Competition among 3G services is set to intensify later this year as the current four licence holders are expected, by then, to be operating at full swing. Whether all four can survive, in what is likely to be a fiercely competitive market, will ultimately depend on the quality of service offered by operators.
Hutchison 3HK rolled out its 3G (third generation) service in January while the other three players - SmarTone, Sunday and CSL - plan to launch their services in the second half of 2004.
In terms of service quality, SmarTone clearly understands what customers want: to have easy access to timely and relevant information simply by pressing one or two buttons on their handset. Users also expect operators to make available products and services that suit their needs and provide better communications leading towards a more productive life for customers.
As a leading mobile operator in data services in Hong Kong, SmarTone, is working towards these goals. It obtained its licence in 2001 and is actively preparing for the launch of 3G services. Rita Hui, general manager of human resources, explains that SmarTone has yet to start 3G because it has taken time to make the technology involved stable. "Services like video calls demand high resolution and handset manufacturers are still improving their products to fit in with data services," she notes.
"We are very committed to mobile data services and want to be the best in the market when launching 3G services," she adds, "so the second half of this year is the right timing for it."
Ms Hui says more frontline customer sales executives will be hired to cope with business expansion. They provide one-on-one customer services for multimedia mobile products and services at SmarTone's retail outlets and, obviously, candidates must have excellent communication skills.
To ensure that information for customers is both accurate and timely, SmarTone is starting 24-hour content editing on its mobile multimedia portal in March and is in the process of recruiting more specialists in content sourcing and operations, who must be able to understand customers' needs. Additional marketing executives will be employed to handle new projects for mobile data services.
Various orientation programmes are arranged for new recruits. Frontline sales executives, for instance, attend nine full days of classroom training before being assigned to work in retail shops where on-the-job training begins. For outstanding junior staff, remuneration can be generous, with monthly salaries of around HK$15,000.
The second half of this year is the right timing
SmarTone has adopted "Four Behaviour and Action Principles" under the heading "U ACT". "U" stands for the understanding of customers' needs; "A" is for the agility staff need to embrace change; "C" represents clarity to communicate with customers in understanding the value of services; and "T" reminds employees of the importance of teamwork and common goals.
"We are very demanding," Ms Hui stresses, "all supervisors and managers of the frontline division in our company are promoted on merit. Before they are formally confirmed in new posts, they have an eight-month 'acting' period when they need to upgrade their skills, take exams and be assessed."
What attracts talented people to join SmarTone is the wide range of opportunities it offers for self-development. "Life can be tough," Ms Hui admits, "but we help staff overcome problems. We design career development plans and our staff derive job satisfaction from offering services which generate positive customer feedback. Employees can feel pride in working for a company with a good brand name."
To cope with the on-going development of mobile data services, SmarTone will continue to look for people who are specialised in content operations, marketing and technical disciplines and for frontline staff. As a sign of their continuing expansion, one new retail shop with a multimedia station will be opened in Mongkok in mid-March.
The start of 3G means that not only successful licensees can provide innovative services but content providers will also be able to explore opportunities for more cooperation with operators. This is encouraging capable small and medium-sized enterprises, in particular, to design and introduce creative mobile applications.
In order to get a feel for customer preferences, SmarTone technicians and engineers are encouraged to get out of the office and visit retail shops to hear from customers direct. Ideas and suggestions can then be translated into the development of new products and services.
Up to January this year, SmarTone had over 110,000 camera phone users and similar numbers for GPRS, (a non-voice service to send data across a mobile network), and for SmarTone iN. This enables customers to enjoy services like checking out the best deals in supermarkets or the latest credit card discounts for fashion and consumer products. Each morning, the handset displays the daily weather forecast. It also reports the latest sports results in real time, as they happen.
Not surprisingly, with such developments and with its commitment to respond to customers' needs, SmarTone is confident that it will take mobile communications in Hong Kong to a whole new level. "This year will be very exciting," says Ms Hui. "We are looking forward to the challenge."