Can you imagine a minute without your cellphone? Never. These days no one can leave the house without their cellphones. Everyone is loath to leave them unattended for more than a few seconds.

While we are married to our phones, we rarely use them for anything more than talking and the occasional text messages.

Our cellular device has become a utility that is indispensable to consumers for their own personal productivity, for their management of their intake of information, and for the provision of entertainment that’s available to them anytime, anywhere.

Yet customers often have harsh words for cellphone companies and handset manufacturers, saying they should provide better customer service, more efficient systems and clearer phone plans. Their gripes include dropped calls, busy signals and general lack of service.

As thousands of industry leaders, experts and entrepreneurs converged in Cape Town last week to discuss the future of telecoms at the 15th AfricaCom conference, they faced an uncomfortable truth – their future will from now on be dependent on the experience they deliver to customers and not just products and services.

AfricaCom is a high-level strategic conference where stakeholders in the telecoms market discuss the latest trends, share their experiences, network and do business.

At the latest edition of AfricaCom, delegates agreed that telecoms service providers that will ultimately be industry leaders are those that deliver exceptional customer experience and redefine their relationship with their customers.

For cellphone companies, each phone has its own allure. This includes designing the right phone and service for different customers’ needs.

Then there are mobile network operators who constantly debate whether theirs is basically a voice and SMS business and what do they do with the data revolution of internet access, ring tones, photo multimedia messages (MMS), music downloads, video downloads, and even streaming video, let alone the squeeze in sales, profits and subscriber demands.

At the same time, mobile operators are hoping new data services will bolster sales in markets where almost everyone already has a cellphone and where fierce competition is pushing down call charges.

Let us not forget the customers who refuse to do anything except talk and send text messages with their phones.

The reality is that telecoms companies are under pressure to find ways to remain relevant to their customers. Continuing high levels of churn allude to the ongoing difficulty on the side of telecoms firms to inspire customer loyalty.

In south-east Asia, according to a study by mobile manufacturer Ericsson, telecoms service providers experience customer attrition of between 30 percent and 50 percent annually as millions of customers opt to change providers. Cited as the key reason for the increasing migration from one provider to the other is poor customer service. It is addressing this Achilles’ heel that should dominate the industry’s agenda from next year onwards.

So how can telecoms companies, manufacturers and network providers remain relevant to their customers?

In the telecoms industry, customer experience is about the summation of the encounters a customer has with a telecoms provider across multiple channels and touch points. These include sales, marketing, brand, and service. This refers to retail outlets, call centres, branding and marketing messages, and experience when using products and services (mobile and data). In many cases, customers have found this not to be aligned with a brand’s values.

A report by Ernst & Young titled “Top 10 risks in telecommunications 2012” cites disengagement from the changing customer mindset as the second-biggest risk facing telecoms operators. This is after the cited failure to shift the business model from minutes to bytes.

“With global technology brands now top of mind for consumers, and technology cycles quickening, operators need to understand and respond to fast-changing customer expectations and behaviours if they are to fight off the competitive threat from over-the-top providers,” it states.

“This will require operators to communicate clearly the underlying value of the network,” the report continues.

As mentioned earlier, superior advances in technology have created a consumer with different expectations. This is a consumer who is very aware of technology brands, and what they expect from it.

Only those companies that start investing in really getting to know their customers well and the segments they belong to, will stand a better chance of making it through the mounting pressures that telecoms firms are under. The number of low-cost operators in the market is increasing. This is leading to fierce price wars and intense competition for subscriber volumes.

Africa, rated the second-largest market for telecoms after Asia, is also requiring that telecoms companies think differently. The continent is a market of more than 600 million subscribers, with the numbers climbing rapidly in countries such as Nigeria. It is predicted that the number of mobile subscriptions in Africa will reach between 800 million and 1 billion in 2015.

In Nigeria, MTN is using its distribution channels to provide its customers a distinct customer experience, the need to constantly provide consumers updated information on products and services cannot be overemphasised. The retail channel will play a key role going forward in exposing brand propositions, this is key because the buying decisions take place at the point of sales, it will also give consumers an opportunity to interact with their brands in a way they have not done before.

How they relate with the company’s external stakeholders is a reflection of the telecoms industry. Therefore customer service should be about the alignment between what a brand purports to be, and what it is in reality. To differentiate themselves, telecoms companies will in future be expected to do more than just enough in their bid to attract customers, establish solid relationships with them, and retain and convert them into brand ambassadors.

In addition to producing innovative products and services that address existing needs of individuals, communities and business, tomorrow’s telecoms companies will have to show greater appreciation of their customers. This is not through gimmicks and promotions, but committing to delivering exceptional customer service and being consistent at it.

Consumers are only interested in solutions, not excuses. They want to know that they can rely on their service providers.

To deliver exceptional customer experience, mobile network companies will have to be more proactive, and not merely reactive. As we all know, experience shapes perceptions, and perceptions create reality, and these realities influence whether or not a customer remains loyal.

Fortunately, customer service is something that companies have control over, can shape and can influence. The “template” involves getting the basics right and being truly customercentric. The conversation about customer centricity is not a new one in telecoms. The challenge now is for companies to focus their efforts and infrastructure towards making it a reality for their customers.

A study conducted by Accenture revealed that creating a distinct customer experience also entailed addressing channel proliferation, that is, the rise in influence of digital and social networking channels and rising consumer control. This is by creating ongoing two-way dialogues with the different customers in the diverse segments. The good news is that there are some telecoms firms that have already started to meaningfully engage their customers.

What is clear, therefore, is that ultimately it is those telecoms companies that decide to genuinely listen to their customers, incorporate their concerns and feedback in their strategies and business models, that will experience the next frontier of growth. As Jeff Bezos, the founder and chief executive of Amazon recently declared: “It’s our job every day to make every important aspect of the customer experience a little bit better.”

Omatsola Barrow is the executive for sales and distribution at MTN Nigeria. He was a panelist at AfricaCom.