The rapid emergence of digital services such as apps, music, social media and the cloud have led to an evolution in consumer demands. Now more than ever, mobile users expect their content and services to be available exactly how they want it, when they want it and where they want it.

This digital disruption has service providers across the globe struggling to adjust their sales and service strategies to meet the increased expectations of Generation Cloud. However, one operator has demonstrated just what is possible when service providers embrace the post-digital world and transform their offerings to become customer-first.

In 2015, Bharti Airtel was named the third-largest mobile operator in the world in terms of subscribers, with mobile networks covering over 1.85 billion people across 20 countries. The ranking underlined the strength of Airtel’s business model and demonstrated the service provider’s understanding of its 303 million mobile subscribers’ expectations.

It is also Airtel’s strategic focus on its customers’ needs that has led the service provider to be considered the largest mobile operator in India in terms of subscribers and revenue, with the widest network coverage across 2G, 3G and 4G. That’s not an easy feat for a country that is all about mobile internet, even on slower networks. So how did Airtel do it?

4G Rollout Creates a Foundation for Disruption

Airtel recognised that consumers were becoming much more digitally savvy and India was no exception.  Airtel CIO Harmeen Mehta said India is a heavily mobile-first economy, with one of the highest worldwide rates of consumers who use the internet on their mobiles. However, streaming content presented a challenge for 2G and 3G customers – even though they loved listening to music and watching video on their feature phones, those networks were not strong enough to support this content.

So in August 2015, Airtel commercially launched its 4G high-speed data services in 296 towns across India. The operator was the first to rollout 4G in India and since the launch, Airtel has seen increasingly high levels of adoption, said Mehta.

A contributing factor to the success of Airtel’s 4G offering stemmed from its accessibility. In addition to giving users the experience of 4G data plans at 3G prices, the operator made it easy for customers to adopt 4G instantly.

Switching to 4G service would require consumers to install a new SIM card, and the switching process could take up to 48 hours, said Mehta. Realising how this wait could limit the success of its 4G rollout, Airtel re-engineered its processes so that customers could initiate the SIM switch online, without visiting the store, and with the service switchover happening in minutes rather than hours.

Now, 90 percent of SIM swaps are performed in less than 10 minutes, Mehta said. By transforming the normally disruptive process of adopting a new system, Airtel was able to provide a convenient and immediate digital buying experience for their customers.

“We took a lot of our prior processes and said if we’re moving toward a more digital company and culture, how would we change the process itself before we digitalise anything?” said Mehta.

Expansion of Digital Services

The 4G rollout also allowed Airtel to continue expanding its growing ecosystem through the launch of its own over-the-top (OTT) content and services. By offering customers access to Airtel’s music, movies, health and gaming platforms, the operator was able to differentiate itself from emerging competition while surpassing the expectations of over 100 million Indian mobile customers.

And, through continued collaboration with key OTT players, Airtel’s ability to provide users with the highest quality of digital services has been strengthened. Prior to the 4G launch, Airtel organised Smartphone Build, an Appathon that brought together 20 premium app developers or providers, such as Amazon, Flipkart and Snapdeal, to help optimise their applications in terms of network, battery and usability so that the overall app performance is improved.

By partnering with these leading app providers and developers, Aritel was able to improve the integration of its new digital services with its network, in turn bettering the smartphone experience for the end consumer. Partnership also makes it easier for Airtel to launch new services quickly and empower customers through self-service experiences.

“We take a hard look at all services we provide and try to make it so that consumers can do it themselves,” Mehta said. “Speed is now a part of our DNA and once that’s the case, every new thing we launch is digital-first.”

Learning From Mistakes

Airtel’s journey to become largest and fastest growing mobile operator has not been without some experimentation.

After the initial unveiling of MyAirtel, an app that lets customers manage all Airtel services from their phone, user adoption was poor, said Mehta.

“We launched a few years ago and didn’t see much adoption because if you take the same process and just digitize it, that’s not changing the consumer experience,” Mehta said. “In order to bring about a delightful consumer experience, you’ve got to change the actual experience.”

Airtel started adjusting its strategy and processes to focus solely on customer needs. By adapting the company to the customer and not the other way around, Airtel was able to tailor its offerings to fit user behaviours and preferences. And it worked.

MyAirtel was relaunched in 2014 and saw dramatically different results. In less than thirty days, downloads of the app crossed the 1 million mark, exceeding Airtel’s expectations. With the daily downloads of the app now in the high thousands, it’s clear the proactive redesign of Airtel’s own processes has allowed the company to truly serve the needs of its customers.

“We’ve never been more customer centric. We want to win customers for life. Everything we do, we are making it far more transparent, and when you do that you expose the good, bad and ugly,” Mehta said.

Through fearless experimentation, creative problem solving and consumer empowerment, Airtel’s digital evolution is continuing to close gap between users’ expectations and their actual experience.

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