Change is possible!

Companies and people can quickly implement a new vision. With "customer first" focus, T-Mobile transformed their business and people within one year.

Bold results start with a clear vision. Many of the examples of creating customer centric organizations with agile management are from smaller companies with enlightened and modern leadership (like Rovio, the maker of the “Angry Birds”). But large organizations can transform, too, with clear vision and leadership.  The change requires more than solid leadership, though.  It goes deeper with processes being transformed, modern technologies and methodologies leveraged, and people empowered to create simplicity and greater customer value.

In the innovation economy, a direct customer focus is essential. Quickly understanding, communicating and delivering value to the customers is a key characteristic of truly agile organizations.  If a product or service does not deliver value to the customer, it is a waste of time.  Your brand isn’t what you sell.  Your brand is the relationship created between your organization and your customers.  T-Mobile USA embodies this philosophy and has turned the mobile carrier market in the USA upside down in 2013.

For years, T-Mobile struggled to gain ground on their competitors and often ranked last in customer surveys against the three larger players AT&T, Verizon and Sprint.  After the failed AT&T acquisition, John Legere, who had a self-proclaimed “no background in cell-phone business,” took over as CEO. He pushed the radical idea of “customer focus,” meaning the company needed to listen to customers’ needs and prioritize business processes and offers accordingly.  

Customers really only ask two straightforward questions when choosing a mobile communications provider:

a) Do I have (good) coverage where I need it?

b) How much does it cost me?

Getting answers to these two questions is not a simple exercise.  In the mobile market, as well as in other industries, complex pricing structures make it nearly impossible for customers to make informed decisions. 

The first and usually main point of contact with customers is through company websites. Prior to the relaunch, T-Mobile’s web page—just like their competitors’—looked a bit like a “Frankenstein monster” with 30 or more tabs leading to a myriad of information that most people were not interested in. When prospective customers came to the page looking for answers, they found a confusing mess.  

For the leadership team, it was obvious that the first place to start was the website.  And, it would require a radical redesign if the company was serious about its customer-centric strategy. 

Creating a simple customer experience usually requires incredibly hard work.  It’s more than a web page redesign; it means understanding and eliminating complexity across the underlying system. This is particularly hard in the online space, for a dynamic brand like T-Mobile, where digital marketing direction needs to be very agile to respond to competitive marketing movements.

New Website as agile business transformation project

The team had a clear vision—build a site that supports the bold and customer-focused approach—but there was no direction—no end-to-end detailed design and implementation plan.   There would be no “perfect blueprint” and not enough time to do the traditional years of customer research and planning.  Even with those challenges, the project to develop, launch, and continuously update the website became the foundation for an agile business transformation at T-Mobile. 

The IT team, along with a creative team from Razorfish, boiled the “I have no idea but we need to rock the world” directive down to three web presence goals:

  1. Enable effortless discovery, sales and eService
  2. Be simple and straightforward
  3. Drive radical reconsideration of the brand

These are clear and concise goals. But achieving them required buy in from all underlying business processes—like pricing, coverage, devices, support, marketing, sales and so on.  So as the customer interface was changing, the underlying business functions also needed to rethink their purpose and strategy to create a more transparent and simplified approach.  For example, coverage information was on the website.  However, it was buried somewhere deep and only 2% of customers could find this info.  This information needed to be front and center for the customer to find and needed to be relevant to his or her particular needs and lifestyle.  It needed to be continually updating to reflect the intensive and ongoing investments into the high-speed 4G LTE infrastructure and it needed to leverage industry-standard Google Maps technology. The changes required unprecedented transparency and real-time data access in the underlying backend systems. 

Transparency in accessing data and customer interaction are one side of the coin. From a collaboration standpoint, having full transparency for all people involved in the project is critical. Ongoing communication, leveraging agile collaboration approaches and having one source of documentation and information for all team members were critical components of the success.

Leadership, knowing that this type of radical change is never easy, identified early on that clear communication was a key priority to manage the skepticism and cross-functional challenges. 

Project Principles

Optimizing for an agile, simple and mobile-accessible web presence required technical architecture decisions which impacted the IT departments own “strategy” and policies.  The IT team felt they needed strategic principles that would guide all decision making. They had five:

  1. Radically simple
  2. Fearlessly transparent
  3. Visually tactile
  4. Intelligent experiences
  5. Continually optimized

Creating a company-wide Agile mentality 

These principles reflect several of the foundational principles for any Agile organization.  We know that the customer and their needs are continually changing.  New customer segments and scenarios are constantly emerging.  To innovate successfully in today’s markets, organizations need to shorten the time between ideas and action.  To do this, information needs to be transparent.  Solutions need to be simple. Teams need to be empowered to make decisions. And the customer always determines what is valuable and what is not.

This requires ongoing dialog with customers that drives a continual cycle of learning across all business functions.  A gather, reassess, realign and deliver mentality needs to be in place at all levels and in all functions of your organization.  The development team at T–Mobile didn’t see the launch of the website as a perfect solution.  Instead, they viewed it as a continual solution.  They would be continually learning from the customer and then optimizing the site to meet the changing needs.

Trade-offs and pushing back

Of course, the transformation required tough internal trade-offs.  For example, the IT team decided that an HTML5 web presence, with its responsive UI, eliminated the need for different websites for different platforms (e.g. PC or different mobile form factors).  The outcome was T-Mobile’s employees (and other users of outdated web-browsers like Internet Explorer 8 or older) were NOT going to have the perfect experience with their original workplace setup. But maintaining multiple platforms is simply not practical in an agile environment when the goal is to respond quickly to opportunities and customer insights. The internal IT department responded by deploying modern browsers for all T-Mobile employees, impacting both internal infrastructure and traditional desktop deployment policies.

Business Impact

Can such a transformation and the necessary investments in cultural change pay off quickly?  The beauty of an agile customer value-focused and responsive approach is the speed of results.

Better Website:  Satisfaction of website users went from about 10% in the “highly satisfied” category to 50%.  “Ease of use” increased from approximately 22% to 57%. The “shopping experience”—critical for successful sales especially—improved by 50%.   

Better Sales: There has been a double digit increase in conversion from “shopper” to “buyer.”  The company just released data that shows, for the second quarter running, they have netted more than 1 million new customers. And they claim to not only win at the “lower end” of customer segments, but also to take the high value users (especially from AT&T and Sprint).

How do these internal measurements transform independent measurements? For many years, JD Powers rated customers’ experience with T-Mobile continuously 4th out of the four carries.  The latest study reversed this trend.  In the launch month of the new website, J.D. Power  ranked T-Mobile as the highest ranking website in the wireless space. And that’s done within six months. Happy customers vote with their dollars. In Q4 of 2013, T-Mobile USA (TMUS) added 1.645M total subscribers and 869,000 branded postpaid subscribes, beating the analysts community’s optimistic consensus by over 20% (1.2M and 653,000 respectively). 

The press has been clear that these numbers “put an exclamation mark on T-Mobile's 2013 turnaround after it bled market share for years to AT&T (T) and Verizon (VZ)”.

Lessons learned

A clear vision and a fierce customer focus are essential to develop and execute a responsive plan.  These components guide decision-making and priorities. I’ll share with you some of the lessons learned that are common themes for transformational projects.

  1. Setting up the strategy is not that difficult—sorry strategy consultants—when the vision is clear.
  2. Sticking with the strategy during the project and transformation is hard.  However, having a crystal clear vision and principles allow consistent strategy-aligned prioritization and execution. 
  3. Defining and solving the hard problems early on is critical.  Solving them later will be even harder, will slow down the process, and will require “crisis intervention”—the dreaded “Come-to-Jesus meetings,” which the team at T-Mobile experienced four times.
  4. Define “Hero scenarios”—what typical customers want to do—early and test and improve the work against these scenarios.  
  5. Define clear measurement of success—Rovio used 100 million fans as their measure of success—and “touchstones” on the path to success.
  6. Use cross functional teams during all phases of the project.
  7. Focus on “agile mindset” over “agile methodology purity” to avoid procrastination on strategic decisions.
  8. Be prepared to make hard tradeoffs between radical transformation and time to market.
  9. Be clear that customer-focused design will not only change the “look and feel” of customer interaction, but it also transforms underlying business and technology processes. 
  10. Transparent communication is the key. Focus on communication excellence and transparent access of the team members to all project information and status by having a knowledge repository for the “single source of the truth.” Supplement the repository with regular milestone check-ins, engaged and knowledgeable executive reviews and excellent project management. 


Combining a clear and customer-focused vision with a transparent, agile and responsive approach to re-inventing the customer experience can drive tremendous success in a short time. T-Mobile demonstrates that even large organizations can transform within short time frames and reap the success of their investments not only in stronger customer engagement, but in cultural and process transformations, as well.

As business shifts to the web and social media provide the opportunity for ongoing customer dialog, both IT and marketing departments are in a unique position to combine their strength, expertise and insights. A joint project with customer focus and clear business impact measurement can facilitate, accelerate and even drive organizational change.   

A complete cultural shift might be necessary so a company-wide understanding of the business problem and the goals and vision are critical success factors. Embracing a collaborative and vision-aligned alliance between teams with organizational and functional leaders who are close to the market and technologies is equally important.  The resulting transformation leads to a true customer-centric approach with long term value generation.

About the Author

Mark Mueller-Eberstein

CEO of Adgetec Corporation and thought leader on IT and business trends; global keynote speaker & Bestselling Author

Global business and thought leader with over 15 years of experience in the IT industry and a strong track record in Product Management, Business Development and Marketing Strategies. Proven results leading and coaching high performance teams and individuals to project completion on time and under budget. Experienced partnering with Senior Executives to plan and execute against strategic imperatives. Expertise managing Intellectual Property, turn-around situations, cross-cultural environments and functional disciplines. He has always been fascinated by the importance of combining human and technical factors to fundamentally improve businesses and drive innovation. A passion he nurtured during his previous leadership positions in Microsoft and HP as well.

Mark is known for:

  • International and cross culture experience in EMEA, Americas, Asia; globally active
  • Highly effective cross group and cross function (engineering, development, marketing, legal, sales)
  • Recognized as strategic leader, results oriented, excellence in dealing with ambiguity, defining goals and delivering high quality also under pressure
  • Teacher & speaker on leadership, strategy & IT as success factor for success; highly rated by decision makers of Fortune 500 orgs

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