With its recent launch in Sierra Leone, Smart Mobile is expanding in West Africa, banking on aggressive promotion and customer service expertise to capture market share from its larger competitors.
"We are facing strong competition from the likes of Airtel and Africell," Smart Mobile CEO Ray Akwa said. "Whatever people may say about those two providers, they are still very strong both in terms of subscriber base and what they are offering to the consumers."
Smart already has operations in East Africa, including Tanzania, Burundi and Uganda. "In some countries Smart has enjoyed the number two spot amongst other rival operators, which confirms that our level of service is very competitive," Akwa said. "Furthermore, we were able to achieve this rank very quickly after establishing our operations in those countries."
Smart faces tough competition, however. In the broader African market, Airtel has made a mark, with a presence in 17 countries. Africell, meanwhile announced last month that it has acquired a majority stake in Orange Uganda, increasing its countries of operation to four and its subscriber base to 20 million. Africell, which up to now has operated in Gambia, Sierra Leone and Democratic Republic of the Congo, plans to acquire one more telecom company, either in West or East Africa, before the end of 2014, it said.
Smart Mobile is not likely to match the market scope of its big competitors anytime soon. "For us to say we are going to try to challenge them anytime soon would be, I think, a little bit premature," Akwa said. "What we will try to do is to try to create some kind of a niche for ourselves by keeping our promises and our words, in terms of at least delivery of good customer services experience."
Customer service has been a key issue for phone users in Sierra Leone as well as other West African countries. Criticism of mobile provider's service is prevalent throughout Africa. Multiple African countries have launched inquiries into reports of poor service, and last year the Zambia Information and Communication Technology Authority (ZICTA), the country's telecom sector regulator, sued MTN, Airtel and Zamtel for alleged poor quality of services, which the authority said are criminal in nature because customers were being exploited.
Focusing on customer service may help set Smart Mobile apart from the competition, some users agreed.
"I think it is a smart idea because the customer service aspect has a way of defining an operator," says Smart Mobile user Abubakar Jalloh. Smart has also been promoting its launch in Sierra Leone aggressively, offering 30 days of free air time for signing up to the service.
"I have been using their free 30-day call and I have been enjoying it," Jalloh said. "I can't remember any GSM company has ever given us such an incentive, I just hope Smart Mobile won't change suddenly because I don't think anyone of them should be trusted."
It's difficult for any mobile operator to guarantee that a particular cell tower will serve all subscribers with a strong signal in a particular location at any given moment, Akwa acknowledged. However, "by identifying those tricky issues with the network and trying to resolve, upgrade and rectify them, that's what is important," Akwa said.
Akwa said that Smart has managers with particular skills in customer care, and that some have overseas experience, but declined to divulge specifics about the company's training practices.
"The idea is to offer subscribers a higher level of service than competition," Akwa said. "Hopefully, by the end of the year we shall have our operations running smoothly, offering a full range of products and services on par with competition across the whole of Sierra Leone, not just Freetown."