On the Money

At C Spire, information technology doesn’t just take care of business—it helps create it

Carla Lewis views IT as a change agent in the modern company.  “The better job we do, the more time we have to focus on delivering innovations and growing the business, not just running the business," she says.
Carla Lewis views IT as a change agent in the modern company. “The better job we do, the more time we have to focus on delivering innovations and growing the business, not just running the business,” she says.

Information technology has sometimes been viewed as the “middle child”—quiet, bookish, and serving the needs of the bold, outgoing salespeople, while lacking the effortless social skills of account managers and other customer-facing groups—and it certainly has never been viewed as a profit center. However, by transforming how her department does business, Carla Lewis has helped C Spire rank ahead of all other US telecommunication providers on Information Week’s Elite 100. She’s also responsible for driving millions of dollars in incremental revenue growth and cost savings.

When Lewis assumed her role as C Spire’s senior vice president of IT, the department was performing well, but she quickly realized that IT wasn’t aligned with ongoing company strategies. The department was constantly responding to orders from internal clients, but rarely participating in the development of optimal, forward-looking solutions. As a result, in addition to typical ongoing maintenance, projects frequently had to be revisited for updates or revisions to accommodate unforeseen circumstances.

Lewis envisioned a new paradigm that involved more trust and collaboration between IT and C Spire’s business side. “Innovation and time-to-market are the keys to survival in our industry,” Lewis explains. “If IT isn’t part of the strategic process, you really can’t deliver either one, and customers will stop coming back.”

To address these concerns, Lewis first split IT development into two groups: one devoted to consumer engagement and a second group focusing on sales and service for internal operations. Next, she replaced the department’s traditional “waterfall” methodology—the sequential design process in which each phase of a project is delivered in its entirety—with the more agile “sprint” approach. This meant more intense focus on launch-critical requirements and delivering specific features and functionalities every two to three weeks. The old method would have assembled all deliverables over a period of eight to nine months.

The combination of these sprints and increased collaboration and consultation between IT and the company’s business groups resulted in two notable successes. First, the time to complete C Spire’s “Fiber to the Home” sales and service initiative was cut in half. Second, the development of the company’s smartphone payment plan requirements took nearly 65 percent less time to develop, followed by a 30 percent reduction in time from development to launch.

The new structure and methodology shift played an important role in these improvements. That was because the shorter deliverable periods enabled IT staff to be more responsive to the frequent and rapid changes required to accommodate customer demand. They also pushed teams to be more transparent with business partners about timeframes, budgets, and resource allocation. In short, better focus facilitated greater trust, communication, and efficiency. “Because IT was more involved earlier in the process, we were better able to understand the business drivers and offer better solutions,” Lewis says. “That made us better partners.”

Even with these improvements, Lewis had additional goals in mind. She focused on improving the quality and efficiency of every project. “The better job we do, the more time we have to focus on delivering innovations and growing the business, not just running the business,” Lewis says.

This approach helped C Spire’s IT department devote 65 percent of its time to new business innovations in 2013 and more than 75 percent in 2014. The realignment of time and attention helped the company launch several new innovative programs: PULSE, a predictive analytics platform that develops personalized customer recommendations, has resulted in approximately $8 million in incremental sales and increased customer retention by 50 percent. The PERCS customer loyalty program, which has enrolled one-third of all current customers and 70,000 noncustomers, resulted in the highest retention rate in the company’s history—and marked C Spire as the only wireless provider at the time of launch with a loyalty program. A proprietary CRM system has eliminated multiple applications across all business channels, improved customer satisfaction, and streamlined maintenance. Finally, a Tier 3 data center began offering commercial cloud services at the end of 2014.

For all the talk of project methodology and interdepartmental collaboration, Lewis says that one of the keys to IT’s transformation was—and still is—focusing on its employees. In a competitive, high-pressure industry in which the more you deliver the more you are often expected to deliver, burnout is common. So Lewis holds frequent events focused on employees and their families.

“These are simple things to do, but they’re great for building morale, getting to know colleagues better, and acknowledging all the effort they have contributed to our successes,” she says.

Because happy employees stay longer, an added benefit is that C Spire’s IT department is able to preserve its critically important knowledge base as it moves forward. And with C Spire’s vision to be recognized as the best in the telecommunications industry, its IT department assumes new roles in pursuit of that goal. “We’re smaller than the industry giants,” Lewis says. “But I guarantee that we match or beat them on performance and innovation any day of the week.”