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The Problem

When the pandemic hit and we all rushed to set up makeshift home offices—while also expanding our repertoire of streaming services—telecom companies like Halifax-based Eastlink faced something like a perfect storm. Their customers relied on internet and phone services more than ever, but with rolling stay-at-home orders (and collective anxiety about keeping two metres away from strangers), in-home service calls for tech support went from everyday business to a last resort. Eastlink needed to find a new way to set up and fix their hardware while minimizing in-home visits from technicians—and they needed to do it as quickly as possible.

The Fix

That’s when the company’s agile decision-making strategy kicked into high gear. “We’ve always had a short hierarchical structure that allows us to behave somewhat like a flat organization,” says Jeff Brown, Eastlink’s senior vice-president of operations and customer experience. “That helps us quickly adapt and react. We get the right people in the room, we discuss the facts, we brainstorm solutions and we act.”

Getting around home visits was primarily a field operations problem, but the team assembled to tackle it included reps from other areas, like customer care and marketing. “You’ll never think of everything if you just have a few people in a room, so we work cross-functionally. We have a 360-degree approach, and it’s always been that way in my eight years at the company,” says Brown. “This was certainly one of the biggest challenges we’ve ever faced.”

Someone on the field ops team suggested a web-based SaaS called Visual Connect. It uses tricked out photo and video exchanges between technicians and smartphone-enabled customers to support remote troubleshooting. And it comes with nifty features like the ability to mark up images—because “plug in that wire where I drew a red circle” works better, for everyone involved, than attempting to explain the nitty-gritty of router setup over the phone. (If the service required a hardware drop-off, the technician would leave the goods by the door and use Visual Connect to guide the customer from the driveway.)

“We reviewed the technology, decided how many licenses we needed, and a week later, we were training on it,” says Brown. By April 2020, the tech was in the field. “It happened fast because everyone was engaged and had a role to play.” Since customer care was in the meetings, they knew how to explain the service to clients. Marketing was in the (proverbial) room, too, so they knew to quickly update the website, and so on.

For 12 years, Deloitte partner Rob Carruthers has coached Eastlink through its applications to the Canada’s Best Managed Companies program, which is sponsored by his firm. (It’s been on the list for 16). He thinks Eastlink’s status as a privately held company—an anomaly in the world of telecom—gives them an edge when it comes to quick pivots. “They can make decisions that a public company can’t because their view is more about long-term company health than just quarter by quarter,” he said. “And they wisely listen to their staff to make effective decisions. It’s not an organization that just has an owner calling the shots.”

Visual Connect costs Eastlink hundreds of thousands annually, but it streamlined tech support so well that the company continues to use it—albeit on a scaled-back level—now that restrictions have relaxed. What’s that about dark clouds and silver linings, again?

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