Over the last few years, Middle Eastern governments have significantly opened up their telecommunications markets and broken up the monopolies of their state-owned, historic operators. Spectrum licenses were awarded at record prices and the new entrants engaged in head-to-head competition with the incumbents. As a result, mobile penetration soared and rapidly exceeded the psychological limit of 100 percent in many markets. In Saudi Arabia, for instance, mobile penetration was hovering around 30 percent in 2003. In 2008, it quadrupled to 120 percent according to Booz & Company analysis. While this spectacular growth brought countless benefits and choices to the end-users, it does mean today that mobile subscriber acquisition in the mainstream market has become a more difficult challenge. Thus, to achieve the growth and returns their shareholders have come to expect, leading Middle Eastern mobile operators have essentially pursued a two-pronged approach: on the one hand, they want to maximize the value capture from their domestic markets and defend their positions; on the other hand, those who can afford to are seeking additional growth in foreign, less penetrated markets.
While international expansion comes with an evident load of challenges that several Middle Eastern players are facing for the first time, maximizing value capture in the domestic market is, perhaps unexpectedly, no less challenging. It requires mobile operators to pursue, also for the first time, smaller niche segments, which typically crave customized value propositions and are usually ill-served by the generic, one-size-fits-all offerings that prevail in the mainstream markets.
Answering the call
Successfully pursuing niche segments is no small task for most operators in the region. It requires major discontinuities in just about every aspect of their business: strategy, branding, technology, organization structure, human resources, corporate culture… no area is spared! But mobile operators will find comfort in convergence, which comes with just the right toolkit to make them relevant to niche markets, at least from a technology point of view. Indeed, the convergence of media, fixed and mobile communications is making it possible for mobile operators to keep growing through customized value propositions targeting different customer segments. Mobile content is witnessing exponential growth and technology innovations, such as IMS (IP Multimedia System), promise superior and unprecedented user experiences centered around convergence. These game- changing technology developments are disruptive enough to not only bring niches within “business-case-proof” reach of mobile operators, but also to re-invent the mass market game and effectively turn it into a long tail of niches and segments, each with their own needs and wants and each with their own willingness to pay.
This is nothing short of a revolution in the mobile communications space and could mean a vast blue ocean of opportunities for players able to take advantage of them and augers well for the industry as a whole. Indeed, mobile operators stand to reap the benefits of price discrimination, service bundling and content differentiation, and the move away from cut-throat price competition that is characteristic of a mature or declining industry.
To make the most of this technology-driven opportunity and durably rejuvenate their domestic markets, regional mobile operators must first develop strategies aimed to firmly and unequivocally embrace convergence and its ‘customer first’ corollary. Their strategic intent should be to further their customer intimacy and understanding, to leverage the new technology-driven capabilities of convergence to come up with pertinent and multi-platform offerings that customers are willing to pay for. They should aim to provide integrated, end-to-end solutions that grow their shares of the customer wallet and reduce churn by increasing switching costs to customers. Next and foremost, regional mobile operators need to embark in major organization restructurings, moving away from product-centric organization and towards customer-centric structures. They should organize around well-defined customer segments while preserving any scale or scope advantages they might be deriving from their legacy structures.
A notable example of such restructuring is the Saudi Telecom Company (STC), who was among the first industry heavyweights to embark in a major structural transformation sparked by its FORWARD corporate strategy. At the heart of the FORWARD strategy lies the customer, whether an individual, a small business or a large corporation. To execute its ambitious corporate strategy, STC adopted a customer-centric structure that centered around four business units: personal, home, enterprise and wholesale, each of which is focused on a broad segment of the market and has profit and loss responsibility. These market-facing units are all supported by horizontal functions such as network and shared services. Concurrently, and to support the structural transformation and durably instilled in the minds of customers and employees alike, STC conducted a major re-branding exercise that aimed at affirming its new customer-centric direction and signaling to all stake-holders the completion of its 10-year long transformation from a public ministry of the Saudi government to an agile, market-oriented telecom heavyweight.
A corporate lifestyle choice
But customer-centricity does not stop at level one of a mobile operator’s organization structure. On the contrary, it can go far into levels two, three and beyond. Functions such as marketing, sales and customer care can be entirely structured around customer segments with product teams virtually absent. Customer-centricity can also turn into a corporate “lifestyle” as far as organization structure is concerned, with customer-centric inter-BU processes and one-stop-shop windows between downstream and upstream units.
In sum, customer-centricity clearly comes in different shades and shapes and the key organizational question for any mobile operator CEO should be: How customer-centric does my structure need to be? To answer this question, mobile operators need to understand the markets they operate in, including the mass and niche components. They also need to understand their capabilities, existing and envisioned. In the former, they should have a very good understanding of market segmentation and assess the appetite of each segment for service and product customization. In the latter, they should assess their ability to offer integrated solutions and accurately address the customization needs of their target segments. In both, they should strike the right balance between supply and demand and come up with an organizational structure that is tailored with just the right dose of a customer-centricity and realism to implement it.
Hilal halaoui is a principal and
ADEL BELCAID an associate at Booz & Company