Op-Ed: Could True Caller eventually own your customer?

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Apps like True Caller have the potential to disrupt the way we do business in Africa and we’re not preparing ourselves enough for that disruption, writes Nnamdi Oranye.

 

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True Caller is one of those disrupting apps that always seem to just slip under the radar, quietly building huge traction without big PR and fanfare through providing a valuable service to the consumer, while gaining tremendous potential to disrupt industries and the way many companies do business – including businesses in Africa. For this reason, we ought to take notice, because if we don’t, it has the potential to disrupt our businesses in ways we aren’t prepared for right now.

How does it work? True Caller, which is a relatively small company, develops an app that lets you know the identity behind a number calling or SMSing you. It boasts of having a database of over three billion numbers, collected since 2009 through its users. It allows you to put numbers into spam lists and basically block calls and SMS’s from certain numbers coming through. It’s a great tool for keeping you from receiving unwanted calls from call centres and telemarketers and that friend who keeps asking for money.

Can legitimate communication end up as spam?

But what if the call you receive is actually legit? By having your Bank’s number in the spam list, for instance, you also miss out on relevant communication – SMS’s giving your latest balance, or asking you to confirm a purchase on your credit card, or a payment reminder, and so on. I noticed this happened to me when I was using the app – most of my legitimate communication ended up in my spam and I didn’t know, and I would only see it sometime later when I went looking because I was wondering why I never got that SMS from the bank confirming my balance. This also happens to users when they receive communication from their telecommunications provider – for example, an SMS telling them how their airtime balance is looking. So what we see is many large corporates are being blocked and listed as spam. That’s great for the consumer in many ways, but not very good for business.

This also happens to users when they receive communication from their telecommunications provider – for example, an SMS telling them how their airtime balance is looking. So what we see is many large corporates are being blocked and listed as spam. That’s great for the consumer in many ways, but not very good for business.

Perhaps you might think they deserve to be labelled as spam, and perhaps in many cases you would be right. Many people do agree. I was recently at a conference and decided to do an informal survey to find out how many people use the app. The audience at the conference was predominantly made up of professionals (in their 30’s and 40’s) and I found that about 50 percent of those I surveyed used the app.

Wide reach among Millennials and Gen Xers

So it arguably has a wide reach, and especially among Millennials and Generation Xers. The use of such an app shows that these generations communicate with their phone in a very different way to older generations (even though the older generation has cottoned on). Telemarketing and cold calls are rejected right from the outset. You simply will not get through. You’re either blocked outright or your call is ignored.

Today’s large corporates, such as banks and telecommunications providers and services companies, have a huge investment in customer research and make a major focus on understanding and knowing the customer. All this investment, however, is worthless if you actually can’t even get through to your customer. If you are considered a spammer, it doesn’t matter how slick your image is or how much your product will add value or how well trained your sales staff are, you are automatically tarnished with a certain brush and all that investment and effort isn’t worth much.

Could True Caller become the gatekeeper to your customer and cut you out?

This means that inadvertently, True Caller owns access to your customer. The more it grows, the more it has this sort of ownership. I think this may be exactly what True Caller is actually looking to do long-term. Have a look at its privacy policy for a clue into how it makes money in the background:

“Truecaller may also share personal information with third party advertisers, agencies and networks. Such third parties may use this information for analytical and marketing purposes e.g. to provide measurement services and targeted ads and for improvement of products and services.”

[http://phandroid.com/2017/08/10/how-does-truecaller-work/]

Most users probably never bothered to read that. When you sign up for True Caller, you actually give personal info to the company. This is so that it can track who is calling you and figure out how you manage these sorts of things, in the name of making its service better. But like most of today’s tech disruptors, you have to sacrifice personal info and privacy to use the service and help it improve. Ironically, it gathers personal info that it probably intends to sell to the very companies you are blocking off as spam.

Reaching your customer through social media

But there is more to it than that, and here is where African businesses need to take notice. Much of that information would probably go to the likes of social media companies such as Facebook. And most of that information will go to companies looking to advertise via social media like Facebook. This makes a lot of sense because if you can’t reach your customer through the phone, you probably can reach them via social media. When it comes to today’s generation, you’re practically guaranteed as such.

Owning the customer is paramount and today’s younger generations are certainly more reachable through social media than any other. That changes the landscape of business considerably. If you cannot own your customer or access them because there is a new gatekeeper in town, then you need to go through that gatekeeper. Essentially, these sorts of disruptors don’t just want to have eyes on their news feeds but want to own access to your customer bases. So what concerns

Essentially, these sorts of disruptors don’t just want to have eyes on their news feeds but want to own access to your customer bases. So what concerns me, even more, is if the likes of Facebook scoops up True Caller entirely, because then it can pretty much own the customer base in Africa.

I keep writing that, as Africans, we need to take on this sort of Silicon Valley disruption and work with it or work in competition with it. We have to consider these sorts of things quite seriously. In my upcoming book, Taking on Silicon Valley: How Africa’s Innovators Will Shape Its Future, I go into some detail with this argument.

I think True Caller is the perfect example of an app that has the potential to pull the rug under us in many ways but we’re just not talking about it. We’re not preparing ourselves for the possibilities. We need to look at such apps and think beyond just the consumer experience and consider what it means for business as a whole. We need to take a more macro view.

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