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How Aussie Broadband is improving service levels with automation

Australian telco Aussie Broadband has improved customer service though automation, even with a lean team and a growing subscriber base

Integration and automation is helping telecoms provider Aussie Broadband ensure that new customers enjoy the same experience whichever channel they used to place their order, while keeping its headcount manageable.

The company’s organic growth – from 80,000 to 163,000 customers in the past 12 months – together with the arrival of the National Broadband Network (NBN) led it to realise that automation was needed to provide a great customer experience.

Its previous success in interfacing with the Telstra Wholesale platform led Aussie Broadband to build a direct connection to NBN Co’s platform, said service delivery manager Leigh Markham.

Automation provides several advantages. It saves employees from the time consuming and error-prone – even with copy and paste – chore of transferring data from one application to another.

It also provides an opportunity to pre-validate information collected from customers, and to only ask questions that are known to be relevant because of previous answers. A simple example is that having established that a new customer is a consumer rather than a business, all the business-specific questions are bypassed.

“All of our software is in-house... [and] developed by internal staff,” said Markham, adding that interfacing Aussie Broadband’s systems with NBN Co’s took just 45 days. The same team also created the online ordering system and the MyAussie app.

“It’s all about customer service,” he said. The company’s underlying approach is to give customers access to the tools used by Aussie Broadband staff via appropriate user interfaces.

MyAussie allows customers to add new services, change plan, monitor the amount of data they have consumed, purchase add-ons, manage email addresses, run service tests, check for current and scheduled outages, change payment methods, request a payment extension, and more.

There has been a 26% decrease in the number of service calls per 1,000 customers since the app was launched in January 2019.

It has helped manage the “extraordinary growth” the company has enjoyed without increasing the number of staff at the same rate, Markham said. This is particularly important given the company's policy of keeping all of its support staff onshore.

“We believe it is possible to work smarter, not harder,” added Markham.

The app relies on the back-end automation and integration that Aussie Broadband has built.

Since its inception, the company has used open-source operating systems and software where possible, according to software development manager David Barr, who joined the company as its first full-time software developer 13 years ago. “We’ve been automating and internally developing systems ever since,” he said.

Aussie Broadband’s in-house software is developed using a custom PHP framework, plus Laravel and Vue.js for newer projects, and while it mostly follows the traditional waterfall model, it has adopted some aspects of agile to allow faster iteration where necessary.

Interestingly, Aussie Broadband doesn’t prescribe any development environment. “Each developer has their own preferred tooling of choice; we support many different setups and would rather our developers operate in an environment they are already comfortable in,” said Barr.

“That said, we use specific tools where it makes sense to do so. NBN Co’s NPIS [NBN Platform Interfacing Services] API provides Postman, for instance, so we use Postman to develop to that.”

Read more about IT in Australia

To illustrate the way the information flows, consider the case of a customer signing up online for NBN service. The data is collected by the website and then routed into Aussie Broadband’s NBN provisioning system. That automatically raises an order with NBN Co, and monitors for status updates. It sends notifications to customers via email or SMS, and takes care of all the other tasks involved in provisioning a new customer.

That provisioning system was developed in-house, and was almost entirely written in PHP, said Barr. Similarly, almost all automation processes have been hand-written.

The change from the original NBN design – essentially fibre to the premises (FTTP) for 93% of the population, with the rest served by fixed wireless and satellite links – to the multi-technology mix added to the complexity for service providers.

The as-then unbuilt part of the FTTP network was replaced by a patchwork of fibre optic legs including fibre to the node, as well as the existing hybrid fibre coaxial (HFC) network acquired from Telstra.

Each new product meant more complexity, said Markham, because each came with its own business rules, requirements, and so on. This complexity was the biggest problem the company faced in automating its systems, he added.

Despite that, Aussie Broadband has the numbers to show the success of its approach to automation.

In early 2017, the company processed around 1,300 orders per month with a team of three that had to intervene in 46% of cases. By October 2019, the order rate had soared to 10,000 per month, yet the number of people involved had only risen to six, as nearly 90% of residential and small business NBN orders were fully automated.

More generally, 98.1% of NBN-related transactions, including orders and appointment changes, are now handled automatically with no human intervention. The significance of achieving such a high percentage becomes obvious when there are between 3.9 and 4.4 million of these transactions per month.

Aussie Broadband has now introduced an automated system for enterprise NBN services and has begun to evolve its systems in preparation for the changes that will occur once the NBN roll-out is nearly finished. While the current focus is on acquiring new customers, the post-build phase will be dominated by service transfers.

The company wants to make transfers as easy as possible for customers, and to provide information about the service they are likely to receive, such as the estimated connection speed or the degree of congestion in a fixed wireless cell.

The goal is “making it streamlined, efficient and appropriate for the customer and the technology”, according to Markham.

Read more on Artificial intelligence, automation and robotics

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