Telecommunications providers have cemented themselves as the backbone of modern communication, and therefore, wield substantial influence over society today.

As all sectors of government, business and civil society become increasingly interconnected, telecom providers play a key role in supporting the advancement of overall tech-development, which impacts the sustainability of many organisations, including their own.

However, despite the indispensable nature of their services, a disparity exists between customer expectations and the actual delivery of quality service and support.

According to the latest South African Telecommunications Sentiment Index, the local telecommunications industry continues to face significant challenges in consumer sentiment, lagging behind other industries such as banking, insurance and retail, with a negative Net Sentiment score of -18,8%.

Conducted by PwC South Africa in collaboration with DataEQ, the annual index is compiled from social media data and reflects the Net Sentiment of local consumers toward their telecommunications service providers.

The study assessed 1 617 345 public mentions about Cell C, MTN, rain, Telkom and Vodacom from 1 January 2023 to 31 Dec 2023 to benchmark consumer sentiment on social media among South Africa’s major telecom operators and to provide data-driven insights on how to improve customer experience.

This year, rain emerged as the sole provider with a net positive score, unanimously taking the top spot in both operational and reputational Net Sentiment[1]. Engaging campaigns played an important role in this feat, helping boost rain’s Net Sentiment by more than 16 percentage points.

Operational sentiment was negative across the board, signalling an industry-wide issue with crucial business activities like customer service and network availability.

Elmo Hildebrand, PwC Africa telecommunications leader, notes that while complaints over network quality are often impacted by external factors like load shedding, a significant share of negative customer sentiment is being driven by telecoms’ inability to meet basic customer service needs.

“Customer service accounted for 27.7% of all industry conversation, with an overwhelming negative sentiment of -87,7% (2022: -90.6%). Customers are left dissatisfied by a lack of efficient feedback and issue resolution, particularly when contacting call centres,” he says.

DataEQ telecoms lead Liska Kloppers adds that a communication channel analysis points to a key channel dependency on the traditional service model.

“Call centres remained the most complained about channel, suggesting that despite the growing availability of digital channels, telecoms companies continue to rely heavily on telephonic support. However, this support is proving inadequate with customers turning to social media channels as an alternate to resolve their issues.”

Hildebrand believes that providers should adopt AI solutions to better meet customer demands, empower employees, and reduce total costs to serve and grow revenue.

“There is an opportunity to reduce the strain on these channels,” he says. “This can be done through the implementation of AI-powered services which would aid with efficiently resolving large volumes of low-touch queries and streamlining the back-office operations – such as billing – through hyper-automation to reduce manual intervention and rework.”

He explains that both of these interventions free up service agents to focus on inquiries and complaints that require a human touch, leading to more efficient and effective customer service.

Financial services offered by telecoms exhibited varying performances in the report, with mobile money driving positive interest, compared to insurance which drove risk and complaints.

Hildebrand says: “Overall, financial services remain a key area for growth and should be a future focus for telecoms. The industry was flooded with campaigns which contributed to the positivity. Campaigns such as #JustMoMoIt, #DoMore, and #AllYouNeedIsMoMo from MTN Momo were particularly popular.

“Telecoms are doing their bit to solve digital and financial inclusion, and it is clear that customers respond well when their most pressing problems are solved,” he adds.

As the industry forges ahead, telecoms companies need to place a keen focus on closing the customer sentiment gap.

Nana Madikane, PwC Africa telecommunications, media and technology industry leader, explains why: “As telecommunications industry leaders navigate this age of continuous reconfiguration and reinvention, they need to address a multitude of strategic areas vying for their focus. And in this vein, it is key to remember who is at the heart of their future business successes – the customer.”