They call it the barbecue test. The level of pride or embarrassment you feel when, over a sausage and a beer, you tell people what company you work for. 

And in 2018, Vodafone was failing the barbecue test.

It seemed every customer had a bad experience story, says Antony Welton, then human resources director, now head of customer operations.

“Customer feedback was very loud and very demoralising. Everyone here is proud to work for Vodafone and wants Vodafone to be loved by customers.”

Instead, staffers found themselves fielding pleas for help at parties. It was like being a doctor.

“No one wants to go to a barbecue and have a queue form,” Welton says.

Customers didn’t hold back about wanting better service, Antony Welton says. Photo supplied

Interestingly, the company wasn’t necessarily losing customers in droves – in fact many people were remarkably loyal – or hopeful.

“Thankfully, not as many people left as I was worried about us losing, when you looked at how vociferous they were.

“I think there are a large number of customers who loved Vodafone and hated the fact it wasn’t how they remembered it from pre-2013. I want to hope they believed we could get back to where we used to be.”

What they loved was the cool 021 mobile company that took on Telecom NZ (now Spark), which held parties, developed promos like ‘free text Wednesday’, sponsored the Vodafone Warriors, and was the only network for the iPhone 3G.

But then Vodafone grew and grew. Fast. Too fast, perhaps.

The company bought TelstraClear, moving into fixed line telecommunications. It bought companies that got it into internet services, VoIP, wireless rural broadband, and TV. A deal to merge with Sky Network Television struggled unsuccessfully through the courts for a couple of years, before being abandoned.

The problems of growth

The myriad of mergers and acquisitions (often involving companies that had themselves bought or merged with other companies) left Vodafone with an equivalent myriad of different technologies, which didn’t always fit or talk well with each other, Welton says.

Systems from Clear Communications, Saturn, Paradise, Telstra, WorldxChange, Farmside – and more.

Half a dozen billing systems, 27 Vodafone TV platforms, thousands of different products. Dial up, ADSL, VDSL, fibre broadband, as well as mobile.

Welton gives one example of how legacy systems lurk in the back of computers.

“There’s a dial-up system called Giotti that sits on a Vodafone PC somewhere and runs the connections between lifts and the outside world,” Welton says.

It doesn’t make any money – customers pay a small amount when someone who is stuck in a lift presses the emergency red button and gets connected through to an operator. But because it’s used so rarely, getting anyone to update to a more compatible system is virtually impossible. Who even knows who in their company is in charge of the lift connection billing system?

Who’d have guessed there’s a separate billing system for lift emergency button response? 

An overload of incompatible systems is not a problem unique to Vodafone NZ; many telcos around the world struggle with similar issues. But that didn’t make it any easier for Vodafone customers.

A customer service nightmare

As Vodafone expanded, there wasn’t always enough time or money spent simplifying and consolidating the different products that joined the stable, and telco services are inherently complex, Welton says, making trouble shooting a potential nightmare for customer service people.

“There are so many different internet products, for example, that when someone rings up saying their internet isn’t working, there are potentially hundreds of things that could have caused it.”

Meanwhile, the protracted Sky merger put investment decisions on hold. And the final straw came when Vodafone moved its customer service team from the Philippines to India, and the move didn’t go well. The new team took a while to get up to speed with all the different systems, and in the meantime, customers got stranded.

“When call centres start to go badly, it can spiral quickly, no matter how diligent and hard-working the staff in them are. Say you have a team of 10 people answering calls, and you suddenly have 20 calls. People wait for a long time and they start pressing any button they can think of to get someone to answer, and then they end up in the wrong place, and then they get transferred again, and have to repeat their original query over and over.

“They end up failing and calling back, and failure adds to failure and adds to the volumes of calls.”

We all know the feeling.

The boy from Invercargill

In November 2018, Vodafone got a new chief executive, Jason Paris. He was born in Southland, left school without going to university, and took his first job as a bank teller. He came to Vodafone via Nokia, TVNZ, TV3 and Spark, with a short stint at Vodafone HQ outside London.

Early in his tenure, CEO Jason Paris recognised poor customer service was a problem. Photo supplied

Six weeks into the new job, Paris was already talking to journalists about rationalising the 3000 or so products in the Vodafone NZ stable, and about moving more interactions with customers online.

He also wanted to improve the service people got when they called up.

“When someone has to call us, it’s not great for us or for them,” Paris told Newsroom at the time. “We get hundreds of thousands of calls. Most go pretty well, but thousands of them don’t.”

All those BBQ stories.

Welton, who in 2019 already had 17 years at Vodafone under his belt, had been discussing with Paris the problems with customer service and the impact on the business.

Soon Welton shifted across the company from leading the human resources team to heading up customer service.

One of the things he did early on was strengthen the company’s ‘barbecue channel’ – an internal process called “Red Assist” whereby employees could lodge requests for help from their family and friends, knowing they would be actioned by a special team.

Then in October 2019, Vodafone launched what it calls its X Squad – New Zealand-based teams which bring customer service, tech support and sales people together to hopefully provide a one-stop shop for customers.

The idea is someone with a complicated tech question gets put through to the X Squad. Whoever takes that call is responsible for finding a resolution to the problem. No transferring the call (except to a tech support person across the room who you know is available). And if you say you will ring back, or test the line, or send out a new modem, that’s what you do.

X Squad member Ash Rattan is tasked with solving customers’ tech problems – or finding someone who can. Photo: Nikki Mandow 

I sit in on a session with X Squad member Ash Rattan. She’s good. There’s no script, but there are prompts and more information at her fingertips. Still, I sense how hard it can be to delve through the different products and systems to locate the source of a problem.

Sometimes it takes a while for her even to find the customer in the system.

Rattan can resolve some problems immediately, others need more time. She also has the authority to offer customers free stuff – a new modem, for example, or a month’s free data on their phone if their broadband isn’t working.

The customers I’m listening in on seem happy with the outcome. Rattan says in an eight-hour shift, she might work on five-10 cases – a far cry from the period before 2018, when call centre staff were being rewarded for their efficiency. That meant the quicker the call, the better.

Welton says that approach wasn’t working. “One of the first things I did was tell our [call centre operator] partners that the most important thing is customer experience. I told them we would worry about efficiency only after we fix the issues.

“That was a surprise to them.

“We’re now conducting a pilot to evolve the X Squad even further, potentially expanding it into a concept called ‘Arohia’, meaning to pay attention to, to consider and to care. Sorting out the root cause of a problem is still one of the key objectives. We’re now up to 200 people and growing, spread across two locations in Auckland and one in Christchurch.

“Every week, the teams meet and go through cases to pull together what the big issues are,” Welton says. “They might decide one particular product or process isn’t working. Then the problem would be given to the team to solve.”

Trouble with TOBi

Often the problems are to do with the technology. But not always. Sometimes it is more about customer psychology.

Take TOBi, Vodafone’s AI chatbot. First introduced in 2018, TOBi has been enhanced to quickly learn how to respond to what customers are asking. When TOBi ‘learns’ a new process, the chatbot initially understands around 30 percent of what people are saying. But his effectiveness can quickly grow to almost 80 percent.

Some customers were frustrated when TOBi set up a call back. They wanted to stay online.

Still, customer service metrics showed a lot of people were negative about TOBi. And no one could understand why, Welton says, until they ran a fine tooth comb through data on the calls and the responses.

They discovered a lot of customers didn’t like it when TOBi asked an agent to give the customer a call if the chatbot couldn’t solve the problem.

“Customers really didn’t like it. We were getting minus 30s [on satisfaction scores] when he did that. People that went into a digital platform wanted to stay there, but instead TOBi was putting them into a journey [a phone call with a customer service representative] people didn’t like.

“We changed it so TOBi can hand you to an online agent who can fix the problem on chat. TOBi’s scores went from minus 30 to plus nine in a day.”

Overall, customer satisfaction scores have gone from minus 2 to plus 30 since the push started in late 2019, Welton says, with even higher scores recorded for various touch points.

The time taken to migrate customers from old, clunky legacy systems to new products has fallen from an average of 33 days to one.

And complaints are down – mostly.

“Jason [Paris] keeps tweeting customers telling them to email him if they have a problem. The idea is if we don’t know what’s happening we can’t do anything about it. Still, every time he does it, our complaints spike. He’s had thousands of emails, but thankfully they seem to be declining over time.”

The best service is no service

Still, nirvana for Vodafone, as for so many other tech-based companies, is a product that works so well customers largely don’t need to get in touch.

Amazon. Netflix. Spotify.

“It’s already too late by the time you are doing customer service,” Amazon founder Jeff Bezos once said. “The best customer service is if the customer rarely needs to call you, and doesn’t need to talk to you. [The product] just works.”

Clearing out some of the “good enough” products and getting customers onto more updated platforms is a starting point, Welton says. That might cost money up front, but will bring costs down in the long run.

Vodafone has also teamed up with Amazon Web Services to roll out artificial intelligence and machine learning services via the Amazon Connect cloud contact centre platform.

Over time this should make it significantly easier for customers to get connected to the right person in the company, and further improve chatbot responses, Welton says.

Crucially, it should also bring together information on individual customers in one place so a chatbot, or someone in a call centre, knows who you are and why you are calling. It will also automatically transcribe voice conversations into text so TOBi or staff answering phone calls can see the content of previous phone exchanges and don’t need to start from scratch.

Proactive processes

The ultimate goal, Welton says, is for artificial intelligence (AI) to allow Vodafone to pick up problems – a possible issue in a bill, for example, or a fault – and contact customers before they contact Vodafone.

“Or instead of someone calling us to say ‘My broadband isn’t working’, we’ll send a message to say ‘we noticed your broadband wasn’t working and we’ve fixed it’.

“We think we’ll always need some skilled staff to help customers with tricky problems, just because of the industry we’re in and the inherent technical nature of telecommunication services. But if we can reduce the frequency of calls via proactive interventions, it has to be better for everyone involved.”

In August last year, Vodafone NZ won international recognition at the AI Breakthrough Awards, winning the robotic process automation innovation award for 58 robots it introduced into its systems to proactively identify customer service issues and fix them.

For example, a robot scans the approximately 5000 emails that customers send each week in response to a Vodafone message from an unmonitored ‘donotreply’ email address.

The robot was designed to do keyword searches to identify a range of common customer issues in these ‘donotreply’ emails and solve them proactively.

That’s cunning and must save a huge amount of customer frustration.

As Amazon’s Bezos once said: “We are now solving problems with machine learning and artificial intelligence that were… in the realm of science fiction.”

Sure makes for a more interesting BBQ conversation.

Vodafone is a foundation supporter of This contributed article is part of a content partnership.

Nikki Mandow was Newsroom's business editor and the 2021 Voyager Media Awards Business Journalist of the Year @NikkiMandow.

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