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Installing a culture for the digital world

Ruben Bell, Head of Digital Delivery

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"Culture has to be so right to create this environment that's fit to foster innovation and improvement."

Ruben Bell is the Head of Digital Delivery at Vodafone. He is an experienced change management specialist, responsible for executing digital strategy for the global telecommunications company.

Ruben joins this episode of ClientSide to discuss how the pandemic was a catalyst for change at Vodafone. He explains how the pursuit of a digital way of living was the key to improving company culture and fostering innovation.


Announcer: This is ClientSide from Fox Agency. 

Speaker 2: Hit it. That’s what I’m talking about. Wait. Okay now, from the beginning. 

Nathan Anibaba: Ruben Bell is responsible for executing digital strategy for one of the UK’s biggest tech businesses, Vodafone. He is focused on executing digital strategy and value focus change within a scaled environment. Ruben is an experienced change management specialist, passionate about delivering sustainable transformations that make a real difference. Born in Norway, he’s fluid in both English and Norwegian, as well as being proficient in Swedish, Danish, and Spanish. So Ruben Bell, welcome to ClientSide. 

Ruben Bell: Hello. Hello. Thank you for having me, Nathan. 

Nathan Anibaba: Super excited to have you on the show. I know we’ve had this in the diary for some time, but I’m really looking forward to speaking with you. You’ve worked at some monster brands across IT and change management. Tell us about some of the most significant steps you’ve taken in your career and where we are today. 

Ruben Bell: Yeah, for sure. I mean, look, some of them have been fun, others less so. I suppose, yeah, always looks glamorous from the outside. It’s not always the same on the inside, but from my perspective, I’ve had a lot of fun along the way as well. I think it sounds really obvious, but the most important thing for me in my journey so far has been looking for, and also seizing opportunities. It’s so, so important. The way that I sort of talk my team through it and sort of some of the people that I mentor is very much about that, right? Identifying those opportunities and really going after them. 

If you couple that with continued learning, sort of both personally and professionally, and continue to sort of push and challenge yourself via those opportunities, via sort of getting outside of your comfort zone, I think if you can bring all those things together, you’re going to be really successful in what you do. At least from my perspective, that’s really helped me in terms of sort of where I am today and some of the organizations that I’ve worked in as well as, importantly, some of the relationships that I’ve built along the way. 

Nathan Anibaba: So let’s talk a little bit about Vodafone. Most people listening in the UK will be familiar with the brand, but just give us an idea of how the business has transformed and changed over the last few years, because it’s been an interesting journey and road that you’ve been on. Just give us an idea of how you transformed and where would you describe the businesses today? 

Ruben Bell: Yeah, it’s been really interesting and obviously I’m sure that we’d all say that the past few years have been particularly interesting for many of us, whether we’ve been cooped up in spare bedrooms, in offices or actually on the front line, but from my perspective, in terms of Vodafone’s journey through that, and over the past few years, it’s been huge. The transition has been significant. We’ve been sort of finding our feet over the past few years. Those of you that will remember Vodafone from the sort of mid two thousands will know that there were times that we seem to have perhaps lost our way. I think we’re sort of back fighting fit now. So there’s been a huge journey of sort of maturity, a few key players that we’ve brought into the organization that have really helped change the face of the organization, but also the drive, aspiration, the direction. 

When I came in just over three years ago, we were very much focused on stability and making things work. We’ve moved so far away from that just over those past few years. Actually, I hate to say, but was a huge catalyst, particularly in digital and technology, for that. We shifted a huge emphasis to digital, obviously with all of our retail stores shutting during the pandemic, we moved all of our contact center staff to be home workers straight away. We didn’t make any redundancies off the back of that, which was fantastic to see. What it did, however, do was stress test our technology environment, our digital capability, and we found that not necessarily lacking, but actually we found a massive opportunity there, particularly in the digital space, right? When I came in, we were looking at maybe a quarter of our sales being digital. 

Now we’re closer to half of our sales being digital, and that was massive, right? Covid was a catalyst for that change, but actually we’ve managed to sustain that. The investment’s been there, the direction and vision has really helped on that transformation agenda. Now I really see us in a prime position now. We’ve got some amazing skill sets that we’ve managed to build up within the organization. Some of the capabilities that, again, we focused on building are sort of primed for us to build as foundational. But importantly for me, we’ve managed to instill a culture in house that will really allow us and enable us to go forward in capitalizing a largely digital world. As we see sort of on the high street, there’s still an absolute need for a presence there, but I think it’s ever more important that we focus on sort of transforming and reinventing ourselves and reinvigorating Vodafone. 

Nathan Anibaba: Of course, you’re head of digital delivery at the company. Just give us an idea of what that role encompasses and what you’re responsible for. 

Ruben Bell: Sure thing. So I head up digital delivery. That’s across all of our B2B platforms, which the majority of you guys won’t see, but also our B2C channels, which includes those things like our app, like our web shop, hopefully most people will recognize. So every time that goes down, it might be my fault, but every time we deploy something new and shiny, it’s great because it means that we’ve been a part of that journey and sort of getting a new experience out into customers’ hands. 

Nathan Anibaba: You won’t get the credit when things go well, but you will get the blade when things go wrong. 

Ruben Bell: Absolutely, absolutely. Spot on. 

Nathan Anibaba: How do you think about the role of digital in Vodafone in general? I mean, what are the business problems that digital is ultimately trying to solve for the customer on the B2C side? And on the B2B side, I heard you say a moment ago that half of your revenue now is driven through digital. Just give us an idea of the role and the scale of digital across all of the touch points in the Vodafone business. 

Ruben Bell: Yeah, for sure. So if I just touch on the scale, to give you some context and perspective perhaps at the start. So when we started on this journey, I think we had maybe 60 developers in total and bear in mind, this is only three and a half years ago in the digital space. We’re right now running at over 350, just in terms of scale. So, a, finding those people and finding the right people has been huge. We obviously sort of leverage an ecosystem of partners in this space, and finding the right partners is so, so important as well. But if I come onto sort of the business problems that we look at and how we as digital position ourselves to solve them, I sort of describe us, or like to describe us, now as part of Vodafone’s DNA. 

I don’t think it always was. I think that’s part of a growth aspect. I think that’s part of a strategy piece whereby we’ve now managed to position ourself and ingrain ourselves in that future strategy by demonstrating that actual value and the delivery of that value, not only internally, but also to our customers importantly, and sort of experiences that customers love. So much so that we really are a core part of that strategy now. We’re driving a digital program focused solely on replicating our UK journey, our UK digital journey, across many of our markets globally. We’ve obviously got Vodafone in the UK. Most people may or may not know, if you’ve gone holiday to Spain, you’re likely have seen the Vodafone logo, Portugal, Italy. So we’re now looking at, okay, how do we replicate some of the success that we’ve had particularly in the UK? And how do we roll out some of that maturity, some of the skill, some of the capabilities? Can we share that globally with our sort of partner markets and also can we borrow and leverage from those markets as well? 

So that’s a really core sort of pillar of our strategy going forward and sort of how we’re going to scale and sort of, I suppose, level up in the digital space. Specifically in the UK, we’ve also sort of had a significant mindset shift in the past couple of years. I’d sort of describe it as we’ve gone from talking about split launches where our stores and our sort of online sales agents, we might launch with them first because we’ve got the human element that can help manage propositions into the market, work with customers, deliver a really good customer experience. 

We’re now moving towards a sort of digital first mindset whereby we’re designing these in synchronization. We’re thinking about these in synchronization, so that actually those agents and those retail staff, they should be using the exact same journeys that our customers that are using our web channels and our digital channels, the same journeys that they’re using, so we create a real end-to-end, omnichannel experience that not only benefits our customers, because we’re really proud of what we put in front of them, but also our internal staff. Right? 

They’re also our customers, in terms of their ability to use and leverage those platforms and those channels that frankly, we spend a lot of time, effort and money on. So that’s really key for us and why? I mean, direct interaction with our customers anywhere and in any way is so important now, obviously in the sort of the on demand culture that we have. So when you talk about leveraging B2C and B2B channels, we need to make sure that they’re available and accessible to all people and in all ways, right? That’s a big focus for us. Then I think the next piece of the puzzle is actually digital and our sort of capability here. 

It allows us to do something different to perhaps bricks and mortar, which is we can implement continuous change and improvements to customer journeys every hour of every day if we want to. To continue either giving people experiences that they love, or actually making experiences better if those customers don’t love them, whether that’s a business or whether you’re working in an enterprise, managing a large scale contract or wanting to provision a new site and set up a new network there, or whether customer using our website directly. Right? We want to make sure that you love that experience, and if you don’t, we’re going to keep making it better and keep making it better and incorporating that feedback. 

So becoming full on demand, fully iterative in that sort of renewed focus or continuous focus on improvement is so, so important. Of course in finance, right, they love the cost benefits that come with sort of pushing digital. There are obviously sort of margin benefits associated with that. There are revenue benefits associated with that and sort of overheads within the organization, right, that we can look to trim down if we sort of move more into the digital sphere. 

Nathan Anibaba: So does that mean we’re not going to see so many of the beautiful red stores on our high streets anymore? We’re moving more to a more digital first kind of environment. Just maybe outline for us, what are the main touch points where the consumer interacts with the Vodafone brand and where do you feel are the best points for that experience to be improved and optimized? 

Ruben Bell: Yeah, it’s a good question. So the main touch points, I mean, typically if you’re a Vodafone customer, right, those are in your pocket, on your mobile. So our MyPhone app constantly there, but actually we’re now evolving that. In terms of our recommendation engine, in terms of looking at, “Okay, you’ve been in contact with us two weeks ago because you weren’t happy with your network coverage,” making smarter recommendations and actually trying to drive some predictive science behind that, is really where we want get to in terms of those touch points. So actually you don’t have to come and speak to us, we’ll come and speak to you. On top of that, sort of along the lines of that, in a similar vein, we’ve obviously got Toby, which is our intelligent chat bot as well. The sort of AI that’s that we’re building into that is going to be so key in how we want customers to interact, but also how customers want to interact with us. Right? 

They want us always on, in that space, as well as all of the marketing stuff that you’ll see, and sort of all the visible things above the line that you’ll see and experience from Vodafone, right? So that’s sort of really where we want to be in terms of our touch points for our existing customers. Then if you’re a new customer, it’s all about, how can we engage you along the journey, whether you are purchasing for yourself, whether it’s for someone else, whether you’re just browsing, how can we give you the best experience possible that actually gives you the right information at the right time, in the right journey as well? That’s quite challenging in a lot of ways, obviously a long end-to-end journey, but we’ve got some awesome UX guys, some awesome product guys, and all they do and all they’re focused on is relentless improvement in that space to make that the best journey possible. So we sort of split it into those counts. 

Nathan Anibaba: You also mentioned a moment ago that there’s been a huge culture shift in Vodafone recently, and not only the leadership team, but everyone else involved in the business has had to get on board and adopt a culture of digital and innovation. Maybe talk about the importance of that from a cultural point of view and how the leadership team has got on board with the importance of digital and the challenges of doing that in an organization with the size and complexity of Vodafone. 

Ruben Bell: Yeah. I mean, I think the cultural aspect cannot be understated and the importance of that in terms of contributing to success is critical, right? I think recognition of that is key. So I think that started with digital as almost hived off in its own bubble. And what that created was an awesome startup culture mentality, devoid of perhaps some of the legacy that may or may not have existed in other areas. But obviously what we needed to be careful was that we didn’t create a silo in that space as we sort of scaled and grew. For us, that’s about bringing people on that journey along with us. I think, like I said, that the pandemic accelerated that transformation across the organization. So we had it in digital in a small pocket, in a bubble, but actually the pandemic helped to burst that bubble. 

Suddenly, we had a lot of people coming with us on that journey. A, immediately, we had a lot of supporters at a very senior level, which is awesome and can be really challenging obviously to build up over time, but straight away, we sort of broke down those barriers and sort of started to having some real conversations about, “Okay guys, how do we pivot demand? How do we pivot finances into this space?” Ultimately, with that comes to sort of the cultural element in terms of support. Then there’s also, okay, across the other areas of the business that either work in a slightly different way, or are used to doing things maybe in their own way, okay, how do we create that startup mentality in those areas? So what we have is really strongly matrix teams, which means that we may have teams from four or five different areas of the organization working together. 

That cross pollination is awesome to see how we can get people engaging together. We can get them talking about things in completely different ways, but also relating and building some really strong relationships. Then I think across that, it’s sort of longer term, okay, how do you sustain that, especially when you introduce partners into the equation? 

When I say partners, a lot of people will refer to them as suppliers. We don’t, it’s really important that we don’t distinguish. These are people that are on the same journey as us, right? These are not just headcount that we’re bringing in or bodies. These are real people that sat in our teams day to day. They’re spending seven, eight, nine, 10 hours in these teams with Vodafone people, sat shoulder to shoulder. So looking at them as partners and as equals is so, so important to where we want to go. But also, I think it yields a lot of benefits on the partner side as well, in terms of how engaged they feel, how part of Vodafone they feel, because for all intents and purposes, they really are part of the same organization. 

Nathan Anibaba: Of course, a huge part of driving revenue and performance for Vodafone comes from a real keen understanding of the importance of data and how you use that data both on the consumer side and on the B2B side. So maybe help us understand, there must be so much data that you’re gathering, what data is important to you, what data are you capturing? How are you using that data to better drive performance for the business? 

Ruben Bell: I mean, a broad question, right? In terms of data and a very popular topic at the moment, right? I think the key is making sure that you do something with that data, like you said, that actually we use it to the benefit, importantly, of the customer, in terms of what we talked about earlier, getting the right recommendations. Can we do anything predictive offering up options in that space and can we communicate at the right time with the customer? And are we there for the customer at the right time as well? That’s so, so important, and data really helps us in that space. 

Throughout the funnel and throughout, I suppose, our internal processes, we have different approaches to data and different layers of data. So right at the top of that funnel, we’ve got an amazing UX research function that use market insight, that use focus groups, that use prototyping to start testing and learning with customers. For us, that’s so important that we get feedback from customers and that we build that into our processes. That’s really important data before we sort of venture on an idea or an ego trip. It’s so, so important that we start thinking about, “Okay, does the customer really care about this? Are they going to like it? What are they not going to like about it?” Because invariably, there will be something. So how can we get that right? Or as right as possible from the outset, right? 

Then at each stage, try and reincorporate some feedback. And how we do that when we get to production and sort of when we go live is obviously we’ve got some awesome insight across the site that, again, we’ve had to build up in terms of maturity. But in terms of our analytics and where we can see funnel dropoffs or conversion impacts, actually putting that data into the hands of the guys who know what they’re doing with it, the product guys that own and care for each of their journeys across each of our digital channels, making sure that data’s accessible, but also understood by those guys, that’s so, so important. Then below that, you’ve got a sort of technical layer and something that, again, we’ve been really focused on, particularly because we talked about the on-demand aspects. Actually with that comes a real need for scalability, a real need for accessibility, for customers as well. 

So we need insight at the most granular level across our digital estate. That’s so, so important to fulfilling the aspirations that we have and data is critical to that, right? So the more that we can see about our service health, the more that we can see about our infrastructure health, the better place we are. So we’ve been on a huge journey, in terms of building synthetics across journeys, so that we’ve got insights across all of those. 

We understand immediately when there’s something going wrong, and that means that our meantime to recovery is as low as possible, so we can turn around incidents super quickly. We implement circuit breakers so that things are down for as short time as possible and don’t knock other things over. So data is so, so important to everything that we do at so many different layers, right? At the customer layer, in terms of giving the customer what they want, in terms of the commercial layer and understanding the sort of journey flows and the experience. And then technically, again, with the customer at the heart of what we do, to make sure that those platforms are available when they’re needed. 

Nathan Anibaba: Obviously, as you say, this is all about driving better outcomes for the customer and really putting the customer at the seat at the table. Jeff Bezos is famous for always having that empty chair in the boardroom so that no one is ever forgetting the importance and the role of the customer in everything that we’re doing, because I imagine there’s so much data that you’re capturing, sometimes it can get quite overwhelming. 

Ruben Bell: Yeah, definitely. Definitely. I think there’s obviously, I suppose what I’d call the more quantitative data, which I think the importance of overlaying a qualitative element is so, so important. It’s easy to get lost in data lakes and collections of huge data sets, right, that often mean nothing. Right? But being able to overlay semantics or being able to overlay feeling and sort of real time feedback, now that’s really powerful. If you can bring those two together to work in harmony and to sort of work in synchronization, then you can get some really powerful insights that importantly, like you said, Nathan, mean that you’re thinking about the customer all the time. And that’s so, so important, that’s where we want to be. Now don’t get me wrong, we’re not always there. Right? There’s some times that we end up navel gazing and sort of focusing what we want. 

Nathan Anibaba: Right. 

Ruben Bell: But it’s so, so important for us to try and bring that back to the customer and that customer perspective. I think our agile practices really help with that as well. 

Nathan Anibaba: So just bringing the interview towards a close, you’ve been on a massive journey of transformation recently. A lot of people would be surprised to actually understand that the Telcos have probably not been as quick to adopt digital, as quickly as you would expect. I think on the last call, you said something like, you want to start emulating the FANGs, obviously Facebook, Apple, Netflix, and Google. Maybe talk a little bit about why you think Telcos have been so slow to get with the program and adopt digital, and then maybe talk a little bit about how you see or in what ways, you’d like to emulate Facebook, Apple, Netflix, and Google. 

Ruben Bell: Yeah, for sure. I mean, look, the FANGs are sexy, right? Everyone wants to be a FANG. But I think we’ve been so lucky in terms of, you look at the Telco space, it’s a very mature, very saturated market, right? Often what that breeds is a bit of complacency. Actually what we’re about now is, how do we disrupt ourselves? To not wait for someone else to come along and do that, actually, we need to disrupt ourselves. Right? That’s not about moving the needle sort of 0.1 or 0.2% on market share or service revenue, et cetera, et cetera. That’s about fundamentally changing the way that we operate as an organization, which we believe will then manifest and sort of change our value proposition entirely. What that’s about for us at the moment is becoming that TechCo, which you may have seen in some of the comms from Vodafone. What that really means is we don’t want to be a Telco anymore, right? We want to be a technology company. 

That’s fundamentally our strategy now. What that really means in real terms is we’re focused now building software over buying software. So we’re building a real strong capability in house that one day maybe we can monetize. We then talked about culture. Now the FANGs have been leaders in this for a long time, right, in terms of sort of employee engagement and sort of aspirationally, that’s where we want to get to. Culture has to be so, so right to create this environment that’s fit to foster innovation and improvement. [inaudible 00:25:44] there that sustains that disruption in a positive light and in a positive way, that’s so, so important to have the right underpinning culture. 

Then, like I said, by becoming a TechCo, our view is that our roots to market and fundamentally our business model is something that we’re looking at, giving the mature state of the Telco market, and something that we are looking at, whether we can shake that up in different ways and approach the market in a slightly different way. We fundamentally believe that pursuing sort of, I suppose, the digital way of life and the technology way of living is the way to do that. 

Nathan Anibaba: Definitely. Wholeheartedly agree with that. That term FANGs, by the way, I think we need to update it to include Amazon and maybe Tesla in there as well. So I don’t know how it changes. 

Ruben Bell: It’s getting too long. 

Nathan Anibaba: FAANGT. Something like that. 

Ruben Bell: Someone who’s better at anagrams than me needs to come up with that, not me 

Nathan Anibaba: Really enjoyed speaking to you. Final question, Ruben. What advice do you have to other senior execs on how to increase their rate of digital adoption within their own businesses? 

Ruben Bell: A, ensure that you have a pandemic. Importantly, the biggest bit of advice is you need to put your money where your mouth is, right? That means investment in terms of pounds and pence, but it also means challenging and disrupting ways of working. One of the biggest challenges that we’ve had is that disruption of ourselves, right? That needs to be seen as a positive thing, challenging and disrupting and changing and evolving. So yeah, I think you really need to put your money where your mouth is, in that sense, and just jump in the pool and start swimming. 

Nathan Anibaba: Ruben, thanks for doing this. 

Ruben Bell: Thank you for having me. 

Nathan Anibaba: If you’d like to share any comments on this episode or any episode of ClientSide, then find us online at Fox dot agency. If you’d like to appear as a guest on the show, then please email ClientSide at Fox dot agency. The people that make this show possible are Zoey Woodward, our executive producer, Hannah Teasdale is our podcast executive. Jennifer Brennan is our digital strategist, supported by Sofia Ravanis and Alice Winterburn, our social and digital experts. I’m Nathan Anibaba. You’ve been listening to ClientSide from Fox Agency. 

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