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Siloed data presents a crisis of trust in the telco industry

Discover why customers are losing trust in the telco industry and how it can be regained

6-minute read

The 2021 Edelman Trust Barometer shows trust in telecommunications companies at a five-year low. Could siloed data be a factor in that loss of confidence?

A Canadian customer, let’s call her Jenny, returns from a business trip near the US-Canada border. She opens her mobile bill to find she’s been charged a hefty fee for using data on an operator’s network in the United States.

As far as Jenny is concerned she never crossed the border, so this huge charge must be a mistake. She calls her provider, expecting to get it all sorted in a few minutes. But instead, the provider insists that the roaming charge is legitimate and that it must be paid. 

Jenny may have crossed the border without realizing, or simply come close enough to connect to the US operator’s network. Whatever the truth, the CSP’s charging policy demands that the roaming fee is collected, so Jenny has to pay up. Feeling let down, she resolves to switch provider. 

Customer trust and customer retention are inextricably linked

Moments like these are where customer trust is forged or lost, according to former Bharti Airtel CTO Abhay Savargaonkar, a 30-year telco industry veteran who joined Nokia in 2019 as Head of Technology for Cloud and Network Services. “Supporting your customer in their hour of need is the number one factor for gaining trust,” he says. “If you support them when they need you, they will never go away.”

Supporting your customer in their hour of need is the number one factor for gaining trust. If you support them when they need you, they will never go away.
Abhay Savargaonkar
Head of Technology, Cloud and Network Services, Nokia


In an industry where annual customer churn levels average between 10% and 67%, improving levels of customer trust should be a top priority for CSP leadership teams. But studies suggest it’s not happening: in fact the latest Edelman Trust Barometer reveals that the proportion of people who say they trust telecommunications companies has fallen from 67% in 2019 to 61% in 2021 – a five-year low.

Nokia industrí sector table

Customer trust comes from “doing the right thing”

So, what’s going wrong? According to Savargaonkar, before CSPs can start to improve customer trust, they need to reconsider what drives it. Many CSPs, he says, believe trust is rooted in network reliability: if the network provides a good service, customers will naturally trust the provider. But what customers really look for is evidence that the provider will “do the right thing”: both for its customers and – increasingly – for society and for the planet.

“Doing the right thing” is a much more complex and wide-ranging proposition than ensuring the network runs reliably. It’s not something that can be solved with engineering, however sophisticated. Instead, it cuts across everything the CSP does: from the way it advertises network speeds to the amount of CO2 its operations emit. But the customer experience is a good place to start, because it’s here that achievable changes can lead to major gains in terms of trust and loyalty.

Take billing and charging. Customers like Jenny trust their long-term provider to be on their side when there’s a problem, only to find the provider seems to act in their own interests instead. Often that’s down to rigid charging policies that are “focused on trying to protect ourselves from a tiny minority of fraudsters, rather than on doing the right thing for the 99.8 per cent of good customers,” according to Savargaonkar. 

Data silos lead to situations that can erode customer trust

But how can CSPs reliably distinguish between a good customer who has been unfairly charged and a fraudster intent on exploiting the network? Mostly, it comes down to having a solid understanding of each individual customer’s network usage and interaction history.

That means doing something that CSPs have historically avoided: collating and analyzing data from across the organization to gain rounded insights into customers as individuals.

CSPs’ reluctance to use data in that way stems partly from their role as trusted data guardians, according to Reed Peterson, Senior Vice President for Telecoms Strategy and Engagement at DataStax. “For years, MNOs have had data including locations, behaviors, social networks, usage and spend,” he says. “And they’ve taken great care to protect, secure and not sell or divulge it.”

That mission to protect customer data is one of the reasons individual business units tend to keep it in silos, away from other areas of the business. While the approach is driven by an abundance of caution, as a strategy for engendering trust, it’s becoming less practical. “If anything, telcos are too secure with their data,” says Aaron Boasman-Patel, Vice President for AI, Customer Experience and Data at TM Forum. “They don't even allow internal flexibility and use.”

In other words, the siloed approach means CSPs can’t draw on their own internal data to deliver a customer experience that would increase customer trust. In Jenny’s case, location data from her phone could have confirmed that she had entered an area in Canada known to roam over to a US carrier, and the customer service agent could have swiftly voided the charge – helping to secure Jenny’s loyalty rather than driving her away.

generating customer trust

Keeping data in silos has been seen as a way to ensure compliance with data privacy regulations, like GDPR, that CSPs take very seriously. But according to TM Forum’s Boasman-Patel, maintaining data privacy doesn’t have to mean keeping it in silos – especially as customers increasingly want to be treated as individuals, with personalized bundles and tariffs based on their own needs and interests.

Sharing data internally is essential for developing those personalized offers, which means customers should be ready to consent to it as long as the purpose of the sharing is clear. “It means modernizing data policies, but also explaining to customers what’s being used,” he says. “Nobody’s going to read 20 pages before downloading an app. It’s got to be clear, and it’s got to be simple.”

The problem is that CSPs are selling add-ons, not solutions. They have to sell solutions to be seen as a trusted partner.
Aaron Boasman-Patel
Vice President, AI, Customer Experience and Data, TM Forum


As we move further into the age of ultra-fast fiber and 5G, more customers of all kinds will be seeking solutions rather than just connectivity. An enterprise may be looking for ways to automate its warehouse operations or factory floor, for example, while a consumer may be looking for a way to work productively from home while other family members stream high-definition video or play low-latency videogames.

Understanding those customers “in the round”, talking to them knowledgeably about their needs, and offering tailored solutions to meet their requirements, will be the key to generating their trust and loyalty. And it will mean completely rethinking the way data is collected, stored and used across the organization, especially as more of it is generated in real time, says DataStax’s Peterson.

“Access and use of data will be a critical piece of digital transformation,” he says. “Data needs to be easily accessible and intelligently replicated – for example, only replicating what is necessary based on privacy, security, regulatory considerations – across all domains of a telco network. It also has to be completely secure, and always available every step of the way.”

When data is made securely accessible across the organization, Peterson says, it can be consumed by BSS and OSS applications to deliver better services based on personalization, which in turn “should also help to increase customer trust alongside satisfaction with the service.”

Data needs to be easily accessible and intelligently replicated across all domains of a telco network. It also has to be completely secure, and always available every step of the way. This will allow telcos to use data to deliver better services to customers based on personalization.
Reed Peterson
Senior Vice President, Telecoms Strategy and Engagement, DataStax


Predictive analytics enable new services that enhance trust still further

While responsiveness and transparency will be cornerstones of customer trust for the data-driven CSP, another capability has the potential to improve levels of trust still further. By applying predictive analytics to collated data, CSPs can start to anticipate when customers might need help and deliver it even before the customer has recognized the problem.

That has applications right across the CSP domain, from network performance management through to billing and charging. Vodafone, for example, has pooled all of its network data on Google Cloud Platform, and deployed an Anomaly Detection Service to spot patterns of change in the way individual network cells are used. That, it says, enables Vodafone operating companies to proactively address issues before they impact the customer.

That has applications right across the CSP domain, from network performance management through to billing and charging. Vodafone, for example, has pooled all of its network data on Google Cloud Platform, and deployed an Anomaly Detection Service to spot patterns of change in the way individual network cells are used. That, it says, enables Vodafone operating companies to proactively address issues before they impact the customer.

brand trust

“Doing the right thing” is only possible through smarter use of data

Ultimately, the more the customer sees their service provider “doing the right thing”, the more their trust in that provider will grow.

Much of that is down to the way the provider treats its the customers: helping them in their hour of need, providing solutions that help them achieve their goals, and anticipating and fixing problems without being asked. But increasingly, it has other dimensions, too: like acting ethically, following regulations, protecting the planet by being more energy efficient and reducing waste,  becoming a positive force in society.

All of these things require CSPs to use data in smarter ways: harnessing its potential to deliver customer-first experiences and new personalized services, as well as to drive carbon-reduction initiatives, report transparently on environmental and social metrics, and show compliance with industry regulations.

For a customer like Jenny, “doing the right thing” with data could mean spotting when she’s traveling close to the US border, proactively reaching out in her preferred channel to let her know her phone may try to connect to US network, and offering a solution. Rather than losing a customer, that’s a route to gaining a loyal customer for life.

Generating customer trust: Key takeaways for CSPs

Go customer-first: Adopt policies that enable you to be there for your customers in their hour of need

Deepen insight: Share data securely across departments – while still meeting regulatory requirements – and analyze it to gain deeper insight into customer experiences, needs and trends

Solve problems: Provide personalized solutions to customers’ problems and aspirations, rather than presenting them with disjointed offers

Be proactive: Anticipate customer problems and fix them before they happen, or reach out proactively with advice or a solution