Verizon's worker strike is about to enter its second week as tens of thousands of employees, outraged about the telecom giant's efforts to outsource jobs and redeploy labor from one part of the country to another, remain on the picket line. With seemingly no resolution in sight, Verizon's landline and FiOS customers who phone in seeking help are, for the moment, being routed to contractors or management employees who've been detailed to company call centers temporarily.
But a decision Verizon made at least two years ago to cut the human out of many customer interactions is blunting some of the strike's effects, company executives say. The technology-driven shift — from hold music and long wait times toward instant, digital self-service — could give Verizon a greater ability to withstand one of the biggest walk-offs in company history. And that may have implications for continuing negotiations between union leaders and management.
In 2014, about 1 in 5 customer service interactions was resolved by customers themselves using Verizon's website or its interactive phone menus, Senior Vice President Tami Erwin said. The figure covers home network and router troubleshooting, as well as requests ranging from billing inquiries to bundling upgrades.
Today, even more customers are clearing up their service issues without the aid of a human agent. Customer self-service now accounts for more than 60 percent of all service transactions, Erwin said.
"The self-serve environment … has allowed to us be very personal, very predictive and very proactive," she said.
The use of technology saves "multiple millions of calls per month," Executive Vice President Bob Mudge said in an interview last week. What once used to require talking to a customer service representative, such as upgrading a service plan to a faster Internet speed, can now be done in several clicks online or from a living room TV set. Even Verizon's FiOS routers are now considered "self-healing" — users can instruct them to reboot themselves if there's a problem.
In general, Mudge added, this has meant customer representatives can afford to spend better quality time with customers who need assistance with more complex problems.
Verizon claimed that the strike has led to minimal disruptions in actual service, although Erwin acknowledged that the temporary workers are "never going to be as good at serving our customers as our front-line employees, because they're excellent."
The increased use of technology means Verizon may be able to hold out for far longer in response to worker demands, especially when you factor in the back-end technological changes that have made it easier for Verizon's temporary workers to learn their "new" jobs.
About a year ago, the company began putting some salaried employees through a training program at a national centralized location, Mudge said. Many of Verizon's tens of thousands of temporary call-center replacements — which include regular company lawyers, public relations officials and even corporate tax employees — have been trained using software that guides the worker step by step through potential problems that a customer might describe over the phone. Other management-level employees have taken on field jobs that include going out in bucket trucks. The company took advantage of online videoconferencing technology to conduct many of the necessary training for these replacements. And it provided a tablet to each of its temporary workers so that they could be prepared.
"We flipped the switch and activated emergency workers who had tablets and began dispatching them to work," Mudge said.
Both management and union representatives appear to agree that these technologically driven trends are not at stake in ongoing discussions. Outsourcing call-center jobs to foreign countries and requiring workers to relocate for months at a time — potentially resulting in disrupted families — remain two of the top points of disagreement.
"We understand technology and that things are going to change," said Marilyn Irwin, who was a Verizon operator for 40 years before becoming president of a local union chapter representing Montgomery and Prince George's counties, in Maryland. "Because of technology, we're going to be able to do things quicker, easier, and [in] a better way. That's not really our issue."
But, Irwin said, the impact of a strike used to be much more significant when customers didn't have the Internet and smart telephone menus that can respond to the human voice.
"My first strike was in 1983, and things kind of came to a halt when we walked out in 1983, because there was so much that required human intervention," she said. "And now there's a whole lot that doesn't."