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Customers at the center of business

By Cathy Yang Published Jul 27, 2022 5:01 am


On Aug. 23, 2019, I sat down with Al Panlilio in his first-ever TV interview as PLDT executive vice president and chief revenue officer and Smart president and CEO. As a journalist, I asked him how he intended to address the raft of customer complaints over the telcos’ service. He said then: “We need to focus on what they want and what they need and we need to satisfy that. That’s the only way we can keep them as customers.”

This focus on customer-centricity — customer obsession, if you will — is exactly what I would come to know of personally when I accepted the invitation to join the Group. The avalanche of congratulatory messages from family, friends, and fans soon turned into a wave of service requests from irate customers. Suddenly, I had been thrust into the heart of the problem.

The author and Jonathan Dosdos, PLDT’s Workforce Management supervisor for North Cebu, check on the on-ground restoration efforts in Mactan Island—one of the areas badly hit by Typhoon Odette where a lot of PLDT lines were severed, and poles toppled. 

It became an opportunity to be part of the solution.

We are far from perfect, but the direction to serve our customers rings loud and clear.  In the words of Mr. Panlilio: The customer is our North Star.

At the height of the pandemic, I witnessed firsthand how connectivity became a necessity like water and electricity, as we conducted our daily tasks in the safety of our homes. I also witnessed how our PLDT and Smart frontliners risked their own safety, going on fieldwork at the height of quarantine restrictions to serve mounting requests to repair and install, so people could safely and seamlessly work and study online. And in that struggle to meet the pandemic-induced demand, day-to-day service issues remained, and the burgeoning task of serving all seemed like an insurmountable challenge.

Read what Ramon Isberto wrote about PLDT and SMART in InBetween: Hard lessons learned from the pandemic

At the height of the quarantine restrictions, I carried on working from PLDT’s Makati headquarters, and in those critical days and months, I witnessed the commitment of leadership, showing up in person to keep the business going, keeping everyone’s spirits up and, especially at the height of the Omicron variant, becoming the stewards others could depend on. In one of the first hybrid Group townhall sessions I moderated in the middle of the pandemic, PLDT Chairman Manuel V Pangilinan called on all of us — from field champions to fellow Mancom members — to be our own “customer ambassadors.” It meant one thing: help whoever asked us for help in getting connected or having their service restored.

The author with Grade 4 pupils of Cabagdalan Elementary School in the District of Balamban, a mountain school 55 kilometers away from Cebu City. The pupils take a stab at using tablets for the first time during the turnover of Smart's School-in-a-Bag package.  

It meant a lot helping those who reached out get connected or reconnected at the height of the pandemic — especially those whom I did not know. It has been both a humbling and empowering experience. Ultimately, it takes a cross-collaborative team to get the job done. Shortly after Typhoon Odette hit the Visayas and some parts of Mindanao, I received requests from Cebu, where most would wait for weeks and months to get their service restored. I saw the extent of the damage myself when I visited Cebu. While our frontliners worked hard to restore severed cables and fallen poles, there remained even more work to do to get the connectivity back on faster.

I am certain to receive more service requests after this is published or posted, and I am certain to want to help all those who reach out. I take heart knowing that our customer service teams are ready, having developed a near-seamless pathway for quicker service delivery during the pandemic. While not the long-term solution, this is an ideal of our vision, as the Group’s multi-year transformation journey catalyzes a pivot in policies and processes that situates the customer right at the center of business. This means you will be able to count on us being there, and fast — without having to take your service issues to top management to get some help. We are far from perfect, but the direction to serve our customers rings loud and clear. In the words of Mr. Panlilio, who assumed the role of Group President and CEO on June 8, 2021: "The customer is our North Star."

For the converged team, I now lead at Corporate Communications. Our own transformation journey to get close to our customers began soon after I came on board on July 31, 2020. I reorganized both PLDT and Smart teams into one, committing to find ways to work together despite the differences in corporate cultures. Ultimately, it was my team that made things work out among themselves, and for that, I am immensely grateful. As a team, we agreed to stand for truth, timeliness, and transparency. We made sure we informed without delay customers in the path of storms or those experiencing service disruptions. We embraced data analytics, mining insights on how our strategic and thematic narratives are coming across.

Validating our data-driven strategy, PLDT and Smart combined have enjoyed more mentions online or more pickups on print, cornering 70% Share of Voice versus rivals. We hyper-collaborated with internal partners and widened our engagements with local and international groups, finding synergies to scale up our social programs. Above all, we are “customer ambassadors” helping whoever needed help with their connectivity.

Our commitment to getting closer to our customers does not stop there. Securing the commitment of my Stakeholder Management team last April, we created pools of “ideators” and regional leads to help increase the impact of social programs in communities where we do business. Over the next two years, we have also committed to doing more with less, helping PLDT achieve its goal to restore positive cash flow and increase margins.

This is how we’re staying connected with our customers: keeping our on-ground engagements authentic, providing livelihood, education, disaster resiliency as well as health and nutrition where need be, with the help of the digital tools and services the business offers. At the end of the day, our North Star is to get our customers to say they want to stick around because they can count on us. That is our ultimate goal.

That ultimate goal may happen beyond my time here at PLDT, but I want to be able to say in the future that, looking back, I was part of that team when change began happening.