Competing for business buck

20 Jul 2005

Combined O2 and Vodafone spend millions each year marketing their mobile voice and data services to both business and consumer customers. But behind the marketing hype what do the two major networks offer for mobile professionals and how do they differentiate themselves in the business market?

Rural dwellers living in an area of patchy coverage will probably fume at reading this, but the vast majority of business users are not going to change network simply to improve the quality of voice calls. When it comes to voice, features such as flexible billing, customer care and account management ultimately sway the decision — and the operators seem to try to match each other closely in these areas. Both networks offer the ability to buy voice minutes in bulk and then allocate them to different users in the organisation — Vodafone calls it ShareTime, while O2 dubs it Timeshare. Both operators also offer the ability for staff to be billed for personal calls — basically two mobile phone accounts on the one SIM card.

Damien Gallagher, value added services manager with O2, believes account management is key. “If you haven’t seen an account manager in months you may look to change network,” he says. Unsurprisingly, he believes O2 has an edge thanks to the range of additional services it offers such as O2 Instant, an off-the-shelf solution that removes paper from the field sales and delivery process, its strength with the BlackBerry platform and O2 Assistant, which allows small businesses to have their calls answered by an attendant rather than going to voicemail.

Vodafone has invested in heavy marketing for its Wireless Office service, which allows for free inter-company calls to mobiles and nominated landlines and is actively trying to move ShareTime customers to the service.

“Wireless Office is a unique differentiator for us,” says Chris Handley, head of business products with Vodafone. “We integrate with the customer’s private branch exchange system so that you can have short-code dialling for company extensions. We’re working towards a converged world where you would have just one phone rather than a mobile and a fixed line. We’re working on geographic number portability with the Commission for Communications Regulation — where you have a fixed-line number that you can move over to your Vodafone account. It’s one of the inhibitors to doing this.”

A major bugbear for business users who travel internationally is the high cost of roaming on other networks. “That’s an issue across all networks but there are options, such as using O2 Assistant to answer your calls and text you messages or using a BlackBerry, which can reduce your costs when abroad,” suggests Gallagher.

On the data side of things the approach of the networks could be summed up as O2 strives to be first to market with technologies, while Vodafone waits until the technology is proven or there is customer demand for it. For instance, O2 was first to market with BlackBerry devices and was the first mobile operator to provide its own Wi-Fi hotspots that provide high-speed internet access.

It’s a strategy that provides mixed returns — O2 has become synonymous with BlackBerry — Research In Motion’s wireless device that pushes email to users on the go, but it also has the expense of owning and operating its own wireless hotspots.

“With Wi-Fi we were the first to identify it as an opportunity to get to market,” says Gallagher. “At the time the market wasn’t mature here so we launched it in key strategic hotels with the back haul over our own network. It’s all about bringing more and more to customers so that they can be totally mobile.”

In contrast Vodafone was slower to offer Wi-Fi but has achieved wider coverage by partnering with existing operators BT Openzone and Bitbuzz. “We took a wait-and-see approach with Wi-Fi,” explains Handley. “We looked at operating our own network but it’s not a core competency of ours and we felt it was more efficient to go with partners.” Although it may have been late to the Wi-Fi party Handley says it will now look to bundle it with other offers — such as providing a Mobile Connect card that has Wi-Fi capability built in.

In certain cases Vodafone is not afraid to take the lead either. It launched a combined GPRS/3G data card — the first commercially available 3G service available in this country. Handley doesn’t believe that customers always want the fastest connection and so the combined data card allows them to use the carrier mechanism that most suits them at a time — eg GPRS when they are working off-site and want to monitor email, 3G when they are going online for half an hour and want to push through the maximum amount of data.

“Strategically we identified 3G as a key element in the business — we thought it could differentiate our service,” says Handley. “Investment in 3G is a big barrier to entry so we’ve tried to work the quality of network angle.”

According to Handley, Vodafone’s plan is to provide a number of different devices and services and let customers choose the one that suits them. Using email as an example, he says customers can choose between the web-based Email Anywhere, the BlackBerry push technology and a soon-to-be-launched service for users of Microsoft Exchange that will make it easier for them to access their mail on the move.

O2 is extremely proactive with its partner programme that matches third-party mobile developers with customer needs. These partners specialise in areas such as telemetry, fleet management, sales force automation and applications for BlackBerry devices. The software house provides its application but O2 remains heavily involved in project management, consultancy, technical support and training. As a result it has won high-profile projects with Aircoach, Leitrim County Council and Heineken to name but a few.

Handley concedes that working closely with third-party developers is “an area we need to improve” but points to the strength of its relationship with key mobile software houses such as Wasp Technologies. “We only hold partnerships that can make money for both sides,” he concludes.

By John Collins