Mike Zirkle wears a ring that would not look out of place in the fantasy worlds of JRR Tolkein, but Verizon’s Executive Director of Transformation says there’s nothing magical about ensuring digital transformation programmes go smoothly.

The exec, who sported an eye-catching gold and black gem encrusted ring when we met, took time out of a business trip to Europe to sit down with European Communications and discuss his role, which he started nine months ago.

Zirkle (pictured) is part of a new division called Business Transformation – the focus for digital transformation efforts across all of the US-based operator’s various business units – with a specific remit to improve Verizon Enterprise Solutions.

Along with his peers in wireless, wireline and Verizon’s new Oath arm, which houses media assets such as AOL and Yahoo, Zirkle shares lessons, data and metrics about the products and services the company offers.

A key area for him is improving the customer experience that Verizon provides to businesses.

Zirkle explains: “The way customers want to interact [with us] is shifting drastically.”

As a result, he has been assessing what interactions and associated backend systems need to be digitised in order to give Verizon's traditional global multinational customers the things they want.

Verizon has overhauled various platforms accordingly. “We’ve re-linked, re-hooked and re-integrated our portals for a single experience.” Zirkle says.

He estimates that, for an average customer, four to five different “entry points” have been reduced down to one.

For example, customer experience, service assurance and operational metrics are now all on one platform.

While the next logical place for this discussion to go would be technology and those companies that provide it, Zirkle shuts down this line of questioning.

“You’ll see [the number of vendors we use] being reduced over time but I’m not starting with a vendor rationalisation,” he says.

“If I have 15 vendors today and I can do [what I want to do] at a faster cycle time, with a little more automation and a better customer experience, and at the end of it I still have 15 vendors then that’s ok.”

He adds: “I don’t know if it gets simpler the fewer vendors you have.”

While readers from Ericsson, Huawei, Nokia and others can breathe a little easier, Zirkle says operators must start by working out how to reduce complexity internally so it can provide customers with what they need.

“Complexity is in implementation,” Zirkle says. “Don’t be presumptive. Is it people, process, corporate direction and policy or technology?”

At Verizon, the complexity has been in education and communication. “[The biggest challenge] is how to communicate to 168,000 people globally to bring them along on the journey,” says Zirkle.

He breaks it down to one very basic example: video conferencing. “Does everyone know how to use it? Does everyone’s laptop have a camera?”

Arguably, at the other end of the scale, and of far greater concern to some employees, is that digital transformation means their job will be on the line.

Zirkle denies there is a fear factor among Verizon staff. However, he does admit there will be scepticism among some that this is the just the latest in a long line of corporative initiatives that they might have seen during their careers.

He adds the use of change management processes is key in order to “explain what’s going on”.

“You need to get the organisation comfortable with change, with progression...you need to show how, for example, it provides differentiation in the market and is about giving customers what they want.”

Zirkle says Verizon has launched a “massive” programme to communicate the changes to staff.

A few hundred “ambassadors” have been selected to sell the message to all parts of the business. Citing videos, maps, fireside chats, webcasts and pilots, Zirkle says Verizon is “using every communication method going” to get everyone up to speed.

But can digital be taught? Zirkle says every employee is getting some level of training. “What you can teach is the principles, the framework [and] the vernacular so everyone across Verizon is speaking the same language,” he explains.

“Then it’s up to a company’s internal learning and development organisation to say ‘here’s how your job function interacts with those platforms day-to-day and how that ties to overall corporate strategy’.”

Another key challenge to digital transformation is measuring its progress.

[Read more: TM Forum tackles thorny question of how to measure digital transformation]

Zirkle is unequivocal: “I’m not measuring ‘digital’,” he says. “What I’m measuring is the outcome to the business.

“If my cost to serve goes up, for example, then I haven’t been successful.”

Verizon saw revenues from global enterprises fall 1.4 percent to $2.47 billion in the first three months of the year, having fallen 3.6 percent to $11.62 billion in 2016.

Zirkle hints at a number of new deals Verizon has signed with businesses in Europe, but he and the company decline to specify who they are.

He is much more willing to provide two key takeaways for other operators on their digital transformation journeys, however.

“Bring the organisation first – if they’re not going use or embrace [digital] you’re not going to see the outcome.

“Also, challenge everything, unpack the process; there’s an assumption that it’s a one for one swap [from analogue to digital].

“It’s not, its orders of magnitude beyond that.”

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