Who’s shaping your customer’s expectations?

I recently changed my mobile network operator (MNO) and got a new mobile handset. Where I live and work, mobile coverage is especially unreliable. In fact it is spectacularly bad as I would often receive texts and voice mails from clients and colleagues some 3 to 5 days later. Over the last two years, I spent several hours on the telephone with my previous MNO. I was repeatedly told that as long as service was available on any part of my property, the MNO was fulfilling its contractual service obligation. I admit I did get some signal at the end of my front yard, right by the road. So my MNO was technically not violating any contractual obligation.

The problem was down to a combination of topography and infrastructure. There is little a consumer can do about the MNO’s infrastructure, and there is little a MNO can do about the topography of a region. So hopes were duly pinned on technology. With teeth gritted.

Having heard from insiders that two MNOs were conducting femtocell trials in the UK, I bided my time. A femtocell gateway would connect to an MNO’s network using my broadband connection and therefore provide me with a usable quality of mobile signal inside the building rather than by the roadside. As soon as one of those MNOs launched a femtocell gateway, I switched. The other MNO was my original service provider, the flagship iPhone vendor in the UK. Pity no iPhones can actually be used by anyone on my property!

Which brings me to the new handset.

My disappointment with the N97 boils down to my “expectations” of Nokia. Expectations which have been tempered by watching others’ iPhone experience.

I have been a Nokia user, since I got my first mobile phone in India in 1996. The model was Nokia 1610 and mobile phone bills, thanks to airtime charges, were even bigger than some people’s salaries in today’s bullish Indian market. The interface was quite intuitive although nobody texted and there were no value-added services. Being an early adopter of an admittedly expensive new technology allowed me to function without a fixed line in my house. I was also able to influence many of my friends, family and colleagues to buy Nokia handsets against the feeble competition then from Motorola. Over the last 14 or so years, I changed several handsets going through the Nokia 5100 and 6100 series, finally moving to the N-series.

Till I came to the N97 with my newest upgrade.

“Upgrade” however is a misleading descriptor for my N97 experience, even compared to my N95. First the good points. There are several input mechanisms – voice, touch screen keyboard, a slide-out QWERTY keyboard and handwriting recognition (using a stylus that can be dangled from the handset like an ornament). The slide-out keyboard needs one to be stably standing to hold and to type at the same time. The stylus quickly became my preferred input mechanism although I occasionally use the touch screen alphanumeric keyboard when standing in crowded places. The N97 is preloaded with a version of Office software and preloaded software include Qik, Boingo and some other interesting applications. The camera is very good. In theory, the N97 has the potential to be my Office-On-The-Move.

Nokia serviced my known needs from a handset perfectly well. But it did not stretch me, or tickle my imagination into using my mobile phone for uses I had not imagined.

The problems however made the experience disappointing. Almost as soon as I got the handset, the firmware needed an upgrade suggesting a product shipped in a hurry. Not all upgrades can be made directly on the handset requiring one to connect to the PC, and the process there is not smooth. There are rather a lot of sign-ups required with Ovi, Nokia phone suite etc. Nokia’s Ovi store is under-whelming and has few applications of interest or utility. And the phone hangs if you are doing more than 2 things on it. There are at least 3 steps to every thing one may want to do on the handset. e.g. the URL input mechanism is shoddy and has not been improved since the N95. I find the stylus helpful but many find it a “retro” feature, even without the precarious dangly bit. So much for my Office-On-The-Move!

I am given to being quite Zen about certain things. So I wondered about the source of my disappointment with the N97. And realised that it boils down to my “expectations” of Nokia. Expectations which have been shaped and tempered by watching others’ iPhone experience. You see, all these years, Nokia as a brand continued to service the needs I knew I had. Nothing that Nokia offered tickled my imagination nor stretched me to try any services that may enhance my life in ways I did not see possible before.

But in the last couple years, many people I know acquired iPhones. With fancy apps. Their GPS works seamlessly, while the N97 takes so long that you will probably have left the area where you are lost, before it loads. The iPhone users can check tube status before entering tube stations or flight status before leaving for the airport, while the N97 user has to go online and try to get information before losing patience. And the iPhone’s meaningful design features. Their text messages thread as conversations while mine on N97 stack up one on top of the other and I cannot search them by person. The iPhone 3GS does admittedly get heated quickly and its battery needs recharging oftener than my N97. But could it, at least partly, be because the iPhone users actually use their phones while I am not really using the N97 as much as I thought I would?

Yes, I used to love Nokia. But my expectations have evolved. There are more sophisticated and well-integrated offerings on the market. Even though they are locked-in to specific networks, just like the N97 is to one MNO in the UK. Someone else shaped my expectations, while Nokia fiddled. For coverage reasons and that femtocell adaptor, I shall stay with my MNO. I may not go to an iPhone but I am not sure about Nokia in the future. Yes, Nokia, it is you, it is not just me!

So, do you know who is shaping your customer’s expectations, even as it appears to be business-as-usual? And how are you planning to pre-empt a break-up?

Related reading:

Is your business missing a trick?

Learning to love – and solve – multivariate problems

It’s when you deliver that counts…

Note on Vodafone’s femtocell gateway:

As a contract customer, I paid £160 for the gateway but there are no recurring charges. It connects to an ethernet port on the router and I can register 4 Vodafone numbers on it. My experience of one month, as at the date of writing, suggests that apart from when there is a push software/ firmware upgrade occurring, I have a strong signal all through the building. Vodafone would have to be very smart to schedule these upgrades to happen after 9pm or something. That, of course, is not happening. So on a few occasions, I have lost signal during such upgrades. Not very clever. Could be improved.

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