Cut­ting the red tape

More to the new cel­lu­lar provider than meets the eye

Finweek English Edition - - COMPANIES&MARKETS - SI­MON DIN­GLE si­mond@fin­

FIVE MIN­UTES of me­dia ex­po­sure over the past week should have been enough for you to catch one of Vo­da­com’s “go­ing red” ad­ver­tise­ments. With R200m spent on the cam­paign, South Africa gets the mes­sage: Vo­da­com has dropped its blue look for a new red align­ment with the brand­ing of its par­ent com­pany, Bri­tish cel­lu­lar gi­ant Voda­fone. But there is far more to the changes at Vo­da­com than meets the eye.

The brand­ing is the vis­ual side of Vo­da­com’s tran­si­tion. With 65% of the cel­lu­lar group held by Voda­fone, it was only a mat­ter of time be­fore things went red. It’s sur­pris­ing Voda­fone didn’t also force a name change – and, rest as­sured, it wanted to. Vo­da­com CEO Pi­eter Uys and his team man­aged to fight off that one, en­sur­ing SA’s old­est cel­lu­lar net­work kept its name even as it changed its make-up.

The more im­por­tant changes are be­hind that red façade. At a me­dia brief­ing last week, ahead of the big re­brand­ing launch, Uys ex­plained his team had been hard at work re­struc­tur­ing its man­age­ment. He added he’d been tour­ing the coun­try meet­ing Vo­da­com staff to re­ju­ve­nate the com­pany.

Uys has left his of­fice be­hind – an elab­o­rate cor­ner unit be­queathed to him by com­pany founder Alan Knott-Craig – and now oc­cu­pies a sim­ple desk in an open plan of­fice at Vo­da­com’s cor­po­rate cam­pus. I’m told his new desk is in­dis­tin­guish­able from any other in the of­fice.

Uys clearly wants to be hands-on and in­volved. He’s al­ways been at the fore­front of Vo­da­com’s tech­ni­cal progress and doesn’t strike me as some­one who en­joys dolling out com­mand­ments from on high – he likes get­ting his hands dirty.

The more cyn­i­cal an­a­lysts have a dif­fer­ent in­ter­pre­ta­tion. Their ver­sion in­volves Vo­da­com flat­ten­ing out its man­age­ment struc­tures to bet­ter deal with in­te­gra­tion with and firmer man­age­ment from Voda­fone. It’s the tran­si­tion of Vo­da­com from an au­to­cratic group to a divi­sion of Voda­fone.

The real rea­son is sim­pler than that. Uys says Vo­da­com had du­pli­cated many man­age­ment func­tions be­cause it dealt with var­i­ous mar­kets. For ex­am­ple, the clean-up meant merg­ing var­i­ous hu­man re­sources de­part­ments into one, cen­tralised man­age­ment unit – with­out any heads rolling. In fact, one of the changes ended in cre­at­ing a job.

And re­struc­tur­ing its call cen­tre op­er­a­tion will move tem­po­rary staff into per­ma­nent po­si­tions. A state­ment last week said: “Call cen­tre agents who had been con­tracted to Vo­da­com via third par­ties would in­stead be con­tracted to spe­cial­ist call cen­tre com­pa­nies. By cre­at­ing cen­tres of ex­cel­lence, man­aged by ex­perts in their par­tic­u­lar area, these changes are in­tended to im­prove call cen­tre ef­fi­ciency and knowl­edge lev­els, and ul­ti­mately re­sult in an im­proved cus­tomer ex­pe­ri­ence.”

Es­sen­tially, that will see 700 tem­po­rary staff be­come full-time em­ploy­ees at those third par­ties and, hope­fully, pro­vide bet­ter a ser­vice to Vo­da­com’s cus­tomers.

Vo­da­com is also at war with com­peti­tor Cell C, who used its re­brand­ing to rub co­me­dian Trevor Noah’s face in it. In the most con­tro­ver­sial new re­ply by Cell C, Noah walks past an old, bro­ken-down blue car half-painted red (Vo­da­com) be­fore walk­ing up to a new, black Fer­rari (Cell C). Vo­da­com is an­gry and is drag­ging Cell C off to the Ad­ver­tis­ing Stan­dards Au­thor­ity.

But the truth is while Cell C does have a flashy new net­work, so does Vo­da­com. The now red com­pany switched out of its tower in­fra­struc­ture last year and is em­ploy­ing the same HSPA+ tech­nol­ogy Cell C has based its new net­work on – al­beit at a less ideal fre­quency.

With new man­age­ment struc­tures, suc­cess­ful main­te­nance of its mar­ket lead in SA and now stronger in­volve­ment from its Bri­tish over­lord, Vo­da­com is more than just a re­branded old com­pany. It’s the lean, mean African divi­sion of a cel­lu­lar em­pire that’s dom­i­nated al­most ev­ery mar­ket it’s ad­dressed.


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