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Azerbaijan 2014 | TELECOMS & IT | VIP INTERVIEW

TBY talks to Kent McNeley, CEO of Azerfon, on the impact of mobile number portability, innovation, and training the right people.

How is Nar Mobile poised to benefit competitively from mobile number portability (MNP), which has just taken effect?

Our advantage lies in the exceptional value that we offer to the consumers. We have continued our efforts to improve and upgrade our network. Our network in the capital and surrounding areas is extremely strong, and we continue to work on improving it in the adjacent regions as well. Coupled with this solid network, we also have a very attractive portfolio of tariff plans, which lets consumers find a plan that matches their usage, thus delivering exceptional value. I think that people who have had their numbers for a long time and would like to continue to keep their numbers will be interested in taking a hard look at us.

How are your efforts at improving connectivity in rural areas progressing?

In the regions, we have expanded the number of base stations that we have in the network, and we are also employing some of the most modern technologies in the world to provide better coverage. During 2014 and in particular in 2Q2014, I think that consumers will see the effects of the efforts we have made over the last six to nine months. These new technologies will allow us better control of our radio signal in the base stations, thereby giving us a broader reach. It will also allow us to take advantage of additional base stations.

“Innovation is not always about the newest product; it is also about providing a set of services and tariffs in a unique way."

Looking at 2013 overall, what progress was Nar Mobile able to make in terms of increasing its customer base?

I will illustrate this through three facts. The first is that our subscriber base grew by more than 10%, and I am fairly certain that we are the only operator that had this kind of growth in 2013. Our revenue was also up by roughly 25%, which outpaced the growth of our two competitors combined. Our data traffic, which will increasingly be a key driver of telecoms revenue in the future, saw an increase of 130% in a single year. All three of those are outstanding indicators of the kind of growth that we have and the number of customers that are already moving to Nar Mobile. That is why we are very optimistic as we continue to focus on the fundamentals. We have a great network, and offer great value and customer service. On the customer service side, we have seen a dramatic jump in our customer satisfaction ratings over the past year. This is an area that we are emphasizing and continue to want to improve.

What does your change in corporate strategy entail?

We started by establishing a five-year mission for what we want to achieve. We discussed a common set of values by which we want to run the company and that we want people to embrace in their daily dealings. We identified six specific strategies that we are going to use to build our business for the next three to five years. Now we will focus on executing the strategy. Delivering on the execution begins by aligning the management team and the entire company around the strategy. We developed the strategy in April 2013, fine-tuned it in May, and deployed it in June. We gave presentations to all of our employees. I believe that it was a huge contributor to the results that we have achieved during the past year.

What initiatives best articulate Nar Mobile's drive for innovation?

Innovation is not always about the newest product; it is also about providing a set of services and tariffs in a unique way. We have simplified our portfolio, meaning that we have six tariffs for voice and, within those, we can meet any basic needs that consumers might have. If you want a simple price, for everything, then Unique is the tariff for you, because it only costs four kopeck for any domestic call. If you want to talk to many people on the Nar network, then we have an unlimited tariff, which for a few kopecks a day delivers outstanding value. We find that consumers really flock to this tariff and love it, as it is one of our most stable tariffs. Beyond tariffs, we announced a really important initiative at Bakutel, which is Nar Home. We will provide a number of services in the home including television, video libraries, home monitoring, and a home network, allowing people in the same home to talk to each other through the set-top box. Family photos and video libraries can be accessed by any person in the family or anyone you want to give access. There is also the ability to have complete connectivity between the set-top box and your phone. Most of those products can be found on the market today; however, nobody bundles them into a single package or makes it as easy to use as we are making it. When you then tie that to the phone, it then becomes a great conduit for a stream of innovation on the handset.

What are the priorities for Nar Mobile's corporate social responsibility (CSR) platform?

We have supported a number of charities through the years. First, we have a program to build awareness and hire hearing- and speech-impaired staff. This program has been ongoing for about three or four years, and we have 12 hearing- or speech-impaired employees. We have provided opportunities for work, and even increased their responsibilities in some cases. We have also developed an educational program to teach them how to use the Microsoft Office suite. Second, we have added a focus on art and culture. As a visitor and a guest here in Azerbaijan, I can frankly say that there is a very rich cultural heritage that we would like to help celebrate, not only in terms of what is here but also bringing in international stars. Third, education is important because it is the future of the country. We are hoping to work closely with the Ministry of Education on several ideas that we have to help drive various educational initiatives.

What about training programs?

One of the initiatives we started a year ago was an internship program. Our interns are provided with training and development. We are then able to look at that group as a great source of future employees for the company. In addition to that, we started a program called Nar Excellence. It includes initiatives such as 360-degree feedback, meaning that each employee gets feedback from about a dozen people that they work with, including their boss, peers, and subordinates. Through this tool, we try to identify what each employee needs to do to improve. In 2014, we will launch a leadership development program that will focus on the top-100 people in the company as the first step. We will conduct very detailed assessments of everyone to identify where our strengths are and what developments can be made. We have two or three different companies already lined up to provide various training programs to help us achieve our goals. In total, we will invest about AZN1,000 per employee on training and development. A great example of how these efforts are paying off is that several members of our IT staff went abroad, either sponsored by us or on their own accord to study. About 20 of these were given awards or certifications in 2013 for reaching certain levels of excellence. One of them passed Oracle's highest level of certification in his first attempt, and he is now one of the top-200 Oracle experts in the world.

© The Business Year - April 2014