Industry Voices — Greenblatt: Customer service at carriers stepped up during Covid


Wireless service providers in the United States are offering organizations across industries a master class in how to integrate investments in infrastructure and people to deliver some of the highest customer satisfaction scores in the economy during the COVID-19 pandemic. 

By any metric, wireless carriers have risen to the occasion since the pandemic interrupted the economy by sending millions of workers and students to shelter in place. Carriers have played a critical role in buttressing the ability of terrestrial providers—offering cable, fiber and digital subscriber line services—to support the massive migration to the home by maintaining high levels of network performance.

According to the J.D. Power 2020 U.S. Wireless Network Quality Performance Study—Volume 2, an impressive 40% of survey respondents stated that their providers were “very prepared” or “extremely prepared” to provide reliable network quality during the crisis, with 93% saying the quality of their service remained about the same or better.

A remarkable accomplishment, considering that conventional traffic not only surged but was further juiced as compelling new over-the-top (OTT) content providers (including HBO Max and NBC Universal’s Peacock) spurred demand for video traffic. Video demand has further risen as theatrical movie productions destined for movie houses are redirected to a mobile device near you (Mulan, Trolls, Bill and Ted Face the Music, etc.).

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Video, of course, is among the most bandwidth intensive and latent sensitive categories of content. An inability to deliver optimal network performance can easily derail customer satisfaction. From an infrastructure perspective, wireless providers have handled the traffic elegantly.

CSR teams rise to the occasion

Carriers made a series of rapid—and sometimes tough—decisions about how, when and under what circumstances to send home a major segment of their workforce, including customer service representatives (CSRs).

All of the major carriers had to shift tens of thousands of CSR employees out of sophisticated call centers and tech-support facilities custom designed to address the spectrum of issues that need to be resolved for wireless subscribers. 

These teams had approximately two weeks to change how they support their markets. The move was not simple. Specialized hardware and software had to be shipped to employees’ homes for rapid installation, integration and full production operation. The hitch was that this unplanned shift occurred as marketplace confusion merged with hyper-dependence on always-on-connectivity to drive in-coming calls from subscribers through the roof.

So how did the teams perform?

JD Power chart 2

Through the fog of the crisis, all carriers were able to maintain a high level of customer service performance. According to a special edition of the J.D. Power 2020 U.S. Wireless Customer Care Performance Study (released at the very end of July), problem resolution metrics remained intact during this critical time. The industry faced incredible challenges keeping Americans connected. Despite unwavering call volume and an uprooted workforce, there was no discernable customer service disruption. 

Employee satisfaction leads to customer satisfaction

It is taken as an article of faith that, in general, people do not like change. Change, however, dominated every aspect of CSR life during this rapid period of transition. While it certainly is true that extremely effective leadership was critical to designing and executing the transition plan, so was the presence of a positively motivated workforce. 

This approach is consistent with the notion that “employee satisfaction is critical to producing customer satisfaction.” At a minimum it is difficult to imagine that a demoralized workforce is going to succeed in meeting the needs and desires of subscribers. This dynamic must be especially true during times of great stress. 

It seems clear that the wireless carrier community, as an industry category, has been able to foster a culture of customer centricity that matters deeply to individual customer reps. Perhaps this is driven by the highly competitive nature of the industry. Regardless of the reason, it is a factor that is paying off, and in which the industry appears committed to further invest.  

It helps explain Verizon CEO Hans Vestberg’s recent proclamation to retrain and reallocate—rather than remove or replace—the company’s 20,000 employees affected by COVID-19 and the ensuing economic consequences. In this time of unprecedented workplace disruption, it is easy to see the strategy behind such a move. The investment in human capital has already produced a significant return for the industry. Other sectors of the economy would not be wasting their time exploring how they can follow suit.

Ian Greenblatt leads J.D. Power’s Technology, Media and Telecommunications Intelligence and drives market strategy across the rapidly converging landscape, which encompasses the entire communication sector. You can reach him by email at [email protected] and follow him on Twitter at @GreenblattTMT.

Industry Voices are opinion columns written by outside contributors—often industry experts or analysts—who are invited to the conversation by FierceWireless staff. They do not represent the opinions of FierceWireless.

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