Published 20-01-2013, in the Financial Times.

By Matt Steinglass in Amsterdam

Preparing for a vacation in France in 2004, Wouter Deelman spent so much time with his mobile operator’s help desk trying to get email working on his phone that he decided he had discovered a niche.

The following year Mr Deelman launched Qelp, which builds software that shows mobile operators’ call-centre staff and customers how to configure and use each model of smartphone on their specific network.

But smartphone penetration was still minuscule, and for years the company went nowhere.

“I was way too early,” said Mr Deelman, an IT executive and entrepreneur whose previous venture, optical chipmaker ThreeFive, was bought out in 2003. “People were asking me, Wouter, when are you going to give up on this?”

Then came the iPhone and the smartphone explosion, and mobile providers deluged with customer queries suddenly found they wanted Qelp. The Amsterdam-based company went from six employees in 2009 to more than 70 today, with support offices in São Paulo and Madrid and programmers based in Mumbai.

Qelp’s rise highlights how the rise of smartphones have created new, sometimes unexpected costs for telecom operators, even as it has helped them generate new revenues from charging for data usage.

Qelp says each smartphone user needs help more than twice a year, with Apple’s iPhone and Samsung’s Galaxy models dominating the queries. The average help-desk call costs the mobile provider €7, while more complicated conversations regarding smartphones can easily cost €15.

“Mobile operators have to cut [costs], but they can’t do it in customer care,” said Marc Hesselink, an analyst at ABNAmro. “Quality of help service is clearly an area where customers are making a choice between providers.”

Last week Vodafone Netherlands announced a new round of job cuts, but said it would exempt positions that directly interact with customers, such as the help desk. KPN is trying to spare customer care while laying off up to 5,000 workers by the end of 2013.

Enter Qelp, which last year won international contracts with Deutsche Telekom and Telefónica’s Latin American units, bringing the total number of mobile phone subscribers it serves to 370 million. The company says revenues doubled in 2011, rose 70 per cent last year, and will double again this year.

Qelp’s software provides iterative answers to user questions about how to change settings and perform tasks on every major smartphone model on different mobile networks. Companies’ help-desk employees use the software as their guide to interacting with customers.

At the company’s headquarters on an Amsterdam canal, employees can call up dashboards showing in real-time which users are asking what questions about which smartphones, at any of the company’s 45 client networks in Europe and Latin America.

It is a narrow niche. Qelp’s only international competitor is Denmark-based WorldManuals, which serves most units of the Vodafone group.

But rising differentiation of smartphones and apps makes this a growing market. In the Netherlands, where nearly three of every five people have a smartphone, Qelp statistics show help inquiries jumped 120 per cent year-on-year in 2012.

Mobile providers’ desire to outsource those help tasks could take Qelp well beyond its current 45 clients. Mr Deelman, who financed the start-up privately, says taking the company public would be “nice”, but is “not a goal in itself”.

But he says the only constraint on the company is financing, and that the crucial growth period is likely to last through perhaps 2015.

“Now and through the next three years, mobile operators need to choose tools to handle this smartphone-query traffic,” Mr Deelman said. “The window is now.”