Telecom companies woo women with angel stores

March 25, 2013

(Any opinions expressed here are those of the author and not necessarily of Reuters)

Walk into the Vodafone store in Mumbai’s Prabhadevi neighbourhood, and it doesn’t look any different from the others across India. It’s crowded with customers waiting to pay their bills, lodge complaints and buy new mobile phone connections.

But there is a difference many haven’t noticed. This is one of Vodafone’s 15 “angel” stores, or retail outlets managed and run solely by female employees. Security, pantry staff, customer service resources and management level personnel — all are women.

The company says research and feedback shows “women with their character traits of greater patience and empathy are able to act and help in speedy resolution,” helping improve quality of customer service.

A visit to the store showed the ratio of men and women customers was the same as any other. The outlet was run-of-the-mill in every other way except that there were only women dressed in the Vodafone uniform of white shirts and red scarves.

Women visiting the store praised the initiative, saying it gave women more job opportunities.

The staff is “quite friendly,” said Monica Singh, a 22-year-old student who said she felt more comfortable at this particular store.

But not everyone is a fan.

“I didn’t like their customer service. Because every time I come they have some or the other problem, relating to their systems … every time,” said 18-year-old Vaidehi Murkar, a student accompanied by a male friend. But she was quick to clarify her dissatisfaction had more to do with the store having tech troubles.

While Vodafone launched its first angel store in May last year, other mobile phone companies have reacted to a wave of crimes against women with safety features, some of which are value-added services that typically provide higher margins.

“A society that cannot protect its women, cannot be called a civilized society,” MTS said earlier this month, launching its Women MPowered plan that has safety features to ensure that women will “never be alone”.

Sistema Shyam Teleservices, which operates its telecom services under the MTS brand, is handing out free pepper sprays to women buying prepaid connections in India under a new calling plan.

The Delhi state government has also contributed by giving a tax rebate on pepper sprays in its annual budget.

MTS is providing free self- defence classes to its female customers and a service to provide information on safety tips and women’s rights.

Bigger rival Bharti Airtel is also doing its bit to help women, through a paid emergency alert service as well as a SMS-based search engine that shows the nearest police station or hospital. It also has a set of specialized services for women that includes customized diet plans and tips on pregnancy management.

Bharti says it supports its women employees in work-life balance efforts with practices such as enhanced monetary benefits for referring women employees and teleworking options for new mothers.

Although the initiatives are well meaning, it is doubtful they will translate into genuine safety for women.

“I wouldn’t buy a connection based on these sorts of safety services,” said Disha Saiya, who is training to be a hairstylist in Mumbai. She says the best safety feature would be an improved network that does not fail at an inopportune time.

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