THE TALE OF A TELCO VISIONARY | Shihab Ahmad, Chief Commercial Officer of Robi Axiata Limited

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Shihab Ahmad, Chief Commercial Officer of Robi Axiata Limited, elaborates on the role of digital innovation and environmental sustainability in the company’s long term strategy, the importance of effective consumer engagement and his journey throughout the years in the sector.
Robi Axiata Limited was recently recognized with the Innovation Leadership Award and the Green Telecom Award at the 19th Global Edition of the Business Leader of the year award in India. How vital are innovation and environmental sustainability in Robi Axiata Limited’s long-term strategy?

Digital innovation and environmental sustainability are the two core elements of our long-term strategy. As a customer-centric company, it is only natural that we would put special focus on these matters.

The Innovation Leadership Award and the Green Telecom award only confirms that we are heading in the right direction. The Innovation Leadership award was conferred to us for the outstanding initiatives we had undertaken to use the power of Data Analytics and Artificial Intelligence (AI) in addressing pandemic issues; concurrently, the Green Telecom award recognized our effort towards delivering our vision for net-zero carbon emission.

Finding the right balance among the short, medium and long-term strategies is a very tall order for any company. Robi has been very successful in this regard, thanks to the shared purpose of the organizational culture over the years. People of the organization are expected to demonstrate agility in doing things digitally, collaborate to deliver, and inspire to innovate. This recipe has created an organizational culture that celebrates the pursuit of innovation in every aspect of the business.

It has allowed us to take up several ground-breaking innovative initiatives to serve the needs and wants of all our customers. Especially during the pandemic, Robi has been able to do justice to its promise of offering a new experience in the lives of its customers with unmatched innovation in the use of AI and Data Analytics solutions. We are confident that we are ready to dominate the digital landscape of the future.

Subsequently, our vision of net-zero emission creates an opportunity to rethink the way we power our network. As the country becomes ever more digital, our environmentally sustainable approach to running our business will go a long way in meeting the national commitments under the Sustainable Development Goals.

How is Robi Axiata Limited ensuring that mobile internet and digital services remain affordable for the mass population of the country?

At Robi, we are constantly striving to ensure maximum value for our customers in return for their spending in purchasing any services from us. We are always keen to bring innovation in every aspect of our business to increase value for our customers.

In this connection, apart from ensuring affordable tariffs, we have increased validity on product plans without changing the prices. We have also extended and re-extended prepaid customers’ validity and introduced free transfer of balance and flexible payment options. Also, Robi has heavily encouraged customers to stay home and avail services through our digital channels, where user experience has been significantly amplified and simplified for convenience. Furthermore, we also introduced a special package for our frontline health workers as a token of gratitude from the company, where we provided free 33 GB of data per month for six months. We have also allowed payment through Robi balance for subscribing to popular apps. It has allowed the customers to avail services at a more affordable price.

Furthermore, as part of continuous product innovation to maximise customer value, we are the only operator in the country to introduce an innovative data bank package in the My Robi app. This service allows customers to purchase data and use it anytime as per their convenience without having to think about validity expiration.

While we focus on affordability and bring the network to all customers with massive investment, we will continue to remain competitive in terms of affordability of service and variety without compromising the quality of experience through the pursuit of digital innovation.

How are you ensuring effective consumer engagement in the post-pandemic world?

As I have mentioned before, we have an active social listening mechanism that allows us to swiftly track shifts in social interaction trends, entertainment, and lifestyle needs. We assessed the conditions consumers were living in through in-depth market research. The research findings very much directed our engagement efforts. The core needs of customers trying to connect with loved ones, acquiring knowledge, daily entertainment needs, etc., mostly did not change- what changed were the methods and mediums these needs are being fulfilled with.

As the leading digital service provider, we took up a number of initiatives to address these changes in the consumers’ behavior. We have encouraged and enabled people to showcase their talent in singing, video-graphing, editing, through various brand engagements in digital format. For example, we enabled digital learning through Robi-10 Minute School, facilitated digital participation in a star-studded orchestra “Bijoyer Shurer Notun experience” during the last Victory Day, and organized Eid celebrations online through “Eid Fashion Challenge”.

We are also trying to cater to the growing video streaming needs through our own OTT platform, Binge, which has more than 3,000 exciting on-demand entertainment content including children’s content, local and international web-series, popular films, and exciting sports tournaments. The recently concluded COPA America tournament was watched by thousands of people. We also aggregated and integrated all the digital services in a single platform– My Robi App and My Airtel App. Our customers found it incredibly easy to interact, engage and take services from this platform.

During the lockdown we have partnered with Gaan Bangla to create live weekly musical shows knowing how much people miss live music sessions. Apart from entertainment, we also addressed a growing concern of mental health among the youth with an integrated campaign that encouraged friends to just be there for one another in these trying times- such meaningful messaging gained tremendous organic traction and engagement among our customers.

Additionally, through advanced analytics and tracking methods, we introduced the country’s first ever digital Corona Update service in association with the Postal & Telecommunication Division and ICT Division of the Government. The platform used crowdsourced information to identify high risk areas to warn people when entering those areas through real-time SMS alert notification and integration of Covid-19 map on our self-care apps- My Robi and My Airtel.

Robi has invested a lot of resources in Robi Digital Universe; How will the platform enhance the aggregate customer experience?

The consistent user experience and service excellence across all channels differentiate a great customer experience from a good one. The Omnichannel user experience is something we have been working on to connect all our digital touchpoints to ensure customers don’t have to start from the very beginning while switching between platforms.

At the centre of our digital universe lies- My Robi/ My Airtel app- we have been building these platforms using the “Super-App” concept. These apps meaningfully collate and integrate all digital services to provide ultimate convenience for the customers. We have already built up the My Robi/My Airtel universe in a way that it can support the digital needs of our customers- starting from digital self-service to a range of lifestyle needs, like streaming, health, gaming, etc.

An exciting new frontier we have been exploring is the AI-based customized offering. It uses the power of Machine Learning and robust statistical models to predict future consumption patterns of our customers. We closely study the past behaviours of our customers to anticipate future usage and offer customized offerings to each of our unique customers. Not only does this allow us to maximize ROI from ad spend but also to fine-tune our message according to customer preference.

We have also implemented world-class security features and ensured integrations across all apps and our channels- My Robi/ My Airtel App, Chatbot, and website allowing real-time interactions with our customers. The omnichannel experience system in Robi has a built-in constant feedback loop to elicit customer insights. We take frequent surveys to quickly respond to customer feedback and integrate these changes into the system.

As a veteran professional in the Telecom sector, what would you say are the most rewarding factors of working in the industry? What are the achievements of your professional life you fondly look back at?

I have been privileged to have the golden experience of working in the Bangladesh telecom industry since 2004. I have gone through the ups and downs, pains and pleasures of the sector as it evolved into the driving force behind Bangladesh’s socio-economic development.

The Telecom industry facilitates the latest technology that connects millions of Bangladeshis across the country irrespective of their socio-economic condition. More than 17.4 crore SIMs are in use, nine crore plus individuals using telecom service, it is a testament by itself. Being part of this journey and working side-by-side with so many other telco greats of Bangladesh is the most rewarding factor for me. The telecommunications industry is fast-paced; new scenarios unfold every day, new technology, new market moves. Be it stressful, challenging as it is; this is another rewarding factor for me. Concurrently, I want to stress the fact that everything has been possible because of work done by passionate, committed team members, and I happened to be part of them and had the opportunity to lead some of them.

Speaking of personal achievements, I fondly look back at the time during the early 2000s when I spent a significant amount of time studying, assessing and strategising deployment options for the telecom companies, which has become part of the excellent infrastructure we have today. Subsequently, the successful Robi-Airtel merger project was another highlight of my career. I was heading this as Integration Director in Robi, and this was one of the most successful telecom integration in the world. It made Robi a stronger player in the market; by the end of the project, we gained over 9m subscribers and grew revenue by about 3.5 billion.

Robi had been driving innovation in the country, as we believe in continual innovation in bringing relevant services to the people. We launched the “r-venture” program to encourage people on digital innovation, not only by competition but also by investing millions in BDT to support top innovative ideas from employees and across the country. As the r-venture program sponsor, I take pride that some of these initiatives are becoming full-blown tech ventures in the country. In summary, this has been a rewarding experience and a journey of many achievements both for me personally, as well as Robi as a company.

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