How AT&T is disrupting its own business with Salesforce Communities

When Sara Straley, a director of product development at AT&T, took on the task of leading a new emerging business markets (EBM) unit out of the telco’s Dallas office, she probably never thought it would involve firing a T-shirt launcher.

Yet that’s exactly what she found herself doing as part of a six-week effort to roll out Salesforce Community Cloud at the new division. Created just two years ago as an effort to find new business opportunities for the telecom giant that was founded 1885. Described by AT&T as a fast-moving and disruptive startup within its own company, EBM has already launched a new reseller program, created a new external-facing web portal for company news, and is finding new ways for employees to work.

“We’re not just the phone company any more,” she explains at Salesforce’s Dreamforce conference in San Francisco. “We’re a technology company, and our team is helping to lead that success.”

AT&G Foundry principles: open, collaborative, innovative, agile
AT&T operates its EBM with these four principles.

Salesforce’s Communities (short-hand for the product) is being used by Straley as the lynch pin that brings her unit together. Initially rolled out six months ago, Straley wanted to ensure the tool would be adopted by her team, not ignored or quickly forgotten. So she busted out the T-shirt launcher, among other things.

“We kept it light and fun,” she says. A six-week plan saw the team spend just three to five minutes a day learning about the coming software rollout and what role they’d play in making it work.

“By launch day, people were excited to be a part of it,” Straley says. Treating the event as a party – complete with balloons and decorative streamers – helped strike a celebratory atmosphere.

Too many efforts to deploy enterprise social software go nowhere, says Alan Lepofsky, analyst with Constellation Research. Companies spend time and money on rolling out a product that is either totally ignored, or used for a short time and eventually abandoned as employees go back to their old habits.

Constellation Research uses this quadrant to explain why some will adopt new technologies, while other's won't.
Constellation Research uses this quadrant to explain why some will adopt new technologies, while other’s won’t.

One major reason that these implementations fail is because the social collaboration software is treated like a new task that employees must add to their list. Rather than naturally integrating into how they are already working, it feels like extra work. Lepofsky encourages using enterprise software that embeds social features.

“Instead of having social be a standalone destination, it becomes infused in the ways you do your jobs,” he says. “If you actually have to work within these social tools to do your jobs, then adoption is not going to falter, it’s going to take off.”

Straley echoes that advice.

“People are skeptical of something that is going to be yet another compulsory technology,” she says. “How many times have we heard this is going to make your life easier at work? The next thing you know, it doesn’t work or its more trouble than it should be.”

Part of her implementation of the software was evaluating the areas where it would have the most impact and deploying it there first. One of the best use-case scenarios she found was in the Service Assurance group, as a way to communicate with customers when an outage occurred. The social collaboration also involved a Tier II support team, allowing quick assessment of where the problem lied – on the customer side or AT&T’s side – and then working to resolve it.

Salesforce’s collaborative software is often used to create a new business department, according to Mike Stone, senior vice-president of marketing for Chatter at the San Francisco-based vendor. Even at companies where it’s not used to create a new division, it’s more likely to be a success if it’s rolled out in one division before it is across the entire firm.

“Our advice to a lot of companies that come in and say they want to go wall-to-wall with these things… is to make sure to start with a concrete use case with a group that is going to use it and drive it,” he says.

Chatter, the social feed and messaging component of Communities, tends to create a flat organizational structure. So it is used at organizations that either already have that and want to enhance it, or are looking to create it.

“Anyone can contribute to an idea around a project,” Stone says. “From the newest hire to the general manager that’s been there for years.”

At AT&T’s EBM, Straley rolled out Chatter in September. Her tactics to combine fun and practicality around the new software features continued. Team members were offered new professional head shots, but only if they created a Chatter account first. Also, a reward for answering a question posted by the president was an invitation to a social hour at the end of the day on Friday.

“Whenever you have free food and booze, people want to show up,” she says.

The method seems to be working. After six months, half of Straley’s team members are still frequently contributing. Each user is in an average of nine different groups and the top 10 influencers on the platform are represented by four different levels of management.

Straley is also turning her attention to a new use for Communities involving the creation of private groups for AT&T partners and internal service reps to work through issues.

If it’s as successful as she hopes, then maybe she can put away the T-shirt launcher and pop a bottle of champagne instead.


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Jim Love, Chief Content Officer, IT World Canada

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Brian Jackson
Brian Jackson
Editorial director of IT World Canada. Covering technology as it applies to business users. Multiple COPA award winner and now judge. Paddles a canoe as much as possible.

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