Sarah Golley, VP of Digital Transformation at Virgin Media explains how a digital transformation is nothing without the people and the customers.

One of the biggest impacts of the rapid and continuous evolution of the technology landscape is that it has removed the traditional ideas surrounding customer loyalty. We live our lives through seamless and connected digital platforms, be it the smartphone or the internet, and this has created a sense of expectation. If a customer goes through their daily lives with a digital experience that suits their every need, why should their experience and engagement with a business be any different? “How customers want to engage with us has changed and is continuing to change at a fast pace, driven by the rapid adoption of technology. Customers of today are less likely to be brand-loyal and will leave if they don’t get what they want and need. We want our customers to find us easy to do business with, and we want them to stay,” explains Sarah Golley, VP of Digital Transformation of Virgin Media

“Customers these days typically want information to be simple to find and instantly available. They want to have the option to have everything online, they want to self-serve if they have issues, they want to shop or deal with issues at a time that suits them. We are now speaking to multiple types of people, from silver surfers and baby boomers all the way down to millennials and Gen Z. We need to provide solutions for everyone.”

So, how does an organisation go about providing these solutions? For Virgin Media, the key is having technology that is flexible and adaptable to changing customer needs. In order to have this, Virgin Media embarked on a digital transformation journey and brought in Golley to spearhead this transformation in order to build an IT architecture that could cater to the customer demands of today and those of tomorrow. As VP of Digital Transformation at Virgin Media, Golley’s first responsibility was to understand exactly what the ‘problem’ was that the company was trying to solve. This, she feels, is ‘always the number one question’. 

“It’s easy to dive into the excitement of digital transformation, without really thinking about why we do it and what outcomes should be achieved,” she says. “It’s often the case where you hear of businesses enduring previous false starts and missed opportunities, which is very common when any company starts out with a digital transformation agenda. I spoke to other telcos running digital transformation projects both within the Liberty Global family and outside. I looked at the challenges, the scars, and the things that were really turning the dial in a positive way.” 

One of the bigger challenges, and something that Golley alludes to, is falling victim to the excitement of digital transformation. With so many organisations the world over embarking on and championing their own digital transformation stories, it can be easy to lose sight as to what your own transformation journey can and should look like. Very often we think that the key ingredient is technology, but Golley is keen to stress that technology should never be in the driving seat. “Digital transformation is about people. It’s about customer-centricity. It’s about focusing on actual customer journeys, how the customer can flow between different channels, rather than technical features and requirements,” she says. 

“It’s more than automation and data. It’s also more than setting up a website and having an app. It’s about putting the people first. Digital transformation refers to the way we as a business are changing, increasing focus and keeping pace with our customers’ needs, which are changing fast as a result of their rapid technology adoption.”

The ultimate goal for Virgin Media is to make it easier and seamless for customers to engage with the business. To achieve this, Golley and Virgin Media are looking at each of the customer journeys in turn with the future in mind. This will allow the business to radically change those journeys, creating fully personalised, simple and digital first experiences. “We use customer journeys as the unit of change. Predicting the customers’ needs results in improved customer satisfaction and reduces churn,” she says. “In turn this will improve revenue and reduce costs. It’s a win-win for the customers and so for the business.”

Through the creation of these future-focused omnichannel journeys, Virgin Media needed to adopt a different way of working and a new energy defined by increased collaboration and fast-paced change. The overall transformation journey started with the aim to push Virgin Media down a successful path to start the digital journey, using intelligent-lead solutions and putting the customer back in control. 

Virgin Media follows its very own north star as a company; to grow through advocacy, and digital transformation is at the very heart of its plans to achieve this. “It starts and ends with our customers,” says Golley. “We have been improving customer satisfaction by giving customers what they need, putting the control back in the hands of the customer. In parallel we have been driving cost savings by encouraging greater digital adoption.”

As it continues to follow its north star, Virgin Media has adopted a different way of working and champions greater collaboration across traditional business divisions. Moving away from a traditional project-driven world, the company works on removing barriers and works towards common goals in cross functional teams. “With any transformation it is important not to disrupt the BAU business, so we started in an area that will bring additional value,” says Golley. “We started by creating a customer journey factory, creating future focused customer journeys, using digital tools that support a direct or indirect interaction with the customer (web, app, messaging) underpinned and enabled by the right technology.”

As part of her role, Golley was tasked with identifying the problem and truly understanding the challenge ahead. Virgin Media is one of the biggest telecommunications companies in the UK, serving around 6mn cable customers and 3.3mn mobile customers nationwide. Trying to implement significant change across a company of this size is no small feat, something that Golley recognises. “It’s hard to effect complex change in a big company, bringing people on board with a new way of working, a new way of doing things. I knew it was possible and needed people to come on the journey with me,” she says.

“Virgin Media did not have a digital transformation plan when I first started this role a year ago. There were digital services, such as the usual website and apps, but as a company we weren’t making it easy for customers to do business with us, and we weren’t making it easy for them to find the information they needed, which meant they were often frustrated and calling into our call centres.” 

With projects taking anywhere between 9 – 12 months with fixed deliverables that were difficult and expensive to change, and a few previous attempts at digital transformation in the past, Golley needed to have a board that was engaged and fully behind her. “Successful digital transformation is not restricted internally only to the Digital or the IT teams, it is impacted across the whole company. This is not just an agile training plan and a new process. It’s not just a project or programme to be delivered, it’s a change in company culture and the way we do things, so it was essential to have the backing of the Executive Committee (EC),” she says. 

“We had sponsorship from the CEO and COO and fortnightly Steering Boards so we could show progress and get help to remove any impediments, to take leadership decisions when required. To enable a consistent understanding and message we talked to the Executive Committee about how agile will work for us. This was the first step because our culture was going to start changing.”

Successfully navigating a digital transformation is a challenging and ultimately complex process. These challenges are often commonplace from organisation to organisation, but it is the way in which a company overcomes these hurdles that proves unique. Golley can attribute the success here to three things: a growth mindset, empowerment and trust. 

“‘Let’s try it’ became my mantra,” she says. “When faced with differing opinions I used a ‘let’s just try it’ mindset. By working in an agile way we were able to try out some ideas in small controlled environments. If they worked then we would move forward. If we did not get the expected results then we could correct the course and try something else,” she says. 

“We empowered the cross-functional teams, we left it in their hands to drive the future omnichannel journeys and how they would be achieved. I prepared the EC and the leadership teams and told them they would need to be bold and trust us, and that they would need to start ‘being comfortable with being uncomfortable’. We were trusted that we would not break the organisation, because we could try new ideas out in a controlled way.”

Digital transformation is not a new phenomenon, but as Golley attests to, successfully achieving a digital transformation is relatively new in nature. She puts this down to there being no digital transformation rulebook, with each company needing to find their own path, based on what the problem is that they need to solve. Most notably, she feels it’s absolutely essential that while companies can focus on what goes well, they should also look closely at what doesn’t. “Every company will make their own mistakes. But we will improve the chances of success by learning from the lessons of the past and present, making sure we don’t recreate the same mistakes,” she says. “A growth mindset is always important, but as such it is even more so for digital transformations.”

That communication proves fundamental when transformation naturally lends itself to uncertainty, which can lead to stress and anxiety. When facilitating a major transformation in any business three types of employee should be considered, each with a different role and potential impact; the people within the business facilitating the transformation; the people that will not be directly involved, but will create value in a different way and the people whose jobs will be impacted by the change, either directly or indirectly. “Some think that digital transformation will lead to people losing their jobs, as computers take over. This isn’t necessarily true and if left unchecked people can be frozen in fear. The reality is that technology is actually increasing employee productivity, increasing and speeding up some processes,” says Golley. 

“We are nothing without people. People (employees and vendors) can make or break a digital transformation programme. And people (customers) are the reason we need to change.”

Those vendors play a key role in delivering this transformation, as Virgin Media looks to redefine its internal processes and ask its people to work in different ways, it requires the support and guidance from key strategic partners. IPSoft and NTT Data are just two examples of where Virgin Media leverages key expertise in areas that are new and complex, such as trialling AI-driven digital conversations and delivering on the promise of agility. 

Ultimately for Virgin Media, this digital transformation is focused on the customers of today and being ready and able to be there for the customers of tomorrow. Golley believes that the term digital transformation though, should be rethought. “It implies that there is a transformation from one state and to another, that there’s an end,” she says. “People are constantly changing, the landscape will shift. This is not something you can do and then walk away from. I prefer to use the term digital evolution, driving the continuous change needed to keep our DNA consistently relevant.”

This first digital evolution has allowed the foundation to be set and as a business, Virgin Media now works differently, bringing together real collaboration across traditional business divisions by removing barriers and working towards common goals in cross functional teams. The customer journey factory will now deliver an omnichannel customer experience, driving digital adoption and allow Virgin Media to look at the future journeys, which will continue to evolve. Golley says that this new way of working is “breeding a culture that is willing to try new ideas, empowering teams to make change happen”. The key to successfully making that change happen for her can be broken down into three simple ingredients that Virgin Media has and will continue to follow. “It’s the same in telecoms as in any other industry,” she says. “Put the customer front and centre and give the customer the control.”

Don’t make the mistake by thinking that this is a technically-led transformation and make small micro-changes and test the impact as you go. I think we should continue to live by that mantra; ‘let’s just try it’.” 

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