Substituting telephones for paper has gone quite a long way for incoming customer contact.  There are many services where it is possible – and often easier – to ring up than to write or to go there, wherever ‘there’ might be.

Substituting phones for outgoing contact is much less advanced.  Buff envelopes remain the characteristic and caricature of bureaucracy.  That’s partly because it it genuinely more complicated – providing a joined-up service requires much deeper integration than is needed for handling incoming contact – and partly because the problems of security and verification are seen as harder to manage.

But behind all that sit two more customer-focused questions:

  • who has what kinds of phone?
  • what do they want to use them for?

And, perhaps even more important, two enormous and usually unspoken assumption

  • any given channel has to be able to do everything for everybody
  • if you send somebody a letter, they get it

Richard Allan has recently come at this by challenging that last assumption

I live in a house with 7 flats.  Each morning a large bundle of post comes through the door that we sort into pigeon holes.  It seems like at least once a week there is a letter in there that should have gone to another address, so presumably something that should have come here goes astray with the same frequency.  We have also experienced letters arriving with postmarks from weeks or even months before.

His proposed solution is to use SMS either to alert people to the arrival of a a letter or, better still, to displace the letter altogether.  There’s good reason to think that ‘I didn’t get the letter’ is an explanation or an excuse (and it can be very hard to tell which) deployed in quite a range of situations.  But that takes us back to the first two questions – are the people with a high propensity not to get (or to read, or to react to…) letters the same as the people who might find it easier to deal with text messages?

Household penetration of key telecoms services

We can start with the latest Communication Markets Survey from Ofcom.  Digging down into the detail, we find that the number of households with mobile phones has overtaken the number with landlines. But that doesn’t mean a great deal:  84% of households have both fixed and mobile, while 9% have mobile only and 7% have fixed only – and just 1% have neither.  Two tables later, Ofcom reports that there is a socio-economic skew behind those figures:  only 5% of ABC1 households are mobile only, but 15% of C2DEs.

There’s nothing conclusive in that, other that at least in aggregate, there is no self-evident issue of social exclusion(though there may be more buried by the fact that both the Ofcom and the Eurobarometer data seems all to be about households rather than individuals).  What it doesn’t readily do, is help understand where the quickest wins may be.  My strong suspicion is that having got over the basic hurdle of having the means to access a service through a particular channel, the characteristics of who will want to use it and how will be considerably more subtle than the broad measures of age and income which are as far as the quantitative analysis seems able to take us.  As Richard Allan concludes,

The joy of a multi-channel world built around a good register of communications preferences is that we can all have our preferred methods.  The current state of the art is deficient in many services in not having the capability to allow those of us who want to use cheaper electronic means to do so at all.

But the question of who has what preferences matters – and matters quite a lot, not just at the simple retail level of which of us does in fact have a particular preference for a particular channel in particular circumstances.  The costs of adding an SMS channel may be low, but they are not zero.  Like all such costs, they would be ideally be covered two ways:  from enhanced customer value and enhanced operational efficiency.  So then the questions are not just who might have a preference for being communicated with one way rather than another, but which particular steps of which particular processes are likely to work better for which customers to generate how much value for the customer and provider.

So there is a very practical issue of user preferences and behaviour – best understood by getting out and doing it.  But there is then a deeper question of how to change the underlying processes to support the qualities of the new channel rather than the old one, a bigger and harder job altogether.