Why is the mobile industry, particularly in developed markets, getting such a bad rap lately? What do we have to do to get customers to love us? Aren’t we doing everything to deliver them speed, voice clarity, reliability and connectedness? What more do they want, blood?

According to Sprint Nextel CEO, Dan Hesse, it’s not enough. Citing figures from the Reputation Institute Pulse Index annual survey during his keynote at the CTIA he stated that the wireless industry is one of the least trusted businesses among US consumers. Judging from the number of complaints lodged with consumer advocacy groups and regulators in Europe and Australia, the problem is not restricted to the US, either. What is even more annoying for telcos is that Apple is now the world’s most popular brand. Talk about rubbing salt in the wound.

Back in the monopolistic era, national PTTs vied with banks for the ‘most trusted’ title, today mobile operators are eclipsed by the cable and oil industries, even after the latter fouled up the Gulf of Mexico! Hess couldn’t put his finger on the problem but said network operators needed to improve their reputations if they have any chance of success in providing sensitive and critical services like mobile payments or health monitoring.

What this means for AT&T’s push to offer home security and monitoring services is anyone’s guess. CEO, Ralph de la Vega is also putting much faith in mobile payments and commerce that he believes will come home to roost late next year. How many years have we been hearing that prophecy? But if customers don’t trust operators why would they want to use them for NFC and other payment methods? No wonder banks and card companies are going direct to consumers OTT with a multitude of options from applications to NFC stickers.

Surely the only time a mobile phone will become a really effective and convenient option for consumers is when ALL their credit/debit/loyalty cards can be and stored utilized on the one device, replacing all those bits of plastic currently filling wallets. Nevertheless, the issue of consumer confidence will probably override the benefits or features being offered, unless operators can reverse the trend.

The emphasis now appears to be on ‘customer experience’ that is fast becoming an over-used and under-defined term. Wikipedia says it is “the sum of all experiences a customer has with a supplier of goods or services, over the duration of their relationship with that supplier – from awareness, discovery, attraction, interaction, purchase, use, cultivation and advocacy.” We all know that with communications products and services becoming commoditized, price differentiation is no longer sustainable and with customers demanding more, CSPs are focusing on delivering superior customer experiences. But how do we know what customers really want? Our industry has a mixed track record getting that right, and the cost of getting it wrong, not only in monetary terms, but also in a public relations sense makes it a high-risk activity.

What makes things even more complex is the fact that even the customers seem unsure of what makes them happy. There are so many options being thrust at them that they, too, make mistakes in selecting what they think they like. Mobile applications are a good example of this. With thousands to choose from and no way of testing them beforehand, these very same consumers buy blindly then just leave them unused. Hardly a murmur is heard. The opposite seems to occur when a mobile operator offers a new service that doesn’t meet expectations or someone suffers bill shock, the social networking world is set alight.

Like Dan Hess intimated, there is no simple answer and we may spend millions of dollars finding out. No doubt, the customer experience tracks at TM Forum’s upcoming Management World event in Dublin will be overflowing with those in search of the secret to really effective ‘customer experience’ delivery. I would be happy if his mobile operator simply asked him what annoyed him most and remedied the problem. That alone would go a long way in improving his customer experience!

First published at TM Forum as The Insider, 11 May 2012