Michelle James has been working in the mobile device industry for over twenty years and is President of the Branding Network. For the last five years Michelle has been producing Wireless Repair EXPO, a partner event held onsite during CTIA Super Mobility, Mobile World Congress Americas and the Mobile Carriers Show. Michelle kindly agreed to sit down with Asset Science to discuss how she sees the Wireless Repair industry evolving, and the role she aims to play within it.
AS: Michelle, what do you think are the biggest challenges facing the Wireless Repair industry currently?
A: This is a really big question, and one with answers that vary over time, particularly for an emerging channel like device repair. As with any retail or consumer-facing industry segment, there are a myriad of challenges in order to stay relevant and responsive to consumer demand. Some of the most pressing challenges are, well, obvious. Offering quality repairs using best available parts, tools, and skilled technicians to perform the repairs. For retailers specifically, one of the biggest challenges is the learning curve for becoming a ‘merchant.’ Being a good merchant requires a thoughtful front-of-house customer experience and solid back-of-house processes.
Many merchants struggle with scalability. The same formula that worked for a 3-5 storefront operation may look very different when you grow to 10, 20 or more locations. Having a strong supply chain you can rely upon, without cutting corners, is key. Building relationships with partners who are expert in a specific area for retailing is paramount. Storeowners cannot do it all, though many try. As simple as it sounds, many retailers need to focus on building a business plan – monthly, annually, plus five- and 10-year plans. Even though this is a very ‘reactive’ business, you must start with financial and operational goals, supported by processes and systems that bolster reaching those goals. As a merchant, you must understand your specific customer segment. There are not many great examples of exceptional ‘service at retail’ models in the marketplace or role model merchants to follow, not even by the big box merchants. There are very few exceptional retail models to follow in general.
Today, most wireless repair retailers rely solely on foot traffic in a reactive way, versus generating a customer experience from a place where they fully understand their customer base. All customers have similar needs, but not all customer behaviors are the same in each market. Many merchants in this space started out as technicians and are learning to become merchants. Most merchants are learning how to be marketers. There is a lot of learning to master all of these functions at once. Consumers are learning how to utilize this market as well, not everyone even understands all their options for device repair, partly because the market is still fragmented.
Another major challenge today is retailers who are not investing in their brand as much as they are consumed with price-competitiveness. The irony is, with my twenty years in wireless, consumers often seek quality before price. Of course, they seek it at the best price possible but not at the risk of a poor-quality replacement. Merchants need to remember you are repairing one of the most valuable items all consumers own. It is not a race to the bottom for pricing; the race is really about quality at fair market value.
AS: How does the Wireless Repair EXPO help to meet those challenges?
We are passionate about education and networking when it comes to the Wireless Repair EXPO events. We are passionate about showing examples of best-in-class customer experience. We are dedicated to sharing value over lowest cost possible. There are still no clear single winners in this space. There is a community of suppliers, merchants, and other service providers who are helping the wireless repair community win in their own lanes. Our goal has been the same for the last five years with all our community events: to grow together, discuss best practices, and build a community network in a way that supports successful individual business plans that are an important part of the overall wireless eco-system.
AS: What are your plans for Wireless Repair EXPO going forwards and how will it grow with this fast-paced industry?
We will continue to host partner programs where the wireless repair and reverse logistics community can continue evolve. As long as mobile devices are the remote control to our lives, we will continue to support the channel in ways that create an intersection of education and best practices for measurable results for the entire channel. We do expect devices will change over time, and more demand will continue to emerge in Smart Home and other areas that seem to be a natural fit for a network of technicians and store fronts, where consumers can seek local market expert advice for their technology needs.
AS: How do you see the industry changing over the next five years?
It’s difficult to predict where any technology industry will be in five years. The lasting business cycle for device repair sort of surprised everyone, even OEMs. I suspect until the next critical mass adoption of ‘the next big thing’ that replaces the mobile device in your hand today, we are in it for the long haul. I do see further consolidation and maturation of the supply chain, but not in an ‘elimination of players’ way – more in the channel growing and the addition of others playing in this space in a more direct way.
Q: Why is it important to implement best practices in this industry, and how are you driving that? Are you involved in certification programs and why?
A: In my opinion, in order for any industry to be taken seriously, and last the test of time, you must collaborate together as an industry to develop standards that clearly identify and champion best practices. Consumers deserve the best possible experience, particularly with their most prized-possession that is the simple most important connection to all aspects of their life.
We have been fast at work, since late last year, working together more closely as an industry to develop industry-recognized standards that will positively impact the supply chain, technician training, remanufacturing facilities, and retailers specializing in device repair. I am honored to chair a leadership council for CTIA, the Reverse Logistics & Service Quality Leadership Council, where we facilitate five separate working groups representing the entire wireless industry to work on best practices for reverse logistics of mobile devices. This program is available to anyone in the industry. I am happy to share details of how to engage in the work we are doing for anyone interested in participating.
Q: At the Wireless Repair EXPO partner event with CCA, taking place in Las Vegas at the end of March, your conference programme places a lot of emphasis on customer experience. Why is this such a high priority now and do you differentiate between regular customer vs. enterprise customer?
A: The consumer matters most at retail. We have only scratched the surface in customer experience. I’ve been on this topic for years now, and I am convinced very few retailers in any industry truly understand what this means, let alone how to deliver a brand promise that is grounded in customer experience. All people are customers, whether they are in a retail environment, an on-demand environment where a solutions provider comes to you, or a buyer of enterprise solutions inside an organization or industry. The bottom line is this. Customers do business with people they like. People like people whom they feel they can trust. All business is a people business. The easier you make the solution transaction – better yet, the more engaged you make the transaction, the greater your chances they like doing business with you and trust you to continue doing business with you. Engagement begins with solving your customer’s problem, and the environment where the transaction takes place should reflect your brand promise, just as much as the transaction itself. I secret shop stores all over the country, and only a handful of stores deliver on customer experience. The good news is, the opportunity for everyone to grow in this area is wide open.
Q: You have a unique access to a wide range of different interest groups within the industry. What are you hearing people express concern or excitement about currently – for example, is BYOD an area of concern?
A: I am not hearing that BYOD is an area of concern per se in the retail arena. I do hear that some devices are not being repaired properly or are using sub-par parts and find their way into the BYOD marketplace. The BYOD is particularly important to the enterprise market and has its own set of challenges in the managed services arena.
Retailers are approaching enterprise in new ways; however this is often an under developed opportunity nationwide.
Q: The last five years have seen significant growth in same unit repair. What’s driving that?
A: Consumers often times want their own device back. They trust their data is intact and applications set up with desired preferences. When consumers are not ready for an upgrade or do not prefer a replacement unit, most consumers prefer to have their own device back.
Q: People are projected to be keeping their phones longer. How can the repair industry drive growth in those conditions?
A: Consumers keeping phones longer stimulates demand in the device repair marketplace. With consumers holding onto their smartphones on average 2.3 years, the repair industry must match-up the demand for parts to support extended lifecycles – add to that, the constant software upgrades that impact legacy devices – while also addressing slower demand for new device launches due to the market now reaching record saturation rates. It’s really a matter of knowing your customer, watching consumer buying behavior, and being mindful of inventory-carry for legacy units. Again, back to making sure you have a strong operational business plan, staying on top of trends, and delivering a valuable customer experience that positions you, as a technology expert, for your consumer in your local market.