Bringing community thinking to Optus' customer service team

Sometimes it takes a community to raise an NPS score, as the telecommunications company has discovered

Sometimes big ideas have inauspicious beginnings.

Emma McRobert had been in the US looking for a new messaging platform for the Optus customer care website when she learned about an idea that would revamp the company’s entire contact centre model.

That idea was Team of Experts, a model of customer care created by T-Mobile which assigned every one of its post-paid customers to a team of highly trained experts dedicated to their care.

McRobert returned to Australia with a great deal of enthusiasm for the concept and the idea of creating 10 communities. But then the rapid onset of the Covid crisis led Optus’ chief executive officer, Kelly Bayer Rosmarin, to ask McRobert to think bigger.

“Our CEO said to me there had never been a better time than now to roll this out across all of the customer care team, given the amount of disruption everyone was experiencing,” McRobert tells CMO. “She gave me four weeks.

“We delivered the first round in three-and-a-half weeks. We didn’t plan on rolling out Community of Experts across all of our centres, but during the peak of the pandemic we started to roll it out everywhere. Within a short period of time, we had rolled out the vast majority of features.”

The Community of Experts sees every Optus customer assigned to a dedicated team based on their local area, meaning customers interact with the same people with every time the make contact. Twelve months later, McRobert says she has delivered on her CEO’s request.

“T-Mobile took four years to put in what we put in in 10 to 11 months,” she says. “We trained people on the things they needed to be trained on, and now we are in this nice place where we can give people the room to breathe and absorb what we have already changed.”

Culture change

The changes needed to implement Community of Experts took significant investment of both resources and time, from both Optus and its employees. McRobert says it is important not to underestimate the culture development required to make it come together.

“We had to change everything we knew about the way that we interact with customers,” she says. “We had to re-do all of our service design around how we wanted to interact with our customers and document that. We needed to think about the culture we wanted to live and breathe every single day. Then we had to do all of the training. At last count, we have put in about 200,000 hours of extra training for all of our people.

“We are essentially stopping the way someone thinks about interacting with a customer and asking them to do something completely new. So it’s making sure our experts now feel empowered to actually take longer on the phone, to talk to a customer and understand their needs. Their job is to listen to the customer and solve what they need. And if they don’t know the answer, they can turn to the person next to them to help them with that.

“It’s the retraining and rethinking on what good looks like, which is quite a significant change.”

Optus has also altered the physical layout of its contact centres so coaches and experts sit side by side.

“Community of Experts is about no hierarchy,” McRobert said. “We do daily stand-ups and everyone has a voice in terms of things that are broken.”

While McRoberts says the effort has been extraordinary, she is very pleased with the results. Optus recently achieved its best ever result from the Telecommunications Industry Ombudsman’s complaints report, with a 27.9 per cent reduction in complaints in comparison to 2020. This equated to 3.9 complaints per 10,000 subscribers in the quarter between April and June 2021.

“In terms of metrics, you will see that the contact demand will reduce,” McRobert says. “Yes, we will spend more time on an interaction, but our customers will be happier with us, therefore they are going to want to stay with us, and in the future, buy something with us.

“Contacts cost money, but they are an opportunity to have a conversation with a customer. Every time we have a conversation with our customer it is a chance to create a better relationship with them and look at the value of that interaction over time, not just in that moment.”

In addition, employee engagement is at an all-time high, reaching in the 70s, with transfers having halved since the program’s introduction.

“Our people have never been happier,” McRobert says. “We have seen lifts in our employee engagement, because they actually feel like they can help the customer at the end of the line.”

The work has been recognised by international design promotion organisation, Good Design Australia, with Community of Experts winning Best in Class for Service Design in the Good Design Awards. The next stage in the program’s development will see the locality-based nature of the Communities mapped out against Optus’ retail store footprint. This is aimed at creating relationships between community mangers and area mangers and store managers.

“They will be able to map that local market, understand the customers that are in that local market and the type of experience those customers are having, and plan that local market together,” McRobert says. “We will be able to manage that customer experience end-to-end and make sure we have a really good connection between the physical store and our contact centre.”

Altogether, McRobert says these results are critical for helping Optus achieve its customer goals.

“Our vision is to become Australia’s most loved everyday brand, and the Community of Experts is front and centre in being able to deliver that for our customers,” she adds.

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