An interview with John Lincoln
Rushika Bhatia
Movers & Shakers

An interview with John Lincoln

When it comes to the SMB sector, very few people in the UAE have the awareness and insight of John Lincoln, Senior Vice President, SMB, Etisalat. A noted strategic and operational marketing professional, he’s a published business author and an expert on delivering large scale revenue objectives. John and his team have enlarged and refined Etisalat’s SMB offer significantly – bringing it to the forefront of the sector. He gave the following interview to SME Advisor

An interview with John Lincoln
John Lincoln, Senior Vice President, SMB, Etisalat

First things first: what’s gone right in your dealings with SMBs since the creation of a dedicated SMB team within Etisalat to serve the needs of SMBs in the UAE?

Firstly, Etisalat is a great brand and we really do have the best network in the region. We also have a tremendous range of partners and we have propositions that meet our customers’ needs head-on. It’s this combination of features that makes for a successful and attractive offer – and I would say that getting this platform in place is our most important achievement to date.

How would you define – in one sentence – Etisalat’s USP when it comes to servicing SMBs?

We meet the needs of our SMB customers without them needing to trade off quality for value. You don’t have to go for a low-cost product and then sacrifice quality – we can give you both in one package. We put a good deal of effort into ensuring that you get great value and market-leading products as a core part of our offer.

One of the key features of the recent Etisalat SMB TV campaign is the availability of a ‘dedicated business manager’. How many other clients will this manager typically be supporting, on average? Is this factor a plus or a minus?

If you look at any other part of the world, the economics don’t allow you to have a dedicated customer manager in the SMB space. But we’ve gone down this path because we believe that SMBs should have the style of service that meets their very specialised needs. We work out the responsibilities and role of the service manager according to the size of the business. So if yours is a large business, you’ll be serviced by an account manager looking after perhaps 10 clients. Then there is a second tier, going up to 30 clients. Then another going up to 40. Beyond that, there are account managers who are recruited and trained by our channel partners, to be able to meet a level of more general enquiries with considerable expertise.

Your SMB business partners are subject to stringent quality controls: can you tell us a little more about these protocols?

We see our channel partners as our strategic assets – without them, we couldn’t have achieved the position we’ve enjoyed so far. So we take the issues of their training very seriously. The first thing is that we need to be convinced whether he or she is dedicated to serving our customers. Most importantly, we set up very stringent guidelines about the people they hire and the level of training they receive. It’s not just about getting the numbers: we want to ensure there is a real quality of service.

For example, we have a Governance process in place where there is a very rigid review process. There are reviews on a weekly and monthly basis. We will also put in place a certification process for the partners’ sales teams. This will not only help them be recognised in the market and help their own career paths; it will also decrease any risk of attrition. All in all, as you can see, it’s a quality standard that always has effective customer care at its core.

What will be the benefits of Etisalat’s dedicated SMB call centre? How is it resourced so as to deal successfully with a customer base of 300,000?

We are pleased to say we are the first in the region to have a dedicated SMB call centre – no-one else has anything of this kind. So often, you’ll find that call centres are working on the back of other responsibilities, are shared with other businesses, with other customer groups, or with Government departments. But we believe that SMBs have very specialist needs and have to be serviced separately. For example, it’s open 24/7, because your business needs it to be. You don’t call at 5:00pm and find that everyone’s gone home! Plus, all the operatives undergo special training on key points of the SMB agenda – so from the moment you connect with them, they understand your needs and can ‘speak your language’.

What level of success are you currently having with the new ‘pay as you go’ service models, offering as they do a variety of equipment for zero down payments and a shift away from the traditional CAPEX model?

There are two aspects here. With the Hello Business programme, for example, the whole offer is designed specifically for new businesses coming into the UAE. As you know, this is now a global hub, and we expect 100,000 new businesses to come here in the next three years. We give them the ability to connect with a dedicated sales centre and get a special proposition not available to other customers. Even with a soft launch, the programme has been highly successful.

Meanwhile, the pay-as-you-go programmes are doing tremendously well. We launched Business QuickStart, part of the Business in a Box proposition – and I can confidently tell you we have been blessed with a great many customers and the list is still growing rapidly.

If my SMB is just starting-up in the UAE, what can Etisalat do to help my business get a smoother and faster set-up? Do you provide any facility to help me with the transition?

I don’t want to suggest that we can solve everybody’s problems! But we feel that at least we are helping them in the telecoms sector. Our offer is based on three fundamental aspects. Number One is value for money – we recognise that SMBs are on a tight budget. Then Number Two – you don’t need to have a large capital outlay. We give you an exceptional range of devices and equipment (routers, tablets, printers, and so on) in a way that fits in with your cashflow and lets you expand in line with your business’ growth. This also maximises convenience, because you don’t have to shop around from supplier to supplier. The third area is that we do all the management of the network for you as well – you don’t have to call in an external provider, which saves a critical amount of time.

I would also add that we’re actively engaged in a number of more intangible activities – providing facilities like training, workshops, and so on, which contribute to key skills acquisition for SMB entrepreneurs. For example we have an important alliance with Harvard Business School, bringing the Knowledge Series to SMBs, and outlining key topics like leadership, finance and business growth. We’re also active in giving SMBs access to networking opportunities with leading businesses, getting hands-on guidance from the business leaders who know and understand the challenges that SMBs face. We want our contribution to be very ‘real’; as a UAE national company we are totally aligned with the Government’s objective of making the UAE the defining hub for SMBs. Since SMBs account for 62 per cent of GDP, what is good for SMBs is going to be good for the economy itself.

You can see that we have an over-arching strategy for our engagement with the SMB sector. I want SMBs to understand that whatever the style and level of service they want, we can be there for them with a solution that combines quality, affordability and a good many factors that can add value to their business and its goals. We’re not blind to the challenges that customers face and the message is “we’re here to help”.