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Mobile devices. Photo via Shutterstock
Mobile devices. Photo via Shutterstock

It used to be that the GSMA Mobile World Congress (MWC) revolved around devices and carriers. This year, however, the focus was a little different; the spotlight shifted from the devices to the people using the devices: the customer.

While the manufacturers and giant telecommunication companies continue to have a large presence at the show, it was clear that the core format is changing. It is now much more about the distinction between a “mobile customer” and a “user” — and what it means to experience billions of consumers turning mobile customers.

These are customers that don’t stop at buying service and data. These are people who run their businesses from their mobile devices, finding mobile solutions for every aspect of their business — from expense reporting, to business travel planning, to user testing.

Relationships built over mobile apps are no longer just transactional. Today’s customers are looking for sustainable solutions and an ongoing experience. In other words, they’re looking for a business partner.

Mobile customers are willing to invest in transforming their relationships from transactional to reciprocal to find the right partner in a business app. Study after study shows that consumers want to be engaged — and are willing to give more, and pay more, to the company that gives them that experience.

Central to the theme of the mobile customer were three key themes I took from this year’s Mobile World Congress:

1. Companies have more channels than ever to manage.

From carriers to software shops, many of the companies exhibiting this year at MWC were focused on how to instrument and integrate data from watches, clothing, glasses and dozens of other purpose-built hardware. The investment alone means that we should be paying attention to what’s happening with this space — when dozens of companies are spending millions you can be sure that their collective R&D effort is going to push the market forward.

Every company is struggling with the fact that consumers are always connected, always talking, and always evaluating alternative services and experiences. Today’s mobile customer expects information at their fingertips and service whenever and wherever they’d like it. For many brands, this has led to an internal focus on developing “mobile first” in order to maximize the potential audience of their existing assets. However, many of the leading companies are eschewing that mindset. They are, instead, building software-powered experiences across whatever channels they’re finding their customers spending time.

To design for the mobile age is to design with a ‘People First’ approach.

Forget ‘mobile first’ or even ‘mobile only.’ MWC 2015 made it clear that people come before channel when it comes to informing your business strategy.

2. Software innovation is driving the hardware agenda.

Android phone. Photo via Shutterstock
Android phone. Photo via Shutterstock

Every year I have the great fortune to spend some time with Rich Miner, one of the creators of Android, at MWC. It was abundantly clear this year that his baby has become the “new Windows.”

Powering 82 percent of smartphones worldwide, Android has come to dominate the smartphone market, with its closest competitor (iOS) in a distant second with 15 percent global share. Furthermore, we’re seeing a dramatic rise in the number of companies designing specifically around Android, seeking meaningful differentiation through software.

Between companies like Xiaomi, Cyanogen Mod, Asus, NEC, Huawei, HTC, Samsung and others, the software customization effort is a tremendous area of investment. One of the most surprising things that happened as I walked the floor at MWC was to come across the source manufacturers of most Android devices – the base and premium models of many of the above-mentioned companies are sourced from Chinese manufacturers producing the same blank slate for a number of companies.

This development points to the fact that we are now shifting into the stage of mobile that we saw in the early-to-mid 90’s in the PC ecosystem: opportunities will largely come in the form of software innovation rather than hardware innovation.

What does this mean for the mobile customer? Customers are no longer refrained to the physical device. Their loyalty lies with their favorite services, software, and apps, and they have come to expect to use those same services regardless of the channel. Customers are getting more and more selective about evaluating hardware not through the lens of the device specifications but in consideration of the software they support.

3. The product roadmap is now in the hands of the customer.

Eight hours of panels and hundreds of conversations with leaders in the marketing and communications space all seemed to reinforce one major point: The rise of mobile has accelerated the control that consumers wield over the entire creation, distribution and marketing process.

By building experiences that can be tailored and changed for the correct channel for customer experience and communication, today’s most successful companies are spending less time thinking about where they want customers to be and more time thinking about how to meet customers where they are.

Robi Ganguly
Robi Ganguly

For some of the world’s largest companies (like the telcos) this is unsettling and inconvenient, at best. They are struggling to slow down the pace of change, as they are not ready to make the shifts necessary.

Evidence of their frustration and discomfort was put on public display by Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg, whose Internet.org efforts, in conjunction with several emerging market telcos, are seeing some slow but meaningful progress in bringing the Internet to millions of disconnected people. That many of the world’s largest telcos aren’t jumping on initiatives like this is evidence of their conservative/historical mentality and illustrates where much of their disruption will come from.

Breaking from this mold starts with the simple realization that at the other end of the screen is not a user, but a real person. A person that can be engaged, enlightened, and messaged. A person that should, ultimately, prove your most important stakeholder when it comes to driving your business strategy.

Robi Ganguly is the CEO and co-founder of Apptentive, a leading enterprise SaaS platform for mobile customer communication. Robi is a frequent writer and speaker on topics related to customer experience, retention, and lifetime value. When he’s not at the office, you can find him running, reading, cooking, spending time with friends, or hanging out on Twitter.

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