Q&A: Maplewave's Leaders Reflect on 2020 and What's to Come in 2021

Last week, we sat down with some of Maplewave’s leaders to discuss the impact of the pandemic on the telco industry and Maplewave’s operations. Check out our Q&A with Adam Baggs (CEO), Grant Carstensen (SVP Product and Solutions) and Will Gibson (VP Sales & Marketing) to discover what the future has in store for telco retailers and how they can evolve their omnichannel strategy.

Question #1: How did COVID-19 impact Maplewave’s operations, mindset, and decision-making process? And how did Maplewave handle uncertainty in the telco market?

AB: When COVID first hit, the first thing Maplewave had to do was make sure that we were stable. We had to make sure our productivity, given disruptions, was as high or higher than pre-COVID, and that our operational cash and products were strong and stable.

We also went through what the rest of the world went through too - transitioning to working from home, and limiting business travel. We had to learn how to sell and service our customers without being onsite, how to deploy remotely, and how to engage with our partners remotely. Thankfully, we were well-prepared, so the operational transition wasn't overly difficult.

Our mindset going forward is quite simply put - aggressive. The world is littered with companies that tried to make entrenchment strategies when the economy struggled, or their industry experienced massive change. For example, when the internet first arrived, firms who tried to withstand those changes are no longer around. So, our mindset was to be aggressive. We want to understand what’s changing and position ourselves as a partner that can bring change for our customers and partners. And most importantly, we want to make sure our people are confident in our direction and have a strong foundation and the confidence to perform their best.

Regarding our decision-making process, we leaned on each other's strengths as a leadership team. One of our proudest moments is how quickly we came together to take care of the most important things - our people and our customers. We simplified our decision-making process across the company so we could work rapidly.

And finally, we recognized the opportunity in this massive change. We have a market that is shifting very quickly to a strategy that we already know well, which is our Transact Anywhere omnichannel approach. Our channel strategy work (that we knew was coming), the shifts in behaviors from consumers, the need for products and services to help telcos serve their customers, all presented an opportunity for us.

So to sum up, by adopting an aggressive mindset, we can view challenging situations as opportunities for growth, which will put us in a position for success.

Question #2: Why is it so important for telcos (or any business for that matter) to invest right now even though the future is uncertain?

AB: Because if they don't, they're going to die. Telecom consumers’ behaviors are changing, and many  telcos are already struggling to serve their customers’ needs. This will only get worse with a lack of omnichannel solutions. Telcos must invest if if they hope to be anything more than a dumb pipe for those end-consumers.

Question #3: What are some of the best solutions you’ve seen telcos/retailers implement during or as a result of the pandemic?

AB: For telcos that are in cash-dependent, prepaid-heavy markets, their lifeline is making sure customers can top-up and make payments. With countries being shut down, that left quite a void for some carriers. There was a particular telco in this type of market who came up with a very simple solution to enable transactions right out of the gate.

This telco put their mobile transaction tool on a bus. They put baskets hanging outside the window and they drove that bus to communities to collect payments. Additionally, they towed a kiosk on a trailer and made sure it was powered so people could make payments. Thirdly, they created “WhatsApp stores” for their customers. They posted these WhatsApp numbers and chats so they could interact with their customers from home. So, while they weren't fully digitized, they were very quick to answer a problem that was not foreseen.

WG: I liked the solution that Apple provided in their retail stores for customer control and queuing. With a limited amount of customers being able to come into the store any one time, and Apple stores being usually packed, they had to segment very quickly what customers are coming in for. To do so, they used a very effective and simple SMS-based system.

They had a couple of greeters out front of the store with a tablet capturing customer's details. From there, they were able to put customers in a queue depending on the journey, and give them an estimated wait time. Then, customers could go wait elsewhere until they received an SMS letting them know it was time to come back. That was a fantastic solution that was really safe and well-executed.

GC: I actually had a good experience in a telco myself. I moved my wife over from one carrier to another. I was able to do this online and then went to pick up the device and sign all the paperwork (electronically). I had an appointment, they served me. It was on time and quick, and from a COVID perspective, it worked well for what I needed.

Question #4: How is Maplewave preparing for 2021?

AB: We’re preparing by investing in the right areas of our company. We’re making sure we're leveraging our tools as best as we can so our people can be as productive as possible. We’re continuing to onboard and support our staff and teams in virtual environments so we can maintain and build connections.

We've really looked at speeding up development on our digital transaction solutions, and we’re already well down the road with those products. Now that COVID has increased the need for those products, were increasing investment in those areas. We’re also making sure that all our customers, prospects and partners understand how we can support them through channel strategy development. Everyone is working on their channel strategies right now, and we want people to know that we are the team to help them.

GC: The long and short answer is investing. Without a doubt, COVID has slowed certain activities in the market in terms of retail. Traffic is down, revenues are down, but there's going to be a glut of activity as life resumes to normal. And there's going to be an even greater need for great customer experiences because now the competition is fiercer, and the stakes are higher.

So, it’s important to make sure that Maplewave’s product is where it needs to be, both from a feature and evolution set. There will be greater demand for self-service and digital channels, as well as an omnichannel experience to make these channels work together. For 2021, we’re making sure our platform is mature and ready for that reawakening, along with delivering our ongoing retail and digital projects.

Question #5: How can telcos evolve their omnichannel strategies in a low contact environment?

WG: First, telcos need to really understand the depth of omnichannel. Telcos can improve in many ways, and I don't think they realize that there are different paths through this. I think everybody's trying to search for one silver bullet, so they can say, “Oh, we're mature omnichannel”. But the silver bullet doesn't exist.

There are processes and integrations that telcos can implement to enable things like curbside-pickup, that don't require a big investment or systems. Between warehousing, courier, and retail management system partners (that could deliver more complex journeys), telcos can implement more journeys to achieve greater omnichannel capabilities. Then there are the bigger omnichannel ticket items that  would require telcos to look at their solutions. How well does their infrastructure work together? Do they need a more streamlined platform approach to integrate systems and make omnichannel successful?

In summary, telcos need to push towards omnichannel by identifying it as something that can be solved, giving it ownership in the organization, and then seeking out the right experts to help guide them.

GC: I think reducing vendor count and taking a platform approach simplifies the technical job of bringing channels together in an omnichannel strategy. Having too many vendors and systems in play makes projects big and slow. Pivoting and execution are difficult if this is a tri- or quad-party project.

Taking a platform approach has big gains, and not just in terms of total cost. If you genuinely have a platform that products sit on, you have common integrations and shared IT and infrastructure costs. You can quickly execute, adapt, and change because you have a much simpler project to work with.

Additionally, telcos need to look at who their vendors are. Are they already partners? Do they work well together? That's important too. Partners that have some history together as part of your collective IT stack will serve you better than separate entities.

Question #6: What do you see happening in the telco industry in the next 2-3 years?

GC: This depends on the market. In more mature markets, you'll see more investment in self-service channels, and overall channel strategies will be updated and reviewed.

In less mature markets where prepaid revenues are down and cash collection is hard, I think you're going to see a bigger push to postpaid models. This is because telcos will be trying to get people on recurring payment plans and postpaid style plans to make payments easier.

I also think you're going to see ESIM start to come out of the 1%. I don't think it's going to have mass adoption, but it’s going to start showing up in mid-level Android phones, not just the high-end ones anymore.

WG: I think 5G is going to be a big changer in the next 2-3 years because the networks will want to monetize that investment quickly. I also think consumers will be up for more of a subscription service for 5G because it’s going to power so much more. Consumer sentiment will turn to, “I get why I need to pay $75 or $100 a month for this, because not only is it powering my mobility with my device, but it's powering all of these other things that I have in and around my house and my life.”

This is going to cause a big expansion in product sets for telcos. Some will try to monetize those digital services or try to offer services like their own Spotify or WhatsApp. Telcos will also start to move toward gadgets and leverage those gadgets onto your post-paid plan to increase that recurring revenue. For example, if a customer is interested in tracking tags for their three dogs, and each tag costs £40, the telco might give the tags for free but charge £3 a month on their plan. And the customer will be okay with that as they value the safety of that product if their dogs get out of the yard.  

Lastly, I think we will see a little bit of a retail renaissance for telecom in the next 2-5 years because consumers will want to look at these 5G products. They'll want to try these products in a retail environment, learn how they work, and they'll want to add them to their basket and their plan.

AB: The digital-only carrier space is going to see a lot of growth. Because barriers to entry are lower there, the cost base you once had to launch a telco is no longer there - you just need to make sure that you have the right digital tools backing you.

I see growth in that space, but I think that growth will be in some ways limited to certain types of consumers, the same way you see MVNOs targeting certain demographics today. There's also certain markets and demographics that will absolutely want to take advantage of 5G from an investment standpoint; they're going to be looking to monetize that as best and as fast as they can.

Lastly, and this is likely somewhat controversial, but I think there's going to be MNOs that decide that they're not interested in playing in the consumer space at all. They're interested in being a pipe and a network operator and selling their services to MVNOs.

It wouldn’t surprise me if we woke up one day and some big-name MNOs go, “you know what, we spend millions of dollars trying to get to the consumers. Why don't we just let that happen through the MVNOs? Why don't we let that happen through our third-party retailers? Why don't we just provide a service and strip it down and make even more money?” There are a few different ways that it could go, but whichever way it goes, somebody somewhere must interact with the consumer. Somebody somewhere must be able to manage those transactions and be able to track all of that and make sure the process is smooth - and that's where we come in.

Interested in talking more about topics in this Q&A? Connect with Adam Baggs, Grant Carstensen, and Will Gibson on LinkedIn to gain more insights about telco digital transformation and omnichannel strategies.

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