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From 3G to Advanced Analytics: Shihab Ahmad’s Leadership Journey in Bangladesh’s Telecom Industry

Shihab Ahmad is the Chief Commercial Officer at Robi. He assumed the role in January 2020, following his prior position as the Chief Digital Services Officer in August 2017. He joined Robi as a “Project Director – Integration” in November 2016, contributing over 19 years of expertise in corporate strategy, marketing, sales, customer care, devices, digital services, and mobile financial services. Before his tenure at Robi, Shihab held key positions at Banglalink Digital Communications Limited, serving as the Chief Strategy Officer and also as the Chief Commercial Officer. He holds a graduate degree from Bangladesh University of Engineering and Technology (BUET) and completed his MBA at Lahore University of Management Sciences (LUMS), Pakistan.

In a recent interview with Bangladesh Brand Forum, Shihab Ahmad shared his insights on navigating and thriving in today’s complex digital landscape.


BBF: In your view, what are the key considerations for organisations when integrating digital services into their business models?

SHIHAB AHMAD: Generally, we locate businesses into categories. Some businesses are primarily physical products and services, then there are purely digital products and services, and others are in between. One of the key considerations would be how much of the business can be delivered digitally. If you think of telecom operators like Robi, Pathao or Uber, although there is a physical element, 80-90% of business operations happen digitally. Their primary consideration is whether you can effectively connect to the customers. How do you connect to the digitally savvy customers or smartphone users? So that is one very important key consideration for digital Telco data-driven companies.

But beyond that, we also have to consider whether we can use digital tools and techniques to automate specific processes of traditional or physical product-related companies. A lot of data and processes can be used through digital means. Much activity will be behind the scenes, and it will involve improving your efficiency, reducing your costs, and serving your customers faster and better. So there, you can use digital tools and technology. So, there will be more expertise, tools, and technologies.

On top of that, the last consideration would be whether it is possible to use advanced analytics or AI machine learning models to understand customers beforehand. Then, you can create your services around that. So that also should be a consideration. If that is possible and you are dealing with millions of customers, you should focus on using digital tools, techniques, and services.

BBF: Considering your leadership roles at Robi and Banglalink, how has the digital landscape influenced your approach to Chief Commercial Officer responsibilities?

That’s a very interesting question. We launched 3G in 2013. During that time, we started getting a taste of how customers behave in the digital space. Before that, it was all voice and prolonged data, making the process not practically digital. So, from 2013 onward, the journey started digitally. Still, the primary growth came from 2018 onwards when people started using technology where speed is very high, video can be consumed quickly, and data can be consumed within a month. If I look back and think about how it informed us in decision-making or transformed us as corporate marketers, I would say the more we started seeing customer databases, the more we started seeing behavioural change as we shifted from traditional to digital means. In 2013 or 2014, we had a strategy that even if only 5% of customers were digital, we’d be investing 10%. When it was 20% of customers in digital, we started investing 25% in digital. The idea was to take an extra step towards digital because we know digital is the future. So that is one approach.

The second thing that is coming up a lot now is the Advanced Analytics Element. Currently, there is much data in our hands. Global giants like Facebook and Google are using data and creating business out of data itself. On the contrary, as a telco, we are sitting on data. Similarly to the global tech giants, we can use the data to understand consumers better and what to offer and what not to offer. So, that advanced analytics element has become part of our digital marketplace journey. This facility was not there even five years before.

Basically, these two steps ushered significant changes. One is that we have started driving towards digital ahead of time, knowing it will come. Then, after 4G, we started using advanced analytics to understand consumers and make better offers to the customer.

BBF: With your extensive experience, how has the role of Chief Commercial Officer evolved in response to digital transformations?

Well, from the marketing angle, you need to understand your consumer better, and you have to decide who to offer, what to offer, and when to offer- all these are data and analytics-driven. On top of that, my role has changed significantly because we now have to think about the customer experience a lot more than before.

Earlier, the focus was on creating the service and delivering service. Now, customers are spending hours on the phone, and If I look at the digital companies, their digital customer experience is much better and smoother. So, how can I make my customers’ experience smooth and natural? You even need to consider the font on the phone, which one to use, and which is convenient for the customer’s eyes. Or how can I make it more scroll-friendly because customers continuously scroll on the phone? If the consumer is not interested in you within 3 seconds, then he’s not having a good experience. That is the benchmark we have to use. So, one of the additional transformations in my role as a chief commercial officer is that we need to continuously think about digitally improving customer experience. Many things can be done now with the combination of the physical-digital interface; customer experience has become much more critical.

BBF: From your experience, what advice would you give a business aiming to thrive in the digital marketing industry?

You need to be careful about three things. One is to believe in the numbers and data. No doubt, we all have our hunches and perceptions. Sometimes, we know the customer because of 15-20 years of experience. But nowadays, consumer behaviour changes continuously. The customer gets affected by so much media and content that whatever I saw last month may not be true this month, next month, or the month after. So, the number one requirement or advice is to look at the data carefully.

The second element is investing in analytics that can give you more precise customer insight. Managing billions of data points daily is impossible for a human. We can collect 5/10/20 data points, maybe 30, but when you cross 100, you must use tools that tell you how to use the data more efficiently.

And thirdly, look into the AIML space. Machine learning will become prominent, whether we like it or not. Because data is available and competing is becoming cheaper. In the coming years, more and more machine learning tools and techniques will be developed. So, we should train our people to know when to use AI and ML. We should find out what globally available models make our lives easier or lower costs. Finally, we have to have an in-house expertise group that can drive the company towards using AIML better than before. I believe if we do these three things in the digital journey, any company focusing on digital marketing will succeed compared to others who do not.

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