Saudi Telecom, Boycotts, Social Media (راح_نفلسكم#) and Stock Price Impact

Forgive my wordy headline, but there’s a lot to get into this story. Before anything else, let me spell out the context. Saudi and Saudis love social media, but they haven’t been enthused by the efforts of the telecommunication providers in the country to block free call apps or services offered by the likes of FaceTime, SnapChat and WhatsApp. To add insult to injury, consumers have claimed that the Kingdom’s three telcos (Mobily, Saudi Telecom and Zain) have rolled back unlimited data services.

So what have the country’s social media-crazy consumers done? Yes, you guessed right. They’ve taken to social media to call for a boycott. Under the hashtags (which basically means we’ll bankrupt you) and  (boycott telco companies), the idea is simple.

Starting from last weekend, Saudi users have begun to switch off their phones. The hashtag and others have gone viral, and users have taken to Twitter to demand action against the telcos, including physical boycotts of stores.

The ultimate mark of consumer sentiment is cartoons, and Saudi’s most prominent cartoonist Abdullah Jaber stepped in to pen his own thoughts on the issue (the below translates as the Telco company on the right, saying to the consumer, “why are you angry?”

Saudi Telecom in particular has been hit, both in terms of its social media following (the carrier has lost almost 150,000 followers on its Twitter account), as well as its share price which dropped by several percent on Sunday morning after trading opened on the Saudi bourse.

stc-followers

Saudi Telecom’s Twitter account @STC_KSA lost over 140,000 followers in the space of two days as boycott calls spread (source: Twitter Count).

stc-stock-price

Saudi Telecom’s stock price was also hit on Sunday, with an initial fall of 8% (source: Google Finance)

There’s a further dimension to this story, with some online accounts in the UAE calling for similar action to be taken against the two telco incumbents (see the hashtag  and ).

Is this type of online activism on a single economic issue going to become more common, particularly with the state of finances across the region? And what can communicators do about an issue that is about a product and a strategy that consumers don’t like?

As always, it’d be good to hear your thoughts.

What Customer Service? Etisalat and its inability to put customers first…

Etisalat never ceases to transform me into a mass of seething rage and frustration thanks to its inability to do anything right for its consumers

Etisalat never ceases to transform me into a mass of seething rage and frustration thanks to its inability to do anything right for its consumers

I’m a patient man. Really, I am (I can imagine my wife shaking her head right now, but it’s true). I can put up with anything. It’s just that I don’t want to give up the good fight when it comes to telling companies that we customers in the Gulf (and especially in the UAE) deserve more. Here’s one story of a company that could do a whole lot more to be customer-friendly, my favorite Etisalat.

At the beginning of the year, I was jumping up and down with excitement. For the first time I could change my home internet provider at my home in Abu Dhabi. For years, I’d been stuck with Etisalat and its atrociously poor customer service. Now, I could move to Du. I took up the opportunity, and moved. Unfortunately, no matter how much I wanted it to work, it was a doomed romance. I couldn’t get television services as part of my internet and telephone services (I still can’t explain this one), and, most importantly, Du’s internet connection was poor and often dropped. With a tear in my eye, I had to go back to Etisalat.

I head on down to one of Etisalat’s outlets and make the request for internet at home. The request was simple enough, until we got to the nitty gritty of the agreement which included a router and phone. There was no need for either, I explained, as I’d already spent on both. No worries, I was told by the sales person, I could use my routers but I’d still have to take the router and phone as part of the package (in other words, the package was fixed).

First step done, I waited for the engineer to come around. He did and he had a look at my internet setup. He then asked if could set up the network, including the Etisalat router, a D-Link AC1750 router. I said I’d like my router set up, a Linksys WRT1900ac which I’d already spent a significant chunk of money on and which I’d already set up for my home.

After an hour of ‘discussion’, including lines such as ‘the Etisalat connection will only work with the D-Link router from Etisalat’, and that ‘the Linksys wouldn’t work as it couldn’t be configured’ (both of which were utter nonsense), I spoke to a supervisor who told me that it was a sales decision and that I’d need to go back to the store to sort it out. I even offered to take the router but not to use it. My request was turned down. In essence, no Etisalat router installed = no internet.

Two days later, I received an SMS saying that my original request for internet had been declined and that I’d have to make a new request. Which of course I did, and during which I asked the same things, to be told the same excuses. Essentially, someone in head office had decided that he knew best, better than his customers, and that without a router from Etisalat, which we pay for, we can’t get internet from Etisalat.

What pains me throughout this is that I’m not alone in my point of view (and my suffering). The first engineer explained that every day new seven or eight customers would tell him the same thing, and yet he couldn’t do anything. All that we customers can do is dump our expensive kit so that someone in Etisalat can make more money. Forget listening to the customer, forget keeping them happy and increasing their average spend through giving them what they want. Let’s ram products down their throat as there’s nowhere they can go and no one they can complain to. It’s naturally disappointing, especially when you consider the leaps and bounds that are being made by other operators across the globe, even here in the Gulf.

The experience was topped off by my wife paying the second engineer to reconfigure all of our wireless extenders at home to work with the new router.

Customer service and Etisalat? It seems I, like many others, have no choice but to suffer as we wait for a customer-centric epiphany among Etisalat’s executive management.

The Real #EtisalatChallenge – Where are the eGlobe Cards?

Do you know about the eGlobe card and where to find it? Is this the real #EtisalatChallenge?

Do you know about the eGlobe card and where to find it? Is this the real #EtisalatChallenge?

It’s Gitex week, and its technology time. For those of you who don’t know Gitex, imagine tens of thousands of people talking about hardware, software and all things geeky. But I digress.

We’ve had our little bundle of joy and we’ve been lucky enough to have another addition to the family this month. To help her feel at home, we wanted to buy phone cards so that she could use the landline and she’d know how much she’d spend each time she’d call home (why not a mobile you ask? Well, landlines offer better voice quality, more stable connections and are usually cheaper).

After a little bit of research and a lot of shop visits, we realized that the VoIP calling cards which were being advertised at the start of the year by the two phone companies Etisalat and Du, Five and Hello! respectively, were no longer on sale (though you’d be hard pressed to find an announcement in the media).

Instead, Etisalat, the UAE’s largest phone company, was offering on its website a solution called eGlobe. To quote:

Use your prepaid, disposable Calling Cards for services such as recharging and renewing your Landline Prepaid (Maysour) account, Home Country Direct calls, Prepaid Internet, eVision pay-per-view, Hotspots, and more, in addition to national and international calls from any phone.

All well and good. But where can one buy them?

Buy Prepaid Calling Cards at
• Your nearest Etisalat Business / Service Centres
• Supermarkets, grocery and convenience stores, other outlets

So off I went. To the first store, where the response was, “What?” Ok, it’s a small store. Maybe they’ll have the cards at the local Co-op here in Abu Dhabi. “No, sir. We only have mobile recharge cards.” And then, after calling up the help line and getting no where, I marched off to the Etisalat shop, where, after ten minutes, I finally spoke to someone who knew about the eGlobe cards. “We have them with a chain called Fatima Stores…” So, off I went to the Fatima Store behind Dana hotel in downtown Abu Dhabi.

After walking around for a while, I finally found the shop. And what happened? “No, I’ve never heard of eGlobe cards.”

As the Thursday afternoon and evening passed me by and having driven, walked and talked in circles all of the afternoon and the evening, it dawned on me. What I had written about a couple of months back was a hoax. You launch a product on your website, and yet you tell none of your staff about it or sell it through your traditional distribution channels. It’s almost like one of those impossible game shows where the odds are rigged forever against you. The eGlobe card is the original, the true Etisalat Challenge.

Are you up to the task of finding the eGlobe card?

Hashtag hijacking and the need for authenticity – the #EtisalatChallenge

Let’s face it, social media is entertaining. As communicators, we really do need to think through the consequences of using digital. But sometimes, the best of intentions just aren’t enough. Companies who don’t think through the reasoning behind their campaigns will face a backlash online, including derision, contempt, and abuse.

There are many examples globally of hashtag hijacking; possibly the best is McDonalds and its #McStories campaign. Fortunately for us in the Middle East, we now have our own example of how not to launch a hashtag on Twitter. A couple of days back the Abu Dhabi-based telecommunications operator launched an advertising campaign called the #EtisalatChallenge. The idea is simple enough – Etisalat challenges consumers to find offers and prices that are better than their own and they’ll match or beat that offer. You will literally see the below advert everywhere across the UAE at the moment.

Are you ready for the #EtisalatChallenge?

Are you ready for the #EtisalatChallenge?

Now, there’s a couple of issues here. The first is pretty basic; the UAE’s telco market is a duopoly. Both operators are government-owned and there’s not much in the way of competition when compared to other. The second is Etisalat’s reputation. The company isn’t the most consumer-friendly in terms of its support. Shortly after Etisalat launched its hashtag #EtisalatChallenge (complete with a huge marketing campaign), the hashtag itself was taken over by customers complaining about high costs and poor service.

Despite the obvious backfiring of the campaign (and, as you can see from the tweets below, the campaign has been taken over by negative sentiment), Etisalat has persevered with the #EtisalatChallenge.

What’s even stranger is the number of bots, of Twitter accounts which are automated which have are now tweeting the same message about the campaign.

The other element of the campaign which is intriguing is the number of celebrities that Etisalat has brought in. There is one of Scotland’s finest, Gerald Butler, Bollywood actor Hrithik Roshan, and Filipina actress and singer Lea Salonga. Etisalat has also paid a number of the UAE’s leading social media influencers. While the use of social media influencers to support marketing campaigns is becoming standard practice, the #EtisalatChallenge in unusual in that many of the influencers have previously worked for the UAE’s rival operator Du. Have a look below.

Emirati social media celebrity Mthayel Al Ali was a Du supporter

Emirati social media celebrity Mthayel Al Ali was a Du supporter

But now Emirati social media celebrity Mthayel Al Ali is also an Etisalat fan

But now Emirati social media celebrity Mthayel Al Ali is also an Etisalat fan

Egyptian footballer and model Sherif Fayed was part of Du's marketing before his switch to Etisalat

Egyptian footballer and model Sherif Fayed was part of Du’s marketing before his switch to Etisalat

Egyptian footballer and model Sherif Fayed is also a fan of green as he shifts to #EtisalatChallenge

Egyptian footballer and model Sherif Fayed is also a fan of green as he shifts to #EtisalatChallenge

Before her support for the #EtisalatChallenge UAE media personality Diala Ali was a Du supporter.

Before her support for the #EtisalatChallenge UAE media personality Diala Ali was a Du supporter.

From blue to green - UAE media personality Diala Ali shows her support for the #Etisalat Challenge

From blue to green – UAE media personality Diala Ali shows her support for the #Etisalat Challenge

While one can easily fault Etisalat for getting out the cash and spending a fortune on social media endorsements, these online influencers are more to blame in my eyes. They’re doing their own brands more harm than good by changing from one corporate brand to the other so quickly. Their authenticity is at stake, and for someone who runs a social media agency Mthayel Al Ali should understand that authenticity matters to fans, and fans are the reason these people are paid to endorse brands. There’s little long-term thinking from influencers who have worked with Du previously and whom are now working with Etisalat.

Going beyond the pains of creating corporate hashtags (which, in this case clearly don’t work), what was Etisalat thinking? And what is it still thinking, seeing as the campaign is failing so badly? Come on, share with me your #EtisalatChallenge!

If you don’t like it, then leave! Hey @Dutweets and how not to deal with customers online

One week, two social media blunders in the United Arab Emirates. First we had Subaru Emirates and now we have Du, the UAE’s second largest telecommunications company, getting everyone into a tizzy.

The background to the story, which has been covered by the UAE-based magazine Computer News Middle East, is an increase in charges for the company’s home user pricing plans. The price increases, which have risen by up to 37 percent, seem to have been posted on the company’s website rather than having being formally announced by the company.

Unsurprisingly, consumers haven’t taken to Du’s price increases (note – for data services the UAE operates a monopolistic system whereby you have to purchase from the sole telco who is licensed to operate in your area, which is either Du or Etisalat). Du’s twitter account, @Dutweets, has been inundated with tweets from aggrieved consumers who understandably don’t want to pay more for their existing service and don’t want Du’s offer of additional phone minutes in compensation for the higher prices. Have a look below:

Unfortunately, for the people in the company running the Du account (Du handles social media internally I believe) things have gone from bad to worse. One reply has gone viral and is receiving a swathe of negative feedback on Du and its social media efforts.

I do feel for @Dutweets as they’re having to face the fallout from a pricing decision which has been poorly executed and hasn’t been communicated in the right manner – from a customer perspective there’s no justification for a price rise for the same service, especially when Du’s customers have no other provider and when their existing contracts should be honored for the contracts’ duration. However, if a company isn’t willing to resolve issues through social media then what’s the point of entering into a dialogue with the community? And no matter the frustration levels you can’t respond to customers in a manner that seems unsympathetic. So please, no more Hey! messages @dutweets. Understand the concerns, pass on the message to the executives and wait for a positive message from upstairs. Don’t do a Subaru, because you’re only going to make things much, much worse for yourselves.

https://twitter.com/WildeTrude/status/364691859576061954

How long do we have to wait for competition in the UAE’s telco space?

Sometimes you have to wonder if anyone at Du, Etisalat or the TRA is listening when it comes to doing a deal on market liberalization (image source: http://www.healthyblackmen.org)

As the saying goes, everything comes to those who wait. If you’re waiting for competition in the UAE’s telco space you may have a couple more years of waiting. Reuters published a story today detailing how despite talks beginning in September 2009, Du and Etisalat have yet to agree terms for network sharing. The best bits from the Reuters piece are below.

The United Arab Emirates’ two telecom operators, Etisalat and du, remain at loggerheads over a deal to allow them to compete on fixed line services nearly four years after negotiations began.

Du and Etisalat already offer fixed-line, broadband and television packages in the UAE, but not in the same districts, with du confined to the newer areas of Dubai.

The two companies, which are both majority-owned by government institutions, started technology trials that would allow network sharing more than two years ago and an agreement was slated to be concluded by 2011-end.

But a report from the Telecommunications Regulatory Authority (TRA) this week shows the companies cannot agree on the extent of so-called bitstream access, which would enable one operator to permit the other to use its fixed network, or a method to determine the fees for allowing such access.

“The two licensees are still negotiating,” states the regulator’s report, which was published on its website.
“Bitstream access could have a significant impact on competition.”

The TRA states it will “impose a requirement to offer bitstream access products for both residential and business markets,” reiterating a commitment it made in a 2010 policy document.

Further liberalisation has proved fraught – mobile number portability, which would allow customers to retain their phone number when switching provider, has yet to be introduced despite the regulator previously stating this would be available by mid-2008.

Now, almost four years later ad yet we’re still nowhere near having any competition in the telecoms space in the UAE. The question is when is the UAE’s Telecoms Regulatory Authority going to step up and force the two telcos to agree a deal?

Across the region, we have some powerful regulators who have forced incumbent operators into making changes (Bahrain’s TRA is a great example of how a regulator should act on behalf of a country’s consumers). And yet, despite repeated promises from the TRA the UAE’s public is still waiting for a raft of measures that will liberalize the telecommunications sector, reduce costs and, hopefully, raise the quality of the country’s telecommunication services.

Just remember, if you’re waiting for the respective parties to agree and benefit from market liberalisation in the UAE’s telco sector it’s probably best not to hold your breath based on Du’s and Etisalat’s track record.

Hello, hello??? Skype, the VoIP fiascos and the UAE’s telcos (oh, and also the TRA)

Skype may be finally available by accident in the UAE but I doubt that Du took action after listening to the consumer. In fact, does anyone in the UAE’s telco sector listen to what consumers want? (Credit: Blakeandkaty.com)

Who hasn’t heard of VoIP, or voice-over-IP for those of us who are allergic to abbreviations. Or, put in a different way, who has not heard of Skype? The software, which allows users to call other users for free over the internet or call phone lines for (usually) lower fees than it’d cost to use a telecommunications operator, is the most popular VoIP software on the market today. Skype is free, it can be downloaded in a matter of minutes, and it’s incredibly handy. Skype and other software products have been out for what seems like an eternity (Skype was released in 2003 and I’ve been using it since 2004) but all of this malarkey might have passed you by if you lived in the UAE. Why? Well, let’s put it this way, Skype may cost the UAE’s two telecommunication companies quite a bit of cash and so it and other VoIP products designed for public consumption have been banned in the country.

The UAE’s telcos, Du and Etisalat, and the country’s official body for the industry, the Telecommunications Regulatory Authority, have played a merry dance with consumers to sidestep the issue. In a series of flip-flops that would make any politician proud the TRA took the lead in terms of banning Skype only to change its stance in 2010 when the body claimed that the country’s telco operators were free to license VoIP solutions.

Of course the telcos didn’t take any action, Skype’s website remained blocked and while people could download the software via third-party providers you wouldn’t be able to charge your account and make net-to-phone calls without a friend loading our account from outside of the UAE (the exception used to be the Free Zones where Skype was for a time in 2004-2006 unblocked – of course this changed in due course).

After years of talk and no action, something strange was spotted by the hawks at the National newspaper this week. Skype’s website was accessible for people who used the internet service provided by Du; they could open accounts and load money onto the service. The original article is here and is worth a read. The country’s other ISP Etisalat is still blocking Skype.

The mystery deepened the next day after the media rushed to Du for a quote. While initially tight-lipped Du did release a statement as follows:

“There has been no change in the treatment of VoIP traffic, including Skype, on our networks.”

So, Skype is available from Du. It can be used to make calls and yet there’s been no change. No, it doesn’t make sense to me either. I’m sure the confusion over the issue will continue for some time. Microsoft, Skype’s owner, claims to not know what is going on. And there’s no suggestion that Etisalat, the other larger ISP, will unblock the service any time soon. If anything is a lesson in bad communications then this should be it.

Let me contrast this with the rest of the region, where Skype is freely available and not blocked. And don’t even get me started on Apple’s Facetime which is also not available in the UAE and yet accessible across the rest of the GCC.

A decade after its release and we’re still no closer to understanding when VoIP software will be freely available to use in the UAE. Even the launch of Blackberry’s Z10, which uses a solution called BBM Voice to make and receive calls over data networks (ala VoIP), was apparently delayed by the UAE’s refusal to allow use of the programme in the country. And I quote:

On Sunday afternoon, BlackBerry announced that the phone would still go on sale, but it was confirmed that the BBM Voice would not be available when the device was launched.

“We are currently in talks with BlackBerry on launch of BBM Voice and Video services,” Farid Faraidooni, chief commercial officer of Du, said in an emailed statement. “We shall soon commence testing phase to assure the right consumer experience. We remain committed towards launching new and innovative services that add value to customers in the UAE marketplace.”

Etisalat could not be reached for comment.

For a country that prides itself on being a hub for the region’s tech sector I’ve always found this issue embarrassing. It smacks of greed, of protectionism, and of not wanting to adapt to today’s technology where it will impact revenues. In other markets such as Bahrain and Saudi Arabia the regulatory body acts on behalf of the consumer. Unfortunately, we’re some way off that concept here. So for now, I’ll be using my Skype as much as possible. I’m hoping that all of you good people in the UAE will join me online and on Skype sooner rather than later.