Never waste a good crisis

As many organisations entered the COVID crisis they were forced to work in new ways and achieved changes in three weeks that many said would normally take three years. The crisis tore down change barriers and sped decision making as only a good crisis can do. The sudden move to working from home wasn’t the only thing that happened. The restrictions also forced customers to interact with companies in new ways. This caused a one-off spike in use of digital solutions from Zoom to on-line shopping. The “unprecedented” jump in digital take-up that occurred was one many organisations had been trying to bring about for years.

It also gave customers time to research more, compare notes and self-educate. They were forced to use things like telehealth and found it better than sitting in a waiting room. They found new sources of entertainment, information and digital enablement. Customer expectations are now different as a result. They’ve learnt some new habits and ways of doing things and while some will revert to, “the old normal”, many are happy with the new way. Some companies also faced huge operational challenges like massive increases or decreases in interaction volumes and losses of capacity.

These changes provide a one-off opportunity and necessity to change how we organise customer facing work because of the simultaneous “shock” to work models, customer behaviours and global business models. All the tools and capabilities now exist to make dramatic changes in operating models and most organisations will need to act in some way. Some need the extra capacity as business is booming. Others are being hit by the fastest and deepest recession of all time and even those with unchanged business volumes can take advantage of this opportunity.

So, we’ll explore five big changes that are now possible, and in some cases necessary, that will turn Operating models inside out. The five ideas aren’t all new, but we think the opportunity is now easier to:

Hybridise work in all channels:

As retail shut down, many organisations put their retail staff to work in other ways. We know banks who turned their retail teams into chat teams, as an example. It’s amazing that it has taken this change to bring about the idea of putting a variety of work into branch networks. Why not have branches do email and chat when the branch is quiet? Why not have them make some outbound calls or handle inbound sales calls? Why not just see them as an extension of other work areas? This enables larger teams in branches to handle busy periods while keeping them productive.

Organisations like APIA and Flight Centre have always used their retail networks as extensions of their contact centres, but few copied this model. We’re not sure why. Now the crisis has shown that work can be done anywhere by anyone. Retail networks can become distributed “work places” that sometimes customers visit; where face to face work is mixed with calls, chat, email or other tasks. That’s what we mean by “hybridising” and it’s just one example. It doesn’t have to stop with retail. We often see channel silos in other operations. For example, it’s frequent that teams for calls, chat, social media and email run in isolation from each other. The technology providers have long claimed that they can route any type of work to any person but very few organisations work that way. If ever we were going to merge the channel silos, now is the time.

We’ve found that forcing the channels together also “forces” a conversation about what work is best done in each channel. Efficiencies can be created by using the best channel for the work and flexibility is improved if both work and staff can move flexibly. We have shown that creating processes that span channels and use the best channel for the enquiry can be 10-20% more effective. The move to at-home and remote work has merely demonstrated what is possible. The flexibility to move staff to, “where things are busy” creates the nirvana of “flexible capacity” and it even helps with staff retention as staff get a greater variety of work. It adds some management and measurement complexity, but this is usually offset by these other benefits.

Summary of this change:

Knock down the channel walls and create common and flexible processes and ways of working.

Let Loose the Robots

In the last 25 years many companies chose to offshore work to leverage labour arbitrage and cut costs. For the most part they moved simple, repeatable work like data entry or simple enquiries offshore. However, the automation now exists to automate much of this work. When the Covid-19 crisis started, some organisations chose to automate their one-off or unusual demand. The Australian Tax office moved as many of these one-off COVID-19 transactions to an online only option. Others are now realising that the technology has reached a level of maturity to automate everything from parts of processes to the whole thing. AI powered chat and speech bots enable automation of many calls and interaction types. Some companies are putting an AI driven virtual agent in place of an IVR or as a first level of chat. When well configured they can handle all the routine and repeatable transactions and transfer remaining work to the manned channels. The robots also work 24*7 and do what they are told.

These solutions supplement the digital and mobile apps that organisations have created for sales and service. For those customers who won’t or can’t use the selfservice, the bot and avatar solutions offer a human feel to the automation. In the eighty deep dive diagnostics we have performed across industries, we have usually found between a 20 and 50 percent untapped automation potential of simple, repeatable transactions. These newer technologies have enabled some companies to automate between 15 and 70% of what were manned calls or chats. As the technology matures, the return on investment will improve further.

Summary of this change:

Automated transactions are now cheaper and more achievable and complement well designed education of customers by the front line.

Re-organise for complexity

It’s a bylaw of operations now that as automation and digital uptake increase, the complexity of remaining queries also increases. We first wrote about this in, “The Best Service is No Service”, in 2008. It’s intuitive that as automation absorbs simple transactions, the issues left behind are more complex. Some automation even creates new issues and new forms of complexity as customers get visibility of new transactions. In banking, for example, queries have changed from things like “what’s my balance?” to “what’s this transaction, I don’t recognise it” which is harder to answer. The role of customer service or care staff changes from one of transactors to problem solving and facilitating solutions.

This change in complexity mix challenges many customer service operating models. Many businesses start new customer facing staff with functions they expect to be easy but fewer of these exist. Another common model is training people, “function by function” in the hope of simplifying their path to competence e.g. home insurance, then car insurance or billing then payments. We have always thought this idea was partially flawed. Complexity typically cuts across all types of transactions. A brand new agent can get a simple bill enquiry or a complex one.

We think the answer to this problem is a wholesale rethinking of skill and work models to align to this new complexity mix. One of our most successful solutions is a layered model designed around streaming complexity. IT teams have always organised support this way with level 1 responsible for triage and any possible simple fixes e.g. reset password. Level 2 and 3 have deeper and deeper skills. This model can work well because it aligns the complexity of problem with experience of staff. When designed and implemented well, this approach can also increase resolution by providing more authority and system access to level 2 staff and it can enable changed help and support models because level 2 and 3 act as help and support to their colleagues. It sounds easy but we’ve also learned that making these models work requires a makeover of processes, measures, training and technology alignment. Our most successful implementation of a layered model reduced workload by 45% and increased resolution 20%.

Summary of this change:

Expect complexity to change and consider re-aligning your operating model to handle this.

Create a truly flexible workforce

Most organisations struggle to have the flexibility they want in their customer facing teams. Matching the number of staff to variable patterns of customer demand isn’t easy and is made more complex by the need to provide staff with a typical fiveday week and a full day’s work once they get to the office. The new at home-work models and virtualised work mean that old models built around commuting to work can be questioned. In other recent papers (see New Game, New rules) we outlined that a greater “athome workforce” opens up a range of mechanisms that can add flexibility.

These include:

These are just examples and the ideas can be used together. They each can add some flexibility to the workforce which can both reduce costs and improve service level consistency. A combination of these ideas, while complex to manage, can add greater flexibility at a lower cost and create a truly dynamic workforce that can respond to variable demand from customers.

Summary of this change:

Explore a range of staffing supply models that can create or add flexibility to the workforce.

Re-tool front line management

All the companies we have spoken to since the start of the COVID crisis tell us that managers of front-line staff have faced some of the biggest challenges. In the office, team leaders and team managers sat in amongst their team and could see and hear what was going on. With at-home work this was far harder. Suddenly every “catch up” had to be planned and booked in. Team leaders of at-home teams have less visibility on how their team is travelling and had new problems to worry about such as compliance to new safety protocols and a business and political landscape changing every few weeks. Leading a front-line team was hard before but just got harder, many more hours are required to stay in touch with team members.

An answer to this problem revolves around what we call our “operations framework”. Our belief is that front line management’s role is all about improving the performance of their team. To do that we find they need several things:

We have a range of tools, reports and training to support this framework. We find it generates a range of light bulb moments for front line leaders. For example, many have been told to manage with reports and statistics, but we teach them that information is of limited value without observation. How can a team leader coach someone to improve performance without knowing what the individual does to produce that performance? The sporting analogy would be a swimming coach who tried to speed up their team just by looking at their times. “Get faster” is a goal, not a coaching technique. To truly improve the performance of their swimmers, a swimming coach needs to look at how they are swimming and improve specific parts of their technique at a time.

In an environment with more “at-home work”, team leaders need to find ways to observe their team. The screen sharing technology exists to “double jack” even in a remote environment and even in worst case you can listen to a call immediately after it ends. For emails it might be sampling their work and for processing it might be reviewing inputs and outputs. It also becomes even more critical that team leaders invest their time where it can make a difference. That means consciously not spending the same time with everyone. This takes greater planning in a COVID world.

Summary of this change:

Provide front line managers with the specific time saving techniques they need to manage in a new virtualised work place.

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