In a year dominated by Covid-19, lockdowns and work-from-home arrangements where mobile data and connectivity is critical, South Africa’s mobile telco providers have struggled to rise to the challenge of keeping customers with higher expectations satisfied.

This is one of the findings from the latest South African Customer Satisfaction Index (SA-csi) for Mobile Telecommunications Services, conducted by Consulta.

The 2020 SA-csi for Mobile Telecommunications Services surveyed just over 2 200 customers who make use of the collective product offering of voice and data solutions from Cell C, MTN, Vodacom and FNB Connect. The survey was done during the second half of 2020 to determine how satisfied customers are with the overall service, quality and value received from their mobile telco providers.

With the exception of Cell C and FNB Connect, which both emerge as leaders in the overall customer satisfaction stakes for 2020, the two largest providers – Vodacom and MTN – both come in on par, and both are struggling to get on top of declining customer satisfaction trends over a five-year period.

FNB Connect takes the overall leader position with the highest customer satisfaction score, followed by Cell C, also in a leader position, and enjoying an improvement of almost seven index points in overall customer satisfaction score in the 2020 SA-csi compared with 2019.

One pertinent finding is that, following a five-year decline, customer expectations of their mobile service providers went up markedly in 2020. This is attributed to the impact of the pandemic and the heightened need for reliable mobile connectivity as more people found themselves working remotely and under lockdown.

In terms of exceeding customer expectations, Cell C and FNB Connect scored highest on this measure, while MTN and Vodacom were on par. This could be cause for concern for Vodacom and MTN as declines in Customer Expectations have been proven to foreshadow inevitable drops in perceived quality, value and ultimately, overall customer satisfaction.

“A consistent decline in customer satisfaction and loyalty left the industry vulnerable to new entrants and substitutes as consumers increasingly look for alternatives, and especially simplicity, a streamlining of service providers and service channels, and value for money,” explains Ineke Prinsloo, head of customer insights at Consulta.

“This has certainly played out in the latest SA-csi for mobile telcos, with a banking brand, FNB Connect, taking the top spot in customer satisfaction, and not one of the large traditional providers.

“In reality, FNB Connect’s lead in customer satisfaction in mobile telcos suggests that customers are choosing to turn to trusted providers that they already have a deep relationship with – in this case their banking provider – allowing them to streamline the number of service providers they use, simplify their billing, payment and instant top-ups by using their existing banking app, integrate their banking rewards, and get preferential mobile deals and prices.

“When you consider the depth of data and analytics that banks have of their customers, the opportunity to offer value added products – like data and airtime – that are uniquely tailored to customer needs is significant,” Prinsloo adds. “In the same way as bancassurance – the provision of insurance products through trusted banking channels – is consistently challenging the traditional distribution models in the SA-csi for Insurance – FNB Connect’s foray into the mobile telco service provider space is a trend to watch.

“With the arrival of Covid-19, there was a massive shift from voice services to quality mobile data offerings, services and pricing as people needed to do the vast majority of their work, education and learning and entertainment online and remotely.

“And it’s a trend that’s not about to change anytime soon. In effect, customers are less concerned with the quality of voice networks, placing more emphasis on mobile data offerings, services and value for money, an opportunity that FNB Connect seized upon by fully integrating mobile offerings with their customer’s existing banking app and rewards programme,” she adds.

Key take-outs from the 2020 SA-csi for mobile telcos include:

* On overall Customer Satisfaction score, FNB Connect (79,2) and Cell C (77,1) are leaders, while Vodacom (74,4) and MTN (73,2) are on industry par.

* On Perceived Quality – the measure of what customers expect versus what they experience in terms of delivery – FNB (81,5) is the leader and exceeds customer expectations by a significant margin. All other brands come in on industry par (78)

* On Perceived Value, FNB Connect (81,5) and Cell C (79,2) are leaders, while MTN (72,9) and Vodacom (72,8) come in on par (74).

* At an industry level, complaint incidence average is at 28,2% and complaint handling (resolution) is at 52,4 – complaint resolution has a significant impact on customer satisfaction and loyalty. Overall, the mobile telcos complaints incidence of 28,2% is exceptionally high compared to other industries – ideally, complaints should be below 10%.

* Cell C has a complaint incidence of 22,3% but has the highest complaint handling of 60,9 which is likely to have had a positive impact on overall customer satisfaction. FNB Connect had the lowest complaint incidence across the industry (14,2) while its complaint handling is slightly below par. Vodacom (27,4) and MTN (32,5) had the highest complaint incidence, and complaint handling was also just below par, suggesting that a large proportion of customer complaints are poorly resolved.

* FNB Connect has the most loyal customers (71,1%) followed by Cell C (70%).

* The Net Promoter Score (NPS) measures the likelihood that customers will recommend a brand to their family and friends (promoters) compared to customers who would actively discourage a relationship with the brand (detractors). The Net Promoter Score average across the industry is 23,1%. FNB Connect (35,8%) and Cell C (33,1%) are above industry par (23,1%), while Vodacom (21,7%) and MTN (19,6%) score the lowest and below industry par.

“The results of the index show that mobile telco providers have missed the boat to differentiate themselves at a time when consumers were and remain heavily reliant on their mobile telco providers,” says Prinsloo. “In a data-driven world, the dominant providers are struggling to satisfy their customer needs, and it is interesting to note that a relative outsider in the financial services sector has now usurped the leader position in what is essentially a value-added service and not yet a core business offering.

“It will be interesting to watch the developments as financial services providers increasingly move to provide more value-added services for their customers, backed by sophisticated digital and data and analytical capabilities.”

Now in its eighth year, the SA-csi for Mobile Telco Service Providers offers impartial insights into the South African Telecommunications Services industry by measuring customers’ overall satisfaction. This satisfaction score is based on brands exceeding or falling short of customer expectations and the respondents’ idea of the ideal product to achieve an overall result out of 100. The Index also includes, amongst other measures, a Customer Expectations Index, a Perceived Quality Index and a Perceived Value Index.