TELUS’ CTO is tackling telcos’ bad customer experience rap

This story is part of Big Thinkers, a series of profiles on business leaders transforming industries with bold ideas.

What does a CTO have to do with customer experience? More than you’d think, according to TELUS CTO Ibrahim Gedeon.

“Technological superiority doesn’t mean much if it’s not tied with client experience and a global ecosystem,” Gedeon told IBM.

Traditionally, the responsibility to ensure great customer experiences at telcos has been relegated to customer-facing groups, while CTOs have focused on building services and networks.

But at TELUS, one of Canada’s largest service providers, that hasn’t been the case for at least a decade, since the company launched its Customer First program. The internal initiative called on everyone in the organization from frontline employees to managers and top executives to make customer experience a central focus, and to make “likelihood to recommend” rates—rather than industry standard NPS scores—the chief measure of success.

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In an industry notorious for poor customer satisfaction ratings, the move was a bold—and necessary—one. Gedeon, who’s been at the company since 2003, has taken the directive to heart. Today, he sees his work as CTO as an integral part of the TELUS customer experience.

“When we talk about client experience, it’s not just cool technology. I think it’s very critical to say, ‘OK, what are they expecting from the journey?’” Gedeon said.

For many telcos today, initiatives to improve those journeys have included developing chatbots and virtual agents that allow customers to get answers to routine questions about billing and service 24/7. Others have focused on using AI to help route contacts to the best source of help, and to analyze contacts to assess their success.

TELUS has engaged in some of those initiatives, too, and Gedeon thinks they have “a fundamental role to play” in shaping great contact center experiences. But in his view, a telco’s customer experience efforts must reach beyond boosting contact center resolution.

“Everybody thinks they’ve got chatbots and they’re done,” he said. “But they haven’t actually improved the experience or the journey.”

So what does true transformation look like? While great customer services can be broken at the contact center, Gedeon said, they can’t be entirely built there. Good client journeys, he said, have to start with great services, which, at TELUS, are today more thoroughly tested and optimized prior to release than ever before.

“For the longest time, we didn’t worry about the cost of care. It was part of doing business. We just built new services, added more stuff. Eventually it became the Leaning Tower of Pisa from a client care perspective,” he said.

Issues inevitably arise, of course, even with the most carefully designed and tested services. But contact center representatives, he said, should not be instructed to simply “wait in locations for interactions with unhappy people.” At TELUS, representatives look to record and measure positive feedback as well.

“That’s why we call it the client experience, because we own it in good and in bad,” he said. “So we started measuring who’s calling for good reasons. We’ve started training people now to interact with our clients saying, ‘Was it good?’ And as a result, believe it or not, our customers now write letters thanking us.”

Increasingly, TELUS is working on giving contact center representatives the tools to be proactive rather than merely reactive, and to focus equally on outbound and inbound communications. The key, Gedeon said, is better access to data.

By making near real-time network data, traditional CRM data, and external social media data available to contact center staff with help from IBM, Gedeon said, representatives can proactively inform customers about any disruptions and the work being done to address them, thereby eliminating the need for them to contact TELUS in the first place.

“The best call is the one that never comes in,” said Perry McDonald, IBM’s Analytics & Cognitive Sales Leader for the Global Telecommunications Industry, who works closely with TELUS. “If we see problems in the network, we should fix them and actually let customers know, ‘By the way, the network is actually 10 MB faster because of investments we’ve just made in your neighborhood.’”

In McDonald’s view, telco leaders like Gedeon are forging a “genuine paradigm shift” in the industry, after a long period of inaction and resignation. And as more telco customers come to expect the kind of experiences that companies like TELUS are providing, he believes more CTOs will see the benefit of getting involved in the business of customer care.

“If I look at the last half decade or so, the acceleration is both daunting and exciting,” McDonald said. “The customer journey is at the core of it. Clearly, the operators that see that are going to thrive.”

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