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Virgin Mobile, the second mobile brand to operate under EITC, has done well since entering the telecommunications industry in the UAE almost twelve months ago. Telecom Review managed to secure an exclusive interview with the charismatic figurehead for Virgin Mobile UAE, Karim Benkirane, in an effort to find out his reflections on its first year in the market, its strategic vision for the future, its recent partnership agreements with Samsung and Careem, industry challenges and why the Virgin Mobile brand has been embraced by today's digitally savvy consumer.

Virgin Mobile has made an impact since its introduction and has resonated resoundingly with customers across the UAE. Its innovative app allows users to seamlessly personalize and customize their activities on their smartphones which ultimately delivers enhanced customer experiences.

Virgin Mobile has positioned itself as the prominent mobile brand for the nation's tech savvy customer, and with a huge emphasis being placed on continuous innovation within the business unit.

It's been almost a year since Virgin Mobile was officially launched in the UAE and the Business Unit has enjoyed great success. Can you give us your reflections on Virgin Mobile's first twelve months in the UAE?
The first year here in the UAE has been a great journey for Virgin Mobile. We're obviously new to the UAE market, but in a short period of time we've positioned ourselves as the premium Brand in digital On-boarding and customer experience - which are both fundamental components in our DNA.

We've taken the market to the next level by creating incredible experiences with our app and all the new innovations we've released to the market. These represent key achievements for us in the UAE market, but when you perform a benchmark analysis at the industry level, it's evident that we're also inspiring the industry with the introduction of our home delivery under one hour service.

The industry has attempted to copy what we've achieved at Virgin Mobile in relation to our home delivery service, but has thus far been unable to replicate it. They can deliver within the same day, but the one hour delivery remains out of reach for them, so this represents a great milestone for us and is something we're very proud of.

In addition to this, the experience through the app has been another major success for us. The way we interact with our customers and provide them with flexibility to choose their mobile number through the app, and provide them with access to all the features and functionalities we offer ensures we deliver an unrivalled customer experience which key differentiator. We also have a recommend feature on the app which enables us to measure the usage of the customer and we can then recommend to them at the end of the month if they need to upgrade or downgrade their plan in order to optimize their experience and save money. So all these aspects combined create a new level of experiences for customers.

When Virgin Mobile first entered to UAE market last year, you declared that the Business Unit was a ‘research lab' and not a ‘telco'. Has that vision remained the same, or have you altered your strategic approach?
No, our vision remains definitely the same. We're an innovation lab of EITC, and we are releasing via our App new features and new functionalities every month. We've established an operating model which really allows us to release innovations on a regular basis. The vision remains the same and it's in our DNA to innovate and make sure we're continuously bringing new solutions to the market.

We've recently launched our game-changing yearly plans which allow Virgin Mobile users to customize their data as well as local and international minutes from 125 different plan options which can then be bought with a one-time payment for a period of 6 or 12 months. It will allow customers to save up to 50% and is a really innovative concept in terms of savings for the customer.

The experience through the app also offers our customers a really seamless journey and we want to continue to improve these experiences, so the vision will remain the same. Our main focus is the feedback from our customers because this is ultimately how we create our innovation roadmap. The customers are providing us with excellent recommendations, and we're taking all of the information that is being relayed back to us by the customers very seriously in order to translate it into new features and functionalities as part of our overall effort to innovate on behalf our customers.

Virgin Mobile has deliberately targeted millennials. However, why do you think the app has resonated so much with millennials and do you expect to see further growth amongst millennials in the UAE as you improve your digital services?
The Virgin Mobile app in the UAE is appealing for the digital generation and those who are looking for an all-around amazing mobile experience. Today, we're attracting customers that live their lives on their handsets and devices, and we believe that we are serving the modern tech savvy segment, which is the fastest growing segment in the market. This is where we are positioning the brand and we're getting the right feedback from the right segment to continue to improve our services and innovate. It's definitely the right positioning for us to target millennials as our product is tailored perfectly for them to engage in their daily interactions on their handsets.

Can you elaborate on how the recent partnership between Virgin Mobile UAE and ride-hailing app Careem will improve your services?
The partnership is definitely part of our future roadmap and Careem is one of our strategic partners. It's a fantastic partnership for us at Virgin Mobile to engage in, and Careem has a fantastic network and great coverage. Together, we've been able to deliver services within ten minutes which is truly amazing.

In terms of systems and ecosystems, we're succeeding in relation to implementing the right integration and the right operating model to deliver these services. It is really complex from a technological point of view, but at the end, we're able to make the lives of customers much easier - and this is one of the pillars of our strategy. We want to deliver these on-demand services to facilitate the needs of our customers. Virgin Mobile and Careem are both app-based and digitally-based business models, and we share the same vision which is to create incredible experiences for our customers, so in that respect, it's a perfect partnership for both enterprises.

Virgin Mobile also recently entered into an agreement with South Korean conglomerate Samsung. Can you outline to us what the main benefits of this collaboration will entail?
The collaboration with Samsung is a very special partnership. Customers who purchase a new Samsung device and join Virgin Mobile will receive 5GB additional data on top of their plan for the first 3 months. This partnership reflects the shared vision of Samsung and Virgin Mobile, with both brands constantly looking for new ways to innovate and improve mobile experience. By working with a brand like Samsung, we're offering consumers a truly unique proposition that combines the flexibility and convenience of our groundbreaking app, with the cutting-edge technology and features of the Samsung device.

Virgin Mobile's recent auction for coveted phone numbers sparked an online scramble by customers. Was this initiative to allow users to personalize their mobile experience a success?
The VIP numbers in general are intended for a category that is really focused and interested in acquiring coveted mobile numbers. There are many different ways to attract these types of customers, but one way is to go to auction because there are high-value plans on the auction which you can't sell online or in retail stores.

Another example of our cutting-edge innovation is a feature that allows customers to buy a plan, such as VIP numbers through the app, we introduced Red plan and Silver plan via our App in order to avoid going through any offline experience - it's online and direct to consumer. So these are two ways in which we're trying to bundle VIP numbers with the plan. It is also pushing the VIP customers to go through our digital experience and discover something different than just your typical traditional experience in the mobile space. We believe that in this segment, Virgin Mobile will continue to achieve success.

What are the challenges MNOs face in terms of making mobile experiences better following the pressure that has been placed on them by OTTs?
When you're an innovation lab, or you're a niche segment within the industry, I think the focus has got to be on simplifying things and making everything easier for your customer base. However, when you're mass market, and this is the case for the MNOs, then you're after so many different segments and things get more complex.

I think the main challenge they have is how to make things simple and easier for customers to understand. This will enable customers to understand clearly what they are buying and avoid encountering any surprises. So I think the most challenging part from a worldwide industry level viewpoint is how to simplify offers and provide customers with better experiences.

In your expert opinion, what is currently the biggest challenge for telecommunication operators in the Middle East?
I think the challenges are very similar everywhere in the telco industry from the Middle East to the rest of the world. The objective has to be about how you upgrade the operating model and move towards digital transformation without completely destroying the existing infrastructure. You can focus on the impact of OTTs and other services, but for me, it's all about the operating model. You can have new systems and you can integrate different ecosystems, but the operating model gets impacted and then it needs to be upgraded step-by-step to make sure that we can absorb new technology, new services and new systems that are being introduced that we'd like to offer.

In terms of emerging technologies, I think the Internet of Things will change our daily lives. The introduction of IoT will be good for the customer and the industry overall and will definitely improve customer experiences much better than they are today.

Can you outline to us what are your primary objectives for Virgin Mobile in the next twelve months?
Virgin Mobile was born digital. We don't talk about digital transformation, because we were born digital. We're talking more about innovation in terms of experience, so what's our next innovation - and what is our innovation roadmap. This is our main focus. It is all about what are we going to release next month, what are we going to release in the next three months, six months and 12 months and so on. The entire business unit is focused on how to deliver all our services through the App and digitalize in order to create better experiences for our customers. We want to continue to inspire the industry.

Over the next twelve months, we will continue to release new features, new functionalities, new services and new partnerships in order to make sure that we can meet the three pillars of our customer needs which are with our App customer get what he wants Now, add new services and deliver better value.

Virgin Mobile's business unit will always deliver on these three things to ensure it provides its customers with the best experiences that make their lives easier. Innovation is in the DNA of our people, we're part of EITC, and we believe we have the right people, systems and agile operating model to further grow. We've got all the ingredients to move to the next level.