When Your Heroes Disappoint – A Cautionary Tale for a Telco Giant

We all have heroes and inspirations. Ever met one of them in person? Did they disappoint?

There are various (often hilarious) stories across the internet of raving fans meeting their heroes for the first time - and being utterly devastated. Maybe they walked straight by and ignored the request for an autograph or a selfie – or maybe they were just scruffy and rude.

My hero was Vodafone...at least until this year, when they let me down.

My Hero

Vodafone. The Big Red. One of the biggest telecom companies in the world; founded in the UK with operations in over 48 countries worldwide. And for 10 years starting the mid-2000s, Vodafone was my life. They helped me advance my career in such a way that I could never ever contemplate using a competitor.

Vodafone enabled me to grow from a retailer with a plan and a car, covering 20-30 stores in the North of England, to becoming an international consultant visiting 60+ countries in a four-year stint as a Retail Advisor. I even helped build 3,500 mono-branded retail stores in Russia from a base of 200 by following the Vodafone model of “how to do things”. I gave seminars in Azerbaijan, Malaysia, and Kenya, and helped a mobile network in Chile re-imagine its channel strategy, taking almost a dozen trips there over the space of a year.

Since I reluctantly left Vodafone (for another brand I was a big fanboy of, no less!), I continued to stay fiercely loyal. I sought out Vodafone partner networks in other countries. I became a shareholder. I stayed in touch with my Vodafone colleagues. And when I established my business in the UK in 2016, of course the only network operator I would consider was Vodafone.

The Let Down

Now this isn’t the first time Vodafone’s disappointed me, but they’ve normally fixed the issues I’ve had in the past. This time, the situation is terminal – and it’s a cautionary tale of an industry that has cut costs to grow at the expense of the customer experience.

Here’s what happened. I went to my local Vodafone flagship store to upgrade my iPhone and add a new iPad line.  

Now, how long would this take in your store?

30 minutes? I would hope, that seems reasonable.

Less than that? Then you are amazing, and I take my hat off to you.

This transaction? 2 hours 10 minutes. Yes, that’s right. 130 minutes. 7,800 seconds. However, that’s not the worst part.  

I paid the deposit and was promised the items would be delivered to the store within two weeks. What did I receive three weeks later? NOTHING.  

It was a short path from “fanboy” to disillusionment. Here’s what happened.

What Went Wrong?

1) Poor retail store standards and wait times

The store I visited was a flagship that was over 200 square metres - with an eye watering rent per annum. On the surface, it looked like just any other Vodafone store from around Europe, but upon closer inspection, andI thought I’d gone back to 2006. No sound. Very few live devices. Those that did had HUGE ugly claw-like mounts that would not enable movement (sorry, Samsung Galaxy Fold). Plastic dummy devices were everywhere.

The store itself was busy, but everyone was sitting down and seemingly pre-occupied. One person (seemed to be the manager) was operating a manual FIFO system to queue people, except the podium he was using wasn’t signed, so at least two customer groups were seated before me despite coming in well after I did. No-one approached me as I browsed the boring displays. After I briefly explained what I wanted, I was seated at an empty table – alone for 20 minutes.

The Solution:

Vodafone needs to re-imagine their brand and their approach to products, displays, and how they create drama. Their store design is woefully out of date and doesn’t allow the products to shine. During my 2+ hour visit, I didn’t see a single shopper that had any interest in browsing the displays (act like a post office, be a post office?).

Vodafone should invest in a tablet-based queueing solution. This would let them put customers into different queues depending on their reason for visiting. These solutions make transaction times plummet and conversation rates soar. By not fixing someone to a seat when they are in a queue, you encourage them to find out about new things. I could have easily also walked out with the new Vodafone Watch for children if I’d seen it whilst in the queue!

2) Antiquated store systems resulting in a fragmented, painfully long experience

When I was finally served, I was seated at a desk where the advisor operated a fixed terminal on the other side. I couldn’t see the screen. When I did peek, I saw a very old POS solution, and a list of tariffs that was so long, the advisor literally had to touch her nose to the screen to find the one she wanted to select.  

I was given a handwritten scrap of paper with some options for the length of tariff and device, and what that would cost per month. No glossy literature, or a side-by-side comparison of tariffs on a screen so I could make my choice. A handwritten piece of A4 paper. Handwritten!

At each twist and turn, the advisor would leave the desk to flit between her terminal and another computer at the back of the store. I have no idea what this “super terminal” could do that her PC could not?

I was also asked to email a “purchase order” to the store as I was a business customer. She took 10 minutes to WRITE DOWN the information I needed to type into an email and send from my phone. I also had to use my internet bank’s web portal to send a fully addressed statement to the store – despite me being a customer of 16 years who has never missed a payment!

As I mentioned earlier, it was 130 minutes before I was able to leave the store. It was appalling.

The Solution:

Vodafone desperately needs to re-imagine their POS and implement a single-front-end solution that is customer facing and mobile. Other operators that use an integrated mobile solution can quickly call up a list of available tariffs and physically show customers the available devices. It’s even possible to compare two phones side-by-side, including pricing. This process should take no more than 10-15 minutes. Vodafone used a scrap of paper and took almost an hour!

For small business customers, proofs can easily happen offline and out of store. I had every credit card under the sun to prove who I was, including a business credit card and my driving licence. Why did I need to send a formal purchase order? Vodafone’s system should be able to generate the document for the customer to sign, then prepare the invoice.  

Forcing staff to use archaic systems and nonsensical processes makes their lives very difficult, and this poor experience extends to their customers – it’s time to digitally transform!

3) Broken automated systems which cancelled my order after one “contact attempt”

Here’s where things get worse. My phone order was automatically cancelled by Vodafone’s system.

Apparently, Vodafone tried to contact me two days after they took the initial order. I didn’t reply because I never got the message. No email, text message, or phone call.

And because they didn’t hear from me, they CANCELLED THE ORDER. This was all unbeknownst to me, as again, there were no notifications (and to this day, I don’t know what they were trying to contact me about).  

Hang on a minute, shouldn’t they have tried a little harder to contact me before cancelling part of my order? I should say so! ONE ATTEMPT.?  

The Solution:

Again, this comes back to customer journey analysis and system modification. Vodafone needs to implement a strict set of rules that govern how many times the system or a person tries to contact a customer before an action is taken.  

It’s also imperative that the customer’s preferred contact method is recorded in the CRM, as this system is a core component in the orchestration of such tasks.  

Commission rules must also incentivize activities beyond transactions, such as order fulfilment. Businesses who get these processes right often win handsomely in their markets.


4) No order monitoring by the store or an external fulfilment team

My cancelled order revealed another pain point – order monitoring. How this gets carried out differs from telco to telco; they either have processes within the store to follow up, or use a dedicated outsourced team to progress un-fulfilled orders from A to B.  

In this case, my store had no idea that my phone order had been autocancelled by the system, nor did they have the foresight to contact all affected customers about their missed delivery. These are basic systems that all stores should have as part of their daily routine.  

Three weeks had passed since my initial visit, and I still didn’t have my phone. I emailed the advisor who had helped me to ask for a follow up. Crickets. When I went to the store the next day, her response was, “oh, sorry I didn’t reply, we’ve been busy”. This roughly translates to, “we don’t get commission for fixing problems, so we chose to ignore you so we could serve new customers to maximise our earnings”.  

The Solution:

Vodafone must review their entire order management solution for a wide range of customer journeys. This includes mapping out what should happen in each instance and when, who is responsible, and when the “pass” of responsibility happens (usually from system to manual action by a human).

Then, they can revisit their store operating procedures based on the above and introduce actions that the store must take with delayed or incomplete orders. Holding back commissions from unfinished orders will also go a long way.

5) Poor communication/resolution around lost stock delays  

If you can believe it, I also didn’t receive my iPad. It was supposed to be delivered two days after I ordered it, but some items were lost in the supply chain and the store only received part of their order. This can happen, and the store did tell me there was an investigation taking place. It didn’t help me get my iPad any sooner though.  

Why leave the customers short because of a system issue like that? Worse, why not inform the customer and let them know of a short delay with their item, and when the expected resolution is going to be?

The Solution:

Vodafone needs a modern retail management solution that is fully integrated with their supply chain. This allows disputes to be ring-fenced, so the missing stock can be re-delivered quickly, and IMEIs that have already been assigned can be replaced with new ones while the missing stock is found.  

Manual in-store processes should automatically trigger customer calls in the case of a delivery failure. This is a common courtesy and should not be left to a system to manage.

6) No ownership from franchise staff  

This was the final nail in the coffin for me. Three weeks after my original visit, I still didn’t have my order, and I’d received no communications or updates. I head back to the store for another long wait. It was during this visit that I learned from the store staff revealed that this flagship store had been converted into franchised location, which gives an extra layer of context for what’s been happening.

As I stared at the wall once again, my advisor tried to work out my case with the ‘manager’.

First, I’m told that it might have been my fault that the order was cancelled, as I didn’t respond to “them (Vodafone)”. And no, it couldn’t be the store’s fault for the missing iPad as again this was “Vodafone’s fault”.  

I was staggered. They literally had no suggestion as to what to do. It’s clear that NPS is not part of their commission structure (oh, I got that SMS and gave a few zero ratings alright – did it make a difference?).

The actual SHRUGS as they just continually blamed Vodafone yet offered no solution as to how to move forward. How was I going to get my new phone, upgrade, or my iPad? They even told me that they couldn’t process a refund and I had to call customer service to do that (I haven’t yet, so they still have almost £100 from me in terms of an un-refunded deposit).

The Solution:

Franchising telco stores takes a lot of thought. Flagship stores are rarely given to a franchisee, as the volume of service traffic and the volume of sales means they need to be carefully managed to control the overall customer experience. These stores are often more costly to run and to refit, and often more money is spent from the marketing budget to make them real centres of excellence that provide an incredible amount of “theatre” for the brand.  

Therefore, I was surprised at Vodafone’s decision to franchise this store. I think my experience clearly shows this decision was a mistake. Read more about my thoughts on franchising in my blog, To Franchise or to Own? A Telco Conundrum.

Having a balance between front- and back-of-house system access is a classic push/pull tale for many telcos. Often, stores are handcuffed from doing certain transactions, like recalling orders, or processing refunds, which harms the customer experience. And while contact centres often have greater control, they can be costly to operate.

Based on my experience, I believe Vodafone’s balance is out of synch, and a thorough customer journey mapping exercise should be conducted to improve the overall customer experience.

How It Ended

After I was unable to get any help from Vodafone, I walked right to the Apple store. I bought an iPad and a new device right then and there, effectively de-coupling myself from the 2-year upgrade cycle that is prevalent in many countries all over the world.

Unfortunately, my Vodafone experience is not uncommon, and issues like these happen every week at telco stores around the world. But just because they’re common doesn’t mean we have to accept them.  

Franchising can save money but leaves your brand experience to chance. We can overcome this with good planning and by implementing common POS systems and standards.

Legacy systems are full of swivels that drive long transaction times. By upgrading to an omnichannel platform, customers will get a fast, modern experience.  

With high-value stock, the “just in time” supply chain is necessary but can result in outages when things go wrong. We must build redundancy into our systems, along with good communication, to manage expectations.

With some smart changes to Vodafone’s retail experience, my story could have been so much different. Hopefully one day, it will be.

About The Author  

Will Gibson is Maplewave’s VP of Sales and Marketing. He is an award-winning consultant with over 25 years of retail and telecom experience in over 60 countries. Will intimately understands current trends and pressures and how to execute a modern telecom experience. Will brings a willingness to help to everyone understand what Maplewave can do to improve their customer experience - anywhere, at anytime.

Offering insight and concrete solutions for telcos looking to take their business to the next level.

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