Equipped with a degree in Engineering from the University of Nsukka (UNN) and an MBA from the Harvard Business School, Ugonwa Nwoye, has built her wealth of experience in business development and customer relations for over 20 years. Currently serving as the Chief Customer Relations Officer at MTN Nigeria, Nwoye shares her proven strategy for strengthening customer relations and keeping customers happy in this encounter with Yinka Olatunbosun
Would you say there is a defining experience that has prepared you for this role that you have held since 2014?
I have had a long working experience spanning over 25 years. All the companies that I have worked in are service organisations, so I have consistently interfaced with different types of stakeholders throughout my professional life. I started as an oilfield services engineer – where my clients were oil companies. After business school, I moved on to strategy consulting where I worked with several clients including government organisations. I joined MTN about 20 years ago as a product manager responsible for customer relationship management services in marketing. My job was to create products, features and services that endeared our customers to the MTN brand.
My team and I developed the first loyalty programme that MTN launched, and I think it was probably the first in the industry. I did that sort of work for 10 years and then began my current role. You’d see that I have had a pretty long experience working and serving different stakeholders and now I am really happy to have a role where I directly serve the largest stakeholder grouping – the customers, and where I lead the work to create the MTN customer experience.
I have built my experience over time and in each of those periods, I have served different customers. Within my different roles in MTN, I was creating services to directly improve the satisfaction and loyalty of our customers, even though it was within the product and marketing context. The work that I did there was to create services and loyalty programmes for our customers and in doing that, I built a lot of relationships not only with customers but with the frontline staff.
I have had the opportunity to work with the front line and I understand what our customers want. I think the roles that I have held have exposed me to the idea that our customers are central to what we do.
What does customer relations mean to you as a person? Do you see it as just a role you have to play, or it is embedded in your personality?
At MTN, we believe that the customer is central to our business and entire existence. The customer experience is a vital enabler for innovation, and for sustaining our business into the future. We believe the customer is central to decision-making and planning our technology layer and platforms, and to how we design and deliver products and services, how we acquire and grow custom, and how we sell and serve. It is the end-to-end view of our customers and how they want to interact with our business, the propositions that they want, etc. I would say it is quite encompassing, an integral part of our value proposition.
How do you ensure that you maintain a relationship that is mutually beneficial for you as an organisation and for the customer?
It begins with our aspirations, always. MTN wants our customers to have a modern, progressive and connected life. We want our customers in Africa and in the middle east to have improved trajectories of economic and social success in their life. We know that what we do has the potential to improve the socio-economic status of all our customers across our footprint. What we then ask ourselves is: what is a modern and connected life for our customers?
MTN Nigeria does a lot of research and activities to know our customers deeply and to gain insight into what their daily lives are and to understand the personal lives and aspirations of our customers at every point in their lives. We then try to connect that with what we do.
We know that we have a responsibility to provide not only connectivity but progressive modernity. We connect our customers to things like education, art, music, and the way we validate what we are doing is that we stay very close to them not just through research but by listening and interacting with them.
Talking about the temperament and persona of the customer, I’m sure that you are familiar with the general nature of the Nigerian customer. Nigerians are known to be very assertive and perhaps demanding, especially where they have invested their money. How do you manage situations before they escalate into online outrage? How quickly do you respond to customer feedback?
We believe strongly in the gift of customer feedback. Some people say that feedback is the breakfast of champions. We listen intently. We have CEOs that listen to phone calls from our customers as part of understanding the pulse of our customers. We love that our Customers are assertive. We (our Customers) want things done for us as quickly as possible, still, we know that our customers are not unreasonable people so we try to find out the very root of what can make them happy.
One of the things that make customers happy is responsiveness, we make sure that we try to understand the journeys that they go through, proactively. We provide multiple channels for interaction with our customers: traditional channels (some of our customers still call us on our Call Centre at 180). Our customers call us in five languages at the call centre or they can also go to our stores. Over time we have expanded beyond traditional channels; we want to be everywhere you go. So, we also have digital channels – our super app, called myMTN NG, our chatbot, called Zigi, and our social handles, @myMTN180 on Twitter, @mtnng on Instagram, etc. Most young people prefer digital engagement but then you find older generations using WhatsApp and Facebook. We make sure that we make our customers happy as quickly as possible by being responsive.
At the highest level at MTN, everyone is interested in what is called our net promoter score (NPS). It is the gauge of our customer experience and an indicator of earned growth; every day we, as well as independent research agencies, sample our customers just to find out about their perception of our brand and our services, and to gain insight into areas that drive or reduce advocacy. We have what we call inner and outer loop processes within the organization to synthesise insights from our NPS studies, to prioritise and drive actions across the business.
MTN for more than ten years has invested in a methodology called the net promoter score. We are probably the first in Africa to embrace that methodology. It helps us to measure on an on-going basis how our customers feel about our business and it is a very simple methodology. We simply ask if they would promote or detract from MTN. We have a full set of governance that report directly to the CEO to dig into what our customers are saying. We also have a “Voice of our customer” programme where we initiate micro surveys towards our customers every time they touch us. We have teams who delve into the data that we receive from measuring the customer experience at these touchpoints.
How is your day-to-day plan relate to customer satisfaction and how do you eventually build long-term relationships with the customer?
We know that a happy customer relates with us for a long time (we have some customers who have been with us since 2001) and we lead the way in investment in technology (3G, 4G and now 5G), and create our products and services, partner with like-minded partners, with this in mind. For example, we know that the education of our customers’ children is important to them and that is why we have invested in education as part of the MTN mPulse plan, and also significantly as a focus of the MTN Foundation. We have the strongest roaming propositions to enable our customers to achieve their full potential in their business lives and personal endeavours, everywhere. Connecting to the world matters to our Customers, so we invest in broadband propositions, and launch 5G services, etc.
We have various ways that we sustain the relationship with our customers. We check regularly on the health of the relationship that we have with them, through the NPS studies I mentioned before, but also through in-person programmes at different locations across Nigeria at different times. Some of these programmes are targeted, and others we run at scale.
We make sure that we are visible and available to our customers because we strongly believe that way, we create strong bonds, and the health of our businesses is assured. We have youth forums on campuses across Nigeria, and we have forums with older customers for example. We have one where we celebrate people who are over 70 and we invite them to our stores and offices. We have activities with children online and in our stores. We want to be involved at every stage in our customers’ lives and to have healthy, productive relationships with them.
How have technology and innovation helped to enhance customer relationships?
Technology has powered change in the last two decades, globally. GSM brought the huge potential for changing business processes and the way we relate with each other for example. It has changed the way we live, work and play.
GSM introduced the idea of call centres to Nigeria – a large-scale centre where we can make calls to someone to serve us. But after a few years, as technology evolved across the world and social channels grew, we began to grow our channels to serve customers. Over the past 20 years, we have increasingly digitized the way we think and do business at MTN. We are transforming the business into a digitally agile tech-co company. We introduced digital channels like myMTNApp and the MTN Market place. Increasingly our customers moving from the traditional call centre and physical store channels to the digital channel to transact or connect with other people. Last year we introduced Zigi. Technology has improved the way people are interacting including MTN. It is more convenient because of the power and ubiquity of digital channels, tools and platforms.
Do you constantly measure the customer base against the workforce that you have?
We measure the size of our customer base in real-time. One of the powers of technology is the ability to measure things in real-time; the ability to manage a large amount of data on a real-time basis. That is important to us to understand the size and segments that we serve, how long they have been with us, the services they prefer and adopt, the type of devices they use, where they live and work, and the pattern of our traffic. That helps us to dimension our services and workforce appropriately.
How can organisations retain customers despite organisational setbacks?
I think I remember one incident where we had a failure on our network, and it made it difficult for our customers to make voice calls. Once we recovered our services, our CEO communicated with our entire subscriber base. Our customers understand that failures are bound to happen occasionally but are interested in how we recover from them. The first thing is to be upfront about what is wrong or what went wrong. If you have a problem, people expect you to accept that you have issues. In some cases, they expect you to compensate them for lost time or bad experiences. They also expect a sincere apology. Consistently, customers want you to show that you care about the quality of service that you provide. Human relationships are similar, to an extent, to relationships that companies have with customers. People expect a sense of responsibility and passion for the job that you do, and for the service you provide them. And that we aspire to do every day.
What advice would you give to an organization struggling with customer relationship management?
I would advise them to step back and review all over again what their commitment and aspirations are. If a business truly believes and understands that the customer is the bedrock of their activity, then we need to put aspirations in place. You have to have dreams and ambitions about what the customer can achieve when they use your product or service, and how you want to relate with the customer.
The ability to listen and hear feedback, assure customers of your support and serve them quickly is very important. In every relationship make sure that you have essential channels that are working, such that when a customer needs help, they can get it. Build a team made up of personnel that are trained and empowered to serve customers. Investing in the right tools to serve your business and customers is very important, as well as measuring and dimensioning your service. Performance indices help you not to live in a fool’s paradise, and to ensure that the quality of the relationship remains high. Create a user-centred design for your business. Empower people that help customers to make decisions speedily and make them happy.