Keep It Simple
By Peggy Anne Salz, Mon Feb 02 11:45:00 GMT 2004

It's the First Commandment in the mobile space, so why are so many companies breaking the rule? One European operator has come up with a breakthrough approach - and you have to wonder why no one thought of it sooner.

No matter the country, the scene is the same. I walk into a mobile operators direct retail outlet and am reminded of the months I spent reporting from East Germany before the Wall fell: Long lines, grim faces and impatient people pushing their wares. Customers with questions? Not interested.

For a myriad of reasons I won't go into, I have had to make several hour-long trips to my local shop. Each time I was waited on by a different salesperson, each with varying (often disappointing) degrees of experience. And each time I left the shop wishing someone out there would give me a straight and simple answer. Not a chance.

A thirty-something friend of mine equated his dilemma with coming out of the closet. "I want to admit I can't use all my phone's features, but I'm afraid of the reaction I'd get." I suspect he's one of a silent majority of mobile phone users who would use more mobile data apps- if only he knew how.

Orange in the UK is the first mobile operator worldwide to grasp his problem - and come up with a solution. Last May Orange quietly and quickly turned its sales strategy on its head and launched a multi-million pound initiative -- aptly called "learn" - to help users get the most out of their phones and introduce them to new services such as picture messaging, mobile email and infotainment. It promoted its over 1,800 sales people to the position of "phone trainers" and stopped paying perks and bonuses according to how many phones they push across the counter; they're rewarded according to how many customers they teach.

Predictably, Orange is tight-lipped about the details. But an Orange VP told me the increase is ARPU since May shows a "worthwhile increase" that is "by no means insignificant." (Orange plans to release some figures in February). Moreover, footfall - the number of customers entering the shops - has skyrocketed. Before "learn" the shops showed a 5% drop in traffic year on year- now it's up 20% week on week. Granted they're not all buying, but it's a triumph to get them in the store.

The word is that "learn" will slowly and surely spread across the Orange footprint. The program was recently launched in France and signs are that the initiative - in one form or another - is catching on. Even competitors are standing up to take notice.

And they should.

A recent survey conducted by Wacom Components Europe, a subsidiary of the Japan-based number one key supplier of interface technology for the Microsoft Tablet PC, recently surveyed mobile phone users in the UK. It found that while Christmas 2003 sales of MMS phones hit a new record, 85% of users said accessing their phone functions is too complicated. What's more, a whopping 95% of consumers admitted to being frustrated when trying to use data apps.

That's bad news for operators now relying on mobile data take up to energize their flagging ARPUs. John Delaney, Ovum principal analyst, tells me in Europe generally 80% of users use 10% of their phones' functionality. "We suspect a high drop rate among users of camera phones. Operators will say how many they've sold - not how many users are actively using them."

The Orange example shows that operators can and must do much more than bellyache about lacklustre ARPU. They have to take more responsibility for their users and help them to get the most out of their phones - particularly now that mobile phones resemble mini-PCs.

The complexity of mobile services (and phone functionality) has the vast majority of users (at least in Europe) stumped. Operators can do two things: They can pray vendors will come up with less complicated phones, or they can hope their customers will someday become tech savvy. However, both will take time - and investors won't wait.