If there’s any indication that Airtel is still afraid of losing its post-paid customers to Reliance Jio, it is this: the company has said that starting August 1st, 2017, all Airtel Postpaid customers will be able to carry forward their monthly unused data into the next billing cycle. While the fine-print on this is yet to be seen (and there’s always a fine-print), this is a welcome move from Airtel. The company has based this on one of the insights it gathered from talking to “thousands of customers in its innovation labs”, and learnt that “unused data that expires at the end of the month is a painful waste.”

This is a major turnaround from a company that not only did not allow customers to carry forward unused data, but also once (in a manner of speaking), penalised post-paid customers for using up their data too quickly: MediaNama readers will remember how, back in 2014, Airtel introduced auto renewal for post-paid customers, but with validity only till the end of the billing cycle. For example: If you were paying Rs 250 for 2GB of data (at that time), and used your data balance with one day left in the billing cycle, the plan would auto-renew, and you were given that one day to consume data the renewed 2GB. So, leave alone allowing users to carry forward that data into the next billing cycle, they didn’t even give the existing validity, or take customer consent for renewal.

In its (really late submission) to the TRAI on tariff regulations, MediaNama has recommended that auto renewals on mobile be banned.

Retention, conversion or acquisition?

Is this instance of allowing users to retain their post-paid data, or instances of them trying to convert pre-paid users to postpaid, or the acquisition of new post-paid users? Probably all of the above, but the conversion of prepaid to postpaid users would seem to be a key goal. Prepaid users churn out more quickly – there was a time when a telcos entire prepaid customer base would churn out every few years (or less). Airtel is in a better position to build a history of usage of users who remain on the network, and has been keen on offering user specific packages and incentives to retain them. In fact, at a TRAI open house on tariff regulation, telecom operators sought to differentiate between promotional pricing (for customer acquisition) from retention pricing. Airtel has been offering free data to retain customers, via the My Airtel app.

Here are some of the other things that Airtel is doing to retain/acquire/convert customers:

  • Family plan: on MyAirtel App, Postpaid customers can now create customized solutions for the family by adding multiple postpaid connections to their account, with savings of up to 20%.
  • Family members can pool and share their data benefits across all connections.
  • Customers can also add Airtel Prepaid connections to their Family Postpaid with a switch from Prepaid to Postpaid in a few clicks using the MyAirtel app, with no paperwork needed.
  • ‘Airtel Secure’ is a digital smartphone protection suite, customers can now protect their smartphones against accidental/liquid damage. If a customer’s device is accidentally damaged, Airtel will arrange for a pick-up of the device, get it repaired from an authorized service center and deliver it back to the customer. This is applicable to smartphones of up to two years old.

We need competition in wireline broadband as well

For a company that was as smug as Airtel was about their market leadership, and like in case of the auto-renewal for data, was leeching customers of money, things certainly have changed with the launch of Reliance Jio. That is what competition does. Customer propositions across telecom operators have improved over the past year, and one space where this is desperately needed in the wireline broadband ecosystem. That is largely controlled by BSNL, Airtel and MTNL, and excessive “Fair Usage Policy” approaches end up limiting user access to data. Advertising tends to be misleading, for example, in this case by BSNL, where the minimum speed shown in this tweet here, is a pre-FUP speed. 

Airtel doesn’t need to interview a thousand customers to understand how to improve the wireline broadband proposition. Then again, unless there’s real competition in wireline broadband, it won’t need to improve.