By Carl Howe
CNBC today kicked off its coverage of the World Mobile Congress today with an article titled, The Mobile Industry Has an Innovation Emergency.". I have to say, I agree with CNBC's point of view that many players in the mobile industry are stuck not knowing how to innovate. But after fighting with making mobile calls from my office in downtown Boston the last week or so, I have a dream that I think would challenge today's mobile carriers in their quest to become Anywhere providers:
Imagine if our mobile phone carriers actually tried to exceed our expectations?
Today, we tend to give mobile phone carriers accolades for just doing their jobs some of the time, like placing phone calls and delivering text messages. I've been trying to place and receive mobile phone calls from my office in downtown Boston over the past few weeks, and despite having a contract with the largest mobile phone company in the US, my success rate is about 75%. Said another way, my carrier doesn't deliver the service I pay for 25% of the time. Not exactly the poster child for world-class service, is it?
Imagine what would happen if they not only delivered service 100% of the time, but actually made it a fantastic experience?
Truth be told, dealing with any mobile carrier today is about as much fun as a root canal. Assuming you can actually make a call (see paragraph 2 above), calling to complain doesn't help. The carriers may claim that our phone call to complain is important to them, but that doesn't provide any salvation from their hell of automated phone trees. I'm happy to key in my phone number to allow them to access my records, but having to repeat that number verbally with the customer service rep after I've done it online just adds insult to injury. And the fact that I have to do that every time I get handed off to another representative just reinforces the impression that my business just doesn't matter to the people running these carriers.
Am I a dreamer to expect anything better? Perhaps. But there's data that suggests that if a new entrant delighted customers, the old guard of mobile phone companies could see serious trouble. The data I'm referring to comes from a study that Changewave released this week about the iPhone.
According to Changewave Research, Apple's (NASDAQ:AAPL) iPhone has become the most popular choice for consumers planning to replace their mobile phone, which you can see below
Why? Here's a pretty good reason: 72% of iPhone customers are "very satisfied" with their phones, compared with only 55% for RIM (RIMM) customers, and even lower results for all the other manufacturers. Here's ChangeWave's chart for that result.
This data would be impressive for any manufacturer. But the really key point here is that the iPhone is made by a company that wasn't even in the mobile phone business a year ago. Further, Apple completely ignored the requirements of old-guard carriers; instead, it insisted that carriers do things that would help consumers, like instituting unlimited data plans and visual voice mail for the iPhone. It focused on delighting the customer, not perpetuating same old way of doing business.
Now I know that very high barriers such as spectrum rights and infrastructure costs block new carriers from entering the mobile phone business. Yet every successful new business overcomes some sort of obstacle that previously seemed insurmountable; after all, FedEx's (NYSE:FDX) overnight delivery business model was panned as impractical when the US Postal Service had a near monopoly on package delivery. And what better recipe exists for success than millions of unsatisfied customers willing to pay a monthly fee for a better service?
I don't know if there's a Steve Jobs, a Fred Smith, or a Herb Kellaher [Southwest Airlines, (NYSE:LUV)] out there thinking about creating a great mobile phone business. But imagine if consumers were so excited about a mobile carrier that they'd line up for days to sign up for their service, like they do at the Apple Stores today. Imagine if that carrier guaranteed your satisfaction with their service or your money back. Imagine if that carrier had only a few, simple to understand services that took a few clicks to sign up for and another few clicks to get rid of if you didn't like them. And imagine if that carrier actually had customer service people who had both the power and authority to turn dissatisfied customers into satisfied ones.
I don't think Steve Jobs, Fred Smith, or Herb Kellaher have any plans to get into the carrier business. But I can dream, can't I?