© iStock/georgeclerk
© iStock/georgeclerk

The World Economic Forum predicts that digital transformation of telecommunications could exceed offer more than $1.2 trillion in profit by 2025. Vodafone Head of IT Delivery Ajit Dhaliwal is helping his company secure a slice of the pie by improving the customer experience through digital channels and products.

"What we're looking at for the moment is increasing digitisation of our systems for improving customer experience, fundamentally to allow customers to self-serve so they don't have to contact us, and they can have a brilliant experience," Dhaliwal tells CIO UK.

His strategy to achieve this is to first stabilise the core technical capabilities of Vodafone's customer relationship management (CRM), order management, billing and revenue systems and then to digitise products and processes to enhance the service.

Meeting customer demand for new consumer technology is a key component of the plan. Dhaliwal has introduced APIs that can connect Vodafone's systems to third-party products and create an open ecosystem for developers and OTT (over-the-top) media streaming services.

Two of the key technologies gaining traction are chatbots and digital assistants. Vodafone has responded by launching a chatbot called TOBi built on IBM Watson and an Amazon Alexa skill that customers can ask for account information and general help.

TOBi is the first chatbot introduced by a UK mobile provider. It was initially used to answer common customer questions in Vodafone's online web chat service, but has since expanded to offer account-specific information and advice on price plans.

The chatbot now provides double the conversion rate of the Vodafone website.

"The use of the chatbot has far exceeded our expectations in terms of customer advocacy but also in terms of sales conversions," says Dhaliwal. "We were very honest with customers to tell them that they were talking to a robot and they're not trying to hide the fact that it was a digitised journey, but customers love it. They love the ease of simplicity."

Telecoms career paths

Dhaliwal joined Vodafone in November 2015 as UK Head of Release and Testing after a spell as CIO for Customer Services Transformational Delivery at BT Openreach. 

His initial task at Vodafone was to help stabilise the consumer IT systems after a major systems transformation and boost the telco's business by improving the customer experience and service reliability. His strategy to achieve this involved developing internal skills through insourcing and focusing on the detail and addressing the basics.

His work helped Vodafone climb the mobile network's rankings of wireless testing firm RootMetrics from a 78.6 score when he joined to a 90.2 rating in 2017, the year he was promoted to his current role.

His remit then expanded to all consumer IT, from application architecture to the customer experience in stores. To improve Vodafone's service, he's been exploring a wide range of new technologies and has maintained his faith that insourcing will help unlock their potential.

"We're doing a big insourcing drive to build digital capability in London and Manchester through partnerships with local startups to develop young talent with leading digital skills," he says.

"We're working with startups who basically are incubators for digital talent. They get digital youth in either from high school or apprentices, and they'll train them up in the basics, and then we look to offer them employment, and then training in-house with Vodafone."

Building vendor relationships

Vodafone operates a marketplace procurement system in which the company's CTO and central group functions constantly evaluate new technology based on how it fits with the needs of the company and its customers.

"I think in the UK and in our big European markets, it would be far too disruptive to suddenly change the course of technology direction," says Dhaliwal.

"For us, it's about evolution, particularly when you're talking about multiple millions of customers being served on those core applications, but in terms of new investment, we look to organisations like Gartner and our strategic relationships… and we really look at what's the best technology fit for that particular market based on the customer's needs."

This leads Vodafone to select partners based on how they fit each specific product.

When Vodafone was developing VOXI, a SIM-only service for under-30s that includes unlimited data for social media, the company considered working with Huawei on the implementation due to the its agility and time to delivery, but ultimately plumped for Oracle.

"The key point of why we didn't go down that route is because of our strategic relationship with Oracle, the fact that we've built a solid foundation with Oracle, and we understand how to operate within that ecosystem," says Dhaliwal.

"We've got a whole group of senior managers who are experienced in the implementation of Oracle systems. So for us, it would have been very alien to use a new capability that was newly introduced to our market."

Vodafone is now upgrading its Oracle CRM to improve the user interface and enhance its product bundles by automatically coordinating every aspect the different products in a customer's order.

Dhaliwal points to the company's Net Promoter Scores (NPS) as evidence of deployment's success thus far.

"Three years ago our NPS was -70 - now we're at +22," he says. "And that's just through continual service delivery and continual evolution of our Oracle-modelled implementation. It's allowed us to drive that customer experience."