Over the years, I have grown increasingly sceptical about the ability of most Telcos to operate effectively outside of their traditional comfort zone. So many times, they have declared great ambitions to move ‘up the value stack’ from the plumbing layer to deliver business-level applications and services, but few have actually pulled this off in any meaningful way.
The biggest impediment, particularly in the SMB space, is usually lack of empathy and understanding. As a small business owner myself, I sometimes cringe when I hear executives and product managers explain in briefings what’s supposedly important to people like me. It’s a bit like listening to someone explaining how to play the violin, then realising that they have never drawn a bow across the strings in their life, or even talked to a violinist. They know the words, they just have no real feel for what they are talking about. This frequently results in services that might look good in theory, but miss the mark when it comes to the detail of practical implementation.
The other problem is one of credibility against the backdrop of service and support shortfalls for which the Telco industry is infamous. Am I really going to buy a full suite of business critical solutions from a service provider who is demonstrably incapable of providing a pain-free basic communications service? If the provider can’t keep track of what we buy, then provision it properly, bill us accurately and fix problems quickly without giving us the run-around, then the last thing we need is to become dependent on it for our email, collaboration environment and internet security.
Against this background, Tony Lock and I were pleasantly surprised by a recent briefing we received from Virgin Media Business (VMB) on its SMB portfolio and its associated go-to-market activity in the UK. Andrew Gibson, Senior Propositions Manager, came across as genuinely understanding the needs of smaller businesses in VMB’s target market of organisations with 1-99 employees – a segment that we research in depth at Freeform Dynamics, and are implicitly a part of ourselves as alluded to above.
If I’m honest, beyond some of the impressive connection speeds, much of what we heard wasn’t particularly unique compared to stories from other providers. The difference emerged when we cross-examined Gibson on the detail and rationale for shaping the offerings in the way they were presented. It soon became clear that the pitch was backed up with a good level of empathy for what life is really like in a smaller business environment outside of the thrusting start-up arena (that so many are obsessed by).
We also liked the healthy degree of humility that was also evident. Gibson proactively acknowledged the credibility gap associated with the Telco industry in general and the Virgin Media brand in particular (given its roots), and we spoke of ‘earning the right’ to move from comms provision into more ambitious areas.
With this mind, we got a glimpse of VMB’s SMB product and service roadmap. While we can’t go into detail, the thing that struck Tony and I was that it aligns well with the way in which trust has to develop for Telcos to up their game. Customers are not expected to ‘bet the farm’ in the first instance on an all-encompassing comms and IT offering including elements that Telcos have no serious track record in delivering successfully. Instead, VMB offers a set of sensibly priced, spec’d and packaged integrated communications options designed to align with different types of customer based on their level of maturity, requirement and ambition.
Core services are then backed up by a number of initiatives designed to help customers who need it get up to speed on how to fully exploit the potential of modern communications. The dual focus here is on workforce productivity and customer engagement. Apart from allowing VMB to do its bit helping the UK economy benefit from the digital opportunity, Gibson says, quite rightly, that this approach lays the groundwork (in terms of both trust and customer readiness) for delivering higher-level services as they emerge.
Netting it all out, what we like about VMB and its SMB business unit is not so much what’s on offer, but how it is offered. Unlike so many other Telco briefings Tony and I have had, we were not sitting there on the Skype back-channel during the call exchanging comments on why what we were hearing would never work in the real world. That might not sound like much of an endorsement, but when it comes to Telcos, that’s actually quite a big thing.
Dale is a co-founder of Freeform Dynamics, and today runs the company. As part of this, he oversees the organisation’s industry coverage and research agenda, which tracks technology trends and developments, along with IT-related buying behaviour among mainstream enterprises, SMBs and public sector organisations.