Image: marchmeena29, Getty Images/iStockphoto

The use of old-fashioned copper telephone lines for telcos began changing years ago to fiber, as VoIP and other new technologies modernized communications and improved network reliability and performance for millions of customers. Now, similar revolutionary upgrades and transformations are coming to customer service as the industry moves toward automatically providing critical service disruption information to customers before they even realize there is a problem.

Combined with the ongoing impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic, the improved customer service efforts couldn’t be better timed, said Chris Bauschka, the head of telecommunications for digital workflow vendor ServiceNow.

These changes were already arriving before the pandemic due to the adoption and spread of faster 5G services and software-defined networking (SDN), but the pressures of millions of business employees now working from home and adding huge demands to telco networks continue to push the situation to the brink, Bauschka said.

SEE: Return to work: What the new normal will look like post-pandemic (free PDF) (TechRepublic)

At the same time, telcos are continuing to face increasing costs and declining revenue growth due to greater competition and market saturation in the industry. Together, all these factors are driving telcos to transform their operations in pursuit of cost savings and increased customer satisfaction to help them stand out and grow in a brutally competitive market, Bauschka said.

“Customers are demanding a better customer experience, a more digital experience,” he said. “And business customers want improvements on how telcos handle service outages. With revenues not growing like they did in the past, and the arrival of higher costs, there is incredible pressure to improve the customer experience for telcos.”

The arrival of COVID-19

The initial impacts of COVID-19 in mid-March, when states across the nation shut down their communities and implemented work-from-home orders, led to huge service demand increases on telcos, he said. Wireless service use rose by 40%, while video conferencing soared by some 200%, and there is no end in sight.

That’s why there are service transformation programs happening in just about every telco operation, as more operators move from reactive to proactive customer service approaches as part of complete mindset shifts, Bauschka said.

Instead of business workers and residential users having to call in to customer service when a telco service disruption stops their work, the latest telco customer service networks are being configured to automatically send out immediate alerts by text or email notifying users of a service disruption in their area, Bauschka said. The alert also provides an estimate on how long the disruption will last and what caused it. That’s a huge change from annoyed customers having to make that call to find out why their service is gone. With the automated system, information is proactively shared with customers–often before they even realize there is a problem.

SEE: Mobile device computing policy (TechRepublic Premium)

“Telcos have made it through this crisis so far, but some realize that they need to be better prepared for the next time,” Bauschka said. “This is an opportunity to reimagine what the customer experience can look like, to flip it over. Think about what your customer really wants. They don’t want to call you to find out what is happening with their service. They want to be informed proactively.”

Today’s telco industry is broad, from telecommunications giants like Verizon and AT&T in the US to large streaming and cable providers such as Comcast Xfinity, Charter Communications’ Spectrum and Dish Network, Bauschka said. Also making up the segment are smaller wireless and cable operators, satellite operators, smaller phone companies and others that provide general communications services.

“Regardless of whether you are a wireless or wireline or satellite provider, the challenges tend to be similar across them all,” he said. And binding them all together is the common need to make these dramatic customer service transformations in a more streamlined way.

In June, ServiceNow unveiled new Telecommunications Service Management and Telecommunications Network Performance Management products to enable telco service providers to deliver improved customer experiences. Combined with the ServiceNow cloud platform, telcos can create systems to connect and gather information from networks, infrastructure and operations that is used to deliver customer services alerts in real time.

“By connecting network customers on one platform, it enables telcos to completely flip the customer service experience,” Bauschka said. “That’s what we are working on with lots of the operators. We’re seeing more and more operators move to this model.”

Vodafone and Zoom transform customer service

Two companies ServiceNow has helped with these transitions are British telecom Vodafone Global and videoconferencing vendor Zoom.

Vodafone’s service transformation efforts began in 2016 as the company worked to unify a wide range of companies and customer service structures following a series of global acquisitions, Bauschka said.

“They had challenging experiences for customers and the company agents struggled to answer customer questions and figure out where outages were happening,” he said. “There were many systems and tools and countries and agents.”

Using the cloud-based ServiceNow platform, Vodafone standardized its processes and now offers instant visibility to its customer service agents into what’s happening across its systems and can share service alerts immediately with customers, he said.

The changes reduced Vodafone customer service operating costs by 45% and have had real and sustained impacts on customer experiences and customer service satisfaction scores, he said.

And as COVID-19 hit, Vodafone was able to quickly get its call center employees working from home because it is cloud-based. “In the future, as other disruptions happen, that’s a reason to have those things in a cloud environment,” Bauschka said.

At Zoom, the company began working with ServiceNow’s help in 2019 on parts of its digital transformation. With the pandemic in full swing by mid-March, Zoom’s daily online meeting participants soared to 300 million in April, up from about 10 million in December. Since the pandemic hit, Zoom began implementing ServiceNow’s proactive customer service methods and is now working to move its customer support operations to a proactive approach, Bauschka said.

“There are always going to be outages,” he said. “What is frustrating to a CIO or to you or me if there’s an outage and there is no information.”