CONNECTION, competition, consumers and complaints.
These days, that’s how Abraham Smith, Digicel Trinidad and Tobago’s latest chief executive, is dividing his time.
Unless, of course, he’s driving around the country as far as Icacos, taking selfies with his customers.
Smith wants to maintain connectivity with the company’s existing clientele, be ahead of his competition, improve the consumer experience and, as far as he can manage, address all the customer complaints that come to his Instagram account—digicelttceo. He inherited the Instagram account from his predecessor, Jabbor Kayumov.
To show the account’s effectiveness, Smith pulled out his phone during the interview last week and showed how many complaints he received.
Complaints, he reckons, go with the territory and he engages all of them.
“These are my customers,” he said.
Before he was promoted last month, Smith was the company’s consumer director, a position which allowed him to learn the terrain and explore what he will bring to his new role—a consumer-centric focus.
If his predecessors have groomed and styled the company into its current mould, Smith is about holding on to the people who are already customers of the Irish-owned company whose parent company is registered in Jamaica.
“Over the past two years, we’ve made tremendous changes in making sure we’re addressing customer needs. You’re only successful if you’re addressing customer needs. “An interesting thing that happened over the past six months is people’s needs have changed. Think about the world on March 11 versus the world on March 18.
“And so my focus as CEO is making sure, number one, that we have employees who are happy and engaged and excited to be here, so that they can understand customer problems and create solutions for those problems. At the very base level that’s what I’m focused on, which maybe sound like pie in the sky, but it actually is very practical,” he said.
Next year, it will be 15 years since Digicel set up shop in T&T. In that time, the company’s market penetration led to the saturation of mobile telephony. More recently, it expanded to offer fibre-to-the-home or business broadband Internet and entertainment services.
Last month, and interestingly, in the year of the Covid-19 pandemic, it rebranded from a mobile and broadband operator to a digital one.
The rebranding comes after a turbulent May 2020 when it implemented a group-wide salary reduction and filed for a scheme of arrangement before the Bermuda courts in a move that was seen as part of Digicel’s attempt to restructure US$1.6 billion of its estimated US$7 billion debt.
But it was the stay-at-home measures instituted during the pandemic that tested the company’s ability to adapt to the new normal.
Smith recalled that on March 10, the company was discussing how it would deal with the impact of the pandemic. After T&T recorded its first case on March 12, the work environment changed overnight.
With telecommunications being deemed an essential service, Digicel tried to ensure that its employees, who were working from home, were sufficiently equipped with enough broadband to deal with and respond to customers.
Smith pointed out that during that time managers across the organisation accepted a salary cut, while employees at lower salary tiers were asked to take a five-per cent reduction. Staff on an annual salary of the T&T equivalent of US$10,000 or less were not affected by the decision.
Despite the cuts, it was important, he said, to keep people employed.
Changing business model
Business during the pandemic didn’t grow, as much as it changed.
“Over the past three months we’ve seen incredible demand for home Internet services. We’ve seen a dramatic decline in the need for mobile. So, we’ve had dramatic shifts in people’s usage, because now you’re using your laptop or computer more and your phone less. You’re using your Wi-Fi connection. People are hardly buying top-ups. You’re not even making a phone call, you’re making a WhatsApp call. So usage shifted dramatically, which saw some big declines in our mobile business, and some moderate gains on the fixed side.
“I think there’s some other interesting customer dynamics in our Business Solutions Group. The types of things that companies need now; they don’t need big pipes to one location like to tap a building, they need lots of little pipes to people’s homes, right. That brings its own set of new costs and new ways of delivering because rather than one technician maintaining one big pipe, now I’ve got to have ten guys worried about how to service all of these things. So, it hasn’t all been rosy or easy. It’s actually really difficult.
“The other is even on the mobile side traffic patterns have changed. So there were fairly predictable traffic patterns in the past: residential areas in the morning, transit corridors during the commute, and then you see a drop down because everyone’s on Wi-Fi at work. And then, you know, the reverse. And now that’s all changed,” he said.
Smith observed that people are really trying to economise on their spending.
The notion of being a digital operator is complimentary.
“Being a digital operator means knowing that people are looking for these generous data allowances because they’re going to need a lot more access to the Internet. And similarly, a lot of apps to support their lifestyle through watching movies, listening to music, video calls and conferencing through Messenger,” he said.
From internal promotions to 300 new hires, Smith said, what the Covid-19 period is doing is bringing the picture into sharp focus.
Digicel’s biggest risk at this time is keeping its word on how quickly it can respond.
“As your provider, we’re going to make these five promises to you so that you know exactly what you can expect from us as a customer.
“And that has to do with how quickly we respond, us being transparent and open, none of these hidden terms. But anything else is, listening to people’s feedback in a very active way, and incorporating that into our product development and the investment decisions we make. And rather than that being something we talked about internally, that’s something we’re saying; we’re taking ads out in the paper to say this is what we want you to expect from us,” he said.
The one thing he’s been passionate about driving during his tenure is number portability. Digicel has never shied away from being aggressive in pursuit of customers.
Last month, Justice Nadia Kangaloo referred a dispute bought by Digicel against its main competitor, TSTT, to the Telecommunications Authority (TATT) for mediation. Digicel argued that TSTT was not allowing its customers to port (switch) their networks. Digicel’s application said there was an “unprecedented increase in rejections by TSTT” during a six-month period between January to June 14. It said a total of 9,274 porting requests were submitted by Digicel. There were 2,223 rejections for the six-month period.
Smith observed that Justice Kangaloo said TSTT may have been operating contrary to honest procedures.
To this end, she referred the matter to TATT, which Smith viewed as a win. He just wants to have the conversation.
Digicel has had several chief executives in its time in Trinidad.
And while it wasn’t the job he applied for two years ago when he came to Trinidad, he accepted the role when it was offered.
For 42-year-old Smith, a roving telecom executive who was born in Oklahoma, USA, grew up in Arkansas and went to school at Georgetown in Washington, DC, it’s an opportune time.
His ascension, when it was announced, came with the note that he had worked alongside Kayumov to revitalise the company: “Working alongside outgoing CEO Jabbor Kayumov, (he) has been instrumental in conceiving and driving customer-first digital initiatives that have really resonated with customers and staff and, importantly, have translated into increased usage and revenues and saw Digicel recording its best ever year in Trinidad and Tobago in 2019,” the statement on his announcement read.
Smith has previously held CEO roles with Smart Telecom in Nepal, Ooredoo in the Maldives and Ucell in Uzbekistan.
“I spent time doing humanitarian and religious work in Russia for two years. And it was during that time of the Russian financial crisis. And just seeing the impact of bad economics, the way the economy is set up can really hurt individual people’s lives. And that sparked inside me this connection between business and people in a way that I hadn’t really thought of at the time.
“So when I came back to school, I was like yeah I really want to be in international business,” he said.
Smith said he got into telecoms “because I spoke Russian and worked for a company that invested in telecom companies in Russia and Central Asia”.
Digicel caught his eye when it was launched, and after years in colder climates, he and his family—he’s a married Mormon with two daughters—opted for a Caribbean climate.
When he’s not at his desk, Smith is driving all over the country taking selfies with customers.
“So, Trinidad is one of the most beautiful, blessed lands I’ve ever seen. Your weather is fantastic, you drop a seed and it grows. You have beauty to look at,” he said.
An avid student of public policy, he’s now reading Leading Transformation, How to Take Charge of Your Company’s Future.
As for his why?
He answered it this way: “I remember my father worked for Schlumberger. He was in the oil business, and he was in Oman for a number of months and I remember, it was once a week, he’d call. My mother was just heartbroken, those two-three months, that he was gone.
“And now? My wife, she broke down on the side of the road and video-called me, and I called the truck to go pick her up. And I’m in Trinidad and she’s there, right? And so, I think that one of my whys is like, I’ve been blessed to be given the responsibility of all these resources, how can I make people’s lives better with that? So that’s one of the whys.
“The other why is, you know my kids being proud of me and saying, my dad does some good.”