Why is dealing with telecoms companies still like an episode of the UK TV show The Prisoner. ‘What do you want?’ asks the Prisoner. ‘Information’, replies the Administrator, ‘information’. ‘Who’s side are you on?’ asks the Prisoner. ‘That would be telling,’ replies the Administrator. Adding: ‘We want information’. (see YouTube Video)

The frustration of the Prisoner is how customers feel dealing with their telecoms service providers. Instead of a great conversation that drives loyalty, the start of the interaction is usually the demand for a number.

How negative this is for the customer experience was recently brought home to me when I tried to renew my broadband line with BT. In fact, the experience outlines everything that’s wrong not just with BT but with the telecom market generally. And it points to where the opportunity to differentiate lies for MVNOs.

To begin with the CSR asked me what my phone number was. I don’t know what it is, I say, because I don’t use the landline phone. Well done – you just reminded me that you’re charging me for a service I don’t actually want or use but you insist I have. What’s your BT account number, says the CSR next. I’m so sorry that I haven’t memorised it, and I negligently forgot to carry my bill at all times. I’m just one of those crazy customers who had some time on their hands and decided to ring you and buy something. Maybe I should go away and come back with the ‘right’ information at a time and in a channel that suits you?

But here’s a thought, rather than telling me I’m just a number to you and not a person, why don’t you ask me for my name and address?

We’re not in 1983. Nowadays, contacts are names in your address book, not numbers. No-one wants to remember a number. Especially a number I don’t use but have to remember because you insist upon me having it. And all you’re going to do with that number is use it to look up my address,, since knowing what speed of line is available at my address is what helps you quote to me. So why not ask directly for the address? After all, it’s something I will actually remember rather than one of your complex internal numbers. And get the message: I’m not going to jump through hoops to talk to you. Treat me as a person or I’ll find someone who will.

There’s a huge lesson in here and an opportunity for MVNOs. Move away from treating people as numbers and start utilising information that’s meaningful to them. Processes need to be customer centric, not organisation centric. You need to make it super easy for a customer to buy from you, and even easier for them to renew. And that means listening to what they want, not telling them what you want to sell them. It means that they must trust that you’re giving them the best possible offer, not that they can go to the internet and immediately find a much cheaper one. It means rewarding loyalty, not willingness to churn.

Imagine if your supermarket demanded a customer number before serving you? Do you know what your Amazon customer number is? No? well doesn’t that tell you everything you need to know.