AT&T Business SVP: Pandemic highlights power of 5G

By Mercedes Cardona

Posted on 10-14-2020

Sarita Rao started her role as SVP of marketing at AT&T Business at a tough time – just two months before COVID-19 hit.

In fact, Rao’s marketing team was just days away from participating in the Healthcare Information Management Systems Society (HIMSS) annual meeting, a key healthcare technology event for AT&T Business, when the pandemic began spreading throughout the United States.

“The booth was done. We were ready to go,” she says. Then the lockdowns began and the live conference was cancelled. The teams at AT&T Business pivoted quickly, using its broadcast capabilities to host a live virtual keynote about the impact of 5G in healthcare. The keynote, Rao said, tallied over a million impressions.

A clear head start

Given AT&T is in the tech and communications business, Rao’s teams had the advantage of already being equipped for remote work when the pandemic hit. Fortuitously, AT&T Business had also established a center of excellence for communications at the beginning of the year.

Once the effects of the lockdown became clearer, it focused on helping its business customers pivot to virtual operations, with offers such as free videoconferencing for 90 days.

“The first thing we did was really hunker down and take evaluation of where our employees are,” Rao says. “My team also has responsibility for things like trade shows and helping coordinate advisory council and customer visits and so forth. We stopped our participation in all of those live events. Our first order of priority is safety.

Next, Rao and her team worked with some of its partners to figure out what types of relief offers would best serve its customers.

“So where [before] we would communicate certain items maybe once a week, we were communicating on a daily and sometimes an hourly basis, based on the need,” Rao says. “Communications got a lot tighter.”

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Early Lessons

Once the initial crisis period had passed, the teams at AT&T Business began to work even more closely, across the different businesses, attending open-mic sessions to discuss ways to better serve different segments.

Pull Quote

“The process actually taught us a lot because we reorganized as a team. It taught us how we could be more efficient in a lot of areas, and it taught us to look at customers in many different ways as we got out of our crisis mode.”

Sarita Rao, SVP of Marketing, AT&T Business

“It became — and I hate that phrase — the new normal. … When we were out of the crisis phase, we started really doing an introspection on the best way to reach folks during this time,” Rao says.

SMB Outreach

Helping small businesses is personal for Rao, who comes from a family of small-business people. With the pandemic as its backdrop, AT&T Business shifted its marketing from events and sponsorships to education for small and midsize businesses.

In one example, “we partnered with our AT&T University for classes that could be available for customers,” Rao says. “We brought on [real estate mogul] Barbara Corcoran, who is known by small-business owners and entrepreneurs. We’re doing a 12-part education series with her.”

In addition, Fullscreen, AT&T’s advertising agency, built a social media playbook for small-business customers that can’t afford to bring in an agency to help them with their social media profiles.

“With stores closing, social media became so much more important for those businesses. So we created the playbook and released a chapter per week,” Rao says. “It didn’t matter if you’re an AT&T customer or not – this asset is available to everyone. We also worked closely with American Express to open up [other] assets for their merchants and cardholders as well.”

The company has also been creating webinars — “virtual booths, for lack of a better term,” Rao says. “Instead of being on that show floor at an in-person event, you can take a digital tour [where] we share with you what we can do and what some of the folks that we partner with can do.”

Social Mindfulness

Amid the pandemic, social protests including the Black Lives Matter movement came to the forefront, calling for business responsibility. According to Rao, AT&T Business has long been committed to diversity and equality, amplifying, for example, small black-owned businesses on its social media feeds for several years.

“Our employees are members of our communities,” she says. “There’s always more to do, but as a company it’s one of our core corporate values to stand for equality. We already had a number of initiatives underway that we will continue to build on. Advocating for equality is natural for us.”

As an example, Rao points to the company’s Black Voices social campaign.

“Our Black employees share their experiences to educate others on the overall impact of equality,” she says. “We started that right around June, when our employees bravely shared their stories and their perspectives for social media.”

And as part of its ongoing AT&T Believes campaign – a localized initiative to create positive change among communities – the company committed $10 million to create economic opportunities for Black and underserved communities, Rao says.

“We also made a commitment to spend $3 billion on Black-owned businesses by the end of 2020, and we’re 90% percent to achieving that goal,” she adds. “But every leader here will tell you there’s still more to do.

The case for 5G

The pandemic has changed much, but it has not altered AT&T’s commitment to the expansion of 5G service. The technology is “a blank slate,” Rao says, with new 5G applications becoming even more useful as venues enforce capacity restrictions and mask mandates, and schools and hospitals adapt to remote education and telehealth. The increased capacity and speed of 5G connections will enable new use cases, she says.

“We absolutely are continuing our focus on 5G. If you think of some of the common use cases for 5G, many of them become even more important because of the pandemic,” Rao says. “For example, take the whole concept of a … dressing room where you can try on different outfits with a touchscreen. I think we’ll see that there’s going to be an accelerated drive for that. In another 5G use case, if you go to a store today, more businesses want to provide a touchless payment capability, where consumers can transact without touching registers or dial pads, etc.”

Now that we’re passed early crisis mode, AT&T Business is continuing to work with customers across industries on different ways 5G can help their businesses.

“We’re having regular conversations with our customers,” Rao says. “I think the timing of 5G is here and now.”

Topics: CMO by Adobe, Digital Transformation, Customer Stories, Leadership, Insights & Inspiration, Telecom, Marketing, COVID-19, Experience Cloud,

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