Almost one year into the COVID-19 crisis, it’s clear that the challenges for service leaders and their teams in Australia and New Zealand are significant. However, organisations that manage to provide excellent customer service are discovering immense opportunity to fast track the recovery.
We have come beyond the panic point of the pandemic. We’re now deep into its reality and are becoming familiar with the enduring new normal. Businesses know what their challenges are, and service leaders are recognising the gaps that must be filled by solutions that will be suitable for a considerably long time.
At the same time, the expectations of customers around service performance have also matured. In the early stages of the pandemic, there was a gentle understanding from customers of why an organisation might let them down on the service front. Customers were grateful if somebody was available to speak with them. Now, however, we’re seeing higher expectations as some companies have figured out how to continue to deliver quality services.
This means that even during an extremely trying time, service leaders can no longer cite COVID-19 as a reason for interruptions. They have to deliver.
How is this achieved? High-performing service leaders in the current environment have four clear priorities. They are:
Let’s explore these in more detail.
Speed has been a major theme in business since the pandemic struck. Technological implementations and transformations that had been planned to take many months were achieved in weeks, if not days. Entire workforces, some numbering in the tens of thousands, were shifted successfully to a working-from-home model over a single weekend. And attitudes towards flexible working, having remained stagnant for decades in Australia and New Zealand, were flipped on their heads in a few short weeks.
Similarly, the technological tools that service leaders put in place must create quick wins. Anybody who asks their CFO for months and years of lead time will be told to come back and ask again in two years. Service leaders have to find the low-hanging fruit, identify a solution and roll it out at pace.
They must use fast implementation techniques – cloud based turn-key software, APIs, low-code/no-code development, process automation – to deliver the impact immediately for the business and for the customer. It has to be snappy, but not quick and dirty – just choose the right tools and implementation styles to be quick. We’ve all heard about service centres that have been able to go virtual for thousands of staff in a matter of days or weeks, but why is speed so important?
Consider an issue such as government subsidies for first-home buyers. How many days do banks have, from the announcement of the subsidies, to build the subsidy into their loan approval process? Of course, they can take as long as they want, but if one bank can do it in three days, it will win customer business. If another bank takes three months, it will miss out.
That’s where customers of every business are at right now. There is plenty of competition, so if you can’t meet a customer’s expectations, they’re gone.
This is an interesting challenge. The technology procurement department has always talked about functionality and cost – it has rarely talked about speed. Now is the time to talk about speed.
The discussion around budget actually relates quite closely to the previous point about speed. Budget and speed go hand-in-hand.
As budgets across organisations are shaved, perhaps 10 per cent, perhaps 20 per cent, perhaps more, it affects the service leader’s ability to implement changes fast.
Customer service leaders need to find ways to defend the budget, protecting their ability to deliver the digital capabilities that are critical to lowering cost to serve, improving agility, and changing and maintaining service levels in uncertain times.
We’ve seen service leaders in Australia and New Zealand take action to defend their budgets. In the early period of the pandemic many organisations lost service delivery and contact centre capacities due to overseas and interstate lock downs. Service leaders had to act fast to invest in digital capabilities to fulfill the gaps in capacity.
Fast forward to now and service leaders have taken these actions:
The data will provide a strong argument for service leaders to defend their budgets. In addition, service leaders should consider using any available budget to remove their service team’s repetitive tasks. Give those tasks to automation, transcription AI and chatbots. Allow the service team to focus instead on a more consultative approach that will help the organisation to deliver customer experience and sell more.
When success is found in this venture, the service team will clearly demonstrate its value to the organisation in the new normal. It will no longer be considered only as a cost centre. At that stage, there is a powerful opportunity to build greater success for the business.
How does a business ensure productivity in a distributed work environment? This has perhaps been the single greatest challenge for every organisation in Australia and New Zealand since the beginning of the COVID crisis. On a positive note, it has generated a clearer and stronger focus on employee wellbeing than experienced at any other time.
Stress levels are high right now. Even if staff don’t admit it, much of the time they are not fine. The change has been enormous, the uncertainty overwhelming and the isolation unnerving.
Large service centres have been able to run employee barometer surveys. They’re able to monitor employee morale and stress to an extent. But whether they run such surveys or not, all organisations have had to introduce a lot more stress management coaching. Their managers have had to learn to ask the right questions, to look for the relevant signs, and to recognise stress as well as other mental and emotional issues. Then, they’ve had to put processes in place to manage stress back to a healthy level.
Empowerment and the ability to do a job well helps to boost morale. Collaboration and a feeling of community helps people cope with uncertainty. Of course, wellbeing is intimately tied to productivity, but concentrating too heavily on the measurement of productivity can increase stress and, therefore, decrease productivity. A fine balance must be struck.
There are three parts to risk management in customer service in a COVID environment.
The first has to do with location. When offshore service centres were shut down, even several territories of redundancy in business continuity plans were not enough. Most major offshore centers in Asia went into lockdown simultaneously in the first half of 2020. Some have recovered the capacity since, but uncertainty remains – should there be a local COVID outbreak we are likely to see further disruptions to operations.
Many service departments were immediately hobbled. They then faced the difficulty of bringing all service onshore. This meant far greater expense and the new challenge of spreading service capabilities – therefore risk – across several states and territories.
The pandemic has led to lockdowns of states, cities, towns and suburbs. This forces service leaders to reconsider their location strategies.
They started very quickly hiring and rebuilding onshore service teams. They also optimised the onshore service teams within states (particularly for field service teams), and at the same time implemented shift and contact tracing practices to protect employees who needed to go to offices or visit customer premises. .
Secondly, trust and compliance risk.
If a service agent for a bank is working from home and their family members or housemates are present, how do we know who is seeing confidential data? Whenever service agents are potentially handling sensitive customer data in a remote environment, there is a risk not only of cyber-crime, but also of somebody looking over their shoulders.
Right now, there is a very fine balance between trust and compliance, and there is not a lot of open discussion about it. In regulated industries – such as banking and healthcare – service teams have traditionally not worked from home because it’s too hard to implement compliance monitoring. Now people have to work from home, organisations have to come up with solutions to the cyber issues and the behavioural issues.
And those behavioural issues are the third area of risk. Hypothetically, what is to stop somebody taking a photo of their computer screen to record its sensitive information?
In some countries staff have been monitored through their webcams. That sort of solution, even ignoring the legal and ethical implications, would be unworkable in Australia and New Zealand – nobody would work for that business.
Cyber threats can be dealt with through technology – including secure cloud environments, VPN, Zero-trust Networks. But industry has not yet settled on a solution for the behavioural side. So far the options are all about training and culture.
And so, the challenges of developing service resilience in organisations based in Australia and New Zealand are immense and deeply complex, and that’s no surprise. In a new business normal, we can expect novel challenges that require innovative solutions.
When those solutions are found they will help the entire business to succeed. They will offer competitive advantage in a business environment in which staff have to work from home, whether the business likes it or not. There will be exciting rewards for service leaders who get this right.