T-Mobile’s presence in the US began in 2002 when Deutsche Telekom (its parent company) acquired and rebranded VoiceStream Wireless Corporation. Headquartered in Bellevue, Washington, and currently ranked among the top three largest wireless carriers in the country with over 100 million subscribers, T-Mobile’s dynamic approach to the customer experience is best encapsulated by its ‘un-carrier’ strategy. Officially debuting in 2013, this philosophy saw the company actively seeking to ‘break the rules’ of industry tradition, eliminating everything that has no (or even negative) consequence to the customer, including contracts and international roaming fees.
Far from being an approach siloed in a single aspect of T-Mobile’s business, the spirit of imaginative reinvention permeates every core operational element. Erik LaValle, Digital Supply Chain Technology Leader, explains how the company’s cultural agility has enabled it to address challenging supply requirements during COVID-19 and why delivering a superior customer experience is contingent on flexible digital solutions.
Responsible for overseeing an end-to-end technology solutions portfolio across a US$13bn supply chain of more than 8,000 stores for the flagship Magenta brand, over 11,500 stores for the Metro brand, as well as for the build-out of the network itself, LaValle and his team field the technological requirements associated with T-Mobile procurement for external sales and internal consumption. Highly experienced both academically and professionally in his field, LaValle spent the first 18 years of his career as an industry consultant, which he credits as being highly formative, “it's in my nature now to look for those big business challenges, to understand what the outcome is intended to be and then to find the technology needed to solve that problem.” Having spent his career primarily in the retail sector, LaValle admits he was initially unsure why T-Mobile (a telco) reached out to him. “It was then that I learned T-Mobile, in addition to being a telco, really operates as a retailer for the customer experience aspect of obtaining devices and accessories. So much of the customer experience and the brand promise comes from its supply chain, and I was very intrigued.” Complimenting the company’s “great culture”, which gives employees autonomy, fosters learning and always offers fun challenges, LaValle joined in early 2017.
Naturally curious and a problem solver, LaValle finds the behind-the-scenes complexities of supply chain to be fascinating. Stating that the importance of logistics to enabling T-Mobile’s high-quality customer experience really resonated with him, he adds that the company’s agile attitude has been key to weathering the substantial changes that supply chains have undergone in recent years. “As US businesses began to do more offshore sourcing and supply chains became longer, the need for facilitated communication and a shared understanding of the intended outcomes was very important. As that shift began to happen, then came the emphasis on product development, which, with the proliferation of the internet, placed the emphasis on product development and the creative process.” This also brought technology to the fore, and in this respect, T-Mobile has undergone a significant transformation.
“When I first joined T-Mobile, there was very little in the way of digital solutions. We were a monolithic,” LaValle explains. “That made for a very complex environment that really wasn't flexible or tailored for our business’ needs.” As such, his first challenge was serializing T-Mobile’s inventory over an 18-month period to develop a digital platform. Having subsequently rolled this out to great success, LaValle calls this the “founding element” of the company’s digital strategy. “I see more change at T-Mobile in the short-term. Both the volume and the magnitude of these changes will be significantly greater than I have seen in any other industry,” he states. This is a bold statement, particularly in the wake of COVID-19, which has seen many organizations make years of accelerated development in a remarkably condensed period. Yet, he affirms that T-Mobile’s status as the ‘un-carrier’ will always give it an edge over competitors: “We want to be able to do things that no other company can do on behalf of our customers.”
This statement gets to the heart of the matter; the customer experience is paramount for T-Mobile and it is willing to invest the time, money and talent required to keep it exceptional. Recent events have certainly changed the expectation - from the historically store-focused experience to the digital, web-based experience - but success is ultimately measured the same way: providing the customers with the service they want. “Buy online and pick up in-store, same-day delivery, and special delivery options are all components that are powered mostly by supply chain; it’s really stepping up to be a partner with digital properties and with retail to be the third major component in the overall customer experience.” COVID has pushed forward T-Mobile’s plans in this regard, including buy online/pick up in-store, contactless and curbside delivery, and same-day delivery. “Customers can now have options to get their product where, when and how they want to get it,” he summarizes.
With such a decisive stance on the issue, LaValle makes it clear that pre-existing solutions are often not enough to realize T-Mobile’s vision. Instead, the company opts for in-house business process design to bring specificity and relevance to its customers. “Digital transformation enables that flexibility and ability to achieve exactly what the business is looking for, instead of something that comes pre-configured from a partner vendor.” T-Mobile considers its supply chain solutions to be truly meaningful, an attitude that is integral to producing optimal outcomes. Creating a bespoke solution might be more challenging than selecting a ready-made option, but by forging strong partnerships and “sitting at the table” from the earliest inception of new initiatives, LaValle says that his team is able to gain a deep understanding of desired business outcomes that helps to define product options.
Partnering for success
LaValle makes it clear that, in his opinion, who a company chooses to partner with can have a substantial effect on overall success. Aside from the ‘table stakes’ of technical knowledge, market success and trust, T-Mobile is looking for collaborators who are willing to challenge and elevate the company’s current standards.
Complimenting T-Mobile’s “great ecosystem of partners”, he states that relationships developed with IBM, Rimini Street, Insight Global, and SCA Path, each of which play different (yet interconnected) roles, have been particularly important:
IBM: “IBM is our key partner for operations support, as well as development around our core ERP (enterprise resource planning). The firm fields a very large team, a combination of onshore, nearshore, and offshore professional resources that are helping to advance our operations stance. T-Mobile has a stable performance solution, but with IBM we are really taking it to the next level, moving to a continuous delivery stance, and looking for even more robust performance and stability.”
Rimini Street: “Rimini Street provides our third-party support for SAP and has been helping us in highly challenging areas to keep SAP performance stable.”
Insight Global: “Insight Global is a partner that helps us in our digital spaces. It’s been a fantastic partner in terms of sourcing talent for T-Mobile, both in terms of technical skills and business skills. It’s a flexible and responsive company. We have been so pleased with our partnership; the resources they bring to the table for us are consistent and it’s an integral part of our team.”
SCA Path: “SCA Path has become a very trusted advisor. It’s a boutique consulting firm that focuses on distribution, logistics and order management. Using a stable of extremely experienced and pragmatic professionals, SCA Path helps us solve some of our most challenging problems by leveraging their deep industry experience in the industry. It’s been transformative in changing our relationship with our business partners.”
At the beginning of 2020, no-one at T-Mobile could have predicted the sweeping changes that have affected national and international supply chains. With the March lockdown soon followed by the completion of the company’s merger with Sprint Corporation in April, LaValle says that the added challenge of integrating two separate supply chains into a single ecosystem has been difficult, although nothing has impeded T-Mobile’s quest for a better customer experience. “Going into 2021, I think there are three things we’re going to focus on: internal transformation to become a more unified company, transformation around our customer experience, and finally our ongoing digital evolution,” he summarizes. The usual pressures of meeting expectations and delivering value will remain, but new technology such as T-Mobile’s rapidly expanding 5G network will play an essential role in realizing its ambition. “Digital transformation has been very meaningful to T-Mobile. My encouragement to anyone would be to pick one of your most challenging areas and just get started.”