How to do a 180° in your customer service approach using Design Thinking

Proximus Design Sprint

Turning a company's way of working upside down

Proximus has a long history of starting projects this way: begin with a product or communication campaign, launch it to market, and then get the market research department to check with customers whether it had the intended results. Under the old system, innovation projects started with a new technology — a network, hardware or software — and then it was released on the market. But there has been a gradual change toward a new way of working: encouraging marketing, tech and product managers that innovation should first start with the customers. It’s now about looking at what customers need, what their intentions are, and translating that into a product or service that can add value. It’s about shifting the focus from technology to better understanding the customers, so they can serve them better. In short, delivering meaningful solutions to the customer. The ultimate goal is to make customer-centricity a default behaviour at Proximus and to change the customer service mindset and attitude. Not an easy feat for a technical operator.

Knowing the customer inside-out and backwards

The total about-face in the customer service perspective is where Board of Innovation came in. In collaboration with Board Of Innovation, Proximus designed a design thinking program that aims to put customer centricity at the centre of three levels: projects, capability-building and culture. The big switch is in when the customer is introduced in the process of bringing a product to market. With an outside-in approach, Proximus now makes the customer part of the creation process from the get-go. The key to working in a customer-centric way is to start with empathy. The thinking is that by empathising with the customer at the beginning, Proximus is able to come up with more meaningful solutions for them.

Proximus began working backwards from the customer to the company. Employees contacted customers directly, then worked to find a solution within the company. For a lot of employees, this was well beyond their comfort zone. But in the end, they gained confidence, energy, and believed more strongly in their ideas and pushing projects forward. Employees are excited about the projects they’ve come up with and want to do it again. This new approach towards creative problem solving encouraged the employees to think from a user point of view and sparked their creativity. According to design thinking manager at Proximus, Sascha Van den Branden: “It gives you much more energy than when you’re discussing ideas in a board room.”

Right-side up: putting an innovation reputation back on its feet

Proximus didn’t have a stellar reputation for innovation before launching the design thinking program. That’s changing. Before, not all employees believed in design thinking because they had all worked for Proximus for 10, 20 or 25 years and didn’t see any reason to alter their way of working, as long as it was producing good results. The thinking was: we’ve managed to achieve our objectives, so why change? But once they had experienced the design thinking methodology firsthand, they saw the value of collecting insights by entering into direct conversation with the users. From here, it was possible to get immediate feedback from customers on what was working well, and what wasn’t.

Proximus learned how much they could achieve and how quickly. It was easy to develop a prototype with the right focus, and teams could pull something together in as little as a few weeks before going to market. Through this fast-paced and iterative approach, the team is able to learn and improve from failed prototypes, while succeeding faster at delivering meaningful solutions to the customers. It becomes easier to track and trace glitches and level-up on areas that need improvement. These short cycles were new to Proximus. Now there are ways to test for non-happy flows and non-first-time-right flows in customer assistance, as well as ways to make becoming a new customer a unique journey.

Bottom's up to the customer

The bonus of the design thinking approach at Proximus is that customers have started asking: “Are you guys really contacting customers to innovate and create future solutions?” The people asking are Millennials and the Gen Zs coming up after them. They no longer see the company as a stodgy telecom provider that is behind the times. It’s what we call the “Wait…what?!” phenomenon: a company that takes its customers by surprise based on a massive change in the way it does business. One example was the collaboration with university students on a go-to-market solution for fiber. Proximus brought its expertise and the students brought disruptive ideas. Win-win.

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