When Mark Annas started at Spark in customer services he had no tertiary qualifications and no previous experience in IT. Six years later he’s an automation engineer in an award-winning team at one of New Zealand’s largest digital services providers.
For Annas, it was the prospect of returning to a role he knew well and that no longer challenged him, that spurred him towards a career in automation.
“I started in the mobile faults team,” recalls Annas, “then moved into the team processing fibre orders when fibre first launched as a product.
“We were on six-month secondments to cover the initial rush of people signing up. I was one of the last to join the team, so I knew that after six months, I’d be the first one back to my regular job. But I desperately wanted to move into something new.”
Seeing an opportunity to automate the fibre sign-up process, Annas approached the automation team and put his hand up to help develop technology that could take on the manual, repetitive and often error-prone work.
“I could see a chance to make things better. Teams were running on night and day shifts to keep up with orders. So there was an opportunity to free people up for better work-life balance and give more one-on-one time to customers who needed it.”
Instead of going back to mobile faults, Annas joined a newly formed ‘automation hub’ and helped develop a robot that could manage connections and work with different Local Fibre Companies (LFCs).
Today, the robot processes 2000 orders a week. It’s also sped up the process for customers. Rather than taking 24 hours for an LFC to receive an order, it now just takes an hour.
A personal highlight for Annas was seeing the robot take out the prize for ‘best robotic process automation bot for customer experience’ at this year’s Intelligent Automation Awards in Sydney.
His job satisfaction now?
“Very high. I’m developing new tools that make life easier for people. Being able to provide that kind of thing is big for me.”
The robots are here
As Spark, like many companies, grapples with what automation might mean for its people, Annas’ story is helping inform the company’s approach.
Spark’s GM Delivery and Automation Kallol Dutta works with teams across the company through the Automation Hub. He says collaborating with those who may one day be working alongside robots is an important step toward ensuring they’re upskilled for the future.
“In my opinion, there are a lot of repeatable tasks we currently perform that could be automated,” says Dutta.
“It’s really important that the people whose jobs robots will do parts of, are involved in this work. On the one hand it means we can produce a much more useful tool for them. On the other hand, they get to be part of the team driving that development cycle. They get introduced to new technology and new ways of working—and some of them choose to make careers of it.
“Remember somebody has to train the robots and somebody has to be there for the people they're interacting with. If we’re willing to adapt, there are huge opportunities available, as Mark has shown.”
Spark currently has 40 robots, streamlining systems for customer service teams, monitoring the network and solving issues. Unlike the robots you see in the movies, they don’t have a physical form. They are software systems carrying out complex actions to automate tasks. As they are developed further, they learn to automate more elaborately.
Dutta says they represent a sustainable solution to the increasingly higher-touch support needed as technology gets more sophisticated and we depend on it more.
“There is an information revolution in place. Technology is becoming more complex and there are so many more ways to connect now. As that increases, the support our customers need is also increasing,” says Dutta.
“We need to be able to keep up and we can no longer rely on human interactions only to deliver this at scale, in a way that works for customers and can be commercially sustained into the future. We also can’t rely only on automation. We need both robots and humans.”
To this end, the company has invested heavily in digital self-service and online chat support over the past couple of years. It has also automated the process of diagnosing line faults and keeping customers connected with extra mobile data in the interim—through the ‘Connection Promise’ function in the Spark app.
These efforts are garnering some solid results. The company recently reported 468,000 fewer calls year-on-year into its contact centres. Use of live chat had increased by 46% and over 500,000 customers were using the Spark app to complete 270,000 self-service interactions every month.
“We’re still working to improve the experience customers have with us,” says Dutta, “but what we’re finding is the ways we work and the experiences we give customers change when we empower our teams with new tools.”