What Australian telcos could learn from Apple

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What Australian telcos could learn from Apple

Comment: Relentlessly focusing on the customer.

With the passing of Apple co-founder and saviour Steve Jobs there has been a great deal of commentary about how he operated in business.  David Havyatt asks what telcos could learn. 

The death of Steve Jobs has sparked a plethora of writing about his contribution to business and the economy. The Economist even went so far as to use the event as a marker of America’s decline.  

iTnews has studiously avoided capitalising on the sad event. But a mark of a great man is the impact he has had on the world and the lessons we can learn from them. 

The obituaries for Steve Jobs tend to focus on his second incarnation at Apple and the waves of innovation that were the iPod, iTunes, iPhone and iPad. Some talked about Jobs as a person, very demanding, very brusque, even brutal.

The image is of someone who knew what he wanted and was determined to get it. But Jobs wasn’t really a technologist; he was a marketing guy.

He was driven by the vision of what he wanted to deliver to customers and a ruthless determination to do so; driving his teams to deliver the outcomes and his suppliers to deliver input costs that he could afford.

There are three lessons in the Jobs way that telecoms operators could learn.

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It’s all about the customer

Jobs made a lot of money. 

But he didn’t do it by focusing on how to make a lot of money; he did it by focusing on what would make customers use his products.

The first Apple computer and the Apple II built by his friend Steve Wozniak were built because the two Steves wanted their friends to be able to enjoy having their own personal computer as much as they did.

The other innovations - starting at the Macintosh all the way through to the iPad - had a focus on ease of use, not being first.

Jobs understood the WIMP (windows, icons, mouse, pull-down menus) interface he saw at Xerox could make the computer itself intuitive.

He was determined to deliver Postscript in his printers to be able to render on paper what users could see on the screen.

The iPod wasn’t the first MP3 player, nor was it the first with a hard drive. It was the first that was easy to use to play music.

The iPhone, too, became the first smartphone with an intuitive interface.

These weren’t things customers could tell Jobs about through customer research but they were things anyone could know.

Customers want things that are simple to use.

Telcos talk about the need to generate shareholder value might be doing a great job of pitching to investment analysts, but it is those whose mission is to help people fulfil their need to communicate that will win.

In the telco world, Michael Malone at iiNet and Simon Hackett at Internode remind me of the young Steves.

They built ISP businesses so that others could have the benefit of using the internet. You get the feeling that is still what they find fun; the money is just a nice benefit on the side.

It’s about everything you do

There’s a big debate about whether Jobs erred in his first incarnation at Apple by not opening up the Macintosh operating system to other hardware providers.  

He wanted to continued developing the Macintosh’s intuition by making the user experience consistent. Entries in the File menu had to be in the same order; icons for identical tasks had to be the same.

Delivering the outcome – products that are easy to use – has to infuse every aspect of your operations.

I’ve previously written about how telcos fail to acknowledge their customer service problems, that they have confusing prices and confusing bills. All of these are symptomatic of a mentality that the marketing function ends once the ad has been written.  

Customers really do think the best service is no service. Their number one value in customer service is never having to use it.

That outcome is the goal in a Jobs-like customer-centric organisation. The customer service manager cannot deliver that goal, the IT manager can’t deliver that goal, marketing can’t deliver that goal.

It takes the whole company to deliver that goal.

Demand the best from your people and your suppliers

Jobs was renowned for telling people they were “brain dead”.

I suspect he would say it a lot in any company where the great strategies are the latest fad sweeping the management journals; be that Net Promoter Score or customer experience management. Being “brain alive” requires original thought about old problems; not old thought about new problems.

Jobs was as hard on his suppliers as he was on his staff. He demanded quality goods at efficient prices.

That mentality has continued through his replacement, Tim Cook, and will arguably be the continuation of Apple’s successes long past the legacy the left by JObs.

Telcos must take that task to hand when it comes to the “bill shock”. The time it takes to get some charges - especially roaming charges - onto bills must be fixed. And that means changing the operator response to calls for better information away from telling us companies have problems receiving billing data.

The alternative is to fix the system globally; that’s what Jobs would do.

Fixing the telco brand first

The telephone is easy to use because they all use the same kind of dialling sequence. SMS was facilitated by a consistent layout of letters on the numbers of standard mobiles.

Standardisation makes the product easy to use.

In their book Co-opetition, Adam Brandenburger and Barry Nalebuff identify the importance of seeing the competitors as people you need to co-operate with. Standards is one way of doing that.

Despite early successes, telco operators remain determined to differentiate on things that have no value to consumers.

Is there really a benefit in having different operators charge by the second, half-minute or minute? Wouldn’t consistent definition of call types across operators aid consumer understanding?

One Telstra CEO promised “the ability to offer customers a simple, integrated, intuitive one-click, one-command, any-screen, real-time interaction”. No telco owns enough control of the eco-system needed to deliver that reality but it can be done together.

Telcos have made a habit of telling us that they aren’t each others’ main competitors, that the “real competition” is Google, Facebook, Apple, Microsoft or some other device.

They need to take this opportunity to act like they believe that their real competition are the application providers. They need to acknowledge that years of “competing on service” has just left customers frustrated.  

Jobs spent his years in exile from Apple criticising the company’s lack of innovation. In order to stem the losses, it would have to innovate rather than “slash and burn”.

That advice must be taken by the telco industry as a whole. 

A real commitment to customers in everything they do - and demanding the best from themselves - would identify the need to fix brand “telco” before investing in their own brands.

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