Plan.com co-founder on why the latest evolution of its portal will be well worth the wait
Plan.com co-founder Keith Curran is buzzing with excitement as he opens his laptop to take me through a demonstration of the latest evolution of the O2 airtime distributor’s portal, V4.
The company was established in March 2014 by industry veteran Curran and Dan Craddock, managing director of private equity firm Bramden Investments. It has enjoyed monumental growth and success in the three years since.
Over the past 12 months, this has been driven by V3, the last evolution of its popular partner portal, which enhanced the mantra from day one that whether you were a one-man band or 500-employee company, you could do more than the networks – and in a much quicker timeframe.
At launch, the then unknown airtime distributor made a number of big statements, such as “putting the dealer back in control” with an objective to create a modern and flexible B2B proposition that would “shake up the market”, and appeal to the mobile, fixed and IT community, removing the everyday barriers and frustrations they experience.
Curran (pictured main) claims V4, which he labels as the industry’s first “smart portal” or “intelligent portal” takes those abilities to provide the best possible customer experience to a whole new level.
“From day one, our remit been has to enable the partners to effectively become the network operator.
“That seemed crazy three years ago when we were driving this to market and we made a bold statement that this was not meant as a negative to the networks but we think we can even take you beyond what a network can do.
“It wouldn’t matter if you were a one-man-band or a company of a 100 employees, you would be able to do things that the network can’t do and certainly a lot quicker than anyone else. What you will find with V4 is that it absolutely drives beyond that level.
“A good portal is probably one that people like and want to use and they can do that because things are simple. A great portal is not only one that is easy to use, but also provides what is required and expected.
“Our view was that a truly groundbreaking portal will give you all of that but also what you aren’t expecting because that is what will take it to that next level. V4 is a completely different type of portal.”
Speed of response
Curran insists that another of Plan’s key strengths over the past three years has been its speed of response to changing partner and industry needs, perfectly illustrated with the launch of V4.
He claims this is where Plan.com stands out, not just in the dealer channel, but the UK mobile industry as a whole.
Curran alludes to one network that recently launched a portal that took three years to build but adds there is no way it can be in the position it needs to be as “it will have changed when you finally go live so you are already behind”.
Careful roll out
Despite Plan’s speed of response, it has been careful to roll out V4.
“V3 wasn’t a start/stop process but because of the size of our partner and customer base, we couldn’t just roll it out at once because it is too risky,” says Curran. “If something went horribly wrong, then our whole business would collapse.
“Partners don’t want us to behave like that – they want to be gently eased into it. From a customer perspective, the partners need to be fully behind this before we roll it out.
“They are telling us to go live with this as soon as possible but we are urging caution because we want to get this right.”
As Curran begins to take me through a live version of V4, you can already see the massive steps the portal has taken from when we sat down six months ago to discuss the benefits of V3 and the success it had enjoyed.
What is clear early on is that roaming and preventing customer bill shock – a major bugbear of dealers over recent years as overseas rates fluctuate – is absolutely central to V4.
A survey by price comparison website by uSwitch.com, in which it surveyed a nationally representative sample of 2,002 UK adults from March 3-6 emphasised the importance of this. It revealed that almost a quarter (24 per cent) of mobile users have returned home from holiday to be hit with a sizeable bill – 16 per cent within the past two years.
The average overspend was found to be £52 but 17 per cent had racked up charges of over £75 and one in 10 had spent more than £100.
The survey found the top causes of bill shock include forgetting to switch off data roaming (30 per cent), mistakenly thinking Wi-Fi is on (27 per cent) and using a phone in emergencies (16 per cent), forgetting to use flight mode (nine per cent) and forgetting to disable voicemail (eight per cent).
uSwitch.com added that a general lack of understanding about roaming from mobile users and the associated charges that come with it are also to blame.
Almost a fifth (18 per cent) wrongly believe there are no charges for people receiving voicemails outside of the EU and more than a third (37 per cent) think there are now no charges for using their phone in other EU countries.
A key standout feature on V4 is the live feeds section which works around the clock on the front of the portal. It updates every second to provide partners with real time alerts on all developments with their customers around their contracts and usage.
The insight and intelligence provided through the portal is linked through Plan’s own private access point name (APN), a service which can be used to capture all 3G/4G mobile data leaving a device, and route the traffic back to an IP endpoint at a corporate network.
Roaming and overspend are central elements to this. The portal will notify the partner when a SIM card is activated in a foreign country so that they can act accordingly by adding a bolt-on to prevent bill shock when they return to the UK.
Plan.com can also get a breakdown, for example, of how many SIMs are roaming both in Europe and around the world and with one click, can add the appropriate action. That then shows you the device and all the services being used with it.
Customers, who have access to their own version of the portal, can see via V4 alerts when one of their employees has, for example, touched down in Spain and is watching live football on the beach. They can view the current chargers so the bill can be tracked in real time.
“Partners want to see everything but that is not always easy to deliver,” says Curran.
“For example, if only I knew the minute my customer landed in a foreign country so that I could act accordingly for them.
“It’s no good finding out when they get back and might have bill shock, or they are out there and get messages saying they have no available data.
“What would be fantastic is if I got something on a screen in front of me that said they had just landed in another country, didn’t have the relevant bolt-on [and]providing me with the relevant bolt on so that I could apply it instantly. That sort of insight is invaluable.”
Customers overspending on their monthly tariffs, an element key within their domestic and global mobile use, is also a key feature of V4, with the live feed alerting the partner as to when this is about to, or has, happened.
This is becoming an ever-more important element of mobile use. According to research from Echo Managed Services in January, unclear bills can lead to debt issues, with over a third of late or non-payments occurring due to billing issues such as inaccurate bills, bills customers couldn’t understand and bill shock.
V4 prioritises the most urgent overspend matters in front of the partner so they can deal with them accordingly.
Solving these problems in real time enables them to be dealt with immediately as opposed to taking the normal route of calling a customer call centre or for the customer encountering bill shock when they view their charges up to a month later.
“Wouldn’t it be great if I received this alert to tell me what a customer’s spend is and I could make one click to add a bolt-on,” says Curran.
“Here we can see that a customer has gone into another overspend alert, and most partners would love to know when they have got to that point.
“They don’t get to know that with anyone else as it’s normally a call from the customer a month later when they receive their bill and they are shocked because they had been told they were within their bundle.
“You want to see exactly what your spend is and what the customer’s overspend is, with the most urgent ones prioritised. That is a great motivator for a partner.”
Central to a partner’s business and the longevity of it is how much money is coming in from the new deals they sign up and existing customers they retain.
This is a key part of the portal and emphasises its reputation for flexibility. When partners put together a quote and tariff structure for the customer, with just one click they receive a complete breakdown of what is provided.
Here, they can see what commission they will receive upfront in terms of the percentage of the overall contract. They might look at the customer’s bill, see genuine overspend as they are abroad a lot and may choose to not take any money upfront from Plan, thus resulting in a bigger percentage of the overspend.
This can be swapped and changed on every deal, which can’t be done elsewhere as they are signed up to a fixed revenue structure.
The ‘Wallet’ section on the portal shows partners what they are getting paid and if it is correct, while a bank statement section shows what money is coming in and out of the business in real time. Clicking on a link will link it to a quote and invoice number, which can then be downloaded.
In terms of renewals, the portal will also inform partners of which customers are the most lucrative from a commission perspective. They are also presented with a list of customers that may already be out of contract, all the way to those with up to six months remaining on their deal.
“This is all absolutely key for partners,” enthuses Curran. “There aren’t many new customers as most have a smartphone. There is an argument that if you want to be seen to be growing, if you lose a customer, you’ve got to put two back on.
“The other challenge is when you acquire a customer, it’s not that straightforward. The cost to acquire a customer in normal circumstances is always higher than trying to keep the customer.
“There is a massive focus in V4 to provide live information about every SIM card on your customer base. With this customer, I can see that I have 3,600 SIM cards that this partner has on their base and 2.7 per cent of them are out of contract.
“It will tell you how many are up for renewal up to six months in advance and who is most at risk from the competition. One click takes me to the renewal quote section and pushing that will generate an e-contract. That will land in the customer’s inbox, they accept it via the IP address.
“That could normally take a week to process with someone but if you use the insight and intelligence of the portal and data, this can be done in minutes as opposed to days.”
Live status of deals
The benefits of the portal and what the live feeds section provides doesn’t stop there.
Dealer principals can see the live status of all of the deals their sales teams are working on, providing them with details on which ones have been created and are awaiting customer contracts – prioritising them all in real time.
They can also view the deal quote-to-conversion rate of every member from the sales team. Clicking on one member of staff will show the number of quotes they have done, how many they have converted and their conversion rate.
Curran says: “You would normally have different screens in your office that you can spread over different areas. Here it is very easy to determine what alerts you want different people to see such as customer alerts, quote alerts for sales teams, finance alerts for the finance team.
“For example, 38 minutes ago, this particular quote for this customer went from provisionally viewed to connection pending. That is fantastic for a partner because normally they might have to find that information out through a phone call, which can be lengthy, and sometimes it isn’t resolved quickly.
“The great thing is no time is being wasted as everything that is happening with that sales quotation is being processed in real time in a live feed between yourself and the team.”
Elsewhere, dealers can see how many customers have active voice or text bars on their accounts and can also go in live and customise certain things.
Through one click, they can view customer reports, which might include bills by service in the past 30 days which they can download and email to their finance department.
Customer ownership and trust has also become a big part of a dealer’s business. As soon as they drag their company logo and type a description of the company onto the portal, it appears on the customer’s bill.
Curran claims this immediately creates a close relationship with the customer which will make them feel “more looked after”.
“Customer ownership is a big thing for a partner,” he adds. “The customer has their door to the portal of my platform and they can see all of this information so when the customer sees the bill, it’s great to have the partner’s name on it. They will feel more looked after and create a more personal relationship.”
Despite priding itself on being an airtime distributor, hardware remains of key importance within V4. Clicking on customer details provides a complete split of the base by device.
Two per cent of that might be using an Apple iPhone 6 Plus and no matter where the user is within the portal, they will see a link to hardware. Clicking on that will provide instructions on using all key functions of the device in question. They can take customers through any problems they might have there in real time.
V4 will show which are using certain devices. For example, if they are using the Samsung Galaxy S6, two years on they might be considering an upgrade, so the partner can pitch the new S8.
Widening the gap
Curran claims customers are turning leading telecoms firms away and opting to sign up with them due to the simplicity of the portal and the close eye that can be kept on their mobile deals.
He adds the launch of this “smart, intelligent portal” will only widen the gap between itself and its airtime distribution rivals.
“When you go to a customer and tell them about Plan.com, they will ask: “Plan.who?” They’re under the assumption that they should only deal with the major mobile operators.
“However, the partner finds it easy to say it rides off the back of the O2 network and the reason they partner with us is they can do things for the customer they could never do with the network.
“A customer recently asked for our help with a big account. We visited the customer with them as they wanted to show their side of the portal. They said the turning point was when we pulled up the portal screen and explained what we could do for them.
“They had BT and EE coming in but came back to us to say they had cancelled the meeting and decided to work with us.
“It’s a real eye-opener for me because I can clearly see why partners love the portal because once you get it in front of the customer, it’s an easy sell.
“V4 reinvents what a portal can do. It is clear from the brilliant feedback we have received that this has struck a different chord.
“We thought V3 was a game-changer but this takes it to a whole new level. It is like having an infinite number of people working for you who are watching every detail in your business, drilling it into a meaningful format and putting it in front of you at no cost.”