A digital transformation has little chance of success if everyone isn’t aligned with the vision and pulling in the same direction. That’s good advice, especially coming from a CIO who has been there and done that.

Scott Rice is Sprint’s own CIO, and he has overseen a two-year transformation that admittedly saw some disappointments in the first year before the company achieved the alignment that it needed. Since then, the effort has really taken off.

“We set out to transform how we did business, and a digital focus was an enormous part of that,” Rice says. “We decided to invest to improve the journey for our customers, regardless of the channel and the way a customer wants to interact with us.”

The transformation involved a lot of moving parts: Upgrading an older retail platform, a revised and improved website, a customer-facing online app, a special app for use by retail store employees, and the collection and leveraging of massive amounts of customer data. Then there was the application of artificial intelligence (AI) and data analysis to make the data useful.

One of the first things Sprint found was that even though its new website was designed to be very customer friendly, that didn’t mean customers used it as expected.

It’s vital that everyone understand what “digital” means when it comes to a transformation. It isn’t just a cool website. That is part of it, but digital needs to be applied across every interaction channel because it affects how you make decisions and use information to solve a problem or to sell.

“Early on, we spent a lot of time wondering why, if we did all this stuff on the website, that calls (to the customer care center) hadn’t gone down as much as we expected,” Rice says. “We learned that just because you have a great site and a great app doesn’t always mean that people will use that instead of call you.”

Customer generations

That pushed the transformation team to find out why customers weren’t behaving as anticipated. Sprint came to realize that it is at least partly a generational thing. One group of customers might favor personal contact over online interaction, so their preferences weren’t likely to be swayed by a website revamp or an app.

Another group is comfortable with online and app interaction, as long as it all works well, with only an occasional care center call. A third group would just as soon never talk with anyone and instead do everything on-screen. But if you don’t give them what they need digitally, their next click may be to a competitor’s website.

Rice says the challenge then became how to optimally leverage available customer data in order to enhance any contact between a customer and Sprint.

“We initially added a number of structured data warehouses, but that was inefficient in trying to run analytical models against the structured data on a broad basis,” Rice explains.

“We had to find the right big data investment. We already had Hadoop implementations, but we expanded that, expanded the amount of storage, and expanded the amount of data we were pulling in and storing. Then we worked on how to best use unstructured data.”

That was accomplished by refining data sets based on the needs of each model. There was some trial and error involved, Rice admits, but he says that Sprint has gotten far better at determining the models and their objectives. With each use case, he says, “we have improved in looking for certain information for certain purposes and then consolidating the data into a smaller set.”

What the data revealed

Rice says essential to enhancing the customer experience is understanding two things about customers: Why they buy and why they stay. As much as Sprint has improved in that regard, he observes, this is an ongoing, never-ending learning process.

For example, he recalls, the company was finding that it was losing prospective customers at different parts of the web journey. They would abandon their interaction with Sprint, “but we didn’t understand why. We used open source analytics capabilities, such as the Elastic Slack, to help us see that they may have been abandoning because the app was performing slowly or we weren’t providing the right information. That helped us make those experiences more seamless.”

In the end, he says, a service provider’s product is the network experience, so it is critical to give a customer the experience they expect. Using information about a customer’s recent network experiences can expedite and improve the service they get over any channel, from an in-store visit to an AI-based chatbot.

Data analytics also feed into network improvements, Rice notes. For example, if the data suggests strong customer growth in certain areas, the company can move to add new cell sites or additional capacity to improve coverage and user satisfaction.

The effort has paid off with higher ratings from customers for interactions across channels, based on customer feedback collected through various contact points. Those improvements, he said, embolden the company to invest and do more to improve the customer experience and journey.

Advice for fellow CIOs

Rice offered some hard-earned advice to other CIOs looking at beginning their own digital transformations:

“First, make sure that you are properly aligned on the partnership across the organization. It is all about the partnership and a focus on the same objectives, from the C suite to vice presidents and directors and managers down.

“In the beginning of our digital transformation, we all agreed that we would be a digital company, but then you step out of the room and you have about 150 different ways to do that. We ended up with lots of differences of opinion about how to approach this. It took some evolution of people and of strategy to really get us focused.”

It’s also vital, Rice says, that everyone understand what “digital” means when it comes to a transformation.

“It isn’t just a cool website. That is part of it, but digital needs to be applied across every interaction channel because it affects how you make decisions and use information to solve a problem or to sell. Because if you solve problems, you’re likely to be selling.”