Company note: today begins a new series, FICX Industry Perspectives. Periodically, we will post interviews with the brightest lights in the CX industry. We are kicking off the series with a discussion on world-class telecom customer experience with David C. WIlliams, Assistant Vice President of Automation at AT&T.
MICHAEL OIKNINE, FICX: My name is Michael Oiknine and I am the CEO at FICX. We help companies automate digital experiences with our No-Code CX Automation Platform. Today, I have the pleasure to speak with David Williams, Assistant Vice President of Automation at AT&T, about the challenges and opportunities in telecom customer experience. David. Thank you very much for joining us today. We really appreciate your time.
DAVID C WILLIAMS, AT&T: Thank you, Michael. I am looking forward to it.
MO: Before I get started with questions, let me just set the stage. Today I want to surface some insights we can share of what you are doing at AT&T to help readers think about why digital CX is such an important focus area for 2022 and beyond. David, can you start by telling us about your role at AT&T, your responsibilities, and what a big win looks like for you?
DW: I am Assistant Vice President of the Automation team, focused on robotic process automation and emerging technologies for one of the largest global brands, and the leading telco in North America. Our team is helping transform customer service functions across the company, and our role is expanding to support direct sellers inside the company as well. We focus on identifying and implementing various automation strategies and tactics like collaboration tools, desktop automation, and machine learning. We have a great partnership with your organization, Michael. It’s been an excellent collaboration.
MO: Thank you, David. It’s a pleasure to work with you and your team. Thanks to your leadership, we’ve been able to deploy business-critical projects very quickly. This is a good segue to describing how we started working together. I remember meeting you for the first time just as COVID was getting on everyone’s radar. We were a month into the first state-level quarantines and lockdowns. That coronavirus scourge was the catalyst for us to work together. Can you describe how our partnership started?
DW: I remember it well. It began in mid-March and the federal government had started to recommend that we all shelter in place. Quarantine was very difficult for most businesses, of course. But for telecommunications companies like AT&T, we had to contend with quarantine under stringent regulations and rules.
The FCC demands that telecom employees working from home be prevented from accessing certain types of sensitive customer information. Social security numbers, credit card numbers, things like that. So, you can imagine how difficult that was for any telecom company that takes payments, opens and manages accounts, and drives sales via a phone-based customer service team. The shift to working-from-home created immediate challenges.
At that time, our team set aside our projects — for customer experience management, customer loyalty, customer and business sales, everything. We pivoted. We assembled a dream team, spoke with leaders and experts across the company, and asked, ‘How can we modify our workflow and re-engineer it to allow these folks working from home to fulfill these payments and orders? How can we meet customer expectations and needs in this crisis?
We white-boarded the customer journey, identified potential solutions, and ideated on them quickly. From the beginning, we were committed to finding a solution that we could deploy in a few weeks. Ordinarily, a project like this might take six months. But we didn’t have that time. We needed to find an agile solution informed and supported by my team, contact centers, security, networking, and more. And with this backdrop, we started working with FICX.
MO: I remember that time so well. That timeline was intense, but so was the collective commitment. And, together, we got great telecom customer experience initiatives done and dusted in five weeks. I remember you leading a discussion about the needs and requirements. And you inspired everyone.
You said, ‘we need, for example, to capture payments. And we have agents that are now stranded at home and do not have all the security AT&T has when they are in the call center. So how can we create an experience for customer and agent so that they can still leverage payment gateways and other systems, but layer on top a customer experience that protects customer data and ensures we stay FCC-compliant.’ And I’m happy that your leadership enabled us all to do that. David, talk a little more about that challenge of capturing payments. What were some of the key challenges?
DW: When you think about CX and digital CX, there are two sides to the equation, the business side, and the customer side. We needed a solution that addressed both sides in a way worthy of AT&T. One of the biggest challenges we had to face was how to create that ideal customer experience within the constraints of a high-security-protocols environment. We care so deeply about customer data security and customer privacy, and we have so many protocols and policies built into our contact center infrastructure.
So, with people working from home, we had to figure out how to adjust, getting all of that software and equipment behind the firewall working for a distributed workforce. So that when we had 40,000 folks using it, we could do so with an experience that delivered great results for customers while protecting them so well. I could go through several other things we worked through to perfect the customer experience. It was a fantastic collaboration, everything that we could fulfill in very short order. It was a culmination of the best work of so many AT&T teams, and of course, the FICX team as well.
This all had special significance as well because, with COVID-19, everyone was so reliant on telecom services. Consumers, law offices, schools, government, small and large businesses. We are always serving tens of millions, but now they need us even more. I am very proud of the great work we did as a team. Teamwork makes the dream work. It was a long, hard road that we ran in a sprint.
MO: Thank you, David. We appreciate your kind words.
DW: At the center of the experience was visual collaboration, which meant the customer and agent could simultaneously see the same connected pages. Visual collaboration enabled us to have a guided digital experience — a visually based dialogue with each customer — but with data-masking to protect sensitive customer information.
MO: One of the great things we’ve been able to do together, under your leadership, is keeping that highly effective and collaborative work environment going as we work to solve new challenges. Beyond that first installation, we identified other pain points and other areas of opportunity to solve.
DW: Yes, that implementation was just the beginning. The foundation for all this work is with one of the most important AT&T values: responsibility. As we looked for ways to automate processes together, our focus has been on maintaining a visual dialogue with each customer but transferring the responsibility for telecom provider interactions from people to devices when it makes sense. Our telecom devices give us incredible ways to have frictionless experiences, to solve many problems even more easily than calling an agent by unlocking the power of those devices. It’s about supporting our customers with technology to reach better outcomes.
We’ve gone into our support organizations to apply the visual dialogue principle to free up agents for more challenging customer needs while getting customers answers to basic challenges faster. That helps us enhance customer retention. And we’ve gone into sales and provided visual experiences for our agents where a telecommunication customer can see an avatar or picture of the agent. To combine the power of digital and in-person experience to create a more productive and successful interaction.
MO: David, I’ve heard you frequently speak about defining a mix of agent-assisted and self-service experiences. I believe your focus is that we can use the speed and accuracy of digital self-service for repetitive tasks to get customers the information they want easily and quickly. And that frees up your customer engagement teams for the use cases where personal experience and team member knowledge is so important, like signing up a new customer. Having that bifurcation — self-service experiences where they make sense and agent collaboration on the high-value customer experiences is extremely valuable in telecom customer experience. It means fewer customer complaints and ultimately lower customer churn.
DW: We are definitely exploring customer self-service to find the places where it adds customer value in addition to reducing servicing costs. That’s what we look for. We’re examining all the tasks consumers have and looking for ways to automate the simpler things using visual digital experiences that are intuitive — that work in ways they are familiar with. Giving customers a way to tap their way versus talk their way through requests and needs. That ultimately enables us to focus more resources and drive more customer value in the complex interactions where terrific agents bring creativity and ingenuity to complex customer requests.
MO: Among all the telecom providers, AT&T is so focused on understanding the value of an initiative. ‘What kind of value can this drive?’ So, what kind of value have these digital initiatives driven for the company?
DW: Well, our experiences touch hundreds of thousands of interactions and thousands of our agents every day. And the feedback we get is that these visual experiences and new ways to collaborate with customers improve customer satisfaction as they reduce handling costs.
Additionally, one of the things that we’ve been thrilled about is the effect that these better interactions have on our agents. We see greater job satisfaction from agents because they can serve customers better and drive more great outcomes. It’s great for their spirits. Richer collaboration with customers was a big part of it. But so is engineering out some of the experiential friction, making the employee experience easier as we serve customers better.
MO: So, there really are two areas of positive impact: business results and satisfaction.
DW: Yes, there are. It’s always difficult to measure satisfaction accurately. You have surveys and NPS, etc., but you know the old adage, the happy customers are very quiet, and the unhappy ones are very vocal. But all the data shows great reception from customers and our team.
MO: And what about the business dimension – have you been able to quantify the impact on costs and revenue?
DW: Without getting into any proprietary information, costs to support customers are variable. Digital is the lowest cost channel. Human-assisted channels are higher. Several interactions for one task is the highest. When you can solve that customer issue faster and better with technology, that’s a win for everyone. Now imagine the kind of customer interaction volume that AT&T is dealing with daily. Savings add up to big numbers very quickly. And then, you factor in increased revenue from a frictionless experience, and it all comes up to a huge number.
It’s a great example of value creation and building competitive advantage: less friction, higher satisfaction, more revenue, and lower costs. There are very few things a business can do that have this many positive benefits. And not to be repetitive, when what you do orchestrates a great customer experience, ensures that employees get more satisfaction, and makes excellent economic sense for a company, you want to do more of it quickly.
MO: Right. Can you talk a little bit about this very buzzy topic, no-code digital CX? How does no-code impact your effectiveness in automating customer processes and delivering superior experience?
DW: Our industry is talking a lot about low-code and no-code. When we talk about that kind of technology, it’s democratizing. On one side we have growing computer skills among non-developer employees. Citizen developers. And on the other side, we have the tech team — development teams that have so many demands on their time.
With no-code, more employees can participate in developing excellent customer experiences. It reduces demands on our tech team and unlocks the knowledge of people immersed in the experience issues and friction. So, no-code and low-code make it easier to solve problems and create better solutions.
Having a partner like FICX makes it easier to solve large problems and broaden participation in problem-solving. When technology puts that front face on our systems and we don’t have to go to the ocean’s depths to build it, we can focus on solving the problem instead of solving the problems of solving the problem. It makes a big difference. Develop a solution. Build it. Connect it to all the essential systems. And deploy it in the places we need to. Doing so in a simpler way that isn’t reliant on scarce tech resources is incredibly valuable.
MO: That’s a good point. In my conversations with CX innovators and leaders like you, I usually hear that no code is great for solving problems without further taxing IT. That’s true in telecom customer experience as well as for many other industries.
DW: When we can solve technical problems without adding ANOTHER burden to our development team, it is great for everyone. In a big company like ours, our developers have many challenges. They can focus on other work that is also critical to the success of the business.
MO: Yes. Now, I want to talk about a topic that I know interests you considerably. Let’s discuss how you go about overcoming barriers and driving commitment and adoption within an organization. As you know, it’s great to find a solution that helps you be nimble, etc. But how did you create buy-in across an organization? Managing change is always a challenge, even in a forward-thinking company like AT&T. Thinking about our first project together, you made that happen in just a few weeks and have since gone on to lead so many other projects to deliver better customer experience quickly and efficiently. That is something that has always impressed me about you. You have these valuable skills for aligning people. What advice do you have for others trying to drive digital CX and automation in their organizations?
DW: Thank you, Michael, but let’s focus on the team. You’ve known me long enough to hear me say it many times: teamwork makes the dream work. It’s never about one person, something this big is never about one person. It’s about assembling the right people and creating an environment that leverages their expertise and builds shared commitment.
That is so important. It’s not about individual achievement or recognition. We’re all working together. Thinking about our projects, we are always focused on solving these complex challenges. I know that the success of many projects means we have to call on angels from a variety of areas — people with the expertise in adjacent groups and commitment to get things done.
We need superheroes. Everyone has a superhero inside them, and the right team environment can bring out the superhero in each of us. People on our teams know the importance of what we are doing. With that first project, we were in a crisis that needed a solution. And we needed it now. Everyone was critical to our success. And they knew it, which drove the great work at incredible speed.
Naturally, it helps that AT&T’s culture is about always bringing your best work and your best self. My role as a leader is to unlock that collective strength and commitment because the success is everyone’s. We were asking everyone to work with every fiber of their beings. They did, and they do, and we achieve great things quickly because of that.
MO: I have always been impressed by your ability to get so much out of people and then get a little more. I remember we had these team meetings, and it was 6 AM for everyone in California, and you were operating from Dallas. You had so many people essential to our success working together early and staying late. And so many of the barriers that could have slowed or stopped this project were overcome in those meetings. What amazed me was that spirit filled the sessions every day. And you kept that going for weeks. How did you get all these people working for all these different teams in all these other locations working together? Get them to come every morning and participate.
DW: I come back to teamwork makes the dream work. It’s how our team always operates, and it’s the culture we create. And so, when the fire bell rang, everyone essential to our success understood that our victories come from working together. On these projects, we each bring our best, knowing others will do the same. This is how 1 and 1 is eleven. This is the cheat code
A leader makes a difference by keeping that great energy and culture going. For example, I think you’ll remember we were giving recognition on those early morning calls, which helped people understand the importance of what they were doing and respect the knowledge and commitment of their colleagues. Remember, though, that many of these team members had never met before. Part of driving success is making sure everyone understands individual expertise. They may not have worked with person X, but everyone must know X is the expert on something.
So, on those cross-functional calls, I would give a brief but emphatic introduction of the person who was presenting and let everyone know who they are. So, if someone is the expert on load balancing, but he’s a humble guy and won’t talk about himself, I make sure I tell everyone that he’s THE load balancing person and why. Before he talks, I’m going to let everyone know, hey, listen, when it comes to load balancing, he’s the guy, so listen.
Then he’s got the floor. And over time, everyone knew they would get that kind of space to do their thing and be heard. As others see people getting that space, they feel invested because everyone would get that respect and space throughout the project when their expertise was important. People want to bring their best, and they bring it whenever you give them the space to do that. I believe that’s genuinely how we assembled such a fantastic group of talent and kept them engaged in transforming the telecom customer experience.
MO: It really is about the team for you. I see that critical leadership trait, humility, and the ability to draw out the best in people.
DW: I appreciate that, Michael, but I come back to teamwork makes the dream work. When we create an environment that respects the expertise and demands the best from people, they deliver it. The accomplishments are everyone’s because they come through the excellent work of everyone.
MO: That’s a great thought to end on. Thank you so much, David. And thank you for our partnership.
DW: Thank you, Michael. We’ve done great things together and will continue to do so in the months ahead.
Telecom Customer Experience Solutions from FICX
FICX is reimagining the way leading brands digitally transform their customer experience. As a pioneer and a leader in no-code CX app development and automation, FICX empowers modern enterprises to rapidly digitize and automate CX journeys, integrate them seamlessly to internal systems, and deploy them anywhere they engage customers. By removing friction from sales and service interactions, modern enterprises cut costs, convert more sales and keep their customers happy. For more information, visit our website or request a demo.
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