Pete Whiteley was leaning back in his chair, arms stretched in front of him, fingers interlocked; a picture of concentration.
He was providing help and support via a headset to an unseen user of an unseen smartphone, explaining which menu to call up, and which item to choose – and he was doing it all from memory and intimate knowledge of the device.
On the computer screen in front of him he had just a template into which he entered the details of the conversation, logging the caller’s problem and the solution.
The dialogue ended with an exclamation from the caller: “Fantastic – it’s working. Thank you very much.”
Another success for Mr Whitely, an engineer working in the WDSGlobal call centre based in Poole, on the south coast of England.
His job involves keeping up to date on the latest devices and services associated with his specialist area, which he achieves partly by scanning user forums: “The user base can be enthusiastic and very vocal,” said Mr Whiteley.
The job also involves extreme patience, the ability to visualise what the caller is doing – and what they are likely to do when given instructions. Mr Whiteley said: “I can ‘see’ the device and menus and you get to know the quirks that users have.”
WDSGlobal is a prime example of a business providing a niche service to other companies. In this case a user support operation to mobile network operators, manufacturers and content providers – a service that the clients find uneconomic to provide themselves.
As David Ffoulkes-Jones, chief executive, explained: “Networks can see that the costs of supporting data services are rising faster than the revenues from it and so margins are squeezed.
“They either have to throw technology at it or move to lower cost support – but more IT makes it more complex and lower cost centres make the user experience worse.”
Tim Deluca-Smith, vice-president of marketing, says the problems for users have grown as manufacturers have built ever more sophisticated devices, and networks have provided more services to work on them.
He says mobile e-mail can be complicated, especially where data services, devices and other components such as PCs and applications interact to produce highly individual combinations – which is a problem for both providers of support services and users.
The result is that large numbers of customers are giving up on the service or even the device. WDSGlobal examined a finding by Which?, the UK consumer body, that showed one in seven mobile devices in the UK was returned as faulty within a year of purchase, and it found 63 per cent of those returns were not faulty at all. It puts the cost of this to the global mobile industry at $4.5bn a year.
The company therefore sees its mission as using its specialist expertise to help buyers make full use of the devices and services they have bought and signed up for, to the benefit of all parties.
There is much to be done, however. Raising the awareness and low expectations of end-users is one part. Educating and informing the networks and manufacturers is another.
This takes the form of WDSGlobal offering constant feedback to clients, to enable them to fix more of users’ problems themselves – something Doug Overton, the company’s vice-president of analysis and consulting, calls “empowering them” – and to help them improve their products and services.
Mr Ffoulkes-Jones says: “We need to look at the biggest drivers of calls: why are people ringing up? What are the biggest issues? It could be to do with billing, the device, the service, an application. We give the operators all this information.”
Mr Deluca-Smith adds: “Support used to be seen as the final frontier but now it’s seen as a point in the relationship for direct communication with customers. It’s not an unnecessary expense – it has value in farming and harvesting information.”
Indeed, the company has amassed such a vast amount of data from its callers that it can guide its clients as to what needs fixing – to the point where it has been asked to undertake pre-launch testing of devices, in a shift from problem solving to prevention.
From the user’s perspective, WDSGlobal is the “unseen partner”, answering about 300,000 inquiries a month, initially directed at its long list of clients around the world, including Orange, Vodafone, Nokia and Microsoft.
At the end of the phone will be Pete Whiteley or one of his colleagues, armed with expertise, a near photographic memory, and the patience of a saint.