Isis Wants Users In The Worst Way Possible, And That's How It's Going After Them

Isis has finally launched its mobile payments trials in Salt Lake City and Austin—and done it in a way that guarantees the fewest possible customers will use the new service. On Monday (Oct. 22), the mobile operators' consortium announced that all customers need to do is go to their Verizon, AT&T or T-Mobile store, where their phone will be opened up, the SIM replaced and the operating system upgraded (hope you don't lose any data that was on there). What could possibly discourage customers more?

How about the fact that those mobile stores will also be encouraging customers to buy a new phone as long as they're already in the store? And yes, we're sure that will make retail chains feel warm and fuzzy about Isis, too.

This is genuinely discouraging. These mobile telcos have had two years to prepare for this go-live announcement. They've known for at least a year that every smartphone that was going to use Isis would need a new type of SIM that contains a Secure Element to do NFC transactions. And they've known that the goal was to get as many of their customers as possible using Isis.

Why haven't they been putting Isis-compatible SIMs in all their smartphones for at least the past year? Why haven't they continuously upgraded the smartphone OSes to be Isis-ready? Put another way, why haven't they made it possible for every retailer who sells smartphones tied to Verizon, AT&T and T-Mobile to be selling Isis capability at the same time?

Is this get-started-with-Isis plan really just to get customers into those mobile company stores to sell them new phones? If that's the case, that means these telcos understand retail even less than retailers expected them to when Isis first surfaced.

It also means Isis is catastrophically clueless when it comes to payments.

Do we have to recap the recent history of payments again? Visa and MasterCard got their unshakable foothold in payments by dropping 100 million unsolicited credit cards into potential customers' mailboxes in the 1960s. Those customers didn't have to go anywhere or do anything but sign the card and start using it.

Yes, that was financially irresponsible. That's why unsolicited drops were outlawed in 1970. But it worked really, really well. And even today, customers don't have to physically walk down to the bank, turn their wallets and purses over to a bank employee, then have them opened up and modified so that a credit card could be installed. But that's effectively what Isis is asking its potential customers to do.

That won't work. You have to make this process effortless.That won't work. You're competing with plastic cards that arrive in the mail. You have to make the process effortless.

(The only mobile vendor who could possibly get customers to do anything like that is Apple—and Apple is successful precisely because it never requires customers to do things like that.)

It's not as if most mobile users have a strong customer relationship with those mobile stores. If that were the case, Walmart and Target and Best Buy and Kmart and a whole slew of other big chains wouldn't be in the business of selling mobile phones. But retailers are where the customer relationship is. That's also a group that Isis really needs if it ever wants to expand—a group that Isis should be doing its darnedest to cozy up to.

Verizon, AT&T and T-Mobile? That's just a billing relationship.

Isis has changed its plans before (remember when this rollout was supposed to happen last summer?), so maybe it's not too late for the consortium to make this rollout work. Sure, Mr. Mobile Operator, you can still let customers go to your store if they prefer that.

But if you want to make customers and retailers happy, start calling the big chains that sell a lot of phones in Salt Lake City and Austin. Cut a deal with Walmart and Target and others to hold Isis In-Store Upgrade Days. They can be staffed by visiting mobile-operator upgrade techs. Customers can bring in their phones for new SIMs and OS upgrades, the chains can sell new phones to customers who want that, and Isis will get more publicity (and users) than it ever would just through the mobile company stores.

Of course, it does mean the chains, not the mobile operators, will get the sale for every customer who upgrades to a better NFC-equipped phone. And it will help cement the relationship between the chains and their mobile-phone customers, making it even more likely that customers will visit the chain, not the phone store, when they need new equipment.

But if Isis and its telco members can't figure out that acquiring a happy mobile-wallet customer is worth more than the lost phone-sale opportunity—and that without happy, cooperative retailers there is no mobile payments business—then maybe the telcos should really focus on something they can do well.

If we figure out what that is, we'll let you know.