Enhancing Customer Experience at the Speed of Light
Troubleshooting a failed internet connection is frustrating. It is awful to spend hours on the phone with tech support, speak with someone who can't identify the issue, and then hang up without reaching a solution. It may take days for your provider to resolve a network issue or schedule a technician to fix it in person. In our interconnected world, waiting to restore such a vital service is more than an inconvenience—it is unacceptable.
At Windstream Corporation, we are dedicated to promptly resolving customer complaints and technical issues. Our objective is to be proactive and address issues before our customers start experiencing problems.
Windstream is a leading provider of advanced voice and network communications, security solutions, and digital television for home, small business, and enterprise customers. We operate a local and long-haul fiber-optic network that spans 125,000 miles and over 1,400 exchanges in 18 states, serving four million households.
Windstream was created in 2006 after the spinoff of Alltel's landline business and its merger with Valor Communications Group. I started with Alltel in 1977 and stayed with Windstream after the merger. I'm one of our longest-serving employees and have lived through dozens of technological revolutions during my decades with the company.
This business keeps changing, and that's why I'm still here. There's always something new to learn or try.
A Gamechanger After Decades in the Business
I've worked on loop testing for many years, and the diagnostic tools have consistently improved. But everything changed in 2014 when introduced an application that works with the Digital Subscriber Line Access Multiplexers (DSLAMs) and Fiber to The Home (FTTH) networks.
LoopCare creates an easy-to-follow workflow that puts all our technicians on equal footing. The first step is to run a physical test to see if there's any physical trouble on the copper loop or fiber. This is followed by a broadband test that captures values related to transmission speed and efficiency. If a test parameter falls outside the acceptable range, LoopCare generates a Verification (VER) code that identifies the problem and can even suggest actions for our technicians to take. In essence, this code takes the guesswork out of trying to figure out the error.
Barry Bishop, our Senior VP of Field Operations, wanted to justify the investment; I gave him a one-word answer: reports. LoopCare takes our test results and generates rich data sets. That reporting package would allow us to enhance our compliance throughout the testing process.
We started exploring LoopCare in 2014, purchased our license in 2015, and had rolled it out to all our teams by spring 2016. Although Barry was hesitant at first, he now looks forward to the daily reports I create using the platform.
The Key Is Training
We have 2,600 technicians, getting their buy-in on this new solution was pretty easy once they saw what it could do and how much it simplified their job. Training was a big help when deploying a powerful tool like LoopCare.
We've provided our users with on-site LoopCare classes, which helped to get buy-in from local operators and provided them with more insight into how we work. All our new hires go through Windstream orientation training, including optional online LoopCare instruction. We also train our tier-one phone support staff on running tests and reading LoopCare results.
The thing is, this is pretty technical stuff. It's one thing to teach field technicians how to use LoopCare because they already have handheld meters that can run many of these tests, and they understand things like metallic faults, DSLAM signal issues and fiber optics diagnostics. But our tier-one people don't know the nitty-gritty of network infrastructure.
Fortunately, we can train them on how to interpret and follow up on the VER codes. We can also set up LoopCare to interpret the VER codes for them. This way, they can use LoopCare to make smarter decisions on whether to dispatch a field technician or run more remote network tests to resolve an issue.
LoopCare simplified our troubleshooting workflow and reduced our costs. Before LoopCare, we used a wide range of equipment to perform tests, and that process was pricey and complicated. At the time, we had many varieties of testing techniques in the field—each with separate testing hardware—and they served only a few customers at a time. Our technicians had to go on site and use handheld devices to interface with all of this gear, make a repair, and then run a test to confirm they'd successfully remedied an issue. LoopCare replaced the on-site testing hardware and handheld units with software that allows us to test and repair most problems remotely.
We can also remotely retest the services after technicians have completed repairs to ensure their work has resolved the issue. Because of that, we have a higher level of confidence that we got it right.
Improved Phone Support and Lower Customer Churn
Thanks to LoopCare, we can do much of our troubleshooting over the phone. Our customers no longer have to wait a day or two for a technician to show up at their front door. If there's one thing I've learned after 43 years in this business, people don't get mad when things go wrong. They get mad when they can't get them fixed.
Instead of waiting a day or two for a field technician to show up at their doorstep, our subscribers can call us, and Windstream tier-one personnel can often solve their problem over the phone. LoopCare has helped reduce customer churn.
We’ve leveraged the automation and scalability of LoopCare. When we started using LoopCare, it was purely in the field. A little later, we brought in Kurt Landgraf, first as a consultant, and then as our VP-Network Optimization, to reduce the number of unnecessary and expensive field dispatches. Harley Hasenberg from Enghouse Networks mentioned LoopCare’s API and suggested we leverage it to automate testing. I hired some developers, and we started testing every customer that calls our 800 number.
As soon as a customer punches in their account number, we automatically run a test. When we connect their call to a support agent, that agent sees those LoopCare test results, including VER codes, recommendations, and next steps. Depending on the severity of the issue, we can route the call to tier-one support or escalate it to a more experienced agent.
Ensuring that our customers are quickly connected to the right people has improved our customer satisfaction.
Automation, Accuracy, and COVID Capacity
By automating these tests, we’ve done a lot more with the same amount of resources. Our LoopCare testing volume increased fivefold from 288,482 tests in January 2018 to nearly 1.7 million in April 2020. We use LoopCare to diagnose, FTTH, DSL and Voice. Over the same period, the number of field technician dispatches dropped by 20%, and our net promoter score (NPS) reached an all-time high.
We also started using LoopCare to clean up our customer records. By connecting it to our facility records database, we can employ LoopCare's end-to-end monitoring capabilities to see everything that goes from the copper or fiber line outside the home right to the modem in a customer's living room. We have now achieved 95% accuracy in terms of knowing everything about our customers' equipment and can now make more intelligent fact-based routing decisions.
LoopCare has also helped us weather the COVID-19 pandemic. Many of our customers are now working from home and homeschooling their children. Network loads are at an all-time high, but with LoopCare, we can monitor the health of our copper and fiber and withstand the extra strain on the network. Plus, we can minimize physical interventions and ensure our technicians' and customers' safety by doing as much maintenance as possible remotely.
Stepping Ahead of the Curve
In retrospect, we could have started automating network tests sooner, but I think that getting everything right in the field first helped us lay down a solid LoopCare foundation we could build upon.
We’ve begun feeding test results and repair reports into our data lake and using AI and business intelligence software to determine ways to improve our internal processes and map out potential issues with our network. We've gone from being reactive and repairing to being proactive and preparing—and our work is far from complete.
LoopCare has extended the life of the copper plant, helped us support our fiber buildouts and is capable to support our fixed wireless connectivity. When it comes to troubleshooting these complex solutions, LoopCare is critical to Windstream's future.
LoopCare has helped us bring increased speed and reliable copper-based connectivity to our customers for nearly half a decade. Now, it’s helping us realize the promise of fiber. The telecommunications business never stops changing, but we feel good about our ability to keep up with the changes, and keep our clients as connected as possible.