How Customers Inspired TELUS' Digital Transformation.

Huge talks with TELUS VP Shawn Mandel to learn why a customer-centric approach inspired the $13 billion telecom company to build its website in public.

Lauren Streib
November 1, 2016

The offices of TELUS Digital look a lot like those of other digital agencies. There are whiteboard walls, snack stations, endless couches, and conference rooms with idiosyncratic names like “mobile first” and “go lean.” But unlike other agencies, TELUS Digital is a full-service shop operating within one of the largest telecom companies in Canada. 

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The agency is responsible for improving the experience of TELUS’ 12.5 million customer connections and unifying the company’s digital presence, a process that began with the overhaul of its website four years ago. Poor customer service defines the telecom industry: Pay TV and internet service providers consistently rank lowest in consumer satisfaction, according to rankings from the American Consumer Satisfaction Index and Temkin Group. Yet TELUS has the lowest customer churn rate of any North American telecom company and received just a fraction of the total customer complaints of rivals Bell Canada and Rogers last year. This is driven in large part by the company’s “Customers First” mantra, says Shawn Mandel, vice president of TELUS Digital.

The Customers First approach, pioneered in 2009, means that improving customer experience is the overarching mission of every one of TELUS’ 47,000 employees. It includes the Closer to the Customer program, in which team members from all disciplines to spend time with customer-facing employees.

The digital strategy—which unites the sales, marketing, and service departments—is an outgrowth of that approach and makes sure that customers can get personalized service on every channel. That was his work order from the beginning, says Mandel, who was tasked with being a “weapon for transformation” to overhaul the TELUS online presence in 2012.

The startup mentality 

When Mandel started, the telecom had thousands of sites, with clunky interfaces and inconsistent UX. At the time, most large companies were just starting to think about building mobile apps and sites. But Mandel and the company’s leadership felt that if they could replatform and redesign the website, they could create a culture of innovation. 

Mandel spent weeks traveling across Canada to meet customers, team members, potential partners and stakeholders, including every one of the 60 people who were a part of the existing digital staff. Through that process, he stumbled upon other large companies that were running incubators for new businesses and small startups. It gave him an idea: to launch a startup within TELUS. 

That solution, now common at giants like IBM and GE, wasn’t obvious five years ago. But, Mandel figured creating autonomy would inspire ingenuity that wasn’t possible within the company’s large infrastructure. If it failed, TELUS’ established organization wouldn’t be disturbed. If it was successful, he could scale the model. 

He created a core team of 20, with employees pulled from the IT department, the site staff, and vendor partners. Branded as TELUS Digital, the team carved out a space overlooking Union Station on the 24th floor of the telecom company’s 30-story skyscraper in Toronto. Out went the cubicles, and in came the couches and whiteboards. 

“We lit the place on fire.” 

The team didn’t give stakeholders any time to second-guess its mission. Just 80 days after initiating the redesign in January 2013, a new telus.com was live. “We lit the place on fire,” says Mandel. 

But the site that went live in March was just a starting point. To serve TELUS customers, the Digital staff wanted to built its new site with them, so they invited customers to follow along and offer feedback as new iterations of the site were rolled out. (Typically, transformations like this take at least a year of behind-the-scenes development and migration, culminating in a big public reveal.) The team considered user surveys, website analytics data, A/B testing, and sentiment analysis of customer feedback to inform continued development. Based on user comments, they resized components of the homepage, added information about data plans, and introduced new ways to ensure that customers saw correct product information based on their location. 

By the end of the year, Digital overhauled the site’s infrastructure, reengineered the platform, and designed a new internal CMS. TELUS became one of the first global Fortune 500 companies to operate a fully responsive website, says Mandel. 

“Even though [we] had our obstacles and made many mistakes, we still were wildly successful in delivering the outcomes,” says Mandel. The approach was “also wildly successful in galvanizing the organization around a different way of working.” 

Incubating the digital team empowered its members. It gave them the freedom to work in a space devoid of organizational pressures and allowed them to be more creative, motivated, and engaged. Mandel has since scaled this way of working, growing his team of 20 to about 220 across two offices in Toronto and Vancouver. 

The most recommended company on the planet 

Now, TELUS Digital is focused on creating a customer experience that’s fast, personalized, and contextual, whether communication is happening in-store, on the phone, via email, or on its website. The telecom is collaborating with Huge to shape the experience and make its digital-first ambitions a reality by building on the transformation that Mandel initiated. 

“I'm really, really interested in the impact of the technical performance of the website on the user experience,” says Mandel. “How many 404 errors? How long did it take that web service to serve up that roaming pass to that customer?” He monitors customer feedback through a Slack channel that aggregates all comments left on the website, through mobile apps, and on social media. 

It’s not about offering better service than their industry competitors, Mandel says. It’s about being able to compete with the ever-moving benchmark set by other companies, whether a massive retailer or a fledgling tech startup. “We're not competing with our peer group,” says Mandel. “We want to become the most recommended company on the planet.”

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