Essentials for Building a Consumer Mobile Service

When building a consumer mobile service, the initial focus for marketers and merchants should be working toward a successful launch—meeting deadlines, ensuring the system works properly for the "grand opening," the press release, the ribbon cutting, and photo opportunities.

In the developed world, we have become so accustomed to a mobile service being an app on a smartphone that we sometimes lose sight of the broader, multichannel requirements for launching a consumer mobile service. This is not to say that a consumer mobile service cannot be driven by an app; it can be and is in most instances in the developed world. But a whole lot of things have to happen behind the scenes for the app to be usable, reliable, and responsive. And outside the developed world, consumer mobile services are a different story.

A consumer mobile service needs to be accessible by as many types of phones as possible to reach the maximum number of potential customers—especially when the target markets are the unbanked and underbanked populations.

There are four key things to consider when building such a service.

1. Scope of channels. Consumer services need to address all the mobile channels (SMS, USSD, IVR, mobile Web, and app), plus the Web, as there is often a Web element to the service (to handle registration, for example).

2. Scale of service. When launching consumer-facing services, it's important to plan to scale up to millions of users. The scope of the service is really the entire country in many instances, so the service must be built on a platform that has proven scalability.

3. Support applications. When organizations think of consumer mobile services in terms of just an app, they often overlook important support applications, such as customer registration and a customer portal. Additionally, a customer support organization needs its own portal for agents to answer questions on transactions, block and unblock accounts, update customer details, etc. And, of course, an administration portal and an operations dashboard are necessary to manage the service once it's up and running.

4. Span of platform capability. When launching a consumer mobile service, it is important to think about the end goal as opposed to the current state when making choices. The temptation is to build an app by hooking into a set of Web services exposed by the back end—and to keep building more Web services and isolated, individual apps in response to each request for additional functionality. Whenever a change has to be made that impacts each of these apps, the cost goes through the roof. And when there is a requirement to address multiple mobile phone channels, significant additional costs come into play.

Updating a back end to accommodate a mobile channel-specific requirement is not an easy sell in any IT shop. Thus, to build and launch a consumer mobile service, it is critical to have a mid-tier platform that can handle transactions and channel-specific logic; ensure that you can configure fees, commissions, limits, and restrictions for the different use cases implemented; and provide a framework for creating or modifying existing business logic and minimizing the impact on back-end systems. And, of course, such a mid-tier platform needs to provide a standards-based integration mechanism to back-end systems. In the end, the goal is to build out new applications faster than customers' demands, on a common framework with significant opportunity for reuse.

Once a consumer mobile service has been launched, the next step should be to plan for its long-term success. Planning for success is as important as the launch itself, but can get pushed so far down the list of priorities prior to launch that when service providers finally do turn their attention toward it, any measures may be too little, too late.

There are four key elements involved in planning for long-term success.

1. Build Awareness

We have learned from our global deployments that once a customer signs up for a mobile service, if service providers don't quickly and proactively reach out to the consumer, the dropoff rates are rather high.

Plan to drive awareness before, during, and right after launch. And have a plan to proactively reach out to customers during the first week after they sign up, if there is minimal activity. One of the best ways to do this is with SMS, as it's a perfectly relevant way to reach mobile customers. Think about how many apps you've downloaded onto your smartphone, interacted with a few times, and then forgotten about once the novelty wore off. The app or service just didn't have a good strategy to reach out and encourage you to use it.

2. Enable Transactions

Apart from reaching out to consumers after sign-up, it is important that a mobile service enable useful transactions. This is the value-add part of the service. For example, bill pay is a great transaction that encourages people to come back to the service month after month, especially in emerging markets where the Web channel isn't widespread. The other way to enable transactions is to have other service providers or merchants become a part of the wallet ecosystem and provide services.

3. Strengthen Relationships

A key aspect of any consumer mobile service should be to encourage the customer to continually use the service by offering loyalty rewards and/or incentives such as coupons and offers.

4. Gather and Use Intelligence

As a service matures and processes a significant number of interactions, the provider can mine the accumulated data and use it to better serve established customers and target new ones. This doesn't need to be sophisticated data mining. Simple things, such as tracking interactions and providing rewards, can provide great insight.

A well-thought-out and executed consumer mobile service can help extend the reach of any mobile service, better engage your customers, and enable transactions via the mobile channel.

Haridas Nair is the vice president of mobile commerce product and strategy at Sybase 365/SAP, the mobile services division of SAP. He is responsible for driving strategy and solutions for m-banking and m-payments.

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