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Confuse the Customer? It's Not Hard to Do

The telecommunications revolution seems to be confusing a lot of people, admitted several executives at a WSA panel. Though the industry may be exciting and dynamic to people directly involved in its momentum, many civilians are increasingly less than enchanted with its promise.

And perhaps the people who can least stand to be confused, panelists all agreed, are their own customers.

The technology business is so in flux, in fact, that black humor is even sneaking into their own executive lexicon. According to Jan Dehesh, a vice president of business development at Qualcomm, the initials for chief information officer really stand for "career is over."

The challenge facing executives these days is, of course, is how to put communications back into "telecommunications," particularly vis-a-vis their own customers.

Despite the panel’s impressive-sounding title, "The Future of Convergence," speakers rushed to make the observation that customers don't care about convergence. That is to say, they don't care about it in so many words.

"Customers don’t say, ‘Gee, I want convergence,’" stated Nancy Gofus, an executive vice president at XO in charge of marketing and customer care. What customers do say about the industry, she said, is that they don't like it. "Why are the bills so hard to understand?" is a typical question, she pointed out.

"They are very angry with this industry," Gofus warned. "They find it hard to do business with this industry. They don’t like it when we talk in technical language, using words like ‘convergence,’" when what’s meant is the integration of voice, data, and wireless.

Customers aren’t necessarily very articulate, either, about voicing what they do want. "That’s one of the ‘great secrets’ of marketing," Gofus joked. "The secret is, ‘Really listen to the customer.’ But sometimes the customer is clueless.

"Sometimes, they don’t understand the possibilities well enough to even tell you what they want. They think in the same boxes that we think: It’s just always been a certain way, and they have a hard time envisioning what else is out there."

However, small- and medium-size business customers let her know that the reality of convergence is absolutely essential to their jobs. They cannot run their companies without communications solutions, she said. And they broaden the word telecommunications to mean not just a dial tone; Internet access is also a vital part of the mix. Fast access, she added, is what levels the playing field for small-and medium-size companies in relation to their larger brethren. So, fast, well-run services are what give any company an edge in the market, or not.

"The most painful thing" Gofus does in her position, she told the audience, is to try to coordinate so many types of suppliers and technologies and services. There’s a dichotomy, for example, between recognizing technology as essential ("with a much broader definition of what’s essential"), along with the many, apparently Byzantine structures for billing and for clarifying services and functions.

A further complication for the industry, added panelist Jill Wagner, a vice president of Verizon Long Distance, is to understand and apply — and then, ideally, translate for customers — the various types of legislation cropping up related to telecommunications.

What’s next

For the future, Gofus believes that instant messenger will find its way into business applications for the next generations of customers. It is her own personal observation that teenagers and children already prefer instant messenger to picking up the telephone, and they presumably will carry that habit into adulthood.

When one member of the audience wondered whether all types of uses — pager, cell phone, PDA — would converge on one single handheld device, most panelists thought not. Dehesh, of Qualcomm, suggested that two devices, not one, would become the norm. "The devices will be smaller," she allowed.

And the notion of checking e-mail via cell phone does not appear to be a tremendous boon for efficiency, at least according to Gofus. She gets 150 e-mails a day, she reckoned; and many of those come with multiple attachments in tow.

"How the heck am I going to read those on a little screen?" she cried with mock despair — in the spirit of any good customer besieged by the wonders of modern technology.

By Martha Lagace
HBS Working Knowledge
Copyright 2001. President and Fellows of Harvard College

El retorno de la inversión en entrenamiento ejecutivo de equipos gerenciales es exponencial y en minutos. Norman Vincent Peale.
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