Why AT&T is betting on digital simplicity

Untangling customer workflows is key to digital strategy, says global operations leader Sapna Jain

Sapna Jain
Sapna Jain

Executives at AT&T recognized years ago that operating in the fiercely competitive telecommunications sector meant reducing workflow redundancy and complexity in its vast networks. Indeed, that has been a major focus of the company’s digital transformation efforts.

Today, with service providers vying for chunks of the 5G wireless market and navigating the challenges brought by the pandemic, digitizing—and thus, simplifying—workflows is even more critical, says Sapna Jain, AT&T’s vice president of global operations.

In a recent interview, she explained the logic behind the company’s digital strategy.

Q
What led AT&T to take on digital transformation?
A

There were three big reasons for it. Customer experience was the first major factor. We operate in a very competitive market landscape with similar products and services, so customer experience becomes a major differentiator. And we knew we could do better.

Second, AT&T had a large ecosystem of legacy applications that needed to be modernized and simplified to serve up those customer experiences. We had to get rid of that complexity to achieve our goals.

Third, all that complexity was resulting in higher costs. We had to get those costs down to keep margins healthy.

Q
What types of complexity were most important to address?
A

Over the years, after numerous mergers and acquisitions, AT&T had more than 6,000 applications in its ecosystem, supporting different digital workflows. Not all of them were talking to one another. We needed to make sense of that by starting with the customer experience we wanted to achieve and then using data to optimize processes.

As part of our digital transformation, we are significantly reducing the number of legacy applications. We’ve already reduced our legacy application stack by more than half as we continue to simplify our ecosystem, consolidate it, and deliver next-generation customer experiences.

Q
How did you go about eliminating complexity within workflows?
A

We started by taking the time to look at our processes and workflows, and the data associated with each step in a flow. We wanted to know things like: What were the actual tasks assigned to each digital flow? How much time were people waiting for information? And how many defects were there in various steps along the process?

It doesn’t help to jump straight into automation if you don’t have those answers.

Q
How do you communicate the value of these efforts internally, in such a large organization?
A

We needed a framework that people could easily follow, so we came up with our “Triad of Value.” Think of it as a triangle with three sides—revenue growth, cost, and customer experience—with the customer in the center. We examined revenue impacts, CX, and cost implications of everything with did. This allowed us to not only explain the vision but to simplify our key performance indicators.

Instead of having hundreds of indicators, we whittled it down to a few big ones, like net promoter score, order completion cycle times, mean time to resolve. That made it easier to rally people around our strategy.

Q
How did you keep that momentum going?
A

We recruited our operations teams, sales support, and customer service agents to serve as change agents. They best know end users’ needs and pain points. We created a structure for gathering feedback on what digital transformation needed to address. We let data guide our decisions. Then we applied technology to solve those pain points. Responding quickly gives teams confidence that their feedback is heard. That, in turn, produces more ideas, feeding a cycle of innovation.

Any effort like this has to bring people, processes, and technology together. Technology was certainly a part of transformation, but simplifying processes, focusing on people, and building a culture of empowerment, innovation, and engagement is equally important.

Q
What were the biggest challenges?
A

When you have thousands of applications, data is everywhere. Trying to get to clean data from the right source, while cutting through the complex legacy stack, has been one of our biggest challenges. We probably underestimated the time it would take to normalize data, even if it was to feed it into the platform, for the changes we wanted to drive.

Another challenge was breaking people out of the “we’ve always done things this way” mindset.

Q
How did you get past those hurdles?
A

To break people out of the legacy mindset, we created solution labs. There, we would gather operators, user experience experts, and IT resources to identify opportunities and test solutions on a smaller scale to measure the impact of change before we scale it.

We also conducted test-and-scale labs in which experts from different backgrounds and organizations provide concierge service to real orders, while we observe their challenges, opportunities, and defects.

When you identify ways to get people involved, they more fully embrace the vision and become less resistant to new ways of doing things.