The impact of the COVID-19 pandemic has had significant impacts on every aspect of society and the economy. For businesses this unprecedented crisis has created challenges that only a few weeks earlier were unimaginable.
How do you continue to provide excellent levels of customer support? How do you manage the large scale transition of employees to a home working environment? How do you rapidly adapt your policies and procedures to the ‘new normal’?
To get the answers to these key questions we asked Lowell’s UK Director of Customer Engagement, Robert Taylor, about how the company has tackled the challenges and what lessons he has learnt.
What have been the key customer engagement challenges during the COVID-19 crisis?
The most immediate challenges were how do we deal with the implications of the lockdown and how do we continue to provide the level of support that our customers expect? It was clear that we needed to transition the entire company, some 1,700 colleagues, including the Customer Engagement Centre (CEC), to a home working operation as quickly as possible and this was an enormous logistical challenge. I have to say that it was a remarkable achievement by our IT team to get the majority of colleagues set up within two weeks.
However, providing the physical IT infrastructure was only one part of the story. Equally important was providing the support and training that our colleagues needed to help them adapt to a completely new way of working. By collaborating with teams from HR, Learning & Development and Internal Communications we rapidly set up a comprehensive communication and support structure to help our agents with their transition to home working. Of course there were teething problems but our CEC remained operational and I’m proud to say that everybody rose to the challenge. Our agent performance during home working remains in line with the pre-lockdown position and this is a great testimony to our colleagues’ commitment to do the right thing for our customers. It’s especially pleasing to hear feedback from our customers during the lockdown that refers to our agents’ empathy, friendliness and professionalism.
In addition, having core values already embedded throughout the company that focus on compassion, excellence and responsibility certainly helped us as well.
What changes have you made?
Lowell is here to engage with our customers to achieve the best outcomes and that goal remains exactly the same during the crisis. In fact, given the potential impact of the pandemic on our customers’ finances, health and mental well-being, it is more important than ever that we understand everyone’s personal circumstances and adapt our support accordingly.
One of the ways in which we’ve evolved our approach is to trial outbound calling using a specially trained team of colleagues. The purpose of these calls is to reach out to customers and ask them how they’ve been impacted by COVID-19 and then tailor a solution to meet their precise needs. This might include a payment holiday or simply the chance to talk to somebody about the crisis and receive the reassurance that we’re here to help them. The early signs from this trial are positive, from both a customer and colleague perspective and we will be monitoring it closely. The challenge here was to get this specialist team established very quickly and also virtually, which required us to adapt our approach to training. In pre-lockdown circumstances this would have entailed classroom training and face to face role playing but all of this had to move on-line. Again I’m pleased with how our agents and the trainers rose to the challenge.
We recognised that the rapid move to home working was a big change for a lot of people and it was important to provide them with as much guidance as possible to help them to adapt to this new way of working. To this end we encouraged our team leaders to regularly communicate with their agents and to stress the importance of maintaining healthy boundaries between working and leisure time. This included taking regular breaks, exercising, making sure proper meal times were taken, setting up their work space correctly and mentally ‘clocking off’ from their work environment.
However, it’s worth bearing in mind that home working isn’t necessarily a preferred way of working for everyone, and indeed even those people who adapted more easily than others can still face challenges. With this in mind, and being conscious of the importance of monitoring mental well-being, we created lots of online tools and communication channels that our agents can use whenever they need them. These cover subjects such as anxiety release and meditation.
What key lessons have you learnt?
In my long customer experience career I’ve never encountered a situation before where I’ve had to adapt so much in such a short period of time, and also make some big decisions extremely quickly. The lessons that I’ve learnt are:
Make sure that you take your team along with you – to me effective leadership means setting clear goals (even within extreme timescales) and making sure that everybody understands the part they play in achieving these. In times of crisis, more than ever, everybody has to be heading in the same direction.
Even in a crisis you mustn’t take your eye off the customer. It’s easy to become self-absorbed and inward looking when you’re trying to deal with operational challenges. However, you need to try to always look outside-in and understand what impact your decisions are having on your customers.
Don’t underestimate the power of trust. Treating your team as adults is a win win situation. They will appreciate being given the responsibility to do what they think is right, you will benefit from an energised and motivated team, and most importantly, your customers will receive the best support possible.
You can’t over communicate in a crisis – especially at the start of it. If you are in any doubt as to whether you should tell your colleagues about something my advice is to just do it!