EXTRA: In very practical ways, Telstra is making the digital age transition from a one-dimensional ICT provider to a trusted multi-level collaborator in the small and medium enterprise (SME) space. That was the deeper message from a recent Business Acumen interview with Telstra Business group managing director Will Irving – who admitted with humility, “we still have a long way to go, I think, to be the kind of business advisors we would (eventually) want to be”.
By Mike Sullivan
“ONCE upon a time, what telcos generally did in the business space was all about being on the edge of the customer’s business. In other words it was pure dial tone. The dial tone might have been on a mobile phone and it might have been on a fax machine and for eftpos dialling up, but fundamentally it was just a connection thing.”
Telstra Business group managing director Will Irving is describing the essence of dramatic changes to Australia’s ‘flag carrier’ telecommunications business wrought by the digital revolution, but interpreted by Telstra’s business leaders and seers as much more of a digital business revelation.
Telstra is meeting the deep challenges of digital disruption by translating the revelation that successful businesses actually exploit the opportunity it gives for more personal contact with people – not less.
Over the past few years, Telstra has opened more than 90 Telstra Business Centres across Australia, well located along arterial roads, in business parks and in CBDs, Mr Irving said. The company has understood that explaining the advantages of digital technologies, and the options available, brings a level of client engagement that has not been available before.
Whomever the thought leadership group at Telstra is made up of, they have not only embraced what Digital Business insights CEO and researcher John Sheridan calls the three major tenements of the digital revolution – more connection, more collaboration and more integration – but they have also understood that, increasingly, the customer is in control.
“What we are now doing, and this happens with cloud computing where we are providing software – be it everything from Office 365, security, various applications for employee management and sales and so on – for us now it’s more about being inside the customer’s business and it’s really supporting them from a productivity point of view,” Mr Irving said.
“With things like machine-to-machine, we are inside production processes and measuring what is happening inside pieces of machinery. Geo-location is a huge thing for customers, whether it’s in transport logistics, or tourism, or mining, or agriculture and so on.
“So we learn a lot more about our customers’ businesses and how they operate and how they want to operate to be as productive as they can be. And to be international too, given that for so many it is a global market and they are facing inter-global competition.
“So to be able to win hearts and minds not just in Australia but around the world is absolutely critical. We bring the technology and that is absolutely core to what we do, but the real value is in how you use it.”
A good example is the recent introduction of Blue Jeans Network video conferencing technology to the Telstra mix. It is an exercise in leading SMEs – and large corporates too – towards an understanding of the power that new, high quality video conferencing systems can add to their processes and brands. But it is much more than a simple step-up from Skype, Mr Irving said.
Telstra’s take on it is that video conferencing can help business leaders address key business challenges, including reaching customers and suppliers more effectively, enabling flexible working for skilled employees, competing in a global marketplace, or providing engaging staff training.
Research group Ovum’s survey Video Collaboration Service Requirements: Australian SMBs, earlier this year showed a third of businesses surveyed were already using professional, business-grade video conferencing services, with an additional 34 percent expecting to use it in the next 12 months.
Blue Jeans allows businesses to use the internet to connect face-to-face while sharing content and presentations with staff, customers and suppliers, regardless of their size or location, Mr Irving said. As a web-based solution that works with most video systems and devices, “Blue Jeans makes it easier and more cost-effective for businesses to adopt video conferencing, or make better use of their existing video equipment”.
“Face-to-face communications are invaluable,” Mr Irving said. “In fact, 55 percent of communication is visual – your body language and eye contact – and 38 percent is vocal – your pitch, speed, volume and tone of voice. Using video can help you to build deeper levels of trust in shorter amounts of time which means you’re able to reach decisions more quickly.
“For example, one quick five minute video conversation could eliminate 15 back and forth emails. It is also a far more engaging medium for sales and purchasing discussions or HR and training activities.”
Image and sound quality, along with portability, are the key advantages Blue Jeans brings to the Telstra offering, driving up the quality of the contact too, Mr Irving said.
The service is hosted in the cloud and can connect up to 25 people in the same meeting, whether from a conference room, or from desktop computers, laptops, tablets or smartphones.
“Blue Jeans has been on my radar for a little while now,” Mr Irving said of the Silicon Valley-based company. “They are a very professional outfit. Their business is growing very fast.
“The thing about Blue Jeans and what they have effectively managed to do is that, for a long time, you have had some terrific video conferencing products, like Cisco (Telepresence) and Polycom and a whole bunch of players who have done really great things. But they all started out in a world where they were typically used by very large companies or governments internally. Therefore they put in one system and it was … technologically designed pretty much to be a private network.
“As you had the ability to do things on tablets and with 4G networks rapidly growing – and Australia’s 4G network is probably the leading network in the world at 85 percent of the population, you don’t find any other country at that level of 4G population coverage; the US is at a fraction of that, and 4G network in geographic terms has probably four times the spread of Optus’s – just to give you the flavour of the dimension we are talking about here.
“It’s taken those kinds of networks and to add things like iPads and video to bring things down from a world where it is very expensive to put in anything like that.
“Like Cisco Telepresence, which has for a number of years been state of the art – curved screens, incredibly high resolution – it (Blue Jeans) really is like being in the room with someone.
“With the ability to use tablets and with much more remote working possible courtesy of 4G, the need to be able to inter-operate, not just between your own organisation and different parts of the system, but also between different customers and suppliers, has become key.
“That’s where Blue Jeans now fulfils the ability for people on different systems not to have to go and retro-fit. They can go on using what they had and now it’s (possible to) talk across platforms.
“It’s taking some sophisticated software to act as a translator, if you like, between those various master platforms. That’s why it’s ‘why now’ and that’s why in Australia (video conferencing) has got this sort of potential because the 4G networks in Australia now (can) really do this. We’ve got a lot more fibre out in the network now in many parts of the country, particularly in a business context. In a lot of business parks and so on you have got fibre sitting there.
“Australia now becomes a market in which every body – I think the whole video industry – expects Australia to be one of the world leaders for quite some time.
“I think part of the value of a product like Blue Jeans, particularly in a business context, where an awful lot of the business that happens in video happens in the SME space and is also B-to-SME. Larger companies supplying into a small business in their particular customer space.
“Or they might be small businesses wanting to present into either large enterprises or medium-sized businesses and businesses of similar sizes. At that point you want to look a bit more like a fully professional, valuable business than perhaps something that runs a bit of the variability risk of Skype.”
Mr Irving said Skype has served many businesses well up until now but many were seeing they had to go to another level of professionalism.
“We’d rather see people seeing the benefit of video and if you start with Skype and think it’s great then come and see what the really high-grade stuff looks like. I think you’ll be very pleasantly surprised,” Mr Irving said.
“Particularly when you start to think about multi-point conferencing and so on. There are a bunch of things that Skype does well and there are some things that Skype tends to struggle with today.”
It is that sort of research which is paying off for Telstra now in the SME space. Mr Irving said Telstra had an international technology group that is “always on the lookout for people that are emerging”.
“In fact we have people based in the US and a couple based in Europe and so on, very close to the ground of new technology,” Mr Irving said.
As Telstra understands more about its SME customers and their potential technological needs, the scouting work becomes more focussed.
“In almost the same way all businesses get accountants to give them accounting advice, they won’t do it themselves, you really now want to be in a (technical) world in which you are getting some professional advice,” Mr Irving said.
While he finished by talking about the advantages of quality video conferencing to business, he could also have been speaking allegorically about the evolving Telstra Business approach:
“If you are building a new relationship, we still say there is no substitute for being there. When people first meet, a handshake and getting to know someone face-to-face is invaluable. Once you’ve done that, then historically people have then done things over the phone or by e-mail and that’s worked, although obviously e-mail has its big risks in that you don’t get the tone of voice and those kinds of things.
“So what this is more about is not so much the first meeting but the second, the third and the fourth.”
POSTED JULY 23, 2014