Sprint is working to become the ‘comeback kid’ of the telecommunications industry. A few years ago, the telecom was losing money and struggling to cut through the frantic, competitive buzz of the market. So, in 2015, it decided to reinvent itself.
Sprint devised a five-year turnaround plan which cut billions of dollars in costs and increased investment in its network. The company strengthened its balance sheet and began delivering an improved customer experience. However, the journey is far from over.
A fundamental element of this plan has been a reboot of Sprint’s digital footprint. For a 120-year-old company, this is no small feat, but the task has fallen into the capable hands of Chief Information Officer (CIO) Scott Rice and his team. Having learned the ins and outs of the business for nearly two decades, Rice notes the Sprint digital transformation has resulted in root-and-branch change. “When I first took the role of CIO, I inherited an environment that had suffered from a lack of investment,” recalls Rice. “We had to embark on a concerted approach to modernize. Many of our systems were legacy ecosystems that operated as silos, so we first had to rebuild and shore up the infrastructure to drive resilience and stability. Then, we were able to focus on modernizing our applications.”
Sprint has faced many challenges over the years, but its leadership has not been afraid to reevaluate, change and adapt. “In some ways, our past is really informing our future,” Rice reflects. “Sprint has a legacy of doing things not only to survive but to thrive. We’ve struggled for many years, so we knew that if we wanted to compete, we had to focus quickly on digitizing our applications. Our customers now experience better service through digitization, because they have more choice and it is much more convenient. However, technology always changes so we must have a continuous improvement mindset – we’re always looking for the next great idea and best solution for our customers.
Any CIO will tell you that the most successful digital transformation plans are those that blur the lines between IT and business. Why? Because the entire team is behind one unified goal. For Rice, it was pivotal that the company’s digital strategy aligned with its overarching corporate vision. “When embarking on a digital transformation, there is little chance of success if everyone isn’t ‘pulling the rope at the same time and in the same direction’,” he observes. “A lot of companies struggle with this, but we tackled this challenge early.”
Whether behind a screen or in the boardroom, one shared goal at Sprint helped teams revamp the customer journey at all interaction points – online, on the phone or in-store. “We really invested in the customer journey regardless of the channel,” Rice notes. “This meant not only investing in touchpoints like our website and app; we also changed the entire journey in our retail stores. In fact, representatives are using tablets to walk through the entire journey online, shoulder-to-shoulder with the customer.”
Today, approximately 30% of all Sprint Customer Care chats are performed by virtual agents using artificial intelligence (AI). “There will be plenty of customers who may not want to use the online tools and would be happier to call,” Rice qualifies, adding that this should be understood, so that no customer is left behind. Undoubtedly though, technology – and specifically data – is playing an ever greater role in this field. “Some customers are happy to call and that’s why we started to focus on assisted care,” he says. “This means if a customer drops a call, we know that by using data analytics. Then, we can anticipate their needs and have a resolution at hand to solve the problem.” Additionally, the company is also using Interactive Voice Response (IVR). “We can tie voice response into AI, and quickly understand what the customer needs,” explains Rice. “The ability to anticipate and solve issues quickly is really amazing.”
Data analytics are essential elements in the Sprint toolkit. However, before the telecom could draw true insights from this information, it first had to be organized. “When we first started, most of our data was in a structured database and so it was very hard to get a comprehensive view across the business,” says Rice. The business quickly began a large-scale effort to build a data lake, or what Rice describes as a “data ocean”. “This takes time,” he adds. “We built petabytes and petabytes of storage. That was just the first step. Then, we had to work on refining our data models and bringing in new talent to manage it.” Sprint is already reaping the rewards of this investment. With the ability to address customer queries more swiftly, it can also identify any network challenges at the source – all thanks to data.
AI has also proven to be a useful tool for customer interactions. For instance, the technology is used for asynchronous messaging applications. “This means if a customer has a question, a chatbot or AI will respond using common answers the system has learned over time,” Rice explains. “If the chatbot can’t answer the question, then a representative will step in. Since we’ve implemented this, our customer satisfaction on that channel has increased on a monthly basis.”
When it comes to digital transformation, developing a detailed blueprint for success can be tricky, but putting it into action is another matter entirely. “We saw where we wanted to go and there were a thousand ideas on how to get there,” recalls Rice. “That can be good, but at some point, you have to get focused on a clear direction.” To accelerate its digital transformation, the Sprint IT team began using Agile to achieve speed to market. However, they soon settled on a new ‘Adaptive Agile’ methodology, which offered more flexibility. Some take a steadfast approach to Agile, but Rice and his team knew Sprint had to do it a little differently. “We talked a lot about the evolution of our Agile methodology,” he reflects. “There are some who are trained specifically in Agile development and they had a rigid viewpoint about how this could work. We had to really listen to these experts, recognize their concerns, and then help them understand how our situation warranted a more flexible approach. Ultimately, everyone got on the same page, and that’s why we are making such great progress.”
CIOs play a key role in establishing the right mindsets and practices. In fact, Gartner predicts that by 2021, CIOs will be “as responsible for culture change as Chief HR Officers (CHROs)”. Sprint understands that people are the lifeblood of any digital transformation, so they have focused on a cultural transformation, too. “We’re training, we’re hiring, and we’ve created internship programs to bring new ideas into the business,” Rice says. “Elsewhere, we’re connecting with our customers more. Instead of standing behind a kiosk and talking to a customer, we’re standing next to them, having casual conversations, making sales or servicing problems. With these types of interactions, we see better results.” Employee pride is equally important to customer interactions. Sprint has focused heavily on internal communications to keep employees aware of new initiatives and interact with them more. “Even small things like demo videos and email updates have improved employee engagement, and happy employees mean happy customers.”
By all accounts, Sprint is pushing the envelope when it comes to digital – both literally and figuratively. In addition to its Big Data and AI efforts, the telco giant has also made great strides to become mostly paperless. Today over 83% of Sprint’s customer base uses paperless billing – the highest in the industry.
The rapid pace of innovation in the telecom industry will constantly challenge Sprint to evaluate, reinvent and change to not only compete, but to continually improve its customer experience. Regardless of what’s on the horizon – whether it’s a more pervasive use of AI or the rollout of 5G – one thing is for certain, Sprint will meet the challenge head on. “Digital transformation has to be core to your organization's inner being if you're going to be successful,” says Rice. “Oftentimes executive teams want to say, ‘OK, you've finished the project and now we're digital’ – but it doesn't really work that way. Innovation is continuous, and it's always evolving. There's never really an end to it. As long as you stay focused on that, you're sure to be successful.”