SINGAPORE: Since its launch in May of 2016, virtual network operator Circles.Life has positioned itself as the plucky upstart keen on shaking things up in Singapore’s stale telecoms sector.
An emphasis on customer service and data-centric mobile plans characterise the start-up's push to stand out from the crowd.
It got off to a rocky start though, with reports of missing SIM card deliveries, botched number porting and unresponsive customer hotlines among the brickbats thrown in its direction. Co-founder Rameez Ansar took this head on when he went On the Record with Bharati Jagdish last year to discuss how the company tackled issues like botched number porting and lack of responsiveness in its customer service.
Mr Ansar said then he acknowledged that some customers had faced issues when signing up, and it needed to keep improving in this area, though there were also positives like 30 to 40 per cent of its users coming from referrals.
Fast forward to today.
Another co-founder, Mr Abhishek Gupta, told Channel NewsAsia in an interview that Circles.Life's focus continues to be on making customer service responsive and easily available.
Pointing to its CirclesCare mobile app, Mr Gupta said customers can engage in a live chat with a company representative from the app, and “at no point will they need to wait more than 60 seconds for a reply”.
At the end of the conversation, there will also be an option to request for a transcript of the session, which will be sent to the user’s email, he showed during a demo.
Mr Gupta leads fundraising, finance, investor management, partnership and growth, and he was previously a private equity investor with Bain Capital and Standard Chartered Private Equity. The 35-year-old is a Singapore Airlines scholar who graduated from Hwa Chong junior college.
The efforts appear to have paid off, with the company declaring it had reached its target of a 3-5 per cent share of Singapore's market by 2019 "ahead of time".
Mr Gupta declined to give specific figures, but said its current customer base is “a few hundreds of thousands”.
CIRCLES.LIFE’S SECRET SAUCE
It's not just customer service that Circles.Life is banking on, however.
Mr Gupta was keen to highlight the technology platform it built from scratch - Circles-X - that allows it to quickly introduce the many data-driven mobile plans it has since brought to market.
Pay S$28 a month, and you’ll get 6GB of mobile data. The operator will also throw in free caller ID and unlimited WhatsApp access in its base plan. This March, a mobile plan whereby customers can pay S$3 for a day’s worth of unlimited mobile data was launched.
It followed that up by unveiling a plan giving subscribers 1GB of data for free monthly, as well as some talk time and SMS messages, earlier this week.
How then does its much-touted Circles-X tool play a part in making all these products possible?
The company describes Circles-X as a cloud-based technology that automates telco systems such as OSS/BSS (operations support system/business support system), the mailing system to send monthly bills to subscribers, server management, network operations centre, analytics, etc.
There are 25 telecoms systems altogether, but the key difference is this: The Singapore start-up took the time to look at all the systems telcos needed and, from there, created a “leaner, more nimble” platform to operate on, Mr Gupta explained.
In fact, it took two-and-a-half-years for the 25-strong engineering team to bring the disparate systems together and create Circles-X. Among them were alums of Viber, a messaging app that was bought by Japanese giant Rakuten for US$900 million in 2014, and Skype which was bought over by Microsoft in 2011, the co-founder revealed.
Asked how this platform is different from what the full-fledged telcos have, Mr Gupta said the latter would usually have many disparate systems in their backend, with some hosted on premise while others are provisioned on cloud computing platforms. This meant integration issues, with different systems “not able to speak to each other” unless application programming interfaces (APIs) are developed for this purpose.
It will also be difficult for these companies to introduce new services quickly, he added.
Taking its WhatsApp Passport as an example, Mr Gupta said its engineering team simply needed to add a "button" to the customer-facing mobile app, and make sure this button is tied back to the provisioning systems at the back.
By comparison, the usual practice for telcos would be to raise a request for proposal (RFP) for an external vendor to add the button and later on, raise another RFP for another vendor to make sure the button integrates with legacy backend systems, which makes the whole process complex and time-consuming, the executive said.
“There is a lack of alignment between the different teams internally,” he said, adding this usually leads to finger-pointing when the project hits a hitch.
And because Circles-X is hosted on the cloud, Mr Gupta said this makes it easier for them to collaborate with other organisations to roll out products and promotions.
It did so with DBS Bank, for example, when it allowed the latter's customers to pay for data add-ons using their DBS points, he pointed out.
Another benefit of having its backend system on the cloud is the ability to expand to other markets quickly: "You just need to replicate the system virtually," Mr Gupta explained.
This is why Circles.Life has stated its intention to expand to other regional markets, starting with Indonesia some time in the second half of this year.
There are currently “between 10 and 15 employees” situated in Jakarta currently, the co-founder revealed, and the operator will be targeting urban cities for launch in the initial phases.
These include Jakarta, Surabaya, Medan, Bali, Bogor, Semarang and Jogjakarta, the executive elaborated.
“Indonesia is a gold market for us,” Mr Gupta said.