In 2009, Visafone won THISDAY's 'ICT Company of the Year' Award as a result of its cutting edge strategies and market penetration. Raheem Akingbolu writes that since then, handlers of the brand have continued to build on the record to sustain its leading position in the market
Setting the Tone
Like every brand conceived by a Nigerian, the arrival of Visafone in 2008 was received with indifference in many quarters.
For those who believed that a brand must enjoy 100 per cent support from foreigners to thrive in the market, the dream was considered a tall order.
But with the rumour that the former Managing Director of Zenith Bank, Mr. Jim Ovia had a hand in it, a few analysts sounded positive as a result of the success the banker had made out of Zenith Bank. It was with this background that Visafone sauntered into the market with determination to prove the cynics wrong.
Though it began operation in February 2008, the company was incorporated in 2007 following the acquisition of Cellcom.
It later received a Unified Access Service Licence as a telecom operator from the Nigerian Communications Commission (NCC) to offer mobile, fixed and any other tele-communications service to its subscribers.
From day one, the decision of the promoters of Visafone to settle for colour 'red' seemed to be the first magic that helped the brand to register its presence.
Coming from the same background with Zenith, which had also become a breakaway brand in the banking sector and also wore red, it was easy to identify the new telecom brand with the sister brand.
Having realised the affinity between the colour and members of the public, they moved a step further and created a platform that would enable the older brand rub on its kid sister.
This explained while nearly all the branches of Zenith Bank were instantly used as line extension of Visafone's customer services. At the beginning, youths in branded vests used the platform to sell Visafone products, but today it has become a stop-shop for customers who have enquiries to make or complaint to lodge.
In order to achieve the company's objectives, the management team also formulated innovative and winning strategies encompassing a handset offering and a marketing strategy.
The lesson here is that the brand leveraged on the influence of the umbrella body - Zenith, which played a driver role by adding associations that are relevant to the customer.
Visafone was not the first brand conceived by a Nigerian, which had breakthrough in the market. In the GSM market, the arrival of Globacom, owned by Mike Adenuga, was also received with mixed feelings. But it soon humbled the so called market leaders with innovation and market understanding.
Three things work for Globacom; market understanding, positioning and association with Conoil and ETB, two successful brands from the same source. Having experienced the oil and gas, and banking sector, management of Glo had a clear understanding of what Nigerian market looked like and so pushed the new brand.
As a positioning strategy, pricing was deployed to pull competitors into line. Before then, existing operators were doing per-minute billing, but Glo came with per-second billings, which was unprecedented.
Though at the time Visafone came into the market, the GSM revolution had taken place, but millions of Nigerian were still denied access because of the cost of purchasing phones and lines.
Handlers of the new brand again saw this as opportunity and swiftly moved to introduce the handset strategy, through which they started selling both lines and phone at a little above N2,000.
It was this innovation that ignited the emotional relationship that has continued to exist between the brand and people in the last level of the market pyramid.
There exist petty traders, students and youths which occupies the largest segment in the pyramid. Meanwhile, since 2008 when it launched its mobile office solution designed to revolutionise the way the busy business executive conducts business away from the office, it has warmed itself into the upper echelon of the market.
It was in line with this strategy that it recently introduced Motorola XT 800 and ZTE R750 dual SIM touch-screen smart phones, which operate on the Android Operating System.
All these explained why the company was able to amass over 3 million subscribers after 16 months of operation, and also crossed the 1 million subscriber mark in just 6 months from its launch in February 2008.
Thus, it recorded an unprecedented industry milestone as the fastest growing mobile company in Nigeria since the earliest it took a Nigeria-based GSM company to hit 1 million was 9 months. The achievement later earned the brand an award.
Competition for Leadership
From any angle one chooses to look at it, the brand is one of the few locally built brands that have proven its mettle in the market place.
Today, despite all odds, it seems to be making inroads to assume the top position in the CDMA market. This was confirmed recently, when a news magazine named it the Best CDMA network nationwide.
While conferring the award on Visafone, in Abuja, Senator Ben Obi said "the award was in recognition of the brand outstanding services and contributions to the society."
Speaking to newsmen after the award, the Chief Operating Officer (COO), Srinivasa K.V, said the awards the network had been receiving this year were strong statements buttressing the leadership role the company was taking in providing voice clarity and data.
According to him, "we are in the forefront of providing quality of service and super-fast data in this business and we are capping that with a clear customer experience reinforced through our 83 retails shops spread across 26 states and 71 cities nationwide."
Before then, the company had won the Nigeria Communications Commission (NCC) award for the network with the widest spread in terms of retail outlets, shop and consumer experience and friendly initiatives. It also won ICT Company of the year award at the 2009 THISDAY Awards.
The war to determine the leader in the CDMA segment of the market is currently between the brand and Starcoms.
While the two are flexing muscles because of their savvy in the area of provision of good internet services, Visafone seems to be ahead in penetration and spread.
For Multilinks and Zoom, this is not the best of times, as they are currently behind the duo of Visafone and Starcoms. But if the market trend continues as it is now and it covers the entire country in due course, then the final answer could be imagined.
In a recent interview with THISDAY, the Managing Director of Visafone, Mr. Sailesh Lyer, admitted that there has been a meteoric rise in the profile of the company, which he linked to a variety of factors.
Lyer, who disclosed that the network could now boast of 66 per cent of the market share, also added that the way the company was growing was not a surprise to people who are versed in telecommunication operations.
According to him, "Many things are responsible for the growth but I think the most sensitive factors are; quality network, quality in terms of customer services, quality in terms of marketing and our strong technological base, which has made it easy for us to offer good solution that, would endear customers to the network.
"Besides, I think we are consistent in our offering and understand the need of the consumers, especially in the area of mobile and data services," he added.
The CEO also spoke on the uniqueness of two exciting packages tagged Visa World Connect and Visa IDD (International Direct Dial), which enable both new and existing customers to make international calls for as low as N6 per minute to 30 countries.
He said the package ensured that new customers who purchase Visa World Connect package would enjoy a bundled package of 500 minutes and a free handset with a year's warranty to make international calls to their favourite destinations like US, Canada, India, China, UK Fixed and 25 other fixed destinations upon activation and call for as low as N6/min to these destinations.
In the same vein, he stated that existing customers can also subscribe to Visa IDD Bundled Minutes by dialling the appropriate short code for packs of 100 minutes, 300 minutes, or 500 minutes to call these destinations at the same rate.
Speaking further, he said the introduction of these packages underscored the company's commitment to offering reduced international tariffs to its customers.
"We are mindful of the increasing need to keep in touch with friends, families, loved ones and business partners in key countries and have therefore created a truly affordable package that can address this need," he added.
Speaking on why the relationship between the brand and commercial telephone operators had been steady over the years, Lyer said the company provided para-shops, tables and phones at subsidised rates for unemployed youths to start off and offer feedback services through its customer service unit.
"Consumers are always eager to associate with brands that offer seamless solutions at affordable prices. We realised this and tailor our service along that. Out of 750 people in our employment, 500 people are in customer service. This is the largest chunk and we have call centres that are managed 24/7 to attend to customer needs.
To further strengthen the relationship between the brand and customers, the company recently drew trade partners from across the Lagos sales area on the heels of plans by the company to deploy additional 200 new retail outlets across the six geopolitical zones of the country to bring its services nearer to the people.
Lyer, who spoke at the forum, said about 200 new retails shops are to be opened across the country before year end, adding that it was part of the company's resolve to dialogue with customers in order to serve them better.
Earlier, Head Customer Care, Lynda Amechi, had reiterated Visafone's commitment in ensuring excellent service delivery which she said was key to customers' satisfaction.
"For us at Visafone, we believe in the maxim that customers are kings and as such we strive daily to ensure that each customer gets a unique feel of the Visafone experience," she said.