5 min read

Business Technology: Phone Service Rings Up Customer Loyalty

One of the latest buzzwords is MVNO. Is it another silly acronym or a bold new technology-based opportunity to enhance customer experiences and increase revenue? Plus, Bob Evans asks, how do you feel about men in capri pants?
So what's your MVNO plan?

What are the highly customized add-on and add-in products and services you'll develop for your MVNO?

Within a year, how many MVNO subscribers will you have as part of a new and highly efficient direct-marketing channel?

What carrier is the supplier behind your MVNO infrastructure?

"There's a tsunami building, fed by a combustible mix of incredibly stupid (and apparently mean-spirited) workers, public blogs, and nervous companies. I'm referring to the growing numbers of folks fired or reprimanded in the workplace for either exposing company plans or posting negative comments about co-workers in public blogs. The latest example comes from the Southern California branch of AAA, which last week fired 27 workers over their postings on the MySpace social-networking Web site, according to an Associated Press report. The postings came to light after one of the targets--a co-worker of the bloggers--complained. The posts were a mixture of insulting observations, and, according to an auto club spokeswoman, discussion about how the bloggers allegedly planned to slow down roadside assistance at work."

-- Patricia Keefe, InformationWeek blog, Aug. 10

If somebody calls you a phone company instead of an MVNO, will you offer to give him five in the snotbox?

And how do you and your colleagues pronounce MVNO: Do you call it "emveeyenno" (very West Coast) or "mivno" (preferred on East Coast and in flyovers)?

I'm sorry, what was that? Did someone ask, "What's an MVNO?" Well, excuse me--I thought MVNOs were as au currant as capri pants for men, but once again my fashion sense fails me. As my colleague Elena Malykhina wrote last week, an MVNO is a mobile virtual network operator, one of a growing number of companies that "license spectrum from telecom carriers and resell cell-phone services to consumers in hopes of fostering customer loyalty and generating revenue." And to call these new-age providers of communications services "phone companies" is about as on-target as calling HBO and ESPN "cable companies." It's not incorrect, but neither is it really even close to accurate.

At their hearts, MVNOs deliver far more than just phone service; they seek to extend and enhance via mobile technology the rich experiences that consumers can have with their brands. As Elena's story notes, some of the global brands that have jumped into MVNOs are Disney, ESPN, 7-Eleven, and Virgin Mobile. Disney will complement the wireless service with customized handsets--do you think a few young girls will be clamoring for those? ESPN Mobile will, of course, offer sports programming--but down the road, what would prevent it from getting into TicketMaster's kitchen by offering tickets to sporting events? And maybe if you meet or exceed your monthly quota of minutes for three straight months, you get a free dinner at an ESPNzone restaurant. Or maybe ESPN Fantasy Baseball is available only to ESPN Mobile customers ... exclusive interviews with sports celebrities ... even tie-ins to corporate parent Disney's stuff. Or sibling ABC.

7-Eleven offers its service through prepaid phone cards. Maybe active customers can earn free Slurpees? Gift certificates? Bill-paying services? Text-message services? And would Frito-Lay or Coke or Nabisco maybe want to run promotions for their products with 7-Eleven Mobile customers who clearly show an affinity for stores where those products are staples?

So let's push the thinking out a bit. If you own a Lexus and enjoy being pampered as a Lexus client, would you consider Lexus as a mobile service provider? And it wouldn't have to be limited to "phone" service; in-vehicle movies are another possibility, or even diagnostic updates and tune-up appointments. What if this theoretical Lexus Mobile service were to offer, for an appropriate fee, something like "personal concierge" services to handle dry-cleaning, grocery shopping, and other errands?

How about an Apple MVNO? The company is already co-developing with Motorola a hybrid iPod/cell phone. Imagine that: You go to iTunes to buy programming (and why not video in addition to music?), download it via iMobile, and play it on an iPod. Wouldn't that be just iNcredible? As a recent article in put it, "Steve Jobs might be planning a move for Apple that will leave even his biggest fans surprised: becoming a phone company."

Consider Wal-Mart: Analyst Weston Henderek of Current Analysis says, "Wal-Mart could very well launch an MVNO" that he suggests would be aimed at "value-oriented and credit-challenged prepaid customers," according to the PhoneMag article.

Or what about Web-native companies like Yahoo and Google? "Yahoo has millions of loyal users who use their services on a daily basis in the online and blog sphere AND it has a tremendous brand," Tangent Mobile founder Reno Marioni says in a recent blog post. "Couple this with mobile services now and to come in the future lends it all the more reason to create an MVNO. Yahoo mapping technology, voice recognition, mobile blogging, mobile RSS, location-based services, and on goes the list. ... You know Google is going to do this as well."

As for me, I think I'm gonna go put on some seersucker capris and put together a plan for Bob's Excellent Mobile Phone Co. And then I'll see about changing my screen name to MVNOdude. Ain't technology great?

Bob Evans
Editorial Director
[email protected]

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