Putting clear blue water between O2 and its rivals

Data Professional of the Year John Belchamber is at the heart of the telco’s CRM programme. As he explains to David Reed, it requires a combination of strategic thinking and operational effort to keep the mobile business agile.

Working in a fast-growing organisation that has risen to be market leader, is very data rich and has CRM at its heart might seem ideal to most readers of Data Strategy. Yet it comes with its own challenges. “CRM is very data and insight-driven, very functional and linear in how information is put together. My objective is to get people not to think like that,” says John Belchamber, head of innovation and capability – CRM, at Telefónica O2.

His main focus is on “off-the-wall stuff ” that may lead to breakthrough ideas. One example of that was the insight into calling circles, an early stage of which won last year’s Data Strategy Awards Grand Prix.

“When we were working on a segmentation of our customer base, one of the things that became obvious was that we needed to get to a score that could be applied on transactional proxies. The team were driving towards that in a very linear way,” recalls Belchamber.

With support from the research function in Germany (which may account for some of that linearity), the goal was to get a score that could be applied with 70 per cent confidence. Yet the project was stuck at 60 per cent and could not make the final leap.

“It became obvious that the measures we were using were not flexible enough,” he says. It was at that point that the idea of calling circles arose. O2 and its external partner Idiro Technologies realised that it was not just frequency of calling that mattered, but the influence that certain callers had on their contacts.

“That was something we could measure and manage and it fell out of the analysis like a eureka moment. That then led to the concept of social network analysis to build on and overlay social dimensions – not just how many people someone calls, but how they are linked,” says Belchamber.

Getting to this level of sophistication in the application of data to a business problem may look like the inevitable outcome of Belchamber’s career progression. But while he studied geography at University – his first job was as an off-licence manager.

From the shop floor at Peter Dominic (now Threshers), he moved into managing EPOS data. When the chain was acquired by Whitebread, he moved into strategic planning, setting up a loyalty scheme for Wine Rack before building the centralised cross and up-sell marketing database that brought together customer data from brands such as Beefeater, Pizza Hut, Thresher, Marriott, Costa and David Lloyd and others in the drinks-to-leisure group.

“Whitbread was very good at taking businesses and growing them up to 100 sites. Once they got bigger than that, however, they often struggled to maintain that dynamic, small entrepreneurial approach. That is where the business came unstuck,” he recalls. Even so, this was “one of the best jobs I’ve ever had” and exposed Belchamber to the full range of data, from EPOS and transactions through to market research and GIS.

From there, he made the move into the telco sector at T-Mobile for three years, before being recruited to O2 seven years ago, originally to exploit the newly-built campaign solution. “That was quite a risk, because then it was the fourth player in the mobile sector, although it was talking about wanting to be number one.

And that is what has happened,” he says. “It has been a very exciting time to be here, although you don’t realise it until you look back,” says Belchamber, recalling how the business has grown from three million to 18 million customers. That generates a lot of data to support CRM as well as more strategic business development goals.

“There is a dichotomy to my role. I spend a large amount of time in strategic thinking, but I still have to get solutions into the operational side,” he says. On that side of the business, he helps James Morgan’s data team (Behind the News, August 2009) to drive up the effectiveness of communications with customers. But the outcomes of his work can have an effect right across the business. Between understanding market trends and working with external suppliers to develop new solutions, supporting and developing new concepts for operations, looking at longterm CRM ideas and interacting with the wider Telefónica Group, there might not seem to be much spare time left. But when not reading historical fiction, Belchamber is a keen photographer and diver, with over 600 dives under his belt around the world.

It’s a long way from merchandising drinks brands in an off-licence. But as he would undoubtedly be the first to point out, the straight line is not always the best path to follow.

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