“Digital transformation” can take many forms. At AT&T, an important part of their transformation involved shifting to a structured content model, so they can implement a true multichannel branded experience for their customers.
With 30+ years of experience across multiple industry sectors, Scott Gentz — Director of Technology, Strategic Platforms — was at the helm of this evolution, which changed how the company thought about creating and managing content, as well as how the engineering team functioned. We sat down with him to learn more about AT&T’s journey.
It used to be that our logo was our brand, but now our customer experience is our brand. Our digital experience is our brand.
Our customers want a feeling of familiarity and human touch when interacting with our brand. They want to be able to trust that we understand them and what they want, whether they’re buying something or solving a problem or learning the answer to something — online, through a store, or through a chat agent. These heightened expectations changed how we think about our platforms.
Today, the landscape is evolving so that “digital” is anywhere and everywhere. Knowing this, we started thinking about the customer journey and how we wanted to tailor the experience. How do we bring a consistent experience to someone, wherever they are in their journey, whether that’s talking to a virtual chatbot, visiting our website, or walking into a brick-and-mortar store?
It all started back when we were pivoting from monolithic to distributed apps, dealing with the complexity of maintaining large sites at scale. We have over 4,000 microsites, with multiple product teams and marketing teams managing them. We have content that’s shared across all of these different channels.
We realized we needed to start breaking apart our platforms and making them more flexible, easy to use, and easy to build. It wasn’t too long after that when microservices started coming along, where we were decoupling and creating more fine-grained APIs.
The UI followed, and eventually we realized that the same principles applied at the front end. We had to start decoupling. We had to start breaking content down into smaller chunks and adding structure so we would have the flexibility to do great things at scale. All the pieces started to come together, and we realized that we had to look at our entire approach more holistically.
The pain points that we were looking at were well-known throughout the company. How do we get to market faster? How can we reduce the amount of content that we have to maintain in multiple places? How do we optimize for what really matters, which is establishing a connection and loyalty with a customer?
For example, we observed that if a customer was coming to us on the website, they would see a particular offer. And then they would move into a different channel, but maybe that offer was now different and not quite contextually aligned with what they’d previously seen. And we pinpointed the reason for that disparity: we were authoring and maintaining content in multiple places.
We knew fixing that problem would help us deliver a more consistent experience and get to market faster. We needed an approach that would adapt to our marketing needs so that we could get things out quicker.
Those were the drivers that helped us align the other internal stakeholders with the business value of what we were trying to accomplish. And things really took form when we started thinking about how to do this at scale. How do we build different presentation layers, with the right tooling and stack, and revamp our design system? We started adopting a more componentized, building-block approach.
Then, we started thinking about collapsing all the tools that feed into this approach. How do we start thinking about the customer experience sooner? How do we align our technologies? It was a change in thinking.
As a 30-plus-year technologist, I focus first on technology. But I've learned over time that culture is equally important: how people think, and their different perspectives on things.
Any time you pivot to a new way of doing things, there's risk. If you want people to adopt a new approach, it’s important to talk to them about how their role will change. How will they engage with content within the context of this new way of thinking?
Initially, our content implementers were still working in the old way where they were thinking about how to manually structure the content. And we had to tell them that they no longer had to worry about that. Instead, we were going to structure the content behind the scenes, but make the authoring simpler for them. Now, they can preview the content in different formats and see how their end product looks.
At first, they had some concerns that not being able to directly manipulate the structure would mean giving up control. So we focused a lot on education, plus getting feedback from different folks who were working with content or the user experience.
Sometimes we put blinders on and we want to solve everything with a technology solution, but it's good to step back and look at things holistically. Not everything is going to be technology driven. We have to think about how the roles are going to evolve, how our teams are going to work in the future. I think that we’re going to continue to evolve how we work and how we build things.
One of the things I liked in Carrie Hane’s book, Designing Connected Content, was where she talked about using domain-driven design to think about how to tackle a problem. We’ve really latched on to that, even using behavior-driven design when we think about modeling content and user experiences.
Now we’re not just limited to thinking about dropping a piece of content into a template. Instead, let's think about how a customer's interacting with a piece of content at a particular point in time, whether it's online or with a virtual agent. Thinking this way opens our minds to how we can structure things and build new things.
For example, we do point-in-time activation offers, whether it’s a retention offer, upsell, or cross-sell. We began by thinking only about the online context.
But then we started talking to our virtual chat teams, and we wondered: could we take this concept of an offer and also use it within this intent model?
That insight prompted us to change the way we structured our offers. We went back and started thinking about it within the context of how we could show an offer in a chat and how we could reuse content and content schemas across channels and different UI stacks.
By pursuing this approach we were able to optimize and make it more efficient for our content implementers and UI developers to generate content and the UI and in turn we are able to deliver a more consistent user experience for our customers by reusing content.
At AT&T, like many companies, our customer experiences are no longer these static stitched together customer journeys. We are using real-time, clickstream data to provide customers the most contextual and personalized experience we can give them.
As technologies like Edge Decisioning and Generative AI/ML evolve it will be even more critical to be able to structure content in a way that it can be adapted and composed to better deliver customer experiences in a fast, seamless, contextual-relevant manner via no/low code strategies. Exciting times are here for this industry for sure!