Churn is increasing at great cost to the mobile operator

by Terry Norman

We estimate that in developed markets amongst post-paid customers churn (moving from an operator to a competitor) is between 3 and 5%. In some markets however this can be as high as 25%. Churn costs the mobile operator in lost revenue and additional marketing, necessary to maintain market share. The cost of churn can be as much as USD 250 per churn.

There are a number of reasons why a subscriber would move to a new provider. The attraction of a better device is the most well-known. Pricing issues, customer service, network coverage, competing technologies and contract conditions are also often cited. Of late, the type and availability of services is being commonly mentioned by customers as a reason to churn.

Churn does not exist in isolation and a competitor offering provides the context. Often customers will churn because of a perceived difference between the network performance and services of their current operator and those of a competitor. This may be clever marketing by the competition, or it may be a legitimate differentiator. It is difficult for the operator to know without detailed information from customers on competitor networks.

What are operators doing today to limit churn?

Mobile operators usually use marketing campaigns to attract new customers. At best marketing campaigns serve merely to mask the effect of churn. They do not tackle the fundamental problem – existing customers are leaving. Additionally, a marketing campaign only really works when the operator can claim to lead the market in some way. Being the only operator in the country to offer an iPhone contract once attracted customers in droves. However, deals with Apple are no longer exclusive and there are many smart devices from other vendors competing on an equal footing. It is rare that a marketing advantage exists for more than a few months.

Identifying customers likely to churn and then offering them new devices, new contracts and so on is an approach to churn reduction which aims to remedy the problem at source. However, current implementations of this strategy tend to be quite crude. The operator simply targets those approaching the end of their contracts with a new device and a few extra voice minutes in their bundle.

In contrast, deals which are tailored to fit a customer’s pattern of usage are far more effective. However, the operator must first identify suitable customers, segment them according to appropriate deals and then push new contracts to them that are broadly tailored to their usage patterns. The key stumbling block for most operators is identifying usage patterns.

Poor call quality, unable to establish calls and calls being dropped unexpectedly – are the most common reasons cited by customers to justify the move to another operator. Sensibly, operators today are trying to minimise the occurrence of these negative indicators. They use a complex and rigorous process of fault management, monitoring a number of important indicators of network performance (KPIs key performance). However, these KPIs are not measured at the customer’s device. Often there exists a gap between the measured figures and the number, time and duration of the same KPIs as experienced by the customer, and this can give the operator an optimistic view of how their network is performing.

We mentioned earlier that churn does not exist in isolation and there is the competitor dimension to consider. In addition to the negative effects of poor KPIs pushing customers away from the network there is the pull of attractive marketing from the competition. Customers churn in part because of the perceived difference in network performance. This may be clever marketing by the competition, or it may be a legitimate differentiator. If this is clever marketing then the victim’s strategy should be to debunk the message as marketing puffery: conversely, if the competitor network is offering better performance, then the operator should seek to redress the balance through investment in the capability of their network – technology, services, and so on. Clearly, two entirely different strategies are required to address the same problem. Choosing the wrong strategy makes for an expensive mistake. To determine the right strategy the operator must obtain accurate data with which it can benchmark its own performance against that of the competition, but obtaining intelligence of competitor network performance is difficult.

So where does this leave the mobile operator?

Churn can cost an operator as much as $250 per customer. Churn can vary between 5 and 2% depending upon the market. It is rare for a customer to stay with a mobile operator for more than four years.

Operators want to do more to retain existing customers. They want to offer more personalised contracts, seemingly tailored to the individual needs of their customers, but the details of customer usage patterns that they need to do this are very difficult to obtain.

Operators recognise that many customers terminate their contracts because of a perceived shortfall in network performance compared with their expectations and their understanding of the performance achieved by competitor networks. Operators accept that closing the gap between the KPIs they measure within their network and the network performance as perceived by the customer will go a long way towards identifying network problems, meeting customer expectations and minimising this cause of churn.

In addition to the standard practice of keeping up with technology and devices, marketing and so on, operators should:

·        Look towards personalising contracts and addressing the needs of their customers earlier in the contract process, and certainly before end of contract,

·       Benchmark competitor network quality to expose inflated claims of superior network quality and identify and address measurements which indicate inferior network quality.

Combining usage characteristics with on device network performance data, will enable operators both to identify customers which are vulnerable to churn and to segment them according to usage. New data packages, intended for individual segments, can be designed, and members of these segments should be approached, with contracts which are more suited to their needs, much earlier on in the churn process and certainly before the end of contract.

Combining usage characteristics with on device network performance data can be used to benchmark competitor network quality to rebut misleading competitor marketing messages and can fuel a healthy debate about Quality of Service as seen by the customer rather than as measured within the network.

However, gathering accurate data of network performance at the device is not straightforward.

For more information please contact Dr Terry Norman, Director and Co-founder of Wireless Explorers –