Connecting with Bill Sobel

As Chief Experience Officer for telecom powerhouse, Sprint (NYSE: S), Bob Johnson wouldn’t dream of “phoning it in” when it comes to his depth of commitment to customer care. As a 17-year veteran of the company, Sprint knew Johnson was the man to call when they were looking for an uncommon passion for customer service, a boundless enthusiasm for innovation and a deep sense of mission.

Bob Johnson knows his stuff: When it comes to an industry background that is both broad and deep, few can match his 32-year career in telecom which spans senior positions in operations, sales, marketing and customer service. Those three-plus decades include Bob’s having been hired originally by Sprint’s predecessor, Nextel.

The Renaissance Man of Telecom

Sprint's Bob Johnson
In his years with Sprint, Johnson has seen the vital difference that providing prompt and caring service can make in winning the hearts and minds of Sprint’s individual and business customers. His embrace of Sprint’s corporate #GettingBetterEveryDay initiative includes popular new pricing plans, mobile personal delivery and Social Care, his award-winning 24/7 social media service team.

What truly sets Bob apart, though, is his ability to integrate engineering, marketing and finance perspectives into his thinking. We sat down with him recently for a far-ranging discussion about how Sprint’s philosophy of customer experience is driving the company’s ambitious growth plans.

Bill Sobel: It’s no surprise to anyone that the wireless industry is going through some major changes from both competitively and technically. Even under Sprint’s new majority owner, SoftBank (TYO: 9984; OTC Pink: SFTBF), the company still seems to be running behind Verizon and AT&T. Is that perception true and if so, how do you convince customers that Sprint offers a better, more cost effective service?

Bob Johnson: Earlier this year our senior leadership team introduced a new mantra we call #GettingBetterEveryDay. That commitment to improvement now inspires and guides our entire company. We are getting better, and it shows, not only through our internal metrics but in how Wall Street views our performance.

Here at Sprint, we envision our growth strategy as a three-phase journey: We’ve successfully completed phase one, Getting Back in the Game. Right now, we’re in the second phase, Playing the Game. Next will come Changing the Game.

At Sprint, we believe that our customers — both individuals and families — want a reliable network, unlimited voice, text and data and the latest devices offered with a variety of purchasing or leasing options.

We are clearly competitive with Verizon and AT&T, not only when it comes to our 1,435 Sprint storefronts (co-branded with RadioShack), but because we offer great value and an extraordinary customer experience as well.

When it comes to giving customers the reliability, capacity and speed they deserve, I’m going to get technical in bragging about our network for a minute because I’m very proud: Sprint has the most spectrum of any carrier in the industry, and we’re adding to that advantage by continuing to build out our network plan to combine our 800MHz, 1.9GHz and 2.5GHz platforms.

Put the reach and strength of that network together with our All-In pricing and our Direct 2 You personal delivery service, and we think Sprint is powerfully differentiating itself from the competition.

Sobel: You are charged with shaping all aspects of Sprint’s end-to-end Customer Management strategy across all key customer touch points. It’s an incredibly broad job description that includes Customer Experience, Customer Care, Information Technology, Shared Services and Strategic Initiatives. How would you describe the service philosophy guides you in approaching your responsibilities?

Johnson: Delivering an exceptional experience means that we have to be there for our customers whenever and wherever they want to meet us, whether that’s in our stores, at their front doors or online. Thanks to our excellent Social Care team, we are now delivering answers and help to Sprint customers who reach out on Twitter, Facebook and other social sites.

Last year we expanded the Social Care team to provide 24/7 coverage, and tens of thousands of customers are now seeing firsthand how hard Sprint is working to assist them. Our Social Care team also goes the extra mile to identify any customers at risk of leaving us and intervene to keep them happy.

Their work has already earned us recognition as one of the Top 10 “Socially Devoted” brands in the United States. Now we’ve been nominated for an annual Engage Award, in large part because we are so responsive to customers who engage with us on social.

Sobel: Final question... and a biggie. Can you share with us your thoughts on the current state of the cellular industry and where you see Sprint in the next 5-10 years?

Johnson: The industry has never been more competitive in terms of subscriber numbers, pricing, accessibility and network offerings. Customer perception still leads reality and customer demand for products and services has never been higher.

We’ve reached a saturation point in wireless – US penetration is 104 percent and nearly 40 percent of all households are wireless only, meaning they don’t have a landline. Although the US only has 5 percent of the world’s subscribers, we have 47 percent of LTE subscribers.

That means that today’s strategy essentially revolves around how one company can attract customers from another company.

Mobile data doubled from 2012 to 2013, and we expect industry growth of 650 percent by 2018.

The top four carriers in wireless include two behemoths — Verizon and AT&T — and two other equally matched competitors― Sprint and T-Mobile― that each has about half the subscribers as the first two. Conversation among industry analysts continues to swirl around consolidation, but our governing body, CTIA, supports a healthy amount of competition.

As for Sprint, the second quarter of 2015 was a milestone quarter in the company’s history. We returned to positive postpaid phone net additions for the first time in two years, and we posted the lowest postpaid churn rate in the company’s history (1.56 percent).

We plan to build on this momentum by aggressively taking costs out of the business. By simplifying the way we operate. As we leverage our business relationships and assets to fund this turnaround, I’m confident we can return Sprint to growth, profitability and ultimately, positive free cash flow.

We are excited about how our network keeps getting better every day and we look forward to taking it to a whole new level over the next couple years through our densification plan.

That’s just one of the many ways I see Sprint helping to redefine the wireless industry through innovative offers and unique customer experiences.