How Telcos are Engaging Customers Using Data and Digital Channels

Moderator: Mangesh Chaudhari, Director of Growth, MEA, MoEngage


Sumit Srivastava, Chief Digital Officer, Virgin Mobile

Shafika Houcine, Group Director, Digital Channels, Etisalat

Bilal Adham, Chief Marketing Officer, Batelco

2:52 – Digital Enablement in the Retail and Telecom Industry

Mangesh Chaudhari (Moderator): Nice to have you all. So, the first question I have is that everyone is talking digital and today, it has become okay to sleep with your phone or watch a tab and spend more time on the phone than your family. So digital is already here. I’d like to know your view on digital enablement.

What’s interesting is, Shafika you have so much experience in Telcos but these gentlemen bring the Retail + Telco experience. So I want to know how do you compare in contrast to each other. Sumit, what are your views?

Sumit Srivastava: I think that today digital has become a buzzword. But from the perspective of digital enablement, you have to think from many aspects. The first is the consumer’s aspect which focuses on convenience, personalization, and the wide level of service. The other end of the spectrum is from the merchant/telco/retail perspective where you have to think about what is consumer usage or purchase behavior telling me that then helps me build a better experience for the customer.

Moderator: Shafika, would you agree?

Shafika Houcine: Oh, yes! I cannot deny that for sure. I didn’t mention, I have twenty years of experience in the telecom industry and that’s pretty much all I know. I am very keen to understand your world in the retail industry but what I’d say for me is that I have to work with different organizations, different cultures, different people, different markets, and different regulations. For me, digital enablement is about making sure that we offer the best experience to our customers on our digital channels which include websites, applications, chatbots, etc. We have a whole ecosystem of apps including the self-care apps, payment apps, content apps. So how do we make that happen? For me, it starts with understanding what our customers want. We understand the pain points on a regular basis while also gaining more clarity on what they are happy with and what they are not happy with. We look at data. We have a lot of data. So beyond data what’s interesting is to make sense of that data.

So what are the insights or the story that the data tells us?

Once we know what the customer pain points are, we have our people build the right processes and technologies. For me though, technology comes last because it is more about what do we want to do, what are customers saying, what experience do we want to deliver, etc. We are also investing heavily on user experience and design.

The other important thing we try to figure out is organizational culture and its processes while making sure that we have the right people with the right skills sets who understand their jobs. This is another big pain point for us that we are trying to figure out.

We are trying to find the best people who can work on building a great digital experience and also know how to innovate, how to challenge the status quo, and how to change the way we work. We are working on how to change the way we work and building the right ecosystem of vendors and partners.

Moderator: Well, that’s a lot. You clearly are calling out the need of the hour. It is not just about having a fast car, you need a driver, a highway because otherwise it is not going to happen. That’s a great point of view. Bilal, would you want to add something to this?

Bilal Adham: Yeah, I mean. One point that you mentioned, Shafika, that stands out for me is that technology comes last. I think that accessibility, allowing your customers and employees to engage with digital differentiation is important too. Digital enablement also means diversification of portfolio for us.

As a business and an industry in Telco, you guys are probably calling your families back home not using international minutes but your data. So that becomes a bit more saturated. So what we are trying to do is diversify the new portfolio. One is accessibility, the next is building app revenue streams and the other thing is looking at your capability whether it is your intel team or your customers. Self-service is a huge thing with digital enablement as well.

It is really important for us to make sure that we have a good customer journey but also we have a good employee journey. That is equally important for us. We have discovered that there are some things that are a bit more holistic and we can take a lot from that being in the telecom industry.

What’s the point of having a slick and smooth E-commerce checkout when your back-end team is processing an invoice, right? Why should I be on a holiday and my team should request me to approve a PO and I am talking about ten minutes ago, right?

So, we all face these challenges but if you kind of focus on simple values then you can extrapolate that and take that back in our industry for our benefit.

Sumit Srivastava: Just a play on that analogy. Telcos sit on massive amounts of data. They can build a Ferrari, they want to drive that Ferrari but they are treated like a Punto which is terrible and I think that’s where we need to take this.

8:38 – Role of Retail in Digital Enablement

Moderator: I am going to take that as the other facet of this discussion. Not so much of a question for you Sumit, but I want to ask you two, Shafika and Bilal. Everyone is out and about, they are going back to the mall and it is clear that retail is still important because people are happy to go to a physical location and they are still happy to go and talk to a real person.

So I want to know how do you look at retail and physical contact? Does that play into your omni channel strategy? I’d love Sumit to give his views on this but I think his job is kind of sexy because you know it is like “digitally enabled.”

Bilal Adham: Look, we have talked about digital enablement at length. Similarly, there’s retail enablement too. We all know that it works both ways, right? So it is kind of naive to think otherwise. Our stalls play an important role in the omni channel journey but also, if you take a step back and think about your business holistically then as Telcos you can have things like cold stalls or CP markets issuing vouchers for pre-paid and top up services.

So I think this is where you can start applying digital enablement, right? So our omni-channel ecosystem spreads more than just a retail store. It affects business partners, the way we operate and also if you look at the omni channel aspect as well then I would go far to extend this outright to our marketing team.

Particularly, in the day we have got brand ambassadors, tik-tokers play such an influence on our state. I think that is a well rounded piece in the omni channel strategy but when it comes to the stores then I think as organisations, we need to reflect on the omni channel strategies as a primary thing.

I think that is where we need to hang our hats. If we are calling ourselves an omni channel business then why aren’t we reflecting on the way we operate. So that’s one thing in my opinion and if it is about incentivisation then as retailers we all know that if you give yourself a number then you always hit the next number.

When you give yourself a number, you are going to hit the number and you always drive to the next number. To incentivize digital means, retail plays a massive role at least for our business because it facilitates frequency of transactions within the business.

So, if I sell my guest a package in the store then the next best thing for me will be to get the guest to download the app. The data that we then get from our guest plays a really meaningful role for us because it helps us in digital enablement.

Shafika Houcine: I think as far as I am concerned, delivering a good omni-channel experience for our customers is very important. So we have a number of people coming and complaining about billing disputes and things like how they can fix their problems with broadband service providers.

We have so many different channels for our customers to either seek support or complain and it is also important for us to make sure that we have a 360 degree view of all the interactions.

I think that as Telcos, we have been good at building these omni-channel capabilities for our customers where we know from one platform what they do through our chatbots, social media, customer care channels, self care applications, etc. So we are good with that. But I think where we are struggling and our need to improve has got more to do with sales.

We need to make sure that we are able to identify a prospect so that when that prospect goes to a store or our digital channels, or interacts with our indirect partners then we are able to facilitate the selection of the right product and service.

This is something where we need to balance investment and benefits. Building an omni-channel capability comes at a cost and we need to whirl it out across retail channels, digital channels, direct sales channels, etc. It is something where we have room for improvement but it is much needed as well.

13:13 – Footprint of Physical Connection Between Telcos and Customers

Moderator: Sumit, I made that comment but you know it is not all digital because you still have a guy delivering a sim card to the user. You have to agree that there is still some footprint in the physical world, right?

Sumit Srivastava: There’s actually quite a bit, right? So yeah, we are digital-first but we have a very strong view on omni-channel and how we connect it. I will give a couple of use cases or examples. So when you think of digital commerce, you have basically downloaded the app, you have chosen your plan and have ordered online. The moment you make your payment, you have now been converted as a customer and we call that digital commerce. But you can also choose to get it delivered at your home or you can also choose to go and pick it up from a store.

This is typical of how you would shop retail e-commerce in general. That’s why I think omni-channel to me is more around being where the customer is and being omni-present and being able to serve the customers in the channels they need to be serviced on makes all the difference.

The other use case to this is that we build conversational AI models where all of the chat threads that go through, we are trying to reduce the number of call volumes, trying to get the bots to answer the questions asked by the customers. However, you can do the same if someone goes to the Kiosk because you can still have the customers problems solved either with the AI engines or transfer the problem to an actual person.

So I think there are other ways of cross-selling and giving the customers the right experiences. There are so many times when we have noticed data and understood that somebody basically says that I have chosen a plan, paid for it and I am going to be an active customer now.

There have also been times when the customer has seen a kiosk in the mall and has been converted right there and then. I think there are multiple use cases to that. But at the end of the day, whether it is online or offline, it is shopping.

15:18 – Telcos Working With the Likes of Google and Facebook

Moderator: Awesome! I think I am going to turn the conversation in a different direction now. This is your core business and experience and things but I really want to know what is on the horizon. By that I mean that in the last ten years media houses have been focused on advertising revenue.

But in the last 18 months we also saw that privacy laws have changed. Apple has come up with privacy changes, Google is saying that third party cookies are going to vanish. Do you think it is your time now?

You have all the data and you know what people are doing. Do you see yourself sitting next to Google and Facebook? Are you trying to compete with them? Are you trying to work with them? What’s your view on that because that is the horizon to me. You have already spoken about what you are improving, but what are you looking at now?

Shafika Houcine: Can I ask the audience? Do you think that it is our time now? Raise your hands if you think this is our time. But if I can answer that very briefly then I think that we all need to think and build our first party data strategy.

The difference between first party and third party is that you have the consent ready, it is more individual, and accurate so it is a no-brainer. How do we do that effectively? For that we need to see the different systems we have and the types of data that we are collecting so that the journey can be accelerated but I agree with the general sentiment that the Telco industry is there.

I wouldn’t say that it can compete with the likes of Google and Facebook but I think that the Telcos can complement and cooperate with them. We have signed a partnership with Meta to drive more innovation and digital experience. I think it is important to understand the ecosystem and work with different partners for growth.

Moderator: Bilal, would you add?

Bilal Adham: I think that it is our time to play the part for sure. Would we compete with the likes of Google and Facebook is something I am not sure about. But we have seen early signs in the industry. We collect a wealth of data across individuals. It could be an SMS that you receive from your local delivery person to a customer data record saying so and so has browsed these websites.

We collect all this information which then allows the advertisers to go ahead and connect with customers based on demographics and behavioral insights. We could start to play a bigger role when it comes to data science along with analysis and segmentation. We can really start to jazz up in that area and also we can start to feed a bit more in terms of accuracy within the target that the market is in.

We can try to feed in a bit more in terms of accuracy because the marketers are no longer privileged to do what they did earlier due to a reduction in the number of cookies. Something that is really interesting to me are the data clean rooms. I think that they have really changed and that is the next frontier for us.

This is where the Telcos can play a part. That’s where I feel that the environment can move towards data clean rooms with an ecosystem that gives a good idea of research and the population that you can go ahead and contact and activate by some of your immediate partners. So it is very much complementary.

Sumit Srivastava: Yes, absolutely. I think that this is a hybrid approach. So there’s different components that have more tech capabilities over third party data? Yes, absolutely. But as part of the ecosystem, I don’t think that we have the tech stack or the enablement or capacity to do that and go ahead with a Google or Facebook, right?

There are real life examples of this. If you look at media houses and news channels then they have got their own telco different services. They have got media and content and they have also built their own ad exchange and Google ad network to get ahead of Google and Facebook. Now the thing is that they have built that out on the advertiser or publisher model but even then they need back end or the ad engine to connect to through a Google and a Facebook.

So I think we do not go head to head with them but we can partner with them for growth. I am a big believer in partnerships because there is no way that one company alone can build an entire tech stack in the time required to go to market to actually be disruptive and innovative.

 20:35 – How is the Telecom Industry Creating Value?

Moderator: Absolutely. I think the reason to put that as a controversial question was because I really want to establish a foundation for my next question. Let’s talk about values now. So when you are talking about this. This is just one segment of where you could drive value but when you think of value holistically, there are OTT platforms, buy-now pay-later wallets, be it any other Fintech applications and whatnot.

So I want to know where exactly do you see the telecom industry creating value? The reason I ask you this question is because all three of you have acknowledged that you have the data. You have been for a long time. You are the contributor to how technology works. You have the resources and the budget to make it happen most importantly. So let us talk about values. Where are you going with that?

Sumit Srivastava: I think all of it. The amount of users, data and subscribers we have enables us to build a multi vertical recording revenue segment. This is the whole point about moving away from just products like just a sim card and building out a platform. So it is not about giving a sim card in someone’s hand.

It is about giving a part of the internet to that someone. There is a ton of usage in real life on a day-to-day basis. Yes, gaming is one of them, OTT is one of them and there are many more.

Those are the normal standard ones that you hear. Financial services are massive. So I would say that there is a lot happening. For example, there are many Telcos focusing on how they can add more value with financial services. Insurance is one. Payment cards is another. In UAE, we have just launched a buy-now pay-later fintech solution on a prepaid card which nobody else has done.

We are trying to figure out how you take that usage and add on bundled services so that you lower the barrier to entry on multiple recording revenue subscriptions. So there is a lot that you can play with.

E-health is another one. If I put an e-sim in your smartwatch and that watch is tracking everything, then how do I use that watch to solve your healthcare needs? So we are focused on finding an answer to real and in-life solutions.

23:20 – Offering Services Across Regional Boundaries

Moderator: That’s quite a lot. I mean I am contemplating on my next question in my mind but I would like to hear Shafika’s thoughts. You just spoke about some very cool stuff on what your team is doing and it is not just related to one geography and is spread across the board. You are very well versed with the regional boundaries and you are still making it work. So, where are you finding value on what’s on the horizon while taking in regional barriers into consideration when you go with investing in such a service.

Shafika Houcine: Historically, what the telecom operators do is invest heavily on the network that makes sure that you guys have great speed and great quality. We saw that during the Covid crisis when people had to remote work and remote learn. That’s when Etisalat invested to make our network the fastest in the world.

Other than that, it has always been very important to deliver the best experience through all of our touch points whether it is retail or digital. We are looking to bring more services and better services for our customers and some verticals are very critical as we do that. Education and healthcare are very critical for us.

Making sure that you have payment facilitated is important. We operate in countries where we have big receiving populations when it comes to international remittances. We have receivers and we have senders, so we are focussed on leveraging this demographic across our geographies and investing in mobile financial services is definitely an opportunity. I am putting Pakistan as a big receiver country.

It goes without saying that gaming, entertainment, music, and TV are important. I think that Meta is on everybody’s mouth these days. I just overheard a conversation about metaverse before I came on the stage. I don’t know how many of you are meeting your friends in the metaverse but I hear that joke all the time. I definitely think that gaming, metaverse and all other verticals are definitely worth exploring.

Bilal Adham: For us, value is customer experience. What do we add to the customer’s life and how can we benefit them? For us, Disney+, Netflix, etc. Why do want I pay individual bills with the amount of stuff that is going on? Things like that come under one central ecosystem and again we come back to diversification of portfolio.

We can now begin to understand behaviors and trends and this is when data starts to take precedence and you can start building different verticals. In December, we launched our Fintech play which is very much in the open banking area now. Various things can go on from there, but for us it is more about why you created a business and what value can you provide? For us that means doing something meaningful for the customer.

If we can play in that space then why not? Somebody is going to so we should be focused on making an impact there. I think we have the readiness to do so. Talent widely available in the market, the infrastructure is quite clearly there. So there is no reason not to.

Moderator: Absolutely, you own the highways in a way and it is also interesting to see that you are now helping to build the cars that we will drive on tomorrow. So it is very exciting.

Sumit Srivastava: We were just talking about metaverse and hitting gaming communities because that is massive for us. So we are launching in Kuwait. We have bought a virgin mobile store in Kuwait on Sandbox in the meta verse.

We are going after the enthusiast gaming community. So it is also a way of how you communicate with the customers and how you make sense of that.

28:23 – Using Data to Understand Customers

Moderator: Yeah, that’s awesome. I also think that puzzles me because I have worked on data for the last 16 years. This is fantastic but when you go off the stage and go back to work, what are the current things that play on your mind? How do you plan to use this fantastic opportunity because there is so much leeway to play and bring people together to understand the data?

I think what I hear as a common sentiment from all three of you is that you want to understand the customer better, be where the customer is, cater to them in a medium where they understand things and pass on the right message.

So how do you plan to do that today? I am sure that there are challenges pertaining to people, just like Shafika mentioned earlier, but it will be interesting to get your opinion on what plays on your mind when you think of that.

Sumit Srivastava: So the part that you mentioned about understanding customers, I would like to add one more thing to it and that is to predict what customers are going to do next. So it is important to understand the amount of data you have, collate all of it and figure out the different patterns and behaviours that are helpful in cross-selling and up-selling.

In the end, it is also important to predict what will happen next. This is where the whole AI and ML piece is important, where we go through millions and millions of patterns, collate them and use them for your core subscriber base and also third party audiences. You keep adding more data and analysing it to understand customers more and more. It is cyclical.

Moderator: So do you think you are prepared for the challenge that is coming or does it keep you up at night?

Sumit Srivastava: We are preparing every day. I don’t think we will ever be completely prepared because even after this conversation, we will still be talking about what we can do better on the basis of what we learned today.

Moderator: The reason I put you on the spot there is that that is the reality we live in. It is never done and you have got to keep going back to the same problem and keep moving. A lot of us face this challenge day in and day out. But you do not get that validation until you are sitting in a room full of practitioners. Bilal, what’s your view on this?

Bilal Adham: I mean we go back and face every possible business challenge that I am sure everyone here faces. At least for the immediate business revenue and sales and how could we grow with that? There could be multiple means as sophisticated as AI or we could have people handing over sim cards. That’s the reality, I think.

But for us, what we want to understand better is the customer. Building on your last question, I think we should really value our partners that we work with. So sometimes we can wish for the world and want to build everything by ourselves including proprietary technology, but there’s a lot of cost-benefit analysis that you want to do beforehand.

There are times you get the right skills on board and implement the technology while getting the marketing tech stack right. But usually by this time, others have already moved who are dedicated to that environment. So you have built this ecosystem that allows you to plug and play because that is very important.

This is where you can get many learnings and establish data clean rooms and work with partners to grow things right. So for me, that is what we do. We try to work with great people in the space as far as possible and we really just try to understand the customer in simplicity because otherwise you can be spinning all day long. So l think it is important to go back to basics.

We can try and demystify all of this sophisticated analysis but if you are not doing the fundamentals right then it is the whole garbage in and garbage out thing and you are never going to evolve.

You have to rely on making good partnerships, get core ethics and values in place. We have principles behind decisions which are led by KPIs and we go ahead and deliver. We can build product roadmaps but if the team has not done what they said they would yesterday, then why not?

33:05 – Importance of People in Solving the Telcos Challenges

Moderator: Shafika, I would like to know your opinion on not just the technology but the people, process, and governance challenge that comes along with this because it is not easy. There is so much to deal with and you need help for that. How do you look at that?

Shafika Houcine: As far as I am concerned, I think that we should have a very clear understanding of what we want the digital channels to do for us? These channels can do so many things. Like a website can do so many things. It can be an HR tool, a PR tool, and a sales tool. So defining what we want the channel to do for us is very important.

We have our apps that we use for digital support and care while driving more sales. So for sales, our websites are easy to connect if you are a prospect and do not want to download any app.

It all starts with defining the vision, being clear on the KPI you want to achieve and from there having the right team and processes. I think we keep talking about being lean but there is often a gap between the words and the reality. We need to work on that so that we can ensure that people understand a lean UX process.

For example, making sure that we have the right skill sets because we do have gaps. It is very hard for us to find the right solution architect, to find the right QA people because sometimes we overlook the QA and testing phase. We do not do enough usability testing with our users.

So there are many gaps that we are trying to fill. So for me, it is important to have the right people who understand the frameworks and also push the agenda forward while understanding what the strategy is and how to execute it. So, people are essential.

Sumit Srivastava: Yeah, I think people’s infrastructure is one piece, but the thing that I am constantly pushing is the “Why?”. You start with the customer and you end with the customer. Everything that comes in between is the experience, but you have to challenge your teams and yourself as well.

It is important to ask yourself why you want to build this product and why do you want to add value to the customer’s life everyday? So that is extremely important. Having a vision is okay but connecting the dots for its execution is even more important.

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