Back when our now vibrant and intensely competitive telecommunications sector was only just starting to flourish in the late 1990s, the needs and expectations of customers were fundamentally different from what they are today.

It is fair to say the bar for what constituted good service was comparatively low. The number of service offerings available were few and, for many customers, provided you were able to pick up your home phone and get a dial tone, you were more or less happy.

From dial tone days to data-hungry network

From the early ’90s the landscape began to shift and a dial tone and rudimentary dial-up internet access certainly no longer cut it. Those rising expectations crashed headlong into the cold reality of poor customer experience and translated into a huge spike in the number of complaints as customers expressed their dissatisfaction and frustration with the services they were getting from their providers.

In 2009 the Telecommunications Industry Ombudsman received 230,000 complaints. That was a staggering 54 per cent increase on the year before. Mobile complaints for that year also more than doubled, overtaking complaints about landlines for the first time and providing a glimpse of how mobility and connectivity would soon become central in our lives.

The causes of those complaints were many and varied. Failures relating to service, billing and the ability for telcos’ to effectively communicate with their customers.

The overall message was loud and clear – as an industry we were fundamentally failing our customers.

As we moved into the 2010s, another issue emerged as a leading cause of customer complaints – bill shock.

The advent of the first smartphones, along with complex pricing structures and charges for premium services and data use meant many customers had little idea of the costs and charges they were facing. Little idea that was, until the bill arrived!

Fast forward to today and it is a very different story. Recently the Telecommunications Industry Ombudsman described consumer complaints as “having turned a corner”. In fact, while the number of customers and services attached to plans continues to rise exponentially, the number of industry complaints this year was actually lower than it was a decade ago.

Changing business goals to meet customer needs

While this is a good achievement we still have a very long way to go, which is why in June last year we launched our new T22 strategy – to overhaul our business in line with the changing needs of our customers. T22 is built around the core idea of streamlining and radically simplifying our organisation, our operations and our products and services.

The plan focuses on improving the experience for our customers and our people, reducing our costs and structuring the business to maximise the value of our assets. What makes T22 possible is a multi-billion-dollar strategic investment program to digitise and automate our systems and deliver the networks for the future, including 5G.

In 2018, we had over 1,800 plans for our consumer and small business customers. Each of these had its own complexities, its own unique service charges and plan rules. In June of this year, we made good on our promise to reduce this complexity and today we have just 20 for new services.

We have removed other customer pain points by:

  • introducing no lock-in plans across fixed and mobile services – the first major Australian telco to do so
  • no longer charging for excess mobile data usage on new domestic plans giving customers flexibility with build-your-own mobile plans including entertainment options, add-on BYO mobile plans, a range of accessories and devices with no upfront charges and technology solutions such as Smart Home
  • introducing Telstra Plus, a new loyalty program which has more than 800,000 customers already signed up

Our small business customers are also benefiting from no excess data charges in Australia on new mobile plans and dedicated services including 24/7 tech support and Business Technology Centres.

In the next 12 months, we will also migrate further to the new digital systems we have been building where customers can expect simplified billing, digital service and real-time delivery and appointment updates, among other improvements.

Looking after our customers now and in the future

Looking ahead, we are increasingly aware that as technology becomes more sophisticated we are faced with new customer challenges, including in the areas of privacy and an increase in scams.

As regulators strengthen privacy and data protection laws around the world we continue to bolster our already robust processes and operational guidelines to ensure we comply with all relevant privacy regulations.

This includes notifiable data breach reporting, the General Data Protection Regime and lawful information requests from government and law enforcement agencies.

Protecting our customers’ personal information and our networks from unauthorised access depends on a combination of technical solutions, security controls and internal processes. Those things change as the nature of threat changes but in the end, we know customers rightly expect that their data is handled with the utmost care and consideration.

Staying ahead of customer security

Another emerging challenge is an exponential increase in the number of scams targeting Australian consumers. In many ways they are like whack-a-mole – you thwart one scam and another one pops up.

This is no game though – they usually involve a customer getting a call from an overseas country that dials once and hangs up. If the customer calls back they are unwittingly dialling a premium number and will incur significant call costs – and the profits go directly to the scammers and this year they are expected to net more than $500 million from unwary Australian consumers.

There is nothing isolated about these scams either – in July alone we blocked 2.9 million scam calls! And yet still they come.

This is an industry-wide issue of broad community concern and we need industry, government and regulators to work together to address it. For all of this though perhaps the most effective response is informed and empowered consumers. Consumers who are alive to the risks and part of the response.

There is no doubt that the next few decades will see a revolution built on connectivity, on rapidly changing, digitally-enabled customer experiences and expectations, and a complete overhaul in the way companies like Telstra go to market with their products and services.

Through all of this, we will always carry a special responsibility that today shines through in our company purpose, building a connected future so everyone can thrive, and it is a responsibility we take incredibly seriously.

This is an excerpt from a keynote that was first delivered at ACCAN and published on LinkedIn.