Top Ten Tips for Working with Operators (Part Two)

Posted by MelissaUlbricht on Jan 14, 2011

In part one of "How to Work With Operators," we investigated key considerations for mobile-for-change projects that, for better or worse, have to deal with mobile operations. In this second part of the series we look at the ten top tips for a successful relationship. While there is no one-size fits all approach or recommendation for a successful relationship, here are some tips for approaching, building, and sustaining a solid business relationship with a mobile provider.

1. Know the 'personality' of the provider

Think of MNOs as having personalities - a certain culture and ethos that they espouse. Knowing the personality of a provider can help shape your approach and ensuing success in establishing a good working relationship. Even operators within the same country will have different notions of how to work with you. And what you get from one operator may be completely different than what you get from another operator.

For instance, some MNOs may have be more open to innovation and to new ideas that you may have. Others are will be more risk-averse and unwilling to try anything not tested before. At the end of the day, you have to choose an operator to work with, and understanding personality may be key to a good decision and even better relationship. The best way to get to a know a personality is to talk to colleagues and teams already working in the area.

Roshan in Afghanistan, for instance, credits its "personality" to a mandate from the Aga Khan Fund for Economic Development (AKFED), which owns 51 percent of the company. As a result, “the ethos of the company is very much one of social development, which is driven by the Aga Khan Development Network,” Altaf Ladak of Roshan said. “But all of our shareholders have the same belief and understand what we’re trying to do in terms of development work.”

2. Listen to and adapt to local expertise and direction

Adapt and negotiate. In developing the Konbit project, Greg Elliott and Aaron Zinman had initially planned to make outgoing calls. But, the two were told by David Sharpe of Digicel Haiti that it is much easier, given how things work locally, for Digicel to provide free incoming calls. They modified the system accordingly, in conjunction with Digicel. “We both had to be agile,” Elliott and Zinman said. “When you are working with major companies, especially on the telecom front, and when you try to come in with experimental beta testing of something that doesn’t fit into existing models, the challenge is to figure out how to adjust that structure to fit the project.”

Other tips we heard included suggestions from MNOs and trade industries to "just come talk to us." Chris Locke of the GSMA Development Fund, for instance, said, “we’ve got a lot of experience in working with operators. If we can’t help directly, we should be able to at least point people in the right direction of someone who can.” And Sharpe said, “Anybody can contact me. I speak to maybe five people a day just asking what’s possible.”

3. Take a fresh perspective in selling your project

Take some time to view the perspective of the MNO and look at the project in terms of how it’s going to help the MNO meet its goals. Your goals will inevitably differ from the the goals of the provider, but there are possibilities to align the two.

The Community Power from Mobile initiative, for example, is trying to prove a business model for mobile tower operators to provide excess power to off-grid charging stations. One inherent challenge in the model is revenue for the mobile provider; one solution may be an increase in airtime spent on local customers because their phone is now more easily charged.

In the case of BBC Janala (which partnered with all six mobile providers in Bangladesh), in order to bring mobile phone operators on board, the team had to develop a robust business case and estimate the number of calls the service would receive over the course of the project, and thus the amount of revenue the MNOs would receive. To do this, the organization had to clearly define its audience and how the program would be useful to that audience.

Locke, managing director of the GSMA Development Fund, offers this advice:

“If you’re going to get something to scale sustainably with a mobile company, you have to show how it’s good business practice for them to do it. It doesn’t necessarily have to be in profit, it could mean customer attention, it could mean they offer a service that differentiates them in the market, there are lots of different ways -- like any business -- an operator would be interested in delivering something unique to its community. It’s about being creative in how you structure that and make all the people involved recognize that that’s the value the program has.”

4. Try to add rather than create

For individuals and organizations, and especially for small-scale or pilot projects, it may be easier to add than to create. For example, if an MNO is currently investigating how SMS can be used to reach a larger customer base, there may be an approved budget and staff assigned to projects in this realm. This would be a good time to pitch support for an SMS-based project. Even though objectives and goals may differ, the dedicated money and time to a particular technology or platform may work in your favor.

Trying to build something new with an MNO may be time consuming and complex. And difficult, if expertise, time, and funds are in short supply. Thus, adding rather creating is often a more realistic and mutually beneficial approach. However, the timing involved with this may involve a touch of luck.

5. Understand technology capacity

If your project involves a reverse billing SMS service, do the major providers in the area currently offer this? Who is already using a similar service? Consult those providers who have already taken on similar projects with other organizations or teams.

Sharpe at Digicel Haiti suggests that understanding who else does this is a common issue. The NGO community that USAID supports, for example, does not have a central repository of all the software and services that have been used in various locations. There is no ability to “pull out and deploy in another country,” Sharpe said. “In Haiti, we’ve asked, well, you have done this in Papua, New Guinea. You have done this in Africa. Bring that here so you can do it.” A typical response is “Oh, we don’t have it. Or, we don’t know those guys.” (One of the goals of, of course, is to provide a repository of cases where a specific mobile tech approach was used).

6. Be open to suggestions and changes

Be open to suggestions - a tip that holds for both MNO and project team. Not every question can be answered before implementation, but each party brings important insights from the ground. There is value in working with a provider who not only listens and provides insight, but also reacts to what the project team wants to do. 

As mentioned above, for example, the Konbit project team worked with Digical Haiti to focus on incoming rather than outgoing calls. (Konbit is currently being piloted in Haiti and aims to register 3000 users in the first month; will report back on how that is going.)

7. Be realistic and honest

Keep in mind the size and scope of your project at all times. MNOs have specific processes they work through. If your project grows during the pilot, it may complicate and delay implementations. Be realistic up front about what you anticipate needing from the MNO. It is not a good idea to sell the project short. If you get an MNO on board with a less-than-developed project, only to come back at a later date and ask for more support or further build-out, you may run into resistance.

In many cases, it may be best to approach and partner with an MNO after a project has been piloted. Project Mwana in Zambia is a case in point. There the UNICEF project team approached and worked with mobile providers after completeing a trial.  (Project Mwana looked at how mobile technology could strengthen a larger UNICEF project, and included analysis of early infant HIV/AIDS diagnosis and patient tracking at rural clinics.)

The project team had initially intended to partner with mobile proveder Zain. Throughout the pilot, however, project lead Merrick Schaefer said, there was a change in reasoning. “If you are going to go through all of the effort to partner with the provider, you probably shouldn’t do it for the pilot, you should do it for something that is scaled.”

The project team looked at the actual savings involved in partnering.  For Project Mwana, the money saved by partnering with Zain during a 20-clinic pilot was very small compared to what could be saved if the team brokered an arrangement later to support 1500 clinics.

As such, Schaefer said, they could then use the volume of messages as a leveraging point, such as by saying, “now that we are planning on taking this to a national level, we know that there is going to be a lot of messages flowing through the system.”

Locke stressed the importance of this as well. “Our key priority is making sure these things have sustainability and scale. So, make sure you design programs that will last beyond the initial funding,” he said.

8. Consider a third-party approach

Location is key to your approach. In many locations, project teams often work with third-party providers or companies. A case in point is the company Mobile Commons that provides technology for scalable mobile marketing campaign management in the United States. We asked Jed Alpert, co-founder and CEO of Mobile Commons, how individuals and organizations work with MNOs within the U.S: “It’s a simple answer. Which is: application providers and aggregators.”

“Aggregators are like administrative pipes that manage the traffic between MNOs and the application providers. The application providers manage the traffic on behalf of the organizations. The MNOs maintain the connection to the actual consumer, the people who have mobile phones,” Alpert notes.

There are countries where it can be preferable to have a direct relationship with the actual mobile network operator. This is true in some countries in  developing world, where in many cases, aggregators do not have much coverage. A direct link to the MNO may be preferable if the aggregator in the country is out-of-market expensive or is limited in service (as in, the company does not reach every carrier.) In some countries, there hasn’t been a commercial reason to develop aggregator infrastructure, Alpert said, “so the best solution is often to integrate directly with the carrier.”

But third-party aggregators, when available, can be a smart approach to launching mobile-based projects. It makes the ability to implement scale clear. “All that has to happen is they have to turn us on in whatever country we’re operating in and then we’re live,” Alpert said. “There is a lot of efficiency in not having to go to every carrier every time you want to launch a program.”

9. Think about the drawbacks

Think about what you may be giving up by partnering with a particular provider. In Zambia, Schaefer and his team noted along the way that if they partnered exclusively with Zain, a provider that reaches 70 percent of people, they would have excluded a fair amount of  people at the rural clinics who use other mobile providers. “For a project to scale, we couldn’t partner just with Zain,” Schaefer said. “We had to partner with all providers.”  If you go with provider X, will that limit you from working with Y and Z in the future?

Another important question to ask before delving into any relationship include is about the value you receive from the partnership. Given the project platform and scope, do you even require partnering with the MNO?  Or can you purchase services on your own? Is it better to wait until a project goes to scale to begin a relationship?

When many small project or pilot teams all approach the same operator, this replication can waste time. It can also dilute an opportunity for later, larger projects. “One of the dangers when lots of little projects are doing partnerships is the CSR goodness. They already have the ability to have a picture of them shaking hands, taking photos,” Schaefer said. “That opportunity gets diluted the more that happens.”

10. Know your history and do your research

Are others in your field or region already partnering with a certain provider? Your project, for instance, is probably not the first m-health initiative in the area. What have others done before you? While others may not have a technical partnership, there may be functional or business relationships that exist that you can capitalize on.

Depending on the size of the organization or NGO, these relationships may already exist within your own offices or network.  Before you start, complete an assessment of other projects. Essentially, don’t re-invent the wheel on anything. Do your research and tap into what exists around you. For a few tips on what we here at provide, check out this article.

Photo from Flickr user Draml.

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