It’s Not About the Money

Here’s a small, personal story to end the year on. My phone contract came up for renewal recently, and about time too. Much as I love my HTC Desire, it had been dropped once too often, and was starting to behave in strange ways. I knew what phone I wanted next – the Samsung Galaxy S II. I have been hearing great reports about it, and I also recalled the days many years ago when I was working as a staff writer on What Video & TV magazine (RIP), when Samsung first entered the UK with a range of TVs and Nicam stereo video recorders that were easily as good as anything Sony where churning out, at about half the price. I gather the same is true today, though Samsung has built its brand to the point where it can charge a bit more for its gear.

Knowing what phone you want is half the battle, but only half, and so I entered the wonderful world of Tariffland, trying to work out which operator was offering me the best deal, whether £31 a month with a free handset was cheaper than £26 a month and £100 up front over 24 months, all that kind of stuff.

And to no-one’s great surprise, it was all pretty much of a muchness. Until I spoke to Orange. I share this with you, not because I think Orange are especially great, only to illustrate my point. Orange’s tariff was almost identical to the one the incumbent operator – 3 – was offering me, but with the added bonus of Orange Swapables. When you start spending a certain amount each month with Orange, you get two of these thrown in. They include things like games, books, and access to The Times on your mobile. But I was sold on the idea from the moment they mentioned Sky Sports. That’s Sky Sports 1, 2, 3 and 4 on your phone, plus ESPN.

This, to me, sounded too good to be true, so I grilled the guy in the call centre, who assured me that this wasn’t some ‘Best Of’ package, but the same programmes you get on your Sky box at home, on your phone.

Now I know that if you take all the Sky channels, you can get that anyway, but in our house, we canned our subscription to the Sports channels a couple of years ago when we calculated that the three football matches I had managed to watch in the past season had cost us around £120 each. That’s the downside of sharing a house with three women I guess…

So here were Orange offering me the chance to share a room with my wife and kids, but to tune in to Spurs v Chelsea or Liverpool v Man U while the rest of the family were watching another programme about bringing unruly kids to order or decorating a room in 60 minutes. I was sold.

My phone arrives today, and I am still waiting for the catch. I may have found it in the bit on the Swapables microsite that says that it will work anywhere where there is an Orange 3G signal. So maybe you can’t use it at home over the more stable wi-fi connection, I don’t know. This would be no great surprise. If I try to connect to the 3 mobile portal via my wi-fi network, I get an error message inviting me to try again via 3G; a strangely blinkered approach from a network that I would argue is among the more innovative out there.

Whatever, the idea of being able to get my football fix on the back of the bus, the train, or anywhere else where I can pull in a half-decent signal was just too good a deal for me to refuse. So I thought that when I called 3 to get my PAC code, it would be a straightforward affair. “They offer something you don’t, therefore I am going with them, so long and thanks for all the good times” was how I saw it going. In fact, it took me around 15 minutes to convince the guy on the other end of the phone that there really was nothing he could do to keep my business, until, finally, he accepted it.

What lessons can we learn from this experience? There are two, I believe. Firstly, that there is very little loyalty to your mobile operator. I have been with 3 for around six years, and have had no real issues with them, but, rightly or wrongly, I still saw their service as a commodity, and didn’t think twice about jumping ship when a better offer came along.

But before anyone mentions the words “dump pipe” the second point is that it’s really not about the tariffs any more. Those are table stakes. It’s about the other stuff. Orange got my business because of the Sky Sports bundle, all other things being more or less equal. In the same way that, against my better judgement, my daughter woke up on her birthday a couple of days ago to a shiny new BlackBerry, so she could join in the BBM fun her mates are all having.

The fact is, in a world where everyone offers more or less the same tariffs, and everyone offers more or less the same phones, for a mobile operator, the only two areas where you can differentiate your offering are in the added value services that hook new customers in the first place, and then the quality of service and customer care you provide once you’ve got them. Something for operators to ponder over the holiday period perhaps.

From all of the Mobile Marketing team, a very Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year.


David Murphy