How Spark refused to let legacy norms hold back digital transformation

...and developed a playbook for success that other organisations can learn from.

All too often, talks about digital transformation relate to companies that have been digital from the beginning, Spark New Zealand’s Lena Jenkins observes.

“What we don’t often hear about as much is transforming a business that has been around for a long, long time,” said the customer transformation delivery manager.

So how does one take a traditional legacy company resistant to change, albeit in the business of technology, and turn it digital?

It is a question Spark New Zealand sought to answer as it embarked on a programme to transition from a traditional telecommunications company to a digitally enabled business focused on customers, Jenkins told attendees at the CIO-CMO Exchange in Auckland.

Jenkins is in the midst of this ongoing shift at the company that started at the New Zealand Post, before spinning off as Telecom NZ and on to its current state.

She leads Spark NZ’s digitisation portfolio, established to transform digital customer experience. Jenkins also heads the software delivery team working with Spark’s other brands, such as Skinny and Bigpipe, to deliver digital customer experiences.

Spark customers historically used landline, voice and text. When mobile Internet and data usage started growing, they wanted a lot more value, more calls and data “but did not want to pay a lot for it”, Jenkins said.

“Like all telcos, we had the challenge of declining revenues but growing customer expectations,” she said. “We needed a different a way of working and a different digital estate.”

What Spark did not want was to replicate the current state with new siloed technologies or approaches. To adapt, Jenkins said the traditionally separate domains of IT, marketing, sales and customer services have to work together more than ever before to deliver against modern customer expectations.

Spark’s goal was to create a seamless experience between sales, service and the help desk. The core concept was that the customer could self-service, accessing help and buying within one application personalised to their needs.

“Being a telco is not all about selling. Once we get the customers, there is a whole lot of work we need to do, it is an ongoing service,” Jenkins pointed out. “One of our challenges was finding a digital ecosystem that blended sales and services together.”

The first step was to “fix the hard problems” and put the right foundation systems in place, Jenkins said. This meant uniting disparate systems contributing to disjointed customer experiences.  

Spark consolidated its CRM system, integration layer and seven different websites to create its new digital ecosystem. As part of this shake-up, the telco chose SAP’s e-commerce system, Hybris, and brought in Adobe’s CMS platform.

The next phase was setting the foundation for personalisation - a must, Jenkins said, but one technology alone can’t solve alone.

Digital transformation is a complex mission, but worth it.

Lena Jenkins, Spark NZ

“The people change is the hard part,” she said. “We were very siloed way back when we used to be a bigger business. This was before the GFC, and the business had a lot of cash. People had pet projects and built lots of things. So we ended up with lots of duplication.”

Today, Spark operates ‘one virtual digital team’.

Key to making this shift has been an Agile transformation of the Spark workplace. Squads are being formed and will be responsible for end-to-end planning, implementation and delivery of programmes.

Work streams are also cross-functional, with members not necessarily reporting into the same place but sharing a common goal.

“There is no more ‘this is the marketing team, or this is the sales team’,” Jenkins said.

In addition, implementing an integrated digital platform drove the team to align their ways of working.

“Implementing one thing, for instance, might impact what someone else was doing and you end up with a broken experience for customers,” Jenkins said.

Already, the Spark team has delivered one of the biggest IT releases in the company’s history. But importantly, it’s also significantly improved the customer experience.

For example, Spark customers have an online store where they can purchase mobile and broadband in the same order. Ninety per cent of these functions can be fulfilled automatically. The telco’s smartphone application has also been downloaded over a million times.

What’s more, the team can gather data from customer interactions. “We can measure the performance of our digital channel, test and optimise the experience for customers,” Jenkins said.

“We realised digitisation is about how customers experience automation. So we made sure we created an experience toolkit so we have consistencies across the channels.”

Data and analytics are a big part of delivering personalisation, Jenkins added. “You can’t just build something and expect customers to love it. You have to look at how it is performing.”

Jenkins further shared notes from Spark’s playbook for digital transformation.

First is the importance of sharing the vision.

“Have conversations over and over again with people… Make sure everyone understands what your digital vision means,” she advised. “You have to keep people engaged. You can’t design by committee, but people want to feel involved in the decisions.”

The rate of change is so fast, incremental change is a lot more important than big build efforts, Jenkins said.

“Get clear on where you want to be, set a vision for the future. You just can’t replicate the current state,” she said.

It’s also vital to be clear on where you are now. Questions to ask include: Where is your customer data? Which people and third partners are involved? What is your internal capability?

Then create a roadmap that’s directional but not set in stone. “Things change fast, so have flexibility,” Jenkins said.

And spend the time creating the optimised business model to support it. “You can’t just implement a new technology, you have to have a way to support the customers on this,” she said.

Don’t forget to share your learnings either, good and bad. “In the past, we were good at building new things but not so good at telling customers about it,” Jenkins said.

“So we have a decided to focus on making sure customers know that there is a new digital experience, how important this is, and encourage them to use it.”

In summary, Jenkins said digital transformation is a complex mission, but one that’s worth it.

“Do not underestimate the effort to get there. It is not always done with technology. That is the smallest part, the people, process and organisational change is the harder one,” she concluded.

“Don’t give up, be courageous to achieve those outcomes.”

At the 2018 CIO-CMO Exchange in Auckland
At the 2018 CIO-CMO Exchange in Auckland

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