Boris Koechlin, President of Digitcom
Since 1991, Digitcom has supported more than 5,000 businesses with essential communications services from its headquarters in Toronto, Canada. With services ranging from turnkey technical installations to enterprise-scale, end-to-end communications solutions, the firm has a wealth of experience working hand in hand with the world’s largest organizations to keep their teams connected and businesses running smoothly.
We recently spoke with Boris Koechlin, President of Digitcom, to learn more about the communication challenges his team and customers are facing due to the rapid spread of the coronavirus, as well as his advice to business leaders suddenly managing fully remote teams. Mr. Koechlin also shared his perspective on why video conferencing solutions such as Lifesize and cloud contact center solutions will play a vital role as the worlds’ economies reopen and businesses attempt to return to a version of normalcy.
Note: Transcript has been edited for clarity
Good morning, everyone. This is John from Lifesize. I’m here with a special guest, Boris Koechlin, the president of Digitcom. Hi, Boris. How are you doing today?
Excellent, John. I’m really happy to be here with you this morning.
Well, I appreciate the time. Thanks for doing it. I know everyone’s in a new normal right now, with different work schedules and a lot going on, so we appreciate you making time for the conversation. I’ll start by asking you where you are today. From where are you joining us?
I’m joining you from a home office in Brooklyn, Ontario, about an hour northeast of downtown Toronto, and it snowed this morning, which was a little bit depressing.
I think it’s 90 degrees in Austin; we might be envious of each other’s weather right now.
Well, now that we’ve got video conferencing sorted out, we’ve got to figure out how to teleport that weather.
Tell us a little bit about how you’re doing, personally. How have you and your team been since the shift towards working remotely?
It’s certainly been an interesting few weeks. I was on a call with a mentor of mine about a week and a half ago. He asked me how it was going. I suggested that this was one heck of a team-building event that the world had put on for us. It has certainly allowed us the opportunity to forget everything we thought we knew about how to run our business and reinvent that.
To the core of your question, “how is the team doing?” The team is as well as they could be. I’m incredibly proud of the way the team was able to take on a very challenging transition and have stepped up to the challenge, and I’m sure we’ll be talking a little bit about some of the tools we used to accomplish that. But, first and foremost, beginning and end, it’s about the people, and the team is holding up well. They’re supporting each other in a tremendous way.
Yeah, that’s great to hear. We’re experiencing the same. Those relationships go a long way right now. So, taking a step back, tell us a little bit about Digitcom. Tell me, when was the company founded? What’s the primary purpose of the organization? Tell me a little bit about the services that you offer to your customers.
Sure. Digitcom was originally founded in 1991 by Jeff Wiener. Jeff started the business — it’s one of those great stories — out of the trunk of his car. It was early days for voicemail, and Jeff was out selling the voicemail to organizations. Like so many entrepreneurial stories, it grew. Jeff hired somebody, and then he hired somebody else. Then they were working out of a garage and then a small office, and the business continued.
At its core, Digitcom was founded as a telephony and interconnect, doing primarily Nortel, Avaya. We did some Mitel work, ShoreTel over the years, playing in the traditional mid-market of the voice market, I would say, and the business stayed that way until early 2010, 2011. This is well before my joining the organization, but at that time, the ownership group saw that voiceover IP and all things IP were going to be fairly transformational to our industry.
Digitcom acquired its own switch, and we became a voiceover IP operator. We now service Canada nationally for voice services, local access services, and, as the business has changed and grown over the last couple years, we’ve been adding an AV collaboration. That’s where we’ve gotten to know the folks at Lifesize.
So, looking at your website, Digitcom actually has a very broad offering. It’s not just video conferencing and collaboration, which is, obviously, near and dear to us at Lifesize, but contact center, which is something that is very relevant to our new, larger, combined company resulting from our merger with Serenova. Also, traditional telecommunication services, both on-prem and cloud-based. How are you drawing on that heritage and expertise right now? How is that serving you in your conversations that you’re having with your customers right now?
There’s an awful lot of conversations with customers, ironically, that start right now with “We remember when you told us about all those fancy features. How fast can you turn them on?”, whether it’s the contact center business or simply being in touch with your customers. It’s not just Digitcom that was challenged by current events. All of our customers were, and what we’ve been able to do is draw on both our own real-time experience and sharing experiences between our customers in how we reinvent business processes, how we push people out to home offices, where they can work safely, and then enable them with many of the same tools they would have had at the office.
I would say, technically, this has been possible for some number of years. It’s really current events that have forced the hand and enabled us, in some ways, to try the things that are probably harder than turning on the technology, and that’s transforming the culture of your company from bricks and mortar to a remote work culture.
Yeah. One of the things that I was curious if you could speak a little bit more about is the organizations that you work with, which, as you mentioned, it’s a mid-market to enterprise-size organization. Change doesn’t just happen overnight at an organization that’s that large or complex. Can you speak a little bit about the conversation, some of the specific conversations that you’re having with these organizations? What are the nature of the questions that they’re asking you and your team, and where are they asking for your assistance?
To a great extent, we’re drawing, again, on our own experience and sharing that with our customers, first and foremost. For Digitcom, Digitcom was not a work-from-home company. It wasn’t part of DNA of the organization. 90% of our staff went to the office every morning, and when we saw COVID coming and it became almost inevitable that we were going to have to think about a change, part of the answer was starting early.
We very quickly organized the teams, had them put plans together for how we’d start to shift people home, and then, prior to it becoming a lockdown or a mandate, we started to test those principles. We took sections of teams and sent them home, with the intention of breaking some glass. We knew that we hadn’t been able to think of everything. But the good news is we had that opportunity to experiment and try it for a number of weeks before we got into full work-from-home mode.
The other thing we needed to think of an awful lot about was the people themselves. I’m going to keep coming back to that theme. Humans are creatures of habit. In the morning, you get up, you get on the bus, or you get in your car, or you swing through Tim Horton’s or Starbucks, depending on where you’re from, get your coffee, and you go to the office. That routine is part of your day. It’s part of your DNA. At the end of the day, similarly, you get in your car, and you reflect on the day’s events on your way home or on the bus or however you get back and forth from work.
At Digitcom, we felt it was incredibly important, and our advice to our customers is it’s incredibly important to think about those things you didn’t think about in the past. How do you replicate the beginning and end of the day? So, in our case, and our business was like a lot of businesses, you could find people who thought we had too many meetings. But in order to be able to replicate the day, to be able to replicate the psychology, the feel of working for a day, we’ve actually quadrupled the number of meetings we’re having. Every single morning, every single team gets together on a Lifesize video bridge, kicks off the morning, share stories from the day before, goes through their to-dos for the day, what they need help with, and sets some objectives, not for the next week, not for the next month, but for the next eight hours.
Every afternoon, every team gets back together on a Lifesize bridge. We actually shake the salt and pepper a little bit and put the service people together with the salespeople at that point, just to mix up the end of the day calls, and we reflect on, “What did we get done during the course of the day? What are we going to get done tomorrow? What was working? What wasn’t?”
To a person, the feedback from the staff is that they have never been closer than they are today, and it’s a result of the forced interaction, if you will, that hasn’t been ... When I talk about forced, it hasn’t been a difficult push. People have really embraced it. We’re all at home. We are all creatures of people. We want company, and people look forward to these calls.
We’ve also gone out of our way to replicate other things that you don’t pay attention to in the office but are part of going to the office. Most of us have fun when we go to the office. We interact with our peers. We play little practical jokes. So how do you recreate that remotely? Well, you have contests, and you have fun.
Again, Lifesize has been absolutely brilliant in helping us pull that off. Our Friday afternoon pub night has already become somewhat legendary not just among our own organization, but among a number of our customers and suppliers. Every Friday, we have an increasing group of folks arriving at 4:30. We use an online tool called Kahoot, kahoot.it. I would definitely recommend it.
The marketing team puts together a set of trivia questions. Everybody’s encouraged to bring a cocktail. I hope that’s okay for me to say, and we have a ton of fun. Last week, we had four suppliers, including Lifesize on that, that are partners of ours. We had several customers join us. We had our shareholders from Pine Hill Equity were with us, and some family members popped in. It was just a ton of fun. So using the technology to actually bring people closer than, arguably, they were when they were in the office.
I’m going to have to find a way to get an invite to this trivia night slash cocktail party. But we’ll put that aside for now.
Awesome. You touched on a number of things that are working for your organization, whether it’s a new way of collaborating every morning and recapping accomplishments at the end of the day, encouraging intra- and inter-team collaboration, maybe putting together groups that don’t typically interact as often. Have there been any challenges, anything that has been more difficult for you to replicate as you’ve transitioned from this in-office culture to a remote working culture?
I know the answer to that has to be yes. Again, it has been an interesting adventure for us. In addition to culturally changing the organization, the business we’re in, the business you’re in, we are fortunate we can make a difference right now. It is because of organizations like Digitcom and Lifesize that parts of the economy continue to roll, and that hit the organization incredibly hard.
In the first three weeks of work from home, and, again, underlining it was the first time this company had ever worked from home, we saw a 300% increase in the number of tickets we were servicing for our customers. That overwhelmed our help desk. The question quickly became, “How do we extend it?” Again, we turned to the technology and the opportunity we had to think differently. We added the finance team to the service view. We added the sales team to the service view.
When somebody called in and said, “My remote office solution isn’t working the way it’s supposed to,” if they got to a salesperson, that wasn’t necessarily going to resolve it, although our guys are pretty good with tricks and tips, but it meant they got a live answer.
As we worked our way through an unprecedented volume of tickets, troubles, upgrades, we were, again, able to take an issue which was just crushing a small number of the team members and spread that across the entire team very dynamically, and it turned it from a problem into something that the team is celebrating today. Sales are far more empathetic to the service department now, and the service department think far more of the sales department now than they have in the past.
So absolutely. That was a challenge. It was a challenge that we met with people in technology. The result of that, we estimate, plus or minus, over 7,000 teleworkers have been enabled by Digitcom over the last three weeks. That’s 7,000 people able to work from home that wouldn’t have been able to work from home had we not had the capacity to turn up all of those services.
That’s incredible. Yeah. In such a short period of time as well. Well, as we start to wrap up, I’ll ask just a couple questions about the conversations you’re having. Again, I recognize that Digitcom and you specifically, because of your long tenured experience in this industry and as an organization that is seen as an expert in its field, you’re servicing customers that are as diverse as investment groups to cosmetic companies, retailers. When they ask you, “Boris, how do I provide the tools, the technology for my employees to be successful, to put them in a position to continue to be productive?”, what are your parting words of advice to organizations that are living this in real time and having to make these choices today?
Don’t be shy about the camera; mount the camera high. That’s one bit of advice somebody gave me a long time ago.
Experiment. Use this opportunity to think differently. Embrace the fact that everything you thought you knew about how we get work done is being thrown up in the air. You didn’t do it. We didn’t do it. The government didn’t do it. It just happened. You could fight it, or you could run with it.
In our case, I think about Pine Hill Capital. Pine Hill Capital, a traditional family private equity firm, did most of their work in restaurants and on the phone. Since COVID’s happened, they are well aware of our relationship with Lifesize. They’ve become kind of Lifesize friendly in their interactions with us. They now have a Lifesize bridge number on all of their business cards, on all of their email signatures, and the feedback from Pine Hill Capital is all of their meetings, which are surprisingly active right now, despite what’s going on in the world, are all being done on video. Their feedback is, “These are way better meetings than we’ve ever had in the past.” I mean, those of us who have had time in the video industry understand that maybe it’s colloquial, but a picture is worth a thousand words.
I think about our customers. You could really kind of bracket the first three, four weeks of COVID is panic. It really was. It was panic buying. It was, “The only way we can keep our business open is get everybody home. How fast can you help us with that?” We’re now transitioning well into the conversations with our customers about life after COVID. What did we learn, and what are the assumptions that we’re going to be able to set aside about how business is done and start to rethink?
Nobody expects a magic wand to be waved over the world, and COVID’s just gone. We’re going to have to come out of this with some gates. If I think about our retail customers, the whole idea of the omnichannel, which is not a new idea, again, Serenova is a great example of that, deep in conversations now with a number of retailers about how do we video enable their showrooms? How do we extend that capability of creating an in-store experience to a consumer that’s at home? We are involved in some incredibly creative conversations there that I think are not just going to be answers for COVID — they are going to be answers for new ways to do business, going forward.
I love that. I love the theme of businesses experimenting and really taking advantage of a horrible situation, something that was forced upon all of us, but really looking at it as an opportunity to evolve and then to transition things that maybe were harder to get done in the past.
Well, Boris, thank you again for your time, and on behalf of all of us at Lifesize and Serenova, thank you for the work that you and your team are doing to help your customers make the most of this situation. We look forward to talking with you again in the future.
Thank you so much.