Robinson O’Brien Bours, Director of Support at FreedomPop, shares how the low-cost cellphone provider competes in the complex world of telecommunications by employing a community of super users to deliver premium customer service to peers.
In this podcast, Robinson is interviewed by Oracle’s Jeffrey Wartgow.
Jeffrey Wartgow: My name’s Jeffrey Wartgow, Director of Outbound Product Management for Oracle Service Cloud, and I would like to welcome you to the Innovators in Customer Experience podcast. In this series, we interview some of the most innovative customer service organizations on the planet.
Our first guest is Robinson O’Brien-Bours, Director of Support at FreedomPop. Robinson, tell us a little about FreedomPop.
Robinson O’Brien-Bours: FreedomPop is the world’s premier freemium cellphone company. We’re a provider of free and low-cost mobile smartphone service. We work on almost every smartphone that is currently in the market, and we currently service in the United States, United Kingdom, Spain, with some service in Italy, and several more countries on the docket for this year.
Jeffrey Wartgow: Tell us a little bit about your background and how you came to be part of the FreedomPop customer service org.
Robinson O’Brien-Bours: I’m from Hollywood and my family mostly works in entertainment, so I’ve worked on movies for a lot of my life. I’ve also been involved in political advocacy and think tank spheres, and I’m always looking at problems and trying to figure out how to approach them in a way that makes people’s lives better. I saw this innovative company, FreedomPop, coming out as trying to change the game in TELCO and I really liked their pitch. I really liked the idea of free internet access for everyone and I wanted to be involved in that project.
Jeffrey Wartgow: What brought you into this world of customer experience?
Robinson O’Brien-Bours: Customer service has been something that’s always been a huge pain point for pretty much 100% of people in the world. And, as someone who sees what technology’s able to offer, I saw there was an opportunity to make an impact in the space. Especially, at the time, this small, not even launched tech startup was promising to do the same thing to the telecommunications space. The story of FreedomPop and how they wanted to upend the traditional cellphone and internet structure in this country really drew me to the company. The very innovative, roll up your sleeves, get your hands dirty approach that they had to managing problems really inspired me to innovate as much as I could within the customer service space.
Jeffrey Wartgow: You have this great concept of harnessing the tribal knowledge of your service users to answer customer service questions. Walk us through that.
Robinson O’Brien-Bours: We realized early on that our users were very active in our communities and on social media, especially this group of users who are constantly posting questions, responding to people, giving answers, and trying to help other users as well as sharing a lot of feedback with us. So, I wanted to figure out a way to get them more involved and get them more proactive in providing our users support.
We’ve leveraged our community forums and our experts on those forums – users who have been around a long time, been very active, who we’ve recognized as fans of the product – as well as consistent, heavy users who really know the ins and outs of it. We started incentivizing them early on to help us out on different forums around the internet, on our own community forums, on Twitter, on Facebook, and then eventually through a partnership with Directly, to actually have them start answering inbound customer support tickets from our users.
Jeffrey Wartgow: We’ve looked through some of the tickets, and the conversational style you get when people answer these support tickets – it’s not like you’re talking to a support rep, it’s like you’re talking to a friend.
Robinson O’Brien-Bours: People trust their peers more than they trust my support agents. At the end of the day, you can train support agents as much as you want, but they’re still going to have that extra-professional, detached glean to their conversations, especially if you’re using outsourced vendors, and people respond not as well to that. But, if they see, as you said, more conversational tone, and especially if they learn that the person that they’re talking to is a user just like them who’s probably encountered the same problems as they have, and lived through that experience, and figured out a way to fix it, they’ll trust that user more.
Jeffrey Wartgow: You have a traditional backend infrastructure for customer support and then you’ve layered on this great peer-to-peer support network on top of it. What were some of the challenges you faced, or you’re still facing, in putting it all together? A lot of people are probably mind-blown that you could do this.
Robinson O’Brien-Bours: We have a lot of different tools and systems that aren’t necessarily all talking to each other. So, the biggest challenge we’ve had is working to bring in our IVR (Interactive Voice Response), our knowledge base, our ticketing system, and our native grown account management system into one central, unified place, so that we can handle all of our users with efficiency and we can help our agents and our knowledge base managers see the big picture of everything. That’s where Oracle came into play. Oracle helped us build this infrastructure where we could sync in pretty easily our telephony and IVR provider, which we use Five9 for, our custom account management system that we use for managing our own users and their phones. And then, Directly coming in on top of that was really easy. Integration took an hour or two for them to actually set up the systems, and then the longer part was recruiting enough of our community experts, telling them how the system works, and getting them to download the apps to really get it up and running.
Jeffrey Wartgow: How many community members, roughly, do you have right now who are supplementing your support organization?
Robinson O’Brien-Bours: Through Directly we have about 30 active on a day-to-day basis. They download an app to their smartphones and every time an incident comes in that we’ve determined, through algorithms, is something that an expert would be able to answer, it routes first to their app. They get a notification saying that there’s a ticket available, and they can go and answer it. If the user they’re talking to accepts their answer, that ticket gets closed.
The great thing is that it’s instantaneous, on-demand support. The transactions happen in real-time. We see an average first response time from our Directly experts within minutes.
Jeffrey Wartgow: Not only are you able to create this unique culture of people answering questions and a very friendly experience from the FreedomPop system, you’ve eliminated hold times and waiting for somebody to respond to your text, or your email, because you have such an instant response from this community.
Robinson O’Brien-Bours: Exactly. The feedback that we get from users is they’re always insanely shocked that as soon as they send the ticket in, they get a response back. And, usually the response is a good one. With our Directly experts, they consistently have above a 95% customer satisfaction score.
Jeffrey Wartgow: Wow. So, you get a 95% customer satisfaction. Internally, Robinson, when you look at your own metrics, cost, efficiency – what kind of results are you getting from this program you’ve created?
Robinson O’Brien-Bours: Over the past year, year-and-a-half that we’ve been building out this system and really emphasizing the tribal knowledge, and self-help, and peer-to-peer support, we’ve managed to reduce our call center staff by 34%. And, we have another 14% that will be reduced over the next quarter for a total of 48% reduction in our call center staff, all while continuing to improve our first response time by over 200% across the system and an improvement of our average customer satisfaction score by 15%.
Jeffrey Wartgow: When people hear those numbers, they really don’t believe it. You can actually dramatically cut the cost of a customer service organization, yet your customer experience scores are going up. You get to have your cake and eat it too. It’s very impressive and especially in such a complex world of cellular delivery. Sometimes the service tickets can be really quite complex – isn’t that the case?
Robinson O’Brien-Bours: Yeah, and that’s one of the traditional pain points, with especially the telecommunications industry. The products are complicated. You have a lot of people who don’t really know the ins and outs of them, or you have people who know the ins and outs of them really well and have a very high expectation of support.
We’ve all had to call our cable and phone providers over the years, and you get that super-long hold time after navigating through some complicated IVR with maybe some automated voice prompts. You might submit a ticket online, if you’re even allowed to, and it will take who knows how long to get back to you. That’s just not an experience that FreedomPop wanted our customers to have. We didn’t want them to associate a budget cellphone provider as having a budget user experience. So, we’ve really focused on ensuring that, yes, we provide you cheap cellphones and our customer service is better than those big guys, because we’re going to get you the answers you need faster, more efficiently, and from people who are very happy to help you get up and running.
Jeffrey Wartgow: I know you are not done innovating at FreedomPop, and I know you personally have a great vision for what customer service should be for the next generation. If there were no cost restrictions and no technology restrictions, how far would you want to take this? What is your ideal world?
Robinson O’Brien-Bours: Ideally, I’d want our users to get an answer instantaneously, no matter what channel or what part of the internet they’re coming in from, and I’d want my agents to make sure that they’re always giving the best information to the users immediately. I realize more and more that a lot of support is being done outside of the traditional support channels – outside of our website, outside of our IVR. It’s being done on other websites, on community forums, and especially on social media and review sites. We’re looking at ways, this year, to get our experts more active and able to respond to things in these other places.
You have to follow the users where they are so that you can continue to have control of your own support ecosystem and reputation, and that has to expand to social media and these other areas. So, that’s one of the big focuses we have, and the other one is leveraging machine learning. Feedback and reviews are very important going forward. We want to really understand what our users are asking, and statistically what the best way is to resolve those issues so that we can continue to aggregate all this knowledge and make our self-help tools even better.
I see it as a curated, community-driven computer intelligence. So, smart learning, using information that our users give us, and feedback they give us to get them instantaneous answers, as well as to help when they do have to talk to a community expert or an agent, making sure that those experts or agents have enough information at their disposal to get the best answer to that user as they can.
The future’s going be tribal community and automated answers.
Jeffrey Wartgow: We live in a world of instant gratification. No one wants to wait even a second.
Robinson O’Brien-Bours: If I’m ever interacting with a company and it gets to a point where I need to call them, I personally see that as a massive failure. I shouldn’t have to go wait on the phone to fix something that, at the end of the day, is usually not going be that big of an issue. As a Millennial, I think I’m typical of many Millennials in as far as we expect, if we have a problem, to get our answer immediately. And, if we do need to go talk to somebody, we want that to be on-demand. We don’t want to have to wait around for it. Companies need to start positioning themselves for this on-demand generation in order to keep them happy.
Jeffrey Wartgow: As a Gen Xer, myself, my generation was cynical. We always assumed, right away, that the answer is not going be what we wanted and it’s never going work the way we want it to. But, in this case, though, like you said, I would ask a friend first before I called the company and you’ve embraced that. It really hits so many pain points that everybody’s been experiencing throughout their whole lives.
What advice would you give someone within another customer service organization to get started down this path?
Robinson O’Brien-Bours: The very first thing is to find your super users. Find the users that are constantly using the product, know the product, and are willing to go out there and be active, and not even necessarily sing your praises, but who are proactive in offering their feedback and supporting other users. You’re going to find them online. They’re always around. If you can find them, and you start talking to them and understanding what they’re doing, why they’re doing it, and how they’re doing it, that’s really going be the basis. Listen to what they’re saying, watch what they’re doing, and figure out how to give them the tools they need to do that even better.
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