Virgin Media Ireland, owned by Liberty Global, is one of the country’s leading telecommunications providers, offering a range of connected services that include TV, broadband, mobile and smart home packages. The company is currently transforming its ‘service experience’ both for employees and customers, with the belief that a happy call center agent will lead to happy end users.
Doing so has required a complete rethink of its underlying processes, workflows and systems, with Virgin Media Ireland adopting Pega’s Customer Service platform and Customer Decision Hub, which uses machine learning to provide service agents with recommendations that support more meaningful conversations.
I recently got the chance to sit down with John Walsh, Director of Technology Transformation at Virgin Media Ireland, to discuss the company’s changing service ethos and how it is planning to expand the use of Pega in the future to include generative AI.
Walsh explained how prior to Virgin Media Ireland beginning its work with Pega in 2019, the telco had a very traditional approach to customer service experience, where customers typically called into the call center via telephone when they were experiencing problems.
There were limited self-service capabilities for customers - and whilst there were options for online sales, the approach was very form-based and not very interactive. He said:
We had a great team, a big team, but the time spent waiting for an agent to find the right information or navigate systems wasn’t good. People may have gone on hold - ‘bear with me’ - that kind of stuff. And then there would be transfers, because we had disparate systems and different teams were trained on different areas - we had a billings team, a collections team, a retention team. Being transferred was an experience.
When work began with Pega, Walsh had two main challenges for Virgin Media Ireland. Firstly, he wanted to ensure that the company was designing a consolidated system. He said:
That’s not just going to happen by magic, where you just plug everything in. So you have to understand what those processes are and what those workflows are going to be. And are they going to be the same as what was on your legacy platform? Hopefully not. Hopefully you’ll do it in a better way.
We had two major CRMs underneath, one for mobile customers and one for our fixed customers. And then you have to figure out a way to bring those two services together. That was a challenge, to design those systems so that you had the best of both from underneath, but also to come up with a new way of working.
And the second key challenge was getting all the APIs and data harmonized, so that when they come into the Pega platform, the data is clean and can work in the same way, so that Pega can understand them. Walsh added:
It’s not replicating two sets of APIs within Pega, you essentially have to bring them together to make sure it works. So there was a business process challenge and a technical challenge.
Interestingly, when Virgin Media Ireland began on this project, the conversations were focused on the speed of customer service agents and the time customers would spend on a call. However, as the business went on this technical transformation, there was a realization internally that getting the customer off of the phone quickly should not be the objective. Walsh said:
It’s about using that time we might spend with them to have a great conversation with the customer. To really be able to solve the problem in a better way, to talk to the customer in a better fashion, so that they feel more engaged with us as a business.
Then also the opportunity to maybe cross-sell or up-sell. We’ve had a 30% increase in our cross-sell/up-sell over that period and I believe Pega is a big part of that. Giving our agents the right time and space to not be navigating systems, just to have that chat.
Virgin Media Ireland has separate data management processes, data lakes and BI systems, where the data from these all find its way into Pega. Walsh said that this information is crucial, in order to give the customer service agents a ‘rich 360 degree view of the customer’. The aim of using this data is to enable the agents to talk to the customers properly, with a deep understanding of who they are.
According to Walsh, the new approach is having a positive impact on agents. He said:
It’s been a great experience, from a human perspective with the agents. I know from looking at the agents, since I’ve been in the business, and I’ve been in Virgin Media for eight years, they just seem a lot happier and under a lot less stress. You can hear in the contact center when they’re talking that they’re having good conversations. I rarely hear them say ‘let’s hold’. And with happier agents you’ve just got happier customers.
I think when you’re driving to work in the morning and you’re thinking ‘I’ve got to go through those systems, or pick up the phone and raise a ticket again when I can’t find the customer information’ - I don’t want any agents having to do that, I want them to be comfortable, listening to the customer, talking to the customer.
Walsh added that key to the success of the Pega platform internally has been ensuring that those agents that are seasoned in the business, the ones that have been with Virgin Media Ireland for a number of years, are also champions of the platform - not just relying on newer agents to lead the way. He said:
We are now at 95% adoption of Pega for our agents. That last 5%, we feel we can close that gap pretty soon.
Progressing the platform
As noted above, Virgin Media Ireland is also making use of Pega’s Customer Decision Hub (CDH), a machine learning tool that aims to provide agents with the ‘next best action’ when talking to customers. Walsh explained that the company isn’t as mature in its use with CDH as it is on the Customer Service platform, as it has only been using CDH for 12 months or so, but it is helping guide agents to have more meaningful conversations - and ultimately improve revenue opportunities. He said:
I think the key objective for us with CDH initially was that cross-sell/up-sell experience, giving the right recommendations. Like every telco we have got a number of products, a number of options on those products, so that’s been really good - especially for those newly trained agents who don’t understand the products as well, giving them really good recommendations.
And it’s learning as well, on which customers are taking those recommendations. So now we are looking to go into new areas, such as churn reduction, to give the agents an understanding of ‘this customer might not be happy, they might not have a great NPS with us right now, so you need to have a more meaningful conversation with them’.
That’s the next phase of this. CDH is an evolution for us all the time, whilst letting the agent make the key decision at the end of the day. It’s just guiding them.
In addition to the evolution of CDH, Virgin Media Ireland has also launched Pega Chat in the last six months, which Walsh sees as a good opportunity for customers potentially calling in less and chatting with agents online more. The team is also considering the role of generative AI in the future. Walsh said:
Chat has got to be a great product for us. And then maybe layering in some of that generative AI stuff that’s coming into that chat experience. We are in the proof of concept stage of those - like everyone else we are trying to assess exactly what type of projects these are, with the privacy and trust aspects.
What we want to do is preventative support rather than reactive. Most of the conversations that we have are when the customer contacts us. As a company that builds networks, modems, TV set top boxes - we want any problem with those to be solved before the customer even knows. To build a platform around that manually in the past was difficult, there’s so many cases and scenarios.
The hope is that we can use generative AI to solve those problems quite quickly in the back end. So hopefully they don’t have to call us.
Walsh said that the technical challenges posed by generative AI don’t worry him, particularly in relation to Pega, which he describes as a “very open company” - enabling Virgin Media Ireland to integrate with other vendors that are deploying large language models. However, he does still have some concerns. Walsh added:
Our key challenge here is understanding: when are we going to layer this in and how are we going to do it in a structured fashion so that it’s clean? And secondly, then privacy. As you know in Europe and with regulations, we have to know exactly where that customer information is going to be, and we won’t make any moves on this until we are absolutely sure.
In terms of project challenges, Walsh said that the company hasn’t had any torturous situations, but added that gearing the business up for a truly agile approach took some work. He said:
When we bring people from operations and the business in to work with us on requirements, every two weeks, getting everyone’s buy-in for that, and getting all that laid out at the start - that took a bit of time. Everyone did adapt to it, but it’s just not easy to get people to change how they do their day to day job and work in an iterative fashion.
That’s the key takeaway, it’s collaboration. But it’s also the thing underneath collaboration though, it’s the relationships - are you willing to do a bit of my job and I’ll do a bit of your job? It was a little bit difficult, but once we got over that hump, that was the bedrock of the programme.
And in terms of a key takeaway, Walsh said that the primary advice he would give is to recognize the inextricable link between employee and customer experience. For Walsh, and for Virgin Media Ireland, the two go hand in hand. He said:
Putting the people at the center of the project - whether that’s the customer or the agent - and understanding how it’s going to affect them, taking that regular feedback, is key. Not just customer first, but agent first as well.
You have people within your business that talk to the customer, deal with the customer, so putting the customer and the agent first, and then taking that feedback and building your processes around that - you can’t go wrong if you make that decision at the start.