AT&T on The Future of The Call Center | Future of Field Service
Customer Experience

AT&T on The Future of The Call Center

Ian Schmehl, Vice President, Sales, Service, and Digital Operations – AT&T Mexico, talks with Sarah about the criticality of call center and field service collaboration, the growing role AI is playing in the call center, and what the future of a “no-call” center will look like.

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Sarah Nicastro: Welcome to the Future of Field Service podcast. I’m your host, Sarah Nicastro. Today, we’re going to be talking about the future of the call center.` The call center and the field service functions are inextricably linked. Today we’re going to be talking a bit about how the call center has evolved and how it will continue to evolve into the future and what that relationship with service should look like. I’m excited to welcome to the podcast today, Ian Schmehl, who’s the Vice President of Sales, Service and Digital Operations for AT&T Mexico. Ian, welcome to The Future of Field Service podcast.

Ian Schmehl: Thanks Sarah. Good to be with you.

Sarah Nicastro: Before we get into the nitty-gritty, tell us a little bit about yourself.

Ian Schmehl: So you’re correct, as far as my opera area of operation right now, I have responsibility for AT&T Mexico. Basically it is the call center operation, including digital. I live in Mexico City. I have a very supportive wife and two growing daughters who are seven and eight, and we’ve been located there for almost five years.

Sarah Nicastro: Cool. How far apart in age are your daughters?

Ian Schmehl: They’re 18 months apart.

Sarah Nicastro: 18 months. I have two boys and they’re 16 months apart. So totally get that life. Speaking of which, I shared this with Ian before we got started, but it is raining here in Erie, Pennsylvania today. I do have not only my two children, but a couple of extras playing in the house. If you hear any background noise, just know that they are fully supervised and please disregard. Good. So, Ian, you’ve been with AT&T for a long time, I think around 21 years in a variety of roles. So tell us a little bit about your trajectory with the company. Some of the different functions that you’ve served in and how that led to the role that you hold today.

Ian Schmehl: Sure. You’re spot on, it’s been 21 years. That seems like a sort of flew by. I’ve had probably 16 different jobs working in pretty much every area of the company. From network operations, to marketing, business development, technical roles, business development, and product development. Even HR, where I had a labor role, including negotiating with the union. I’ve moved. I lived in seven different cities, six in the US and now the current location in Mexico City.

Ian Schmehl: As far as trajectory goes, I’ve been very blessed to have these opportunities and it moved up to the point that now I’m at the Vice-President level. When I would go through the different roles, it wasn’t always a promotion. It was just getting more and more experience. I think that that’s allowed me to have the perspective I do today. Because I really am not a specialist. I’m a generalist. I would do different roles and learn about the company and the industry. And now I think that one of the most critical parts tied to service in general, whether it’s field service or call center, customer services, getting that relationship right. And that’s what really excites me today, as far as the opportunities we have to do better in that area.

Sarah Nicastro: Yeah. I think that being in those different roles and seeing the organization from different perspectives, it gives you some really good context for different areas of the business. It’s interesting because we see… To really keep pace with the change that exists today and to succeed in service and realize its potential. There’s a lot of silos within the business that have had to, and continue to need to be broken down. Right. And that situation of a call center in a silo field service, in a silo, you know, these different things, based on the customer experience, but then also the nature of digital transformation and just how the business needs to collaborate better. Those things are really… Those lines are blurring in a lot of ways. I would imagine your experience outside of the function you’re in today and being able to see that from different perspectives is helpful.

Ian Schmehl: Yeah, absolutely. I think that the piece of it, when you intertwine technology with it, the adoption of technology, the implementation of technology. Ends up being a really key skill set, not just to understand that sometimes it takes time, right? Sometimes it doesn’t work and being able to adapt and overcome based upon that experience has been a real key.

Sarah Nicastro: Yeah. Yeah, it’s interesting even the name of this podcast is, Future of Field Service. Right? But in some ways the name in and of itself is misleading because it’s not about field service. If you look through the content we’re discussing, it’s really a service as a whole and the customer experience in its entirety. Right? I think that we’ve even had conversations about that, like should we call it something different? But the reality is the name is still applicable in terms of what people look for and the types of things we’re talking about. It’s just far more encompassing then it was 10 or 15 years ago. Right? So all of that being said, we know the call center is certainly a critical aspect of the customer experience. What would you describe the relationship that you typically see between the call center and field service?

Ian Schmehl: I think I see our role as being a support to the field. While there are issues relative to the wireless network, as it relates to the customer, the field for us is the retail store. What I can say is it’s an extremely close relationship. My peer is the Chief Revenue Officer. I’m in very constant communication with him. And our role, right, is to provide feedback to them. I see ourselves, our team as service for the field. So we have two customers, right? Internal and external. Us being able to provide that feedback based upon an interaction with a customer makes it such that the field can get better and we can get better by giving them that feedback.

Ian Schmehl: I think that that’s critical because as service evolves in today’s age, the idea of measurement and the things around how those two teams work together and function together, is critical. And to your point, it starts to blend. Right? Because if the interaction is occurring in the store and then it necessitates a call, right? And we don’t want to call, right? Because it typically means there’s a problem. Then my obligation is to make it so that that field experience is better and maybe there’s an adjustment that’s made there as well.

Sarah Nicastro: So as we look at the interdependency and the connectedness of those functions and what I mentioned earlier in terms… For organizations, they’re really looking to impact the customer experience. You have to look at how you break down silos. What would you say organizations can do to improve the relationship between the call center and field service and make that codependency more effective? And really drive better customer outcomes?

Ian Schmehl: Yeah. It’s top of mind. Because there absolutely are silos and it’s a lot of work to break them down. And many times the call center is viewed as beneath the retail experience, right? Oh, you’re just in the call center. I think there’s two pieces to it. The first is teamwork and accepting that you have to operate as a team. And the second is data. So go into teamwork, one of the things we’ve done is we’ve literally had learning sessions for the field. For the sales organization to better educate, what does the call center do? What does the day in a call center look like because they’re totally different. The retail experience is simply productivity. How many widgets, right? Hitting my number versus a call center, and that measurement being totally different. And what do I see? And what’s my experience. They’re having the customers in front of them, and we’re hearing the customer. And many times what we’re hearing is feedback relative to what went right, or what went wrong with that first touch and that first experience. The second bucket I see is data.

Ian Schmehl: I once heard a gentleman, I work with say that, “Never believe anything unless you’re coming with data,” right? Everybody else is not of as much value. The reason I site data is because if you can educate the team member who you’re working with and tell them the why behind what you’re saying and bring them proof, I think it’s an easier conversation because you know what the problem is. If you can identify… Or frankly what they’re doing well. I think that the relationship can become better and has become better because you’re giving everything. You’re telling the whole story. It’s not just, well, in this particular store, we had 17% of our calls or this region, and that’s tied to this leader and that was bad. It’s okay. Where are we doing right? So when I talked to my peer and I say, “Hey, here’s an area of opportunity, but did you know this? And did you know this is where we never get a call?” That’s how I see you break down the silos, teamwork and data.

Sarah Nicastro: Yeah. Okay. So if you think about your history and AT&T and the different roles that you’ve had, and the perspective that gives you, related with the current initiatives that you’re leading in the call center. All of that gives you a unique perspective on what you feel the future of the call center will be and will look like. I want to talk a little bit about some of those key, I guess, predictions or considerations or things to think about. The first are around really operations and skill sets. Tell us a little bit about some of the opportunity for evolution that you see here, or some of the things that you have underway at AT&T.

Ian Schmehl: Sure. The traditional notion of a brick and mortar call center, I think is going to be rethought and analyzed. I’m not going to say that I think that we’re going to move to a virtual distributed model, a hundred percent. I know there are companies in the industry. There’s one in the airline industry that did that. But I think rethinking that with respect to the benefits, is a key theme now. And the really easy benefit to look at is cost, right? If I don’t need to have this building and I don’t need to pay this rent or lease or whatever, then why wouldn’t I focus on that because I don’t want the high cost. But the other piece of it ends up being tied to recruiting. And so if you don’t have to be in one city and you could actually recruit in a specific demographic area, say… Have call center experience where there are a number of people concentrated in that particular city.

Ian Schmehl: I think that’s a big help. But the key part of this is you have to still be able to achieve the operational excellence with respect to quality. Monitoring, and the hard one, honestly, is the teaming. The teamwork. Being able to see somebody, being able to relate to the people. And then frankly, that goes back to leadership. You can get the new talent pool, you can have the geography, you can cut your costs, but if you can’t drive the results, then you’re not going to necessarily see this huge seismic shift. I think what you’re going to do is you’re going to see adoption of technology and you’ll see monitoring become more important speech analytics, AI. But the call center itself for it to shift, it’s going to need those things.

Sarah Nicastro: Now, what does that look like in terms of the skill sets? How do you see the skills needed for, let’s say the ultimate call center. What will that look like five years from now, or 10 years from now?

Ian Schmehl: I think with the adoption of AI and psychometric or personality testing, you’re going to see a shift toward personality profile and matching. Said differently, if I get a call and I know that Sarah has this disposition, or as good at this, I think you’re going to become more targeted with respect to who gets the call. But to your question regarding profile, I think that there has to be a passion for the job. I think there has to be a deep understanding of the experience. So you’re not just answering the call and solving the problem. You understand the customer journey better.

Ian Schmehl: I think you end up having more holistic understanding of that customer experience in order to solve it. And it’s no different than today, but I think you have to have people who love their job. So that will never change. I think that the obligation of companies is to make that easier. Many times what happens is the call center is the last place people go and they end up not getting their problem solved. Irritated with the company and never want to call because they’re on the phone and they’re told they have to wait for two hours.

Sarah Nicastro: Yeah. Okay. So as you think about the change in the matching of skills, the change in use of technology, the change in maybe a more distributed structure versus a central call center. How do all of those things impact the ability to successfully measure effectiveness? What needs to change related to how we look at or modernize the measurement of call center?

Ian Schmehl: I think that to my previous point, we need to be looking more holistically at the customer journey. Identifying the pain points and providing the feedback loop. There’s an opportunity to measure service resolution based upon that journey. And what this means is you have to have that partnership across the customer life cycle. Now, with respect to measurement, I see an opportunity to measure the journey. Let’s go back to what I said, as far as the partnership with retail.

Ian Schmehl: What I see in the future is the ability to measure the buy, the use, the pay, the service, as a team. If I live in Phoenix, right? And I’m part of the Phoenix team, we all succeed and fail together. Now, there are people in the industry who’ve done this at a more micro level with pods. I do think that’s an innovative way to measure. You get away from AHT. While a net promoter score is important, I think that you would look more closely at churn lifetime value and ARPU with respect to the revenue that’s being brought in.

Sarah Nicastro: You saying that makes me think that’s almost a further progression of breaking down those silos. Right? It makes everyone have to think about the context outside of their own point of impact, right? And to really see that bigger picture. And not only see it, but feel in some way responsible for that bigger picture. Right? That’s the goal.

Ian Schmehl: It is.

Sarah Nicastro: Okay. All right. So I know when we talked previously, you mentioned the vision you have for what you refer to as a zero touch approach or a no call center. Tell our listeners a little bit about what that means, what you think related to this and what you see that the future might bring.

Ian Schmehl: Sure. And so this is nirvana. This isn’t necessarily tomorrow. It’s a lofty goal. I see this starting with data and access to data. So everything hinges upon data and you can’t make good business decisions if you don’t have it. So you start with the access to data. You move into operational control. What does operational control means? Means you understand your operation, where you’re going to improve it. With respect to what you now understand because of that data. From there, your goal is to drive operational efficiency through the analysis or those data analytics. That you’re able to… Basically glean, the learnings that you can glean from that. From there, and this is where a number of people are today, is you need to push on digital adoption and automation. You’ll hear it. You’ll hear it called digital transformation, or omni-channel from a number of years ago. But that’s the sweet spot that you were able to move up.

Ian Schmehl: The reason it’s important is because what I do in that area with respect to digital needs to be the right thing. And what I do with respect to automation, where I’m not going to have a contact also needs to be right. The last step in this is customer delight and resource optimization. So what that means is I’m going to be able to make sure that every time I have a contact with a customer, it’s going to be a delightful experience.

Ian Schmehl: If they have to call us, it’s going to be great, right? And I’m going to have the correct resources assigned. So how do you get to zero touch? You have the balance between digital and automation with that end goal of that delight with the customer. Nobody wants to call a call center. What I’m going to do is I’m going to have predictive, proactive versus reactive. Leading to no touch. So what we’ve been able to do following this principle is to decrease our calls. They’re now one-third of what they were three years ago. A digital adoption has moved up to 31%. So pushing that envelope is the vision. Like I said, it’s nirvana and it’s a goal, but it’s out there.

Sarah Nicastro: From a digital tool perspective, what are the key ingredients? I mean, what are the tools that are foundationally critical to building out that vision?

Ian Schmehl: You have to solve for what your universe is. And what I mean by that is if you’re a contact center, you have to identify which contact method you’re going to go after optimizing. Most people traditionally had been used to calling a call center, right? Pretty much everyone has an IVR because you need to route efficiently. However what’s happened in the future… Most recently is people are willing to text or they’re willing to chat, or they’re willing to interface with an IVR that has intelligence tied to it. Such that you can create a ticket. The answer to your question is that you need to figure out what the smart meds are based upon your operation, where you’re going to yield initially the most savings. With a balance toward the customer experience, such that you’re moving toward that delight. One of the things you can do is, make sure you’re optimized first in your IVR, relative to workforce.

Ian Schmehl: Then you take your call reasons and you identify, how is it that I’m going to drive down the number one reason for my calls? An example would be, pretty typical example is bill inquiry. People call about their bill. They don’t understand it. They don’t know why a charge is there. They can’t understand why they’re being overcharged or what changed in their plan, et cetera, right? What do you have to do to explain the bill better? Or you have to fix the bill. So as it relates to digital and tools, what you could do is you say, “If you’re calling for this reason, you can do this.” So now you’re identifying what area of pain the customer’s having communicating back with them that you’re solving that problem. And you’re doing it as fast as you can.

Sarah Nicastro: Okay. I know that you have said you see the call center of the future as a profit center versus a cost center. How will that occur and where do you feel you are on that continuum today?

Ian Schmehl: Yeah, this is a heavy lift. It depends upon the market segment industry that you’re sitting in. So this is one size fits all and you can do it everywhere. I can say that relative to where we are in the continuum, we made that shift. We did it relatively quickly. But going back to your question about what’s the profile for the future, what is that call center resource look like? This is tied to personality. So the number one goal is still is absolutely serving. Resolving the customer’s issue the first time they call you and making it as whizzbang, amazing as you can. Right? But then what has to happen is you have to get that broader understanding so that they know Sarah does this with my product. Sarah has bought 10 pair of red shoes in the past four years. So I’m going to offer her a discounted pair of red shoes.

Ian Schmehl: When you’re able to solve the customer’s next problem, it’s a better experience. And it doesn’t feel like it’s a sale. You’re actually making their life better. I’ll give you an industry specific example. Let’s just say you called Sarah and you’ve gone over your data. You’ve done that for the last three months and you’re irritated. You don’t know how this happened. You didn’t know that you could go over your data. You’re calling me. So what do I do? I sell you a control so that you can’t go over your data. So it’s simple. Or if I know that you actually have not had a new phone in X period of time, I look at your profile and I’m intelligently trying to offer something. So in the call center, it’s not… Unless you’re doing outbound sales, you’re not going to be doing new customer acquisition, and that’s not what we do. We do service, so it’s upsell, cross sell and add-ons.

Sarah Nicastro: Okay. Makes sense. What would you say in… You said you’ve been in your current role about five years, right?

Ian Schmehl: Yes.

Sarah Nicastro: What would you say is the biggest lesson you’ve learned specifically related to optimizing and modernizing the call center?

Ian Schmehl: I think that the call center is misunderstood. First thing I recognized and frankly it came from my own perspective because I didn’t understand it. I’d like to think I understand it now. It sounds like I’m repeating the same thing, but I learned just how valuable data is for the call center operation. I learned that making decisions that are data-driven is critically important. And I also learned that partnership, to your point with the field, you will not succeed without it. Because if you tried to operate in your own little silo, to your point, you’re just going to stay in your own little silo. And you’re going to be stuck managing and measuring in the old ways.

Sarah Nicastro: What do you think… If you think about from a technology perspective, again, looking at the future. Not what’s been done so far, but what becomes possible say in the next five years. What do you think is the most exciting thing to pay attention to?

Ian Schmehl: I think AI, prediction, matching. I think those are very interesting areas. I think that if you can provide, if you can anticipate needs, if you can anticipate contacts. Such that you are predictive. Proactive versus reactive, all tied to that. But absolutely AI I see as a really interesting area. I also think that where we are today, we’re not there. Particularly in the call center space. There are some interesting tools that can match personas, but I think that when we get really good at that it’s going to become much more personalized. It’s not going to be a cookie cutter matching with respect to that. I think it’s going to be, I know, it’s you Sarah, that likes red shoes.

Sarah Nicastro: Yeah. No, that’s a really interesting point that you brought up that I think could be useful. I’m just thinking some of my own experiences. Where you talk about like the personality matching and stuff like that. And to your point, if you have people calling that are frustrated, what are the different ways to not only diffuse that but get ahead of it. And be proactive in offering different solutions and things like that. So, okay. So 21 years AT&T. Looking at the history overall, not just call center specific, but in general, what would you say are the biggest lessons you’ve learned in that time? And as a leader.

Ian Schmehl: First thing is it went by quick. I learned that. I think that the different roles and leading different teams, I’ve recognized, and this was… My mom taught me this actually that the two most valuable things dealing with people are patience and humility. Having the different roles I have, being able to tag onto that, hold on to that and understand that, has been very valuable. That’s one of the biggest lessons. Related to it, I’ve always looked at it that if I’ve had a team, people don’t work for me, they work with me. I think that realizing that you’re kind of all have a common goal and while you may be identified as a leader and you have the obligation to lead and the responsibility it’s all about people. And all about relationships and how you treat people is very important. I don’t think that necessarily has just to do with one company. It’s probably more of a bigger lesson, but that’s what I’ve learned.

Sarah Nicastro: Good. Well, definitely true too. All right, Ian, any closing thoughts or comments?

Ian Schmehl: I just want to thank you. I really appreciate this. I think it was a great conversation. You ask some really, really good questions and obviously have a very, very good insight with respect to the industry and this area. I really enjoyed it. Thank you.

Sarah Nicastro: Well, thank you. That’s very nice. I appreciate you being here and sharing your experience. Thank you for coming on. You can find more content by visiting us at You can also find us on LinkedIn as well as Twitter @TheFutureofFS. The Future of Field Service podcast is published in partnership with IFS. You can learn more about IFS at As always, thank you for listening!