I wish I lived in Canada so I could experience the TELUS brand firsthand as a cell phone user. You see, I’ve had an opportunity to learn how TELUS operates over the past 10 years or so, and I think it’s one of the world’s best stories of customer-centric strategy and execution.
Having recently switched providers here in the U.S., I can tell you that we’re fortunate to have several strong competitors. Pricing and technical features are nearly identical among AT&T, Sprint, T-Mobile, and Verizon.
But there’s something missing. A true passion or mission that creates a deeper bond than you’ll ever get by just supplying a product or service.
Turns out that TELUS is doing business outside of Canada, via its outsourcing arm TELUS International. After speaking with President and CEO Jeffrey Puritt a few months ago, he invited me to visit their Las Vegas facility for a closer look at how they do business.
Strategy vs. Execution
It’s fun to talk about strategy. Unfortunately, it’s a label slapped on just about anything, including “competing on customer experience” which is favored by at least three out of four executives according to studies by CustomerThink, Forrester, and Gartner.
Puritt contends that all executives have access to the same strategies courtesy of Bain, McKinsey, etc. And the same technologies. “The difference is in the execution,” he says emphatically.
I agree completely. Execution is the central theme of my book Hooked On Customers — because many companies are pursuing similar strategies. Visit Puritt’s LinkedIn page and his strategy is plain to see but hardly unique:
“At TELUS International, we enable customer experience innovation through spirited teamwork, agile thinking, and a caring culture that puts customers first.”
Let’s review what I’ve learned about execution from my interviews with Puritt and the site visit.
Putting Customers First Doesn’t Mean Employees Come Second
But some critics of customer-centric thinking say: What about employees? If customers come first, they win and employees may lose — and leave. It’s hardly a winning strategy if one key stakeholder wins at another’s expense.
In one interview, when I asked Puritt whether customers or employees came first, he said without hesitation:
“Employees come first because you can’t deliver customer experience unless employees are engaged.”
Wait, what? This seems counter to the TELUS doctrine.
Later I circled back for an explanation. He said that “customers first” is the corporate strategy, but “where the rubber meets the road, we must bring out the best in our employees” because “they are critical to the implementation of strategy” (emphasis mine). That’s why the firm invests heavily in human skills, technology, training, and career development — to the tune of millions of dollars per year, says Puritt.
Many people confuse strategy with execution. At the corporate level, delivering value to customers (what TELUS calls “customer experience innovation”) must take precedence because they pay the bills. No customers, no business. But day-to-day, employees shouldn’t feel like second-class citizens. And at TELUS, they don’t.
Krista Sheridan, Senior Advisor, People & Culture at TELUS, recently addressed this conundrum in a CustomerThink article “Should Customers or Employees Come First? Yes!” saying they had recently updated their “customers first” priority to include employees:
“We will put our customers and fellow team members first by simplifying and digitizing our processes, reducing customers’ effort in their interactions with us and giving where we live to improve social outcomes in our communities.”
TELUS got the sequence right. Imagine if 10 years ago TELUS had said: “Our corporate goal is to put employees first.” There’s not necessarily any direct connection to customer value creation which is essential to long-term success.
Having established “customer first” as the strategy, Sheridan says the recent tweak is a way to formalize an operating model of improving the lives of people — customers and employees — as a bigger purpose than just providing a product or service.
Measure What Matters Most
In my consulting experience, early in engagements I was often tasked to figure out and document the corporate business strategy. I learned quickly that the real strategy — one that was actually being pursued each day — rarely matched what was written in annual reports or presented in executive speeches.
The secret: Find out what numbers managers follow and how people are rewarded. At TELUS International, the goal of creating a “caring culture” is backed up with a Pulsecheck program to assess employee engagement, meaning:
Engaged team members truly believe in and are proud of the company they work for, and see a strong connection between their daily contributions and TELUS’ success.
TELUS uses an engagement framework developed by Aon Hewitt with one important change in question 6: “TELUS International assures our focus places the customer first, as best as possible.” The standard question Aon Hewitt question 6 reads: “The organization motivates me to contribute more than is normally required to complete my work.”
Why is this important? Employee engagement surveys typically leave out the customer entirely. This change is one way that TELUS management ensures that customer focus is retained, in conjunction with providing a great place for employees to work and grow.
Empower People to Perform and Grow
According to a Glassdoor post, a Customer Service Representative (CSR) job at TELUS International in Las Vegas was advertised as follows:
Join a company that appreciates your energy, drive and enthusiasm just as much as your skills. We obsess over providing world-class experiences to our customers and we’re looking for individuals who are committed to the same goal. We pride ourselves on maintaining a culture based around teamwork, quality, innovation and constant growth and development.
I spent some time with a group of CSRs to see if their perspective matched the job description. In short, yes!
When I asked what one word they would use to describe TELUS International, they shared with me:
caring, diversity, empowering, splendid, security, versatile, trusting
These words and the subsequent discussion painted a picture of a dynamic, challenging workplace where CSRs were encouraged to develop new skills and progress in their careers. Access to extensive health benefits and educational resources also factored into decisions to join TELUS International and to stick around and develop a career there.
All of this helped to explain how TELUS International earned an impressive 83% engagement score in 2017. Furthermore, according to Brian Wenrick, VP Operations and my host for the Las Vegas visit, their 26% annual attrition rate is about half the outsourcing industry average.
Finally, community involvement is a priority, and the company keeps it visible on this wall filled with the hand prints of volunteers. Because, as Puritt writes: “Without a doubt, there is a symbiotic relationship between the success of a company and the well-being of the communities where it operates.
Tailored Experiences, Balancing People and Technology
Puritt is clear-headed about the types of customers they can effectively serve: Brands that value a higher level of experience and are willing to spend a bit more to get it. From the 2017 annual report you’ll find:
We continue to partner with organizations that share our commitment to providing world-class client experiences by helping them to provide better service for their customers.
In a tour of the Las Vegas site, I saw work areas set up for three different global brands. Each was tailored to the brand, including in some cases decorations costing thousands of dollars, custom security procedures, and more.
There’s also nothing generic about the experiences CSRs are trained to deliver. Hiring processes are designed to select candidates with interests that align with those of the customers they will serve. It’s easier to add a personal touch by chatting about books, travel, etc. if it comes naturally to the agent. Nice.
Due to rapid advances in Artificial Intelligence (AI), CSRs shouldn’t relax. I’m excited about the possibilities, worried about the impact on jobs, and a bit skeptical about how fast the impact will be realized. Puritt believes AI is already “hugely disruptive” and expects the pace to accelerate, noting that they are already deploying chatbots using technology from the Xavient Digital acquisition in early 2018.
Still, looking out five years or more, Puritt sees TELUS International continuing to add employees. While AI-powered technologies are automating simple, repeatable, and predictable tasks, the proliferation of consumer technologies (IoT, smartphones, cars, etc.) is driving complexity… and the need for human assistance. And, there’s that human factor. So long as customers are people, some will value interacting with fellow humans.
Clear Strategy, Relentless Execution
There’s a lot of chatter these days about “competing on customer experience.” My research finds few standout success stories — just 7% claim CX-driven competitive differentiation.
TELUS and TELUS International clearly belong in this elite group. Hopefully, this article will shed some light on what is really required to be a CX leader. I see it boiling down to three key things.
- Leadership committing to a clear strategy of the markets they intend to serve, and the value (experiences) that customers in those markets want. Not trying to be all things to all customers. Nothing magical here, but have you done so in your company?
- Treating employees as a long-term investment to fulfill that strategy. While TELUS offers a lot to drive high levels of employee engagement, management expects a lot in return. TELUS is no place to relax — employees need to constantly adapt to changing customer needs and the impact of technology.
- Staying the course over many years, decades even. Customer experience innovation is not for short-term thinkers unwilling to take risks and persevere through difficult periods.
My sincere thanks to Jeffrey Puritt, Brian Wenrick, and the team at TELUS International for sharing their story with me, so I can bring it to others. Best wishes putting some of these practices to use to create your own success story!