The performance of SA’s telcos left much to be desired during the lockdown, with MTN rated by customers as the best operator, while Rain and Telkom were left in the gutter – receiving the worst customer ratings.
This is according to research firm BrandsEye’s latest South African Telco Sentiment Index, conducted in partnership with Deloitte Africa.
The study, which tracked customer experience sentiment of over two million social media posts about Cell C, MTN, Rain, Telkom and Vodacom throughout 2020, revealed South Africans were more negative towards telcos than banks, insurers or retailers.
The index found some telcos struggled to maintain meaningful customer relationships under lockdown conditions, receiving significantly more negativity on social media platforms.
Each post received a sentiment rating – positive, neutral or negative – which was used to calculate a net sentiment ranking for each telco.
Service complaints saw a steep increase a month into lockdown and remained consistently above pre-lockdown levels for the rest of the year.
“Newcomer Rain ranked last, scoring over 20 percentage points below the industry average. On the other end of the spectrum, having scored the lowest negative sentiment and highest positive sentiment, MTN ranked first. Unexpectedly, Cell C – whose survival came into question during 2020 – was placed second, while Telkom ranked second-last despite seeing the most annual customer growth,” notes the research.
It was in network conversation that MTN shone. While seeing only a small advantage in quality, consumers were most satisfied with its speed and coverage. Rain, on the other hand, saw above-industry levels of risk conversation about downtime, evidencing network quality as one of its major weaknesses.
Vodacom, meanwhile, ranked in third place, scoring a relatively stable negative sentiment of 30.7%, while Telkom followed with a negative sentiment ranking of 41.5%.
BrandsEye CEO Nic Ray says while customer service is clearly an industry-wide issue, this insight shows local telcos have much room for improvement.
“Customer service is an area prime for disruption, offering an opportunity for telcos to become market leaders through meaningful improvements in service. This research not only highlights the applicability of the framework for telcos, but also shows the industry has a long way to go in treating customers fairly.”
Slow response rates
Despite telcos’ efforts to up their game in assisting customers on social media after the implementation of lockdown, at its best the industry’s overall response rate was 56.9%.
Potentially the most alarming finding, however, was that in 2020, more than half of all mentions requiring a response from network providers did not receive one, notes the report.
“Out of all the telcos, Rain was most impacted by service complaints, suggesting their affordability approach came at the expense of customer experience.”
Some of Rain’s customers have taken to Hello Peter and social media in recent months to express disappointment in its network quality.
In an e-mail sent to ITWeb, a Rain customer expresses frustration with the telco’s poor customer service: “I am currently using Rain 4G and my experience with rain is disgusting – my speeds and ping are so bad that there are days when I cannot stream anything. Customer service is non-existent, even when you get to speak to someone they tell you there isn’t anything they can do. If the Rain network is so highly congested, why are they still supplying new SIM cards and making the problem worse?”
In a business update Webinar last week, African Rainbow Capital co-CEO Johan van Zyl responded to questions about Rain’s poor network quality and below-standard customer service, noting it had added hundreds of new employees who will focus on addressing customer service issues.
“Overall, it’s a work in progress. If a business grows from 100 000 customers to five-, six- or seven-fold, that amount in a very quick period, you will have some issues. Our biggest issue doesn’t come from client service but our network wasn’t wide enough and also the fact that the network coverage isn’t consistent enough – that’s why we’ve moved fairly quickly, particularly in the 4G and 5G space, by trying to get the coverage up,” explained Van Zyl.
With the temporary closure of many physical branches, many customers reported poor responsiveness from the telcos and frustration at having to try to contact them on multiple instances when seeking assistance.
Vodacom, notes the report, drove positive sentiment in August through affiliated content on its Next Level career expo and youth-exclusive data deals. Data giveaways in partnership with its sponsored soccer teams drove neutral engagement in September, which in turn improved net sentiment.
“Vodacom’s net sentiment was at its lowest over November and December. This is because Vodacom users were hit by widespread network downtime twice in November, while poor service responsiveness and vanishing-data complaints impacted net sentiment in December.”
In terms of response rate, Cell C replied to the largest portion of its priority conversation, while also responding to customers in the shortest time, whereas Telkom, the only state-owned enterprise in the mix, appeared unable to compete with its private rivals when it came to online responsiveness.
Battle for survival
In a tumultuous year for the South African telecommunications sector, 2020 saw network providers grapple with the ongoing pressure of decreasing margins in the face of a disproportionately higher demand for connectivity and customer interactions. Connectivity, for many people, moved from a normal category of service into the same essential service category as water and electricity.
With many South Africans relying on some form of connectivity to earn a living and remain informed, operators reported almost 50% growth in mobile data traffic and more than 200% growth in fixed data traffic over this period – resulting in more pressure to meet customer demands, according to the report.
The South African telecoms sector continues to face multiple challenges. While the immediate focus will be to survive, there is a need to think beyond the crisis and use it to position for success beyond it, says Mark Joseph, Africa TMT industry leader at Deloitte.
The reduced purchasing power and downwards pressure on prices will continue to create a low margin environment going forward. In response, some of the telcos will have to focus on core products and drive digital transformation to become lower-cost operators that are as digitised as possible – prioritising customer-facing processes and interactions in order to differentiate through customer experience while maintaining spend, comments Joseph.
“Digital channels offer an affordable, lockdown-proof and effective touchpoint with customers. Self-service capabilities need to be expanded to permanently convert walk-in customers to more digital, asynchronous channels that deliver faster and better outcomes,” notes Ray.
“This will require telcos to better monitor, respond to, and report on digital channel feedback from consumers.”