How Telco Companies Can Remain Relevant

Cable, internet, and mobile phones have been the bread and butter of telcos for many years, however, growth in these categories is dwindling and brands are beginning to feel the heat. Today, we speak to Will Gibson, a telco retail and marketing expert who’s seen the industry shift from his days at Blockbuster to becoming an award-winning speaker, thought leader, and retail futurist. He’s going to tell us what he sees as a threat to the future of telcos, and how brands can pivot and stay relevant.


Melinda: Cable, internet, and mobile phones have been the bread and butter of telcos for many years, however, growth in these categories is dwindling and brands are beginning to feel the heat. Today, we speak to Will Gibson, a telco retail and marketing expert who’s seen the industry shift from his days at Blockbuster to becoming an award-winning speaker, thought leader, and retail futurist. He’s going to tell us what he sees as a threat to the future of telcos, and how brands can pivot and stay relevant. Welcome, Will. Thank you for joining us today. It’s a pleasure to have you.

Will: It’s a pleasure to be here. Thanks.

Melinda: Can you just start off by telling us a little bit about yourself and what you do?

Will: Sure. I am the VP of Marketing and Amplifier at Maplewave, and what we do is we provide a telco customer experience platform that works on the principles of transact anywhere to really help telcos make sense of where their customers want to do business with them nowadays. We also specialize in retail transformations, so hence the “amplifier” portion of my job title. We have a consulting service called Amplifier, where we look to work with our clients to really help them see the future and help them put some concrete strategies down to get towards that future as quickly as possible. So we’re really passionate about discovering pain points and developing solutions that can really help boost telco performance.

Melinda: So you’ve had a long career working in telecommunications, but you also worked at Blockbuster many years ago, and that brand has become a bit of a symbol of how change can wipe out a business model overnight. Do you think telcos could be facing a similar situation right now?

Will: Absolutely. Blockbuster is a great example of what can happen to a business if it’s not paying attention to the needs of the consumer, and telcos are in a very unique position right now. It’s time for the telcos to decide what they want to be. 5G is bringing unparalleled opportunities with connectivity, and a lot of telcos are kind of overwhelmed, I think, with the possibilities there, and they’re seeing a future gravy boat of connected cars, connected cities, and a plethora of B2B opportunities. And over the last five years they’ve had to cope with a downsize in the B2C market that I actually think they’re forgetting about the opportunities that still exist in the consumer market, and potentially a few of them are heading headlong into some big problems like Blockbuster, if they don’t work out what they’re going to be and how they’re going to change as a result.

Melinda: What are those opportunities in the B2C market that you see them overlooking?

Will: I mean, one of the big ones is to add new products and services to their portfolio. Devices nowadays are not swapped out as fast as they once were. Two reasons are that the build quality is absolutely fantastic, there is no need to swap these things out, and also there has been a lack of form factor innovation and feature innovation. It’s become saturated, the handset market. So, the telcos are seeing dwindling revenues there, but what they’re not seeing–not many of them anyway–are the enhanced revenues of new products that are right under their noses. So IoT products, connected home, wearables are a growing category. All of these things that, in particular, the Millennial and the Generation Z customer really gets excited about, the telcos are not providing those across the globe in a consistent manner. Some are doing it well. Most are not, and they’re missing out on big opportunities, I think.

Melinda: If you were to use an overarching umbrella for the new direction that you think telcos should take to prevent themselves from becoming the next Blockbuster, what would that be?

Will: I think it’s really to embrace the Internet of Everything. The world is going to become hyperconnected, and 5G is the next step onto that path. For sure the B2B world is going to explode, but so is the B2C world. So, really understanding what products people are going to be buying now, next year, and in five years, and then having business models that really help the consumer of today and tomorrow take access of those products, is absolutely what they need to do. There’s a phrase often used in consumer telco around “omni-channel,” and very few telcos, in my experience, provide that as a full service. Some of them may claim to do it in that you can start a journey online and then collect it in-store, but very few of them actually provide all of the journeys, and that really is the future.

The customer wants the power in their own hands. They want to be able to transact anywhere they choose to, anywhere they want to, and the telcos are still burdened with legacy systems, poorly thought-out processes, so they’re not giving the power to the consumer. And that’s ultimately turning them into the hands of the OEMs [original equipment manufacturer] and the OTT providers [over-the-top media services] as brands that they can really resonate to and stick to. And it’s a shame because I see year-over-year MPS scores and customer satisfaction for telcos going down and down and down. And once that goes below a certain level then you really are just the electricity provider. You know, that’s all you provide. So it’s a scary thought.

Melinda: We hear that phrase “omni-channel” thrown around so much, but you’re right, it’s not just telcos. Across all retail categories, the same thing is true and a lot of the time it’s just a hollow phrase and it’s not really made come to life. But how could telcos make this a hallmark of their retail experience and really reignite the imagination of consumers?

Will: Well, first of all, they could give me a call. That’s the easy way. But seriously, the challenge, and why telcos haven’t solved this problem, is they focus on a series of different buzzwords, and the whole industry starts to chase these buzzwords. It was “omni-channel,” the one today that is a bit more common is “digital transformation.” And so, what they do is they focus on these buzzwords, and they try to solve these problems, and they try to make their company compliant with the strategic pillars underneath that. But what they do is they approach it from the wrong angle. They approach it from, “Okay, what technology have I got? What partners have I got? What vendor choice have I got? What are they telling me?” Rather than approaching it from the angle of, “What does my customer want and need now, today, and what does my customer want and need tomorrow?”

And I find that the telcos that have approached their transformations in this way are able to seek out solutions and providers that can really help transform how they’re going to do business with their customers in the future. And that is a big thing because the next wave, 5G onwards, is at least a decade, so if a telco gets that right now, they’re powering a decade’s worth of consumer revenue and growth and being able to win in that category, which is very valuable indeed. So that’s how they need to do it, is approach it in the right way.

Melinda: You mentioned earlier that people aren’t swapping out their mobile devices the way that they once were. What do you see as the future of that core customer device? Is it going to be a subscription model? What’s the future of our mobile device relationship?

Will: The device is still going to hang around for a while yet. You know, we are slaves to those devices. They now do everything for us. The whole knowledge of the world is at the fingertips in our hand when we’re out of the house. We’re seeing a bit of an in-home shift towards the voice assistant and there’s going to come a time where the device and the voice assistant work a lot more closely together to help manage your calendar and manage your life. So, there’s still going to be a lot of products out there. It’s how often the consumer wants to swap that product out for something new, and what is the pace of change. And I think the pace of change will increase when we’re starting to see complementary products that we can swap out like fast fashion.

So, it could be the shoes with a haptic sensor that tells you to write. It could be the glasses that will make a comeback that will project something near your eyeline because you need to see it. So that is going to have a really pacey growth period for telco, but the question is, will the telco still be involved in that business or will they have been left behind by innovative tech retailers and OEM vendors with their own retail plans who have really caught the imagination of the consumer and have won their hearts and minds? The telcos have to move fast because this rate of change is not far away.

Melinda: You’ve touched a little bit on smart tech in the home. How can telcos really capitalize on this, especially in the retail environment?

Will: It’s all around education. I’m a life-long retailer, and this is where retail comes in. There’s been a lot of talk around “retail is dead” and the telco doesn’t see the value in it because they can ship from anywhere, they can transact and interact through the customer’s device. And okay, yeah, that’s absolutely true. But retail as a place where a pack animal that a human being is wants to come together and interact with other humans and to learn and interact with new things that they don’t know about, is a massive opportunity. And there is a big gap between the average skill level of the average consumer and what they can do, even with a mobile device, let alone some of the smart in-home IoT devices. So there’s a big gap there that if the telcos are clever they can help produce raving fans from their consumers by giving them access to the latest and greatest things, and by showing them how it works in their particular home and in their particular environment and lifestyle. And that’s a big opportunity for the telco retailers, but unfortunately, the telcos do not seem to be overly serious around retail. It often lacks investment, and it’s a big mistake in my opinion.

Melinda: Do you see anybody out there who is demonstrating the use of this sort of the connection between your mobile device and your in-home assistant and smart technology? Is there anyone who’s doing that in the retail space right now that’s exciting you?

Will: Sure, there’s a few examples. In the States, we’ve got AT&T and Verizon, and they’re very good at the top end. You go to their flagships on the West Coast, or I was in the three-story Verizon flagship in Chicago recently, and they’re very good at telling curated stories around how you can use some of this tech in your lifestyle. So in Verizon, there was an actual bicycle that you could get on in front of a screen, and you could interact with Peloton or whatever various services there are. Where I find the telcos fall down is they’re not able to make that scale. So, they find it a struggle to take education out into the rest of the population, into the smaller places.

Melinda: Right.

Will: Outside of the States, there’s a great example in the UK in the IoT category. Vodafone have a fantastic consumer service called “V by Vodafone.” They have things like connected tracker chips for your child’s school bag so you always know where they are. They even have one, would you believe, a connected dog or a cat collar for your pet, if you want to make sure that they’re safe. Now, these are small items. They may only cost £20 or £30. They may only cost an increase of £1 or £2 a month in your subscription, but it is extra revenue for the telco, and there’s not many of them around the world that are doing those sorts of examples. So, there are a few and I talk about these examples a lot with a lot of my clients around the world who want that type of advice from me around what does world-class look like nowadays.

Melinda: Obviously, any time you’re building a flagship you’re spending a lot of money and you’re really investing in not just the retail environment but the people that you’re going to be hiring. Can you talk a little bit about what telcos need to do in terms of upping the level of staff, their training, their understanding, and their ability to deliver on that experience?

Will: Yeah, this is another big challenge, and telcos are not great at really training the frontline staff. There’s a lot of turnover for a start. A retail sales job is an entry-level job. It could be somebody out of school or university, it could be a young person working part-time while they’re through university, so there’s a lot of transient movement, and as a result, you need to almost overtrain in those types of environments to make sure that they’re qualified to really help with that education piece towards your customers. Again, some of my clients do it very, very well. They have career paths, they have modular inductions, they have bespoke sales training courses. We also provide some of these to our clients. But some of them are just kind of playing at the training piece and they’re really not investing in the long term. And customers and consumers of today are very demanding, and they’ll easily see through that and the people who are not investing are losing to the people who are doing it very well.

Melinda: If you were going to give us three pieces of advice to really make that omni-channel experience come to life and take a telco brand into the future, what would those three pieces of advice be?

Will: Sure. The first thing would be to really look at your consumer business as a whole and map out all of the customer journeys that your customers want to perform with you, be that a sales transaction to acquire your services, be that a service transaction to get some help and support, be that an education transaction to really grow their knowledge about something new. Really map all of those out and work out where your customers are going to do those transactions. Some things happen to be more natural in a person-to-person environment like a retail store. Some things, very fast service transactions, for example, they can be very natural on a consumer device or at a self-service kiosk.

And what I find with telcos is they haven’t done this exercise to really map out what is their universe of channels and touchpoints and what are the demands from it. The second thing would be once you have everything mapped is make sure you only then start your digital transformation journey for your systems. Working out the capability of your legacy systems and whether it is possible via integrations or other routes to use those systems to power the new journeys that you need, or whether you need to go out and find new platform providers and best-of-breed service providers that can give you what you need.

So that would be the second thing, is get the digital transformation journey started from that point. And then the third thing would be the previous piece I spoke about, would be the training with the frontline staff, is really make sure that they understand how to become a solution provider for their customers, and not just think about the device and the plan and the 1990s and 2000s way of doing telco, but think about what the customer’s life is like. Where they travel, what their home is like, what their family needs, and really just over invest in that training push to make sure that the staff are as good as they can be.

Melinda: Thanks so much. That’s a lot of great advice. I think we’re going to close it out there, and I will link to Maplewave in our podcast description so anybody who wants to find out more and wants to talk to you personally can get in touch with you. Thank you so much, that was fabulous.

Will: Thanks very much.

Melinda: Telco brands with a B2C business model have been riding the wave of new tech for a long time, and that ride’s not over. 5G is going to bring more than consumers will know what to do with, which is why Will is advocating for staff to be over-prepared, for an educational model, and to take education beyond your flagship locations. As voice-activated assistants, IoT, and 5G become ubiquitous, consumers will be trying to figure out what to do with them. When a consumer need like that emerges, it’s an opportunity waiting to be seized. Who will get there first? Well, we’ll find out soon.

Thanks for listening.


Will Gibson is the Vice President of Marketing & Amplifier at Maplewave. He is an an award-winning retail consultant who helps businesses take their operations to the next level.

Think Retail is a podcast where top designers, strategists, thought leaders and business people discuss what’s coming next. For more information, email