From Customer to Fan

Perfect service through digital empathy at Deutsche Telekom

Ein herausragendes Kundenerlebnis macht heute in unserer ‚One-Click-Gesellschaft‘ den Unterschied. Auch die Deutsche Telekom weiß: Ihre Kunden erwarten im Service eine gute und schnelle Erreichbarkeit, kompetente Ansprechpartner, die schnelle Lösung ihres Anliegens und gerne auch intuitive Self-Services. Wie aber funktioniert der Schritt vom reinen Effizienzdenken und übertriebener Automatisierung hin zu einer echten Kundenfokussierung? Ferri Abolhassan, Geschäftsführer Service der Telekom Deutschland GmbH, ist davon überzeugt, dass der Mensch im Zentrum eines gelungenen Service-Erlebnisses steht. Denn keine noch so intelligente Maschine kann die Erfahrung und Empathie eines Kundenberaters ersetzen. Deshalb lautet das Credo des Servicechefs: wir denken digital, lenken aber empathisch.

Digital thinking, empathic managing' - Ferri Abolhassan on a visit to the Telekom Service Center.
Digital thinking, empathic managing' - Ferri Abolhassan on a visit to the Telekom Service Center.

Mr. Abolhassan, the expectations customers have on service departments has undergone a fundamental change in recent years. Portals provide maximum transparency about prices and customer experiences; Amazon has revolutionized the ordering process with “One Click” and with the introduction of Prime has set a new benchmark for delivery times and convenience. In this atmosphere, it is becoming increasingly problematic even for telecommunications providers to set themselves apart through their service. What role does the topic of service play for Deutsche Telekom? What defines “good service” for you?

Service is one of the differentiation characteristics in competition. All providers of telecommunications services use network components from the same manufacturers. As far as the network is concerned, you can set yourself apart in mobile services by providing the best network coverage and bandwidth and in fixed services with your bandwidth and prices. We already have the best network; no one invests as much in the infrastructure as we do. Standing out from the competition becomes more difficult when it is a question of the products. Apple, Samsung, and all the rest supply the same devices to all providers.

This means that service is increasingly the factor that tips the scales in your direction when consumers are making their decisions to buy. Along with price and product quality, they look above all for a positive customer experience; this was shown in a PwC study in 2018. And for almost half of potential customers, friendly service is the most important factor. Only 32% would decide in favor of the provider with the better technology if they were otherwise undecided. Moreover, 75% would like to have more rather than less human interaction when they contact a company, even in the digital age.

To answer the last part of your question: “good enough” is not sufficient any more today. Customers have high demands on service – and these demands are becoming greater every day. They expect from us short waiting times, good reachability, competent agents, reliability, avoidance of errors, proactivity, intuitive self-services – and most especially the resolution of their issue during the initial contact. All of this around the clock, in real time. They have become used to this from other digital companies as embodied by the term liquid expectations.

Managers at corporate headquarters like to sprinkle terms such as “customer orientation” and “service-oriented organization” in their remarks. My observations, on the other hand, indicate that a broad understanding of the needs of the end customers and their product and service requirements is frequently missing in the organizations. What is your assessment? What are the reasons for this?

Let’s not fool ourselves here, service was in the past – and still is today most of the time – seen strictly as a cost factor, no matter what the industry. With the triumph of the call center at the end of the 1990s, the primary emphasis was on efficiency and automation. The average call handling time was the most important performance indicator. Every additional minute on the hotline was considered to be a cost factor. So in the past we automated anything and everything we could in our efforts to make service as efficient as possible. We cut and cut costs until, in effect, we had almost destroyed service, and customers with their concerns vanished from our line of sight. And in many cases, above all in management, experience in dealing with customers became non-existent. Attention was fixed exclusively on KPIs.

Do you mean to say that growing pressure to perform in the service areas ultimately made truly excellent customer care impossible? How can this development be countered?

We recognized that things were moving in the wrong direction and we are in the meantime taking specific actions to turn it around. We want to get away from thinking strictly in terms of efficiency and overblown automation and establish instead genuine customer centricity. We will succeed in offering flawless service only if we orient our efforts resolutely to the needs of our customers. I myself deliberately seek contact with customers and interaction with our employees on the line; I am in one of our service centers every week, repeatedly go along when one of our 8,000 technicians goes to his or her customers, experience what customers want and how our philosophy is being realized. And this is expressed like this: Einfach.Anders.Machen. For the customers. We want to delight our customers through simplicity. And we take that literally. We have given our employees new space for taking action themselves. The people working on the line know best what customers need. Regulations from headquarters are of little help here. Today, people want more support and help rather than rigid regulations from headquarters, from management. This rigidity is the old world. And we learn from every single complaint – and by the way, we have cut their number in half over the last two years. We continuously improve procedures and, very important, everybody is thinking more end to end. That means from the customer problem to its solution. And not in small Tayloristic steps where no one is accountable. Everyone contributes to the result.

We can turn customers into fans only if we meet or even exceed the growing expectations of our customers. We haven’t reached this point as of today, but that is precisely our goal: We want to offer the best service! To achieve this, we will have to be flawless during every one of the 270,000 customer contacts we have daily. And that – to come back to your question – will happen only if the interplay of people, processes, and technology is perfect. You need motivated and competent employees, lean, efficient procedures, and digital innovations that offer genuine benefits to customers. That is why I like to speak of digital empathy in this regard. A smart combination of people and technical possibilities is the aim. We always want to remain sensible when deploying new technologies and give both employees and customers the opportunity to play a part in the implementation and to have positive experiences. That is essential for gaining the required acceptance.

Haier, a Chinese manufacturer of white goods, has succeeded in orienting its employees resolutely to customers by subdividing the company into a large number of independent units responsible for their results, so-called micro enterprises, and all employees, even those from the management and crossover positions, must “justify” themselves with respect to customers. What do you think of such a model?

For me, that’s the right way to go. That is why it is important to empower service employees to develop their individual potential. To motivate them to demonstrate their tremendous ability over and over again every day. But how do you do that? There is no panacea for this; everyone must find the approach that fits his or her organization.

For instance, we have given our team leaders in technical field service more freedom for taking action when scheduling assignments. Who can complete the customer order best? Does it make good sense to bundle orders? What advanced qualifications do individual employees require? Our motto reads: fewer regulations from headquarters, more personal authority to make decisions. The same is true of hotlines. We have loosened the restrictions on our agents here as well. As a rule, they have the product knowledge, the service expertise, and, above all, the empathy to decide what is best for customers in their specific situations. And if someone doesn’t know what to do next, he or she can get help so that the customer’s issue can be resolved. But he or she should have a sense of responsibility for finding the solution and not just transfer the call to someone else. In the meantime, the initial resolution rate has become the most important performance indicator. Everything that contributes to greater customer satisfaction at the end of the day is allowed.

We take this approach for office staff as well; clear processes provide good guidelines, true, but they are far from being able to mirror every individual concern. Most of our hotline employees know instinctively and from experience, however, how they must deal with customers. So we encourage them to utilize their freedoms even more broadly in the interests of our customers. This is a learning process, of course, and it takes time. Changing people’s behavior in such a way is not accomplished overnight. But it is worthwhile in the long run. Best service is not a sprint; it’s a marathon.

To put it succinctly: What do you regard to be the three essential elements of a customer-centric organization?

  1. Listen to the customer
  2. Listen to the employee who has contact with the customer
  3. Take time for your customers

Let’s consider another aspect. Just 5 years ago, we still had the discussion that the introduction of flexible New Work structures in service, and in call centers in particular, did not make good sense. The reasoning was that the employees should concentrate on the highest possible processing frequency and traditional service KPIs. Collaboration and intensive interaction among service employees was regarded as more disruptive than helpful. But now, in times when standard queries and incidents can be resolved through the use of bots and AI or through the provision of self-services, the focus is shifting. There is an opportunity to concentrate on key customers and the resolution of knotty issues. What does this mean for the design of the call center units, e.g., with respect to organization and management structure?

As I mentioned above, initial resolution is front and center as the most important KPI for us. No other management variable represents the customer’s wish more exactly: no waiting, the resolution of my problem during the initial contact, an answer to my question. As part of our effort to improve the initial resolution rate, we are trying out new working models such as the one floor or solution center approach to go along with the greater freedom for our employees. Up to 20 employees form a team that merges various skills, qualifications, working hours, and performance indicators. Where our employees from customer service and technical service previously sometimes sat in different buildings, this approach brings them together to share one floor and one task. All team members take on the concerns of our customers directly. No agent ever transfers the ticket to a colleague. We want to break out of the silos with this crossover collaboration. Moreover, all employees expand the scope of their knowledge during their daily work. If an agent does not know what else to do during a call, he or she waves an expert partner over and they resolve the case together. If, as happens occasionally, even this expert partner doesn’t have an answer, a so-called “genius” is brought in. These are experts who are especially knowledgeable about a certain topic. Our agents then work together with the genius to find a solution and call the customer back. Reliability is also an essential driver for customer satisfaction.

One good example of this is the so-called TEX Organization of T-Mobile US, which has been able to establish for itself a position as a world-class service organization. A similar concept has already been implemented in your organization. What has been your experience? What are the possible differences between the USA and Germany during concrete implementation?

That’s right, another measure we have initiated for the improvement of our initial resolution rate is the pilot project TEX. TEX stands for Telekom Expert Team. T-Mobile in the USA is not alone; we have had a team like this in Germany as well since last summer. About 80 colleagues from the mobile unit work in accordance with this new service concept at our service location in Hanover. All the service agents here as well are experts with a clear focus on the initial resolution rate. But it doesn’t stop there. The customers from one region always end up with the same service team, one that has special regional expertise. We have classified the customer regions according to postal codes and size, creating a good fit to the expert teams. Whether special geographic characteristics or local weather conditions, the regional knowledge facilitates the contact and contributes to mutual understanding. Following Ludwigshafen, Erfurt has now started operating as the third TEX location. For the fixed network, we are relying on so-called competence teams or solution centers. Here as well, our goal is to resolve customers’ issues during the initial contact whenever at all possible. Transferred calls and multiple contacts annoy our customers and are unnecessary burdens on the system.

One final question: You are intensely interested in new technologies and modern organizational forms. What developments will we see in the service sector over the next five to ten years?

Technology continues to advance. And of course we use digital solutions as well for the best possible customer experience. Software robots, chatbots, apps, voice biometrics for simple identification on the hotline, and so on. But digitalization also confronts us with growing challenges because our customers are increasingly dependent on network availability and functioning connections. This raises the expectations for our service even further.

That is why digital aids are required in service as well, simply to take some of the burdens out of the system. This starts with robotized process automation (RPA) – today, we already have 2,400 so-called front-end assistants in operation that relieve our employees from the performance of routine tasks. Another important aspect is problem prevention. In other words, the question of how we can recognize problems before they happen for the customers and lead to malfunctions or even failure. In the future, we will be building on data mining as well as the experience of our employees in this respect. With the use of software-defined networks, we will also have new solutions that support us in constantly improving our ability to meet rising customer expectations caused by the growing dependence on digitalization. As Telekom, however we will always ask ourselves the question as to whether new technologies have genuine added value for our customers while simultaneously relieving our employees from the performance of routine tasks so that they have more time for more complex customer concerns.

I am convinced that people are the decisive difference in service. No machine, no matter how intelligent, can replace the experience and empathy of a customer service agent. So today we think digitally, but we manage empathically. People are unmistakably at the center of our attention. Our service will remain human.

Dr. Ferri Abolhassan is a member of senior management at Telekom Deutschland GmbH. He holds a doctorate in computer science and, as managing director in the Telekom Deutschland senior management, is in charge of the service units, both customer and technical service, with a staff of about 30,000.

Das Gespräch führte Marc Wagner

This interview was conducted by


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