Helping customers to help themselves

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TMTI revolutionised customer services with its telephone helpline ‘human manuals’, and the firm is now looking to the future with app-based solutions for smartphones and tablets. Jasper Jackson finds out more

Crispin Thomas has been involved in the mobile industry for more than a quarter of a century.

Back in 1985, he was marketing director at Carphone Group (no relation to Carphone Warehouse), which in the early 1980s had secured the first airtime distribution deal in the UK from O2’s predecessor, Cellnet.

Carphone Group was eventually sold to Cable & Wireless for £15 million, and was later bought by Vodafone.

Crispin and his brother Geremy then set up B2B mobile operation PNC Telecom with partner Jamie Lee. In 2002, they also acquired Darren Ridge’s KJC mobile phone retailing brand of 65 stores for £65 million.

Legal fights with KJC and the excesses of the dot-com era saw PNC disappear, but by then Crispin Thomas had left the firm and sold his shares, moving on to set up the concept of human manuals with Talk Me Through It (TMTI).

The idea of TMTI was to o er customer services on behalf of resellers who needed someone to talk their customers through the set-up and operation of gadgets and online systems. TMTI began with £500,000 of funding.

Its first offering was a £1 voucher that could be redeemed for 10 minutes of customer service. Vodafone was TMTI’s first client – it needed a way to support 15,000 subscribers it had sold to the now defunct high street retailer Woolworths.

Thomas is currently executive chairman of TMTI and is confident about its future. Over the past four years, he has shifted TMTI’s focus away from telephone helplines towards offering customer support online. The mobile operators Vodafone, O2 and EE are now some of his biggest customers for this new form of customer service.

TMTI has tweaked its name to TMTI Group and the company has grown to include a range of brands designed to offer a one-stop shop for online and app-based customer services support.

Thomas predicts the customer services departments of mobile operators, manufacturers and many other tech firms will shrink in size by 75 per cent over the next fi ve years. He says online customer services will take over. The call centre will become a last port of call for customer services, rather than the first point of contact.

And as with so many changes in the industry, the driving force behind the move is cost.

“Large operators in the UK spend between £50 million and £70 million on customer services operations each year, with a huge proportion of that expenditure going on running call centres,” Thomas says.

One of TMTI’s operator customers takes 55,000 customer services calls every day, ranging from comparatively simple billing enquiries, which Thomas says accounts for around 50 per cent of all calls, to more technical queries.

“Technical calls can cost anywhere from £2.50 anywhere up to £50 per call,” he says. “Say you have an hour’s call, in my business we do a mobile phone customer service call, the market cost for that is four or five pounds.

“A customer welcome call can be around £15 with a technical query, an outbound call.

“It is all a huge cost. One of the networks spends £50 million to £60 million per year. If even a small percentage of those customer queries can be solved online, this can massively reduce the burden on an operator’s call centres. The best way to reduce this burden is to deliver high-quality interactive content that allows customers to ‘self-learn’ how to deal with their problems themselves.”

For the past four years, TMTI has concentrated on delivering this content via the web through its division Click Don’t Call. This is designed to save clients money by ensuring a client’s customer can ‘click’ on a website to solve queries rather than phoning a call centre.

One of TMTI’s biggest customers is still Vodafone. TMTI has built around 400 simulators for both devices and network-related queries such as billing.

The simulators give customers the chance to follow simple instructions for tasks such as accessing billing portals, setting up devices and fixing simple technical problems.”

TMTI has also produced billing simulators for O2 and Everything Everywhere that have helped thousands of customers who are unable to solve billing queries online.

“For one of TMTI’s largest operator customers, the launch of a billing simulator reduced calls about billing by 11 per cent almost immediately.

“We have also built simulators for operators Bell in the US and Videotron in Canada and have also worked with firms such as HTC and Amazon to create services that help take customers through new technology, in particular, teaching customers how their new device links up with other pieces of technology.

“Linking devices together is one of the biggest challenges for firms selling technology devices and services.

“Smartphones and tablets are increasingly central to interaction with both online services and other consumer electronics, so it is particularly important for mobile operators and manufacturers to be able to refer their customers to online problem solving.

“We have reduced customer returns by between 25 per cent and 30 per cent, simply by providing learning tools that showed customers how to use their devices. We are thriving in this recession because brands are coming to us to try to minimise the cost of call centres. The answer is move it all to the web, but make sure that what you have on the web is cutting edge and world class.”

Thomas concedes that mobile operators have in some cases invested in manned customer services operations rather than cutting back.

“O2’s ‘Gurus’, who help customers with technical queries, provide an example of how operators still see personal advice as vital,” he says. “Ensuring that customers feel their network is looking after them is  increasingly important in such a crowded and competitive market. And we have not completely abandoned the call centre.”

Full article in Mobile News issue 508 (February 27, 2012).

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