May 18, 2011

Viettel wins Cambodian hearts and minds


Viettel's MetFone boldly went where no firm had gone before – the Cambodian countryside. The move ushered in a telecom revolution. Pham Hoang Nam reports.

One day in late 2008, new graduate Tevy Lim chanced upon a recruitment notice from a new telecom company that said it wanted to offer services to all Cambodians, even those living in remote areas.

She decided to apply, mostly out of curiosity to see how long the company, MetFone, could survive in a market where seven big international operators were already present.

She tells Viet Nam News an interesting story about her job interview when she was asked by the interviewer if she believed MetFone could grow. She promptly replied "Impossible".

But the impossible has become possible. MetFone, which is owned by Viettel Corporation and began operations in February 2009, now has four million subscribers for a 42 per cent share of the mobile market.

There used to exist a paradox in Cambodia: Only the rich owned landline phones while mobile phones were for the common people. This was because, before MetFone's arrival, the foreign telecom operators had only installed short-wave telephony, the cheapest.

MetFone, which in Cambodian means "phone for friends", has spent a whopping US$250 million to create telecom infrastructure in Cambodia. It has laid 16,000km of fibre-optic cable, or 80 per cent of the entire network in the country, covering 95 per cent of all communes, and built 4,500 base transceiver stations (BTS), covering 98 per cent of the population. The BTS network is equal to that of all the other networks put together.

The fibre-optic cable and BTS network are also the backbone for other telecom services like the internet.
"There were too many challenges when we started," Nguyen Duc Quang, deputy general director of Viettel Global said.

"We have overcome the preliminary difficulties but we have to keep working hard because we are only two years old while others have been in the market for 10 – 15 years."

Unlike the other operators in Cambodia, MetFone launched its service only after fully developing infrastructure, which took two and a half years from mid-2006.

The new network targeted 10 million people living in rural areas, where telecom was a luxury.

"We have opened 200 MetFone shops in every district and recruited two salespersons for each commune," Vu Duc Nguyen, deputy director of MetFone, says about its development strategy.

"Nothing is better than one local taking care of his own locality."

Nguyen and the other MetFone leaders travelled around the country to figure out who their customers were, what they needed, how they could afford telecom fees, and other critical issues.

"Cambodians love technology and telecom is becoming more and more essential for everyone. Therefore, we believed we could win the countryside," he added.

Besides, it was the same strategy of focusing on rural customers that saw the upstart soar to the top of the mobile-phone market in Viet Nam.

However, the early marketing people in Cambodia all have their funny stories about selling phones to farmers in exchange for chickens, coconuts, or just a night's meal.

MetFone was also the first operator to open its own shops and provide all services directly, thus improving service and creating contacts with customers.

Networks not interlinked

A common sight in Cambodia is people using two or three mobile phones. Were they flaunting their phones, I wondered? But no, it was because the 9 networks are not linked with each other.

Only MetFone is connected with the others.

"For sure other networks did not want to connect," Nguyen Van Hung, another deputy director, says.

"But when we got more and more users, they had to link up with us."

When I went to the Siem Reap night market, I saw Channa, the owner of a foot-massage stall, using two mobile phones, including a MetFone.

"I had to keep my old number for contacts but I call using MetFone," she says.

"It is much simpler for me to contact my family, friends, and business."

In Cambodia, text messages cannot be sent because phones do not come with the Khmer font. But, in a brilliant twist, customers can send voice messages.

It is not an exaggeration to say that MetFone has ushered in a telecom revolution in just two years in Cambodia. The country now has extensive telecom infrastructure and internet connection in all big cities, provinces, and 85 per cent of all districts.

The internet penetration rate is 70 per cent of the population against the normal 30-50 per cent in developing nations.

Mobile internet, once thought to be impossible to introduce in the country, has become very popular.

MetFone has 310,000 landline users (80 per cent of the market), 50,000 internet subscribers (90 per cent), and 4 million mobile phone subscribers (42 per cent), and provides 6,000 jobs, mostly in poor rural areas, with an average monthly salary of $250.

Since MetFone's arrival, mobile charges have fallen by 50-75 per cent.

Many farmers and other rural residents earn money by renting out their telephones.

MetFone has spent tens of millions of dollars on charity, funding surgeries for cleft lips and palates for poor children, helping trace lost people, and providing free internet connection to 509 schools.

Why the success?

Nguyen Thi Nga was one of the first people to join the Cambodian project.

Early in 2006 the 26-year-old left her husband behind in HCM City and left for the neighbouring country.

Her tasks included building project profiles, meeting partners and local authorities, opening shops, recruiting and training local staff, and going to rural and remote areas to introduce and sell the services.

"We worked day and night to cope with the constant challenges. Without the love and passion, I could not have survived those hard days."

The love and passion she refers to are part of the Viettel culture: being solicitous, assisting others, and inspiring a passion in each other to overcome challenges.

At MetFone it is possible to see a lot of young people like Nga, Nguyen, and Hung, people born in the 1980s, in top positions.

"It is a real opportunity to grow for young people," she says. But it is also fraught because of their inexperience and age.

Now, two years after returning to Viet Nam, she says: "Cambodia is my love, an important part of my life where I grew significantly since I had to face huge challenges.

"Our people in Cambodia still work very hard. I sympathise with them and miss them deeply."

One thing that makes Nga proud is the inspiration, the affection and passion the Vietnamese have caused in local staff.

Hung says: "Last year, 15 per cent of Cambodian executives agreed not to take a bonus if we could not reach a turnover of $160 million. We tried hard and achieved it in the final gasp."

Another significant effect is on the working habits of Cambodian employees. They usually work only from 8am to 5pm and it is hard to persuade them to stay late or work during weekends and holidays.

But people like Tevy, Oudom, Sophalla, and hundreds of MetFone's other Cambodian staff are ready to work until a job is finished or to attend weekend meetings.

Three of them even happily accompanied our group of journalists during Khmer New Year.

Tevy's mother, who met us at Siem Reap airport, tells us: "We are proud about my girl's growth and glad to see she is so happy with MetFone."

Despite a heavy workload that involves constant travel to provinces on poor roads, 10-hour work shifts, weekend meetings and turnover targets that often leaves her haggard, Tevy is sure she will never quit MetFone though other companies offer her much higher salaries.

"I will never find this love and friendship [elsewhere]," she explains.

MetFone has faced and continues to face tonnes of challenges. There is deadly competition from rivals who destroy equipment and cut cables; technicians often have to hole themselves up inside BTS's in forests because of wild animals.
Despite all this, this Vietnamese company has succeeded in winning the affection and gratitude of Cambodians.

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