Q&A: How CenturyLink's Batelaan is leading company's operational changes

fiber technician CenturyLink
As part of its digital transformation journey, CenturyLink is giving its field technicians new tools and letting them develop their own bots. (CenturyLink)

CenturyLink is on a mission this year to transform itself from a telecom company to a technology company, according to CEO Jeff Storey.

Storey outlined some of his company's goals during last month's fourth-quarter and full-year earnings conference call. At the top of that to-do list is transformation initiatives that will allow CenturyLink to improve its customer and employee experiences.

"A big part of our story for 2019 is our focus on transformation," Storey said on the conference call, according to a Seeking Alpha transcript. "Our operational model is based on decadesold legacy systems and processes which deliver a lower customer experience and a higher cost to serve than we want. We believe we can transform the experience and simultaneously greatly improve the cost structure."

Richard Batelaan, CenturyLink

Paired with its synergy efforts, Story said that CenturyLink expects its transformation initiatives to generate "somewhere between $800 million and $1 billion in run rate savings over the next three years."

CenturyLink's Richard Batelaan, executive vice president of North America operations, is one of the primary drivers of CenturyLink's digital transformation projects both inside of the company and with customers.

RELATED: CenturyLink's Batelaan discusses better digital experiences for customers

In the first Q&A with Batelaan, he spoke about how CenturyLink was using its Laser tool to run automated scripts across seven different test areas to help its enterprise customers troubleshoot issues. In this second installment, which was edited for length and clarity, he discussed how CenturyLink is using machine learning for its consumer customers.

FierceTelecom: In regards to digital transformations, are their other areas where you are using machine learning?

Batelaan: Yeah. We have a different set of tools for our consumer customers, and actually there's quite a bit of machine learning going on there, as you can imagine. We're looking at modems, statistics, DSLAM statistics and change management. When you bring all of this together there is a lot of information. So the key area where we use the machine learning on the consumer side is what we're calling proactive maintenance.

So we're pulling not only our internal data around trouble ticketing, alarm management, and customer trouble reports but also pulling in external data like weather, historical weather information. So that we can say, "Okay, so on this day we got a lot of trouble tickets in this particular area. There was heavy rain there." And then we'll use that to identify trouble areas. When you do that, you're going to be able to reduce your trouble rate in this area by 10%.

So it's an area where instead of us diagnosing and solving one trouble ticket at a time, we're leveraging machine learning to help us go out and find a trouble area in the plant, whether it's a terminal, the cross box or cable plant. To really go out and pick off big hitters that affect a lot of customers at one time, rather than one dispatch at the time.

FierceTelecom: Stepping away from the technology for a bit, what about the cultural changes that need to take place with digital transformations?

Batelaan: That's interesting that you bring that up because in my last town hall, somebody said: "What do you see as the largest barrier to transformation?" We've got some amazing plans and we've already made great progress. When I show everybody all the of the new capabilities that we've already released it's like, "Wow, I had no idea."

But really the largest barrier is culture. And I said that in my town hall. I said, "Look, the challenge that we face as a company is that we have trained our customers over the last 30, 40 years to call us for everything. And now we're on a journey to educate our customers about our digital capabilities."

Even without a lot of advertising on our side around what digital capabilities we've already extended to our customers, our customers are finding it themselves. They are finding the online portal. Like I said, 40% of our tickets are now submitted online. What that means is that our customers are hungry for the digital experience. They don't want to call us, and they're finding the digital mechanisms that we're putting out there. The more I can get our marketing team and our product management team engaged, in helping us really push the digital experience and educate our customers on the digital experience the better.

That's one side of the culture. The other side is the internal adoption within our own teams. So I said 40% of those tickets are submitted online and 100% of those tickets get the automated routines. So the next logical question is, "Okay of the ones that don't come through the digital experience, how many of those technicians are using the new automated capabilities?"

I could show you screenshots and video clips of how long it takes to do it manually. Like to go through it and log in to all the different systems, to run these seven different tests. Versus letting the machine do it. And it's like seven and a half minutes versus 30 seconds.

So the question is, how often are people doing it? And it's about half the time. So only half of our technicians, when they receive a call are leveraging the tools that we created, that make their lives much simpler. So that's problematic. But the good news is we've got reports that indicate which technicians are doing it and which ones are not. And then we go and educate them and find out why they're not doing it.

We're basically running detail reports by employee who's leveraging the tools, who's not. And that that not only applies the to the Laser tool, but it also applies to everything we're doing from robotic process automation to smart desktop functionality. One of the great things we've done with robotic process automation and smart desktop technology is, we've pushed the platform out to the employees so that the employees themselves can now generate their own bots.

When they create a bot that can replicate the mundane work that they're doing, repetitive work, we can see when it's getting a lot of traction. We then take that bot and put it into production for all employees to use it. I would say we easily saved $30 million last year, through the use of robotic process automation. It's probably one of our greatest success stories.

I think part of that is that we've moved towards that business led, business-owned development model where we're actually allowing our technicians, particularly the repair technicians in our centers, to do their own skill pivot. They can move from, "I'm going to do my old repetitive work through the command line interface, but now I'm actually writing my own robotic process automation scripts." It's so empowering to the technicians, and it's really building a skill set for the future. It's transforming them from a technician to a software engineer.