Q&A: CenturyLink's Batelaan discusses better digital experiences for customers

CenturyLink's Richard Batelaan is driving digital transformations both internally for CenturyLink's employees and externally with its enterprise customers. (CenturyLink)

CenturyLink is moving beyond last year's integration of Level 3 and into the realm of digital transformation, both internally and externally.

CenturyLink's Richard Batelaan, executive vice president of North America operations, is leading the digital charge for his company. Batelaan has close to 30 years of experience in the telecommunications and information technology industries, and his "team" includes 22,000 employees or roughly half of CenturyLink's total headcount.

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Batelaan is tasked with operations across the following areas: North America operations strategy and planning, network planning and access management, network implementation, field operations, service delivery, service assurance and advanced services operations.

In the first installment of this Q&A, which was edited for length and clarity, Batelaan talks about some of the new tools CenturyLink is using and its use of artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning.

CenturyLink is using Microsoft's AI engine as part of its Laser tool that runs automated scripts across seven different test areas to help its enterprise customers troubleshoot issues. Batelaan said CenturyLink would make the Laser application available to its enterprise customers in the fourth quarter of this year.

FierceTelecom: Now that the Level 3 integration is largely completed, what's next on the roadmap for this year?

Richard Batelaan: 2019 is the year of transformation. Last year was the year of integration. Now we're moving into transformation and part of that transformation is the employee experience, then we've got the customer experience and then ultimately the cost transformation.

We think that the key strategy to get there is through what we're calling the digital experience. So within the network operations area, we kind of split out the customer support from the actual network operations. So from a customer support perspective, we've created some new tools, some automated diagnostics tools, which you go through to run a series of tests on when customers submit their trouble tickets online.

So 40% of our customers are entering the trouble tickets online today for IP services. For 100% of those tickets, we run a series of seven different diagnostic tests. We package up all the results of those tests and reply back to the customer with the automated PDF. They get the results of all the tests and what are the best actions to take.

So if we see, for example, there are some BGP problems, we'll let the customer know, "We see that there are problems in this area and we're addressing that." Or if all seven areas look good, it might be something on the customer side. So getting that information within 2 minutes is really refreshing for these customers.

FierceTelecom: What has the response been to date?

Batelaan: I just got an email from one of the most popular media service providers. They had submitted a ticket online. They wrote back and said: "This is incredible. Do I get this for every ticket that I submit?" And the answer to that was, "Yes, for IP all services."

We've got a whole roadmap where we're adding additional services on top, like the transport services. So those types of tools are going on within the customer support area. But then within network operations, we're really focusing on communications. Whether it's a change management activity or an outage notification, like a fiber cut.

FierceTelecom: When did you first start using Laser?

Batelaan: It has been about three months now for that Laser application. We'll be expanding this Laser functionality into Latin America in the third quarter of this year. Those functionalities, the automated diagnostics and the next best action recommendations, are already working in North America and EMEA.

FierceTelecom: What work are you doing on the network operations side?

Batelaan: We are now leveraging machine learning and artificial intelligence to help us on the change management side on what and when we should be communicating. So as an example, I think in the past we've been over communicating on changes. So for every change, we're doing, we're notifying every customer, "Hey, we're going to be doing this tonight." And we do a good job of saying, "You know what's being done, why is it being done, what's the benefit? What's the actual impact and what's the risk if we don't do it?"

But ultimately the analytics and the AI engine showed us that if we were normally notified 250 customers, based on their usage patterns and when the change is actually taking place, only 10 of those 250 would even notice that there was a change going on.

So we started off with very small samples. So like a change that required notification of 250 customers, we'd run the AI engine on it. It would come back and say, "Notify these 10." We'd do the change. We'd get zero questions from our customers. So okay, that was positive. So we did that about 20 times and each time with larger scale changes. Each time we got no questions. It's now become part of our standard policy and now we leverage AI to really streamline our communications and only communicate things that are of relevance to our customers.

That's actually helped a lot because as you can imagine, a network of our size and scale, there are a lot of updates going on with trying to keep all the software updated. When you're over communicating it, even when you try to put all of the five W's around the names, it tends to make people worry more than they should.

FierceTelecom: Where else is CenturyLink using AI?

Batelaan: As you can imagine, there's a lot of complexity when you're billing between carriers. You might be billing $1 billion a year and all of those are line items that are maybe $200 to $500 each. So there are a lot of line items on there and we're leveraging AI to help us. We're using AI in other areas as well, but these are the big ones that come to mind.