Aurora Magazine

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Can Pakistani Telecoms Achieve Their Uber Moment?

Published in Nov-Dec 2022

Are the telecoms adapting to the demands of a new generation? Yasmin Malik poses the question.

A little over two years ago, three Harvard academics argued in their article in the Harvard Business Review (HBR) that Uber, despite an overwhelming perception to the contrary, is not actually a ‘disrupter’. They argued that the company was being painted with too broad a brush, simply because it had “shaken up” an industry.

If we go back to the roots of the term ‘Disruptive Innovation’ which took hold in 1995, and was presented as a theory to the business world by the lead author (Clayton M. Christensen) of the aforementioned HBR article, a true disrupter starts from two footholds. Namely, low-end opportunities or new-market footholds. Christensen and company argue firmly that Uber started from neither.

Despite the powerful theoretical argument for it being a ‘misfit’, it has been simply astonishing how Uber has managed to be the poster child for Disruptive Innovation. So much so, that the predominant term, even in the telecommunications industry this year, has been for telecom operators to become ‘uberised’.

But can there be an ‘Uber moment’ (a phrase often attributed to former Barclays CEO, Antony Jenkins) for telecom operators? Do they not stand to be overtaken by more advanced technology, cloudbased and demand-led platforms that have already brought together voice, messaging, data, payments, media and delivery?

Although telecom operators have tried to mitigate the declining ARPU (average revenue per user) in established markets by branching out into developing markets for many years and reaping the benefits, they have not been able to master one key ingredient that the likes of Uber and Airbnb use as practically their foundation stone; namely, customer trust.

With an eagle eye on growth and profitability only, many telecom operators globally have, unfortunately, estranged their customers. This is true for the telecom market in Pakistan as well, which once used to be a highly dynamic market, but now exhibits many of the woes of the developed telecom markets.

I can list the following parts of the ‘trust equation’ and confidently say that they apply to all global telecom markets, including our own. Broken customer engagement processes, bad QoS, low responsiveness to complaints and lacklustre customer experience. To reiterate our aforementioned ‘Uber moment’, the trust equation for both Uber and Airbnb is so well established, that there is no need for ‘disintermediation’.

However, the journey to the Uber moment for telecoms is not just about improving customer service or engagement. A deeper look into the business models that drive telecoms and demand-led entities like Uber is necessary. Whilst telcos are in the growth and profitability stage, it is adequate for them to follow a classical business model with a relatively linear value chain, as defined by Michael Porter in 1985. Despite the 30-plus years that have passed since, this input/output or pipeline business model still generates an impressive end-to-end customer experience control.

However, Uber and Airbnb employ a non-linear business model that can give unprecedented growth whilst the companies themselves take advantage of under-utilised assets of individuals, such as homes, flats or cars. Couple that with a cloud-based, demand-led, digital technology platform, and you have what academics love to call a ‘platform business’. Although this model does not guarantee end-to-end customer experience control, they are liege lords of the quality and experience of network and smartphone connectivity. Compare this with the asset-heavy, infrastructure-and-license-bound, spectrum-focused and capitalintensive model of the typical telecom operator.

Nevertheless, it is possible for classical/traditional linear businesses, like telecoms, to copy some aspects of the digital strategy of the platform businesses whilst still retaining control of their value chain. Many telecom vendors already offer telco-cloud solutions, which are allowing telecoms to move towards a virtualisation model. In addition, the movement towards AI-based telecom solutions has the promise to provide a more proactive customer experience.

Having emphasised the importance of digital technology, it is imperative not to lose sight of the other driver for telecoms; namely the brand. Whilst there are numerous definitions of what a brand is, I feel the most relevant one is that it is “a promise to stakeholders” (source: Teodesk) and should embody “far more than a collection of products and services offered” by the telecom. Crucially, today’s definition of a telecom brand should include the fact that the brand needs to “speak to its current customers” but also “adapt to what new generations of users want to see.”

In our part of the world, this crossover into what “new generations want to see” was best executed by Telenor when it introduced Easypaisa in 2009 as a means to move away from the voice-driven “bit-pipe” model to a “smart-pipe” one, incorporating new technologies based on data and digital payments. It was a visionary step at the time and Telenor along with Tameer Bank must be credited for laying the foundations of a more digitallyenabled telecom brand in Pakistan.

Much has changed in the last 13 years with Easypaisa now overtaken by rival JazzCash in terms of active users and app features as well as increasing competition in the digital payments/wallets space by at least a dozen fintechs. Not surprisingly, the fintechs are far more attuned to what “the new generations want to see” and have been able to meet and, in some cases, surpass their customers’ expectations, via their feature-rich, demandled, platform-based mobile app technology. Fintech branding, too, has been wholly digital thereby directly and smartly appealing to the fintech target audience.

Telecom branding itself, in general, has gone from outstanding in the early days of its history in Pakistan to barely mediocre in its current state. Long gone are the days when the audience was enchanted by the sophisticated Jazz girl. Somehow, the telecoms and advertising agencies alike have not accepted the fact that Esra Bilgiç or Nargis Fakhri or some gregarious song-and-dance routines have miserably failed at bringing back the glory days.

There are, of course, exceptions. Ufone’s tongue-in-cheek, high-recall ads featuring Faisal Qureshi and Adeel Hashmi, effortlessly cut across all socioeconomic classes to become cultural reference points since their launch in 2010. Take that, Nargis Fakhri.

Similarly, in a world reeling from Covid-19, Easypaisa Raahi struck all the right chords whilst recounting Umair Jaswal’s motorcycle journey through Pakistan. Recently, Telenor stood out again with its #AchaiKaTrend campaign with the message resonating far beyond Ramzan.

Perhaps in a move to loop back to its data-focused digital strategy of 2009, Telenor recently published a report titled Telenor Asia: Digital Lives Decoded emphasising the importance of the “always-on” connectivity desired by customers. In Pakistan, where mobile usage per user is estimated to be over five hours daily, the report found that 74% of respondents valued greater connectivity to friends and family whilst 84% felt it greatly improved the way they worked. E-learning for Pakistanis stood at an impressive 86%, whilst access to health services is equally impressive at 89%. One of the most significant gains has been access to financial inclusion in Pakistan at 90%.

It cannot be denied, therefore, that telecoms possess the greatest building block to connect people, namely, the mobile phone. However, to create an ‘Uber moment’ for these people, they must learn to start listening to them..

Yasmin Malik is Senior Partner & Consultant at Global Management Consultants, Dubai.