Vodafone UK is moving out of recovery mode and going on the offensive, its Director of Customer Services and Operations has claimed.

Neil Blagden made the comments as the operator unveiled a range of new products and services that aim to recast the operator’s somewhat tarnished image.

Since joining two years ago, his to-do list has been dominated by repairing Vodafone UK’s relationship with its customers.

After a botched IT project which led to tens of thousands of customers being billed incorrectly, the operator saw complaints about its mobile services more than double in 2015.

“The first 18 months I knew what I was taking on, because obviously the troubles had started just before I joined,” Blagden tells European Communications.

“We were in such a difficult position and obviously not delivering for our customers, the priority was to get back to a healthy state.

“A single-minded focus on process, policies, systems and people improvement was the only thing we could do.”

There has been progress.

The company moved its Transactional Net Promoter Score up from -35 in November 2015 to +26 in April 2017, for example.

It has halved the number of calls to its call centres, while complaints have gone from four times the industry average to just above the industry average since November 2015, according to Ofcom.

Now, Blagden is looking to capture new ground.

In January, Vodafone launched its Interactive Voice Response service and in April rolled out a chatbot called TOBi to handle a range of common customer queries.

A package of new announcements today (19 July) include a commitment to 24/7 social media contact, a Pay As You Go plan that allows voice and data to be rolled over to the next month, and network upgrades to improve indoor coverage.

It is the more “forward-thinking stuff” that will help Vodafone “stand out”, Blagden says.

TOBi, built on IBM Watson and LivePerson’s LiveEngage platform, will now take on an additional set of tasks including answering account-specific questions on subjects like roaming and offering advice on SIM-only price plans.

The operator has also added a new Message Us support service in the My Vodafone app, which aims to replace call centres with a text service and interface more similar to chat apps such as WhatsApp and Facebook Messenger.

Through the service, which is also built on the LiveEngage platform, the customer is connected to an agent who may deal with up to 20 customers at once.

In addition, Vodafone is trialling new voice authentication services, ahead of a commercial launch by the end of the summer, to replace the traditional password required when speaking to an agent.

The customer can pre-record a phrase, which then can be used to confirm their identity based on the sound of their voice.

The solution is built with technology from voice recognition specialist Nuance Communications.

Blagden is optimistic about the potential of these technologies to reinvent the image of the company.

“Whether it’s attracting customers or attracting employees, I want Vodafone to be seen as forward-thinking but also turning things into real practical delivery.

“That makes a difference for customers and engages our employees,” he says.

The operator is working with more agile practices, pushing out “minimum viable products” to a small cohort of customers for testing.

“If you wait in a more traditional IT sense for the big thing to happen and all the requirements to be delivered, often the world has moved on dramatically and you haven’t got it quite right,” Blagden says.

The back-end integration project, which will see all of these platforms putting information into a single core system, is still ongoing, but Blagden expects it to be completed over the next 12-18 months.

He is under no illusions about the challenges of getting customers to actually use the channels, but is confident that the company is succeeding at doing so.

“TOBi started very small but it’s now dealing with 30 percent of our customers,” he says.

With the MyVodafone app registering four million unique monthly, Blagden says the company is seeing “a decent level of interaction” from customers.

“There is quite high repeat usage,” he adds.

“The reason we built My Vodafone app is to create a single point of interaction.

“You need to make it interesting enough for [customers] to come regularly.

“Vodafone provides an important service to customers but we’re probably not top of their mind every single day.

“We need to make it engaging enough with offers rewards competitions and services so that they choose it as a way to talk to Vodafone.”

Looking ahead, Blagden hopes that the UK will be a “beacon of innovation” within the wider Vodafone group.

He says we can expect to see TOBi being rolled out in Vodafone’s other markets “relatively shortly”.

The chatbot will also be plugged into Vodafone’s websites as a sales support agent, able to either provide support to customers or do the full sale end to end, and Blagden doesn’t rule out the possibility of it being used for marketing purposes.

“We’re in a decent healthy state but now we need to go on to being a strong customer service brand,” he concludes.

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