right is very tricky. They also know that once you’ve got it right, you’ll get a very big reward.

5 thoughts on “Vodacom service: Experience the dancing bear

  • September 15, 2009 at 11:16 am
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    It’s worth also mentioning the DEAD BEAR.

    We moved our accounts from Cell C to Vodacom. We’d been on contract with Cell C for 2 years, and their customer service was rubbish throughout – one of our lines NEVER had voicemail despite numerous calls to their customer service.

    So, when we moved our accounts I was expecting bad service from Cell C, as they had proven themselves time and again to be a dead bear. Stiff with rigor mortis. They did not disappoint!

    They managed to BOTH port my number to Vodacom, AND give it to someone else. So for 5 days, some calls came to my phone, and some calls went to a poor unfortunate chap called Denzel, who had made the mistake of signing up with Cell C.

    How did I eventually get it sorted? A quick call to Cell C customer service? An email? NO. A complaint on http://www.hellopeter.com.

    The funny thing is, my expectations of Cell C were so low, I didn’t even get annoyed about this.

  • September 18, 2009 at 6:56 am
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    Hard-hitting and oh so true. nice post and I liked the 1:30sms! Maybe the pressure just is not enough (yet) for SA companies to sit up and listen. we can hope tho and soon they won’t have the choice anymore… maybe they’re aiming for the service recovery paradox :) I’ll see if I can push this into the right hands. you never know! keep em coming.

  • September 23, 2009 at 9:50 am
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    Hurrah for hellopeter!

    It’s scary to think that one gets helped a hell of a lot quicker when going the hellopeter route vs. going the customer service/helpline route.

  • October 7, 2009 at 8:38 am
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    I think poor customer service in SA comes with the territory of having strong monopolistic cultures. Vodacom doesn’t have to try any harder to sell iPhones because they are the Apple chosen partner, and iPhones sell themselves (as a side note, Apple’s South African representation is regularly disappointing…laptop drive replacements taking 3 weeks…wtf?). Cellphones fly so fast off the shelves in SA that I suspect the only reason they can’t sell more of them is because of their own convoluted and unreliable processes.

    I know I have had many occasions where companies make it difficult to spend money with them. When I was up for a contract renewal, I walked into the very same cellucity, told them what phone I wanted (they didn’t have stock at the time), which contract I wanted, left my contact details, and never heard from them again (so I voted with my walle by default). Mind boggling.

  • October 9, 2009 at 10:47 am
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    After reading your article, I felt relieved. It was as if I had vented my own frustrations with South Africa’s monopolistic culture. Thanks.

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