For most businesses, the pandemic brought with it a decline in sales and an overall hit to their revenue streams. While the telecommunications industry has also run into its own unique set of challenges over the past year, this sector has seen significant growth overall.
With an increase in remote work and time spent online across the board, the telecom world has only become more essential to the fabric of society. The industry has had to stay nimble and adaptable to the rapidly changing digital landscape, constantly seeking new, creative ways to scale up and serve its customers.
Transform It Forward with Jacqueline Teo — transformation in the telecommunications industry
As the Chief Digital Officer at HGC Global Communications, a telecommunications company headquartered in Hong Kong, Jacqueline Teo knows better than anyone that the path towards creating a truly connected world is built on the bedrock of digital transformation.
HGC’s mission is to leverage core technologies, infrastructure, and services to enhance connections among people and businesses. On this episode of the Transform It Forward podcast, we spoke with Jacqueline about how the pandemic has affected this mission, and where the market is headed in the future.
A bittersweet boom
The telecommunications industry has seen massive growth since the pandemic became widespread in 2020. Jacqueline says HGC has benefitted from the dramatic shifts in consumer behavior that have occurred so rapidly over the past year.
“We found that the demand for services actually went up, just as with most utilities in that time period. I believe we’re one of the few sectors that actually grew over the last year, so it’s a bit of a bittersweet victory, but it’s been actually quite a good year for us.”
Thanks to an excess in capacity from the mid-2000s when the physical network infrastructure was upgraded to the newer type of optical fiber, Jacqueline says meeting the increased demands in many areas of South Asia wasn’t a huge challenge.
Although it seems counterintuitive, there was actually an acceleration of 5G technology implementation for countries like South Korea, Japan, and China, while many other sectors slowed down.
Given this, the challenges the industry encountered didn’t necessarily have to do with infrastructure, but they did struggle to keep up with the need to service and scale customers entirely from home.
“That switch actually was quite dramatic — the ability to service and scale when half your customer service area is now forced to work from home. We had to shut down all contact centers, the buildings were shut, the people had to stay home. Those were the things we had to change quite quickly.”
The future is 5G
According to Jacqueline, service providers are heavily focused on the rollout of infrastructure-based services, so it’s a good time for telecommunications companies to develop strategies for influencing consumer behavior. She believes commercial users will be the first drivers of this digital revolution, which is already well underway in places like Hong Kong.
“Because there’s so much demand for the rollout of infrastructure at the moment, cell towers are going up like crazy. So rather than waiting for physical infrastructure and roads and tunnels to be dug out to ports and things like that, they’ve already got 5G portable cell sites.”
A borderless society
The world of digital marketing is changing. It’s no longer relevant to generalize a consumer market segment or attribute certain characteristics to a specific geographical area. Instead, we’re moving into a borderless society, which means companies are becoming more product-focused given the widespread distribution of access.
However, there are still underserved markets globally, especially in rural areas. The key to bringing access to these markets, Jacqueline says, will be an ecosystem of partnerships helping to drive integrations.
With interoperability being a major goal in the telecommunications industry, she says eventually, the lines between Internet services will be blurred because there will be multiple service providers who can provide access.
To implement things like fiber-optic cable or cell sites in emerging countries, local governments and larger telecommunications companies will need to form partnerships to wade through the local legislation, regulations, and supply chain issues.
“Service providers need to be smart about how to create these partnerships. They need to be smart about the governance of this, and they need to be smart about how to create their ecosystems.”
In the early days of the pandemic, HGC struggled to maintain the level of services they were providing to customers amidst the physical shutdowns. However, Jacqueline says the company already had the infrastructure needed to have their agents work remotely in place, so it became a matter of scaling up from coordinating seven customer service centers to about 700.
Jacqueline points out the telecommunications industry will never be fully digital because of the network cable necessary to provide service. Another challenge the company encountered was completing infrastructure upgrades with limited physical access.
“That part of the supply chain is actually really quite difficult. But, you know, you push through because everybody’s kind of in the same boat.”
Taking full advantage of the opportunities presented by the pandemic, HGC experimented with new self-service and automation ideas, bringing more ease to the process for their teams and customers. They enhanced their chatbots so they could take on more technical service inquiries like how to reset a router, and even assess technical challenges by looking at a photo of the customer’s home.
Overall, Jacqueline says a culture change was a key element of HGC’s transformation during the pandemic.
“I think as long as, when you’re getting together to create outputs of a transformation, you’ve got that change in culture, even if it’s a temporary change to create that output. I think that’s a very positive outcome.”
The most obvious and tangible for HGC is the growth they’ve seen as an organization when it comes to outcomes. Jacqueline doesn’t attribute this growth entirely to the digital transformation, but cites it as a major contributing factor.
“If you look at our sector globally, most service providers have probably reported negative growth or very low growth throughout the pandemic. We took advantage of the crisis, and we absolutely grew double digits.”
On the not-so-tangible side of the business, the company has seen an increase in collaboration, constructive discussions, and commitment to positive change.
“There’s definitely a lot more openness to new ideas, and I think that’s really been driven by the fact that we’ve had to pivot quite quickly.”
Is hiring a Chief Digital Officer essential?
With all this digital transformation taking place, should more companies be hiring a Chief Digital Officer like Jacqueline to lead the charge moving forward? She says companies should know the role is about more than just IT, it’s about people, process, and technology.
“The technology has to fit the transformation, not drive the transformation. It’s easy for people to say ‘well, AI is a technology, and therefore we’ll come at it with a technology lens.’ I think a lot of companies fall into that habit because that’s the way they’ve operated.”
Five key takeaways
Here are five key insights from our conversation with Jacqueline:
- It’s been a hard year for many industries, but the telecommunications industry thrived throughout the pandemic. With this increased level of growth comes new challenges associated with scale, and change management is key in managing these challenges.
- Marketers are used to thinking about defined market segments, but these segments are becoming borderless. It’s growing more difficult to attribute habits to certain demographics or geographic factors, so marketers need to rethink the tactics they’ve been using to reach their customers.
- The telecom industry is developing applications for specific platforms and segments, but it’s critical to remain product-focused. Platforms and channels are ever-evolving, so you need to build an adaptable product.
- Access is everything. It’s difficult to build an infrastructure for things like 5G in less developed countries, so partnerships and opening up multiple points of access will be essential. Collaboration is key when trying to enter these markets and deliver value.
- We think of digital transformation as adapting physical to digital, but we’ll never be able to completely digitize the entire supply chain. There will always be hardware, infrastructure, servers, and network cables that will need to be physically updated, which is especially difficult during a pandemic. For that reason, HGC’s digital transformation relied on automating many of these processes, making more of this hardware update self-service involving things like chatbots and RPA, and empowering consumers to make manual updates themselves.
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