Can Vodafone turn around its public image?

Vodafone is promising to bring back "honesty and trust" for its consumers, but can it banish the spectre of Vodafail?

Nic Healey Senior Editor / Australia
Nic Healey is a Senior Editor with CNET, based in the Australia office. His passions include bourbon, video games and boring strangers with photos of his cat.
Nic Healey
4 min read

opinion Vodafone has some big issues when it comes to its image in Australia. Can the company get customers back?

Can Vodafone get customers back on its revamped network? (Credit: Vodafone)

The question isn't whether Vodafone can fix its network; that process has been well underway for some time now. For the majority of customers, the "Vodafail meltdown" that occurred back in 2010 is over. The company has invested — and invested heavily — in updating its network infrastructure since that time. It's this investment that has seen Telecommunications Industry Ombudsman (TIO) complaints about the service drop by around 40 per cent, at a time where overall complaints about mobile services stayed static.

The question is more about Vodafone's public perception, and what the company can do to get its image back on track.

As a bit of history, I was a Vodafone customer from around 1996 until May this year, when I shifted to a different telco. By the end of my time as a Vodafone user, I joked that it was more like Stockholm Syndrome than a customer relationship.

I've also been the author of a few vocal commentary pieces on my experiences with Vodafone in some of my previously employed roles. Suffice to say, Voda and I have a little history.

The passing of my time as a Vodafone customer seemed little mourned at the time by either myself or the telco — from memory, the two-minute phone call to a customer service rep to see whether I was off-contract was greeted with a "yes" and maybe a "can I help with anything else?". Certainly no declarations of love, commitment and promises that things will be "different this time".

However, according to CEO Bill Morrow, that's exactly how Vodafone does want to treat customer churn — exactly like a break-up.

At a press event in New Zealand to launch its new Red premium plans, Morrow talked about Project Victoria, an internal move in Vodafone to become less worried about numbers and to "treat every lost customer as a lost lover".

It's an interesting idea, taking away the raw numbers and trying to think of customer churn as a "broken relationship", and, according to both Morrow and Vodafone's chief marketing officer Kim Clarke, it's seen a number of big changes in how the telco deals with customers.

"Honesty and trust," said Morrow. "When we make mistakes — and those things will happen — we want to call it, acknowledge it, rectify it and move on."

It's certainly seemed like 2013 has been the year of "mea culpa" for Vodafone. Speaking earlier in the year, Morrow echoed the same sentiments: "Let's just be straight up with people. What happened, happened. We're not hiding behind anything. 2013 is about earning back trust."

It's an attitude that's seen the company strengthen its Australian customer support team in Hobart. Vodafone acknowledges that a locally based call centre is essential, going as far as to ensure that Red customers get a priority service guaranteed to be handled by Hobart personnel.

Clarke is clearly enormously proud of the Hobart centre; waxing lyrical about the staff, she noted that employee turnover rates are considerably lower than the average for other call centres.

The "customer first" attitude is being applied even to potential customers, as part of what Clarke refers to as the "on-boarding process".

"We check on coverage areas," she said. "If the customer doesn't have good coverage where they live, where they work and where they play, then we don't sell to them."

Since the 2010 troubles began, Vodafone has reportedly shed over 1 million customers. The company needs to initially stop any further churn, and then rebuild that customer base. Morrow has previously said that Vodafone is aiming to be back into positive customer growth by the end of 2013.

A common metric for customer satisfaction is Net Promoter Score (NPS) — essentially, how likely users are to recommend your service. Clarke said that before 2010, Vodafone was at a +18 NPS. As recently as April this year, it was at -11.

But if you only look at customers who've joined since 2012, the score is back in the positive. Similarly, Clarke said that many of the complaints delivered to Vodafone via social media are from people who are no longer with the service, rather than existing customers.

Vodafone needs to do more than just offer unlimited-style plans to bring on new customers. It needs to ensure that those customers aren't just there for the offers, but for the whole customer experience package.

More than that, it needs to show long-term customers who — unlike myself — stayed on for the long haul that their loyalty was worth it and is valued.

Luckily, the company seems very ready to acknowledge this, and prepared to put in the hard yards, as it were, to reforge, as Morrow said, a sense of trust for its consumers. Of course, only time will tell whether Australians are as equally ready to respond in kind.

Nic Healey travelled to New Zealand as a guest of Vodafone and Virgin Australia.