“You will have to fill the online application in order to get it fixed”, tells a customer service representative to an already exasperated customer having issues with his mobile broadband connection. “But that’s what I was saying for the last 30 minutes, no one from your management got back to me even after a fortnight of my complaint filing!”, griped the agonized customer. After a period of lengthy wait, all the customer heard was a loud beep when the representative hung up the phone. Now most of us have fallen victim to such an outrageous customer experience, when even after paying regularly for the services, service providers simply choose to close their eyes to customers’ teething troubles.

UAE Telecommunication Industry, Growing Like TOPSY

The Middle Eastern telecommunication industry has been ringing all the way over the recent years. It wasn’t until 90s that customers had Etisalat as the only choice for getting mobile or landline connection. With du, Zain, Qtel, Batelco and Alfa also emerging as major players across the Middle East, the consumers are now likely to be spoiled for choice. After amplified market liberalization, increased competition, introduction of new network technologies and higher consumer demand for broadband access, most Middle East countries have experienced double-and even triple-digit growth in the number of subscribers providing sufficient room for the telecommunication companies to continue tapping into this potential and increase their bottom line margins.

Although UAE’s telecommunication companies have been able to earn their spurs by ranking among international giants, but unfortunately the industry’s dependence on mediocre strategies has prevented it from winning a loyal customer base. In spite of having ample resources and well-oiled public relation units at hand, the industry does not seem to have any evident reasons for not communicating to the customers. For this reason, a question that seems to have taken its toll lately is why Middle Eastern telecommunication companies failing to notice the customer service shortfalls. Have they lost the common touch with their customers or is it that due to the swelling market shares, the ever-increased customer churning rates really don’t hold water? On the face of it, the industry has an ever-increased number of customer subscriptions, but at the same time, customers have quite a different story to tell!

When the Time Comes, Shift for Change

Even after losing monopoly to du in 2007, Etisalat is still ruling two-thirds of the UAE’s mobile phone market and more than three-quarters of the land line and internet market. However the telecom giant has been held responsible by its customers for making them stand in queues for quite long period of times. “Waits of 30 minutes or more are a routine”, said a customer. Several others complained that it took multiple visits to set up mobile phone, internet and landline accounts. Moreover, the telecommunication giant has also been reproached for failing to employ sufficient staff. Customers grumbled that the sight of empty counters is very displeasing. “It is frustrating because you sit waiting here and see all the empty desks. I don’t understand why they don’t just get more sales staff,” remarked a customer. Jamal al Nuaimi, the General Manager of Etisalat’s Abu Dhabi region said, “The Company is aware of recent delays and is striving to address the issue”. Nevertheless Mr. Al Nuaimi assured that the company would look into extending the extra staffing for the 1 to 3 hours of lunchtime.

However, if we look at the western companies, such instances of neglecting customer grievances are hard to find. “Got into chat with the customer support on the weekend. Even though they cannot do this in chat, the customer service person called on the corresponding team on my behalf closed my account and gave me the closure confirmation details. That too very quick”, applauds a Verizon customer. Regrettably, the prevalent UAE corporate culture does not empower customer service representatives to handle out of ordinary situations. They are more like underlings who are programmed to use the scripted approach. According to the annual survey conducted by the Consumer Reports National Research Center, Verizon stood tall as compared to AT&T, Sprint, T-Mobile and Etisalat with highest level of customer satisfaction rates. In order to fill in the existing gap, the UAE telecom industry must understand its customer preferences primarily.

A Tipping Point

Lately another upturning situation has been arising when Middle Eastern telecom companies are upgrading the existing customer accounts without taking their permission. “I clearly said no to the upgrade offer and added that no changes should be made to my existing connection without my consent. But I was very surprised to receive an SMS later confirming my upgrade request,” the riled up customer complained in an interview. Trying to upgrade to a better package, an irked customer got bitter while conveying his distress, “Expect nothing short of a nightmare, delivered by UAE’s older (and yet somehow not wiser) telecoms operator, Etisalat”. Besides, most of the UAE customers can literally go on about how getting high speed internet in UAE is an extremely slow process. Much to the customer’s relief, Jaber Al Janahi, Vice-President, Corporate Communications at Etisalat, told Gulf News that a dedicated customer-care team has been appointed to look into such complaints and provide refunds.

TERAFLOPS Alone Can’t Drive Innovation

Industries, especially as volatile as telecommunication, must have innovation as the driving force to their roadmap. Introducing great new offerings and value-added services to match the growing demand for its customers is what would increase the odds of having a loyal following. Though Middle East telecom companies have been coming up to the expectation of customers by keeping them technologically advanced, when only recently both Etisalat and du BlackBerry users encountered a situation that was not very well taken by the customers. The users stayed on hold for an explanation when they experienced agonizing connection suspensions for what was called ‘a routine upgrade process’. “The day mine crashed, I was in a deserted part of Dubai and really needed to call a cab,” said a customer. “I couldn’t call or message or e-mail.” Lack of explanation left customers confused. An acknowledgement of the problem, explanation of its causes and effects, and discussion of the solutions could have done the magic. What makes a company shine among the rest, “You have to adapt your technology to the market that you serve,” says Jaime Chico Pardo, the CEO of Teléfonos de México (Telmex), 2012’s top player in the telecom sector.

Batting a Thousand

Network roaming and coverage is yet another factor that can create customer displeasure to a great extent. Taking it up as a strategy, Vodafone differentiated itself from other telecom companies after partnering with Verizon. Verizon, whose consumers make and receive calls in more than 40 countries worldwide, enabled Vodafone to attain direct presence in 30 more countries. Following suit, telecom giant AT&T partnered with GM to expand in emerging markets. Looking at the Middle East markets, du now offers network connectivity across 94% of the populated areas in the UAE and Etisalat operates in 18 countries across Asia, the Middle East and Africa. On a positive note, Etisalat has been rampantly offering low cost access to social media and email via USSD to emerging markets. With consumer email, instant messaging, social networking, phone book backup services as well as popular newsfeeds and other relevant applications available over mobile phone, it was able to earn 139 million subscribers across Middle East, Africa and Asia, gaining an edge in the market.

Getting Full Value for Price

At times, price acts as a major deciding factor for the selection of service provider but today’s customers tend to go about better customer service experiences. “du is cheaper, but customer service is bad. Etisalat is more expensive, but customer service is reasonable. Qtel is reasonable but offers limited roaming”, a clouded situation most customers come across. According to the World Bank, the UAE mobile is relatively cheap, compared to most of the region, in terms of affordability, UAE charges $ 4.10/month, compared to the region’s average of $ 6.30/month which is an added advantage to the customers. UAE fixed lines rate is $ 17.4/month, compared to the region’s average of $7.30/month. The average annual cost of a basic broadband connection in UAE is $ 150, lower than a connection in a monopoly or duopoly market. The market prospects of telecom industry are bright, if only tapped properly.

Summing it Up…

UAE’s telecommunication industry penetration rate is already exceeding 200%, making it one of the most lucrative markets in the world. For companies making their living out of people communicating, it’s about time for this industry to step up with regards to its customer service standards. Gaining a 360-degree view of customers, focusing on reducing churn rates by offering fair prices, quality customer service, sales promotions, greater coverage and strong signal strength, setting off the right policy and developing proactive customer retention strategies would certainly contribute to goal attainment. Where UAE telecom industry is falling short is not quality but customer service, and they need to rise above and beyond the delusions of grandeur to gain customer credibility.