In this latest episode, Martyn Riddle is joined by Fiona and Jessica Keough from Auscontact, the national user body for the Australian contact centre industry. During the conversation, Fiona and Jessica share how the organisation has been working to support their members during the Covid19 crisis and unveil their plans for future now that restrictions in Australia are being eased.
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Martyn Riddle: Hello and welcome to In Conversation With, a series of podcasts of Verint featuring chats and discussions with leading figures from the contact centre, CX, and customer engagement industry in the Asia Pacific region. During the series, we want to find out what customer service organizations are doing during these challenging times, and try to discover what it is that drives the leaders in this space, and what makes them tick. My name is Martyn Riddle, and as well as being your host for this series, I’m also Verint’s Vice President of Marketing for the region.
Today, it’s my absolute pleasure to be joined by two complete legends of the Australian contact centre industry. Between them, they have chopped up decades of frontline experience working in some of Australia’s busiest contact centres, and now form the heart of a dynamic duo driving, developing, and supporting the industry at Auscontact. Fiona Keough and Jess Keough, welcome.
Jess Keough: Thanks, Martyn.
Fiona Keough: Thanks, Martyn. Thanks for the warm introduction. I’m so glad we’re legends.
Martyn: Legends in your own lifetime. Perhaps we could start by finding out a little bit more about Auscontact. It’s well known in Australia as an organization that supports the local contact centre industry. I think a lot of people would be surprised at the depth and breadth of the services that you supply.
Fiona: Yes, Martyn. Thank you. It’s a great question because first, we think everybody knows who Auscontact is. It’s also surprising to understand that perhaps there are some people out there that don’t. Auscontact has been around actually since 1989. It’s a result of the merger between the ATA and the CCMA, which occurred in 2014. It is the peak body for the contact centre industry in Australia. We fundamentally look after people that work in the industry, whether that be through voice channel, digital channel, whatever it might be.
We’ve morphed as the industry has morphed. I guess you could say that the contact centre industry probably has the quickest rate of change, of any industry. I would imagine as we get into more discussions today, we can talk about how that’s actually held us in good stead. What do we do? Well, we advocate, we provide benchmarking information, we do professional development. There’s an awards program, there’s conferences, there’s networking. What it is, is about community with people with a shared and common interest.
We’re all there taking care of our customers whatever industry it is. Whether it’s FCMG, whether it’s manufacturing, whether it’s financial services, health insurance, and, of course, all tiers of government. We’re actually blessed to have the varietal that we have as part of our community. Of course, contact centres can range from anything to less than 10 people up to thumping big ones with 30,000 plus people. We get that breadth and depth in our member base. We’re thrilled to have that in our community.
Martyn: That’s where your focus is Australia but I’m assuming you’ve got connections and share information and stories with other similar user associations across the Asia Pacific region?
Fiona: Auscontact is actually a member of Asia Pacific group of associations called Contact Centre-APAC. We would have thought. That includes Hong Kong, China, Thailand, Taiwan, Indonesia, Malaysia.
Fiona: Singapore, of course. We do exchange ideas. One of the main ways that we exchange ideas is that we judge each other’s awards programs. For the last five years or so, Auscontact has been judging in Hong Kong, China, Indonesia, and most recently, Singapore. We will continue to do that in 2020, despite the coronavirus. A lot of our friends in the APAC region are now moving to a virtual judging process. It’s very exciting to still be included and also learn what other countries are doing, where their strengths are, and where their opportunities are.
Of course, with Australia being such a mature market, in terms of contact centres, there’s a lot of people looking at what it is we’re doing.
Martyn: I think I need to get you back on it at a later episode to explore some of those differences between the various associations and what makes an award winner in Australia against an award winner in Indonesia, as an example. For today, I want to try and focus a little bit more on the COVID crisis, which you’ve touched on briefly. There’s been plenty of stories around contact centres being smashed with avalanches of calls. Some of those stories we’ve covered here on earlier podcasts. What’s been your observations for most contact centres? How do you think the industry has been affected?
Fiona: Yes, Martyn, that’s a really good question because I don’t think it’s a one size fits all scenario in terms of volumes. There are many organizations that have been hit with a tsunami of interactions with their customers, mainly via calls because that’s where people get that real human touch. There are other contact centres where the volume has actually dropped away to almost nothing. If you look at the travel industry, for instance, there was an initial avalanche and then it’s dropped away. Similarly to what people might call non-essential services. As people focus on just day to day survival, they’re not doing the things that they used to do.
I’m not going to mention any brands because they’ve come to us for support but certainly, if you were in a bank, no surprises there. If you’re in superannuation, I was talking to a superannuation company yesterday and they were saying their calls have been coming in waves. One day, it’s so busy, they can’t ramp up to meet it, and the next day, it’s so quiet. A lot of it, of course, is driven by government announcements. Everyone waiting on tenterhooks in terms of what the federal government’s going to announce.
Then, of course, how that plays out locally into each state also has that extra layer of complexity to what’s going on. It’s been pretty challenging, needless to say, but I think the industry in the main has reacted well.
Martyn: It’s interesting you mentioned the avalanches of calls there. We, at Verint, have heard stories from our customers. Again, particularly in the financial sector, where they have had approximately a year’s worth of calls within one month. I think the ability for those organizations to transform, almost at a moment’s notice, is astounding. What are your observations of how the industry has reacted?
Fiona: Yeah, look, I’ve never seen so many basically paid plans evoked, all at the same time. It’s actually shown some lessons around who was prepared, and how well prepared they were. It’s also shown enormous team spirit. Not just within the context centre, it’s been right across the enterprise because you need your HR partners, you need your IT people. As a whole, and as I said, the contact centre industry is no stranger to change. This is probably in my time, the biggest impact. I’ve been in contact centres for earthquakes, tsunamis, global financial crisis, and previous pandemics, never seen anything like this before.
For a legend, this is actually really shown exactly what contact centres are capable of doing and how well they step up to the play, to really hit that ball out of the park with their absolute determination to leave no customer unserved.
Martyn: Do you think these changes are going to have a longer-term impact on the industry? I’m guessing that many more centres may now entertain a more of a permanent work from home environment and revise consideration of flexible working and that sort of conditions?
Fiona: Look, I think you’re right there. Again, it’s something that we don’t know the answer to at the moment because we’re still in, “What are we going to look like? How’s it going to be?” What we do know is yes, more people will be working from home. We think as an association, and we’ll be doing a survey shortly to find this out, that we’re probably going to move to more hybrid operations where people are going to be working from home and people will be in the office-based on their level of comfort.
What it has done, which I think is absolutely brilliant, is open up regional Australia to really great employment opportunities that haven’t been available to them previously as we’ve driven everybody into corporate HQ or whatever, consolidated workspace. I think there’s going to be a whole mishmash of satellites, hubs, branches being leveraged, working from home as well as corporate HQ. I think it’s really exciting. It’s also going to give a lot more people great career path opportunities right from the outset. I’m excited.
Martyn: You mentioned them hybrid operations. As the crisis was evolving, we saw many Australian organizations that utilize centres in offshore locations, being severely affected as those places we need to lock down and in those organizations happens very, very quickly stand up. Additional support that onshore. Have you seen many members reconsider their offshore/onshore mix?
Fiona: Yes. We certainly have. Of course, we can’t mention any names because it’s commercially sensitive. Certainly, a number of organizations that had operations and we’ll use the Philippines, for example, when Manila and Cebu went into lockdown, they had to bring everything back onshore. We’ve seen a number of BPOs in the Philippines actually close their doors completely, which means those organizations will need to retain the talent onshore. I think where the challenge has been, previously, is it’s been really about cost in terms of staffing, which we know is 60% to 70% of your operational costs.
In offsetting that with not having to leverage real estate costs, et cetera, there have been some great opportunities recognized and realized onshore. Of course, Australians, dare I say it, can be quite parochial and do like to speak to Australians. Who would have thought that? Not saying that anybody overseas does a poor job, but we can be a little bit parochial, as I said. We want to retain jobs onshore, especially, also given the circumstances with some businesses, going to the wall with some great staff that are actually now readily able to fill those roles.
I think it’s a really good future. It may well be that people outsource onshore. We know in previous surveys that we’ve done, that about a quarter of our members are happy to outsource. 78% of that 25% said they would rather outsource onshore than offshore. Maybe this has just been the trigger to make that happen.
Martyn: It’s interesting. The last two episodes of the podcast have both been with BPO organizations. One very much centred in Australia, and one centred up in Asia. It was interesting talking to those two gentlemen, how they’ve had to transform or are transforming their services that they offer beyond the traditional contact services, and looking at that full 360-degree customer engagements and seeing the whole life cycle through. Again, perhaps this crisis is transforming the industry, and there are going to be many benefits coming out of the other end of it.
Martyn: Once we’re talking about the impact, I think it’s perhaps appropriate to raise the issue of mental health and the toll that the crisis has taken on its members, has Auscontact been able to offer support and advice in this area?
Fiona: Certainly, we have, and we’re not experts in mental health, and nor would we ever purport to be that. We know and everybody knows that works in a contact centre, that being in a contact centre in and of itself is very isolating, even when you’re in company HQ or sitting in a satellite, but it’s very different to when you get to home. There are some organizations that have had people working from home and understand the power of getting into a decent rhythm every day and be very structured in what you do, the importance of exercise, the importance of communicating.
We have done quite a series of coffee workshops around how to look after your troops, how to help them manage their emotions, how to recognize when you have an issue and then, of course, we recognize that you would go to all of the great support areas like Beyond Blue, Lifeline, there’s a plethora of people that really do some amazing work in providing support. It really has meant that leaders have had to change the way that they lead because it is so different leading remotely. Even Auscontact, we’ve all been at home. Jess is my daughter, in case anyone was wondering whether she’d married into the family. No, she’s actually my child.
We’re used to communicating quite a lot with each other in the office and you miss those visual cues, where I can see Andrew, as our membership manager, going, “Yes, I got a new member,” and we go, “Yay, well done,” like any good sales team would do. Just talking about, “An event sold out,” or whatever it might be. We don’t have those visual cues, so we’ve actually had to, I’m going to say pirouette because we don’t pivot, we pirouette. We’re far more elegant than a pivot. As are all of our members far more elegant than a pivot.
Really changed the way we’ve done business and in recognizing that, as a leader, I’m checking in far more often on Jess and on Andrew and just saying, “Are you okay?” Just having those conversations. Of course, we have Friday drinks, our virtual drinks. I sit there with my espresso martini, love it. It’s just a lot different to what we would do in the office. It is a challenge. We’ve had people move their troops home. Within a week, they’ve said, “Oh my goodness, we’re having mental health issues right from the get-go,” and seeking support. We can help you find the support that you need.
Martyn: I still have this lovely vision of the kiosk pirouetting around your dining rooms or–
Fiona: I can do an arabesque if you would like.
Martyn: I think that mental health thing is very important and very crucial and perhaps often swept under the carpet when it shouldn’t be. In a couple of the early episodes of this podcast, we were chatting with contact centre leaders. They said they have being very sure to try and maintain or even amplify the social interaction and not just the work side of things. Funny hat day, dance-offs, and that kind of stuff, to try and replicate the water cooler talk or the general office banter and the dialogue that goes on. It’s great that you’re seeing it from your areas.
Thankfully, in Australia, at least, it appears as though we may be through the worst of the situation, cross fingers, toes and everything else. As the state governments are beginning to ease back on the restrictions, what does that mean for Auscontact and your members?
Jessica: Thanks, Martyn. Look, the safety and wellness of our members and their communities is paramount to us. What we’ve decided to do is host face to face activities for the foreseeable future. We will continue to review as COVIDSafe Australia is rolled out across the country. The challenge there is that there are significant variances between states, which means we’ll need to make the most conservative approach. Our approach will be reassessed over the coming months, but we are dedicated to continuing to deliver value and activities online for 2020.
We are working closely with our volunteers to temperature check in each state and continue to deliver relevant content right throughout 2020. We also acknowledge that every organization has a duty of care for their staff and as such, they will likely take a measured approach to attending face to face events. Should we decide to go ahead with any face to face events in 2020? Of course, every individual has their own level of risk appetite for being in those face to face circumstances.
Martyn: As a proud Queenslanders, it’s interesting for me to see this ensuing battle that appears to be developing between New South Wales premier and Queensland premier about state borders and who can travel where and whatever. Speaking personally, of course, as a business exec that used to fly around the region a lot, it’s obviously a big change for me as well and having to reassess the way that I engage with my team and the way that we conduct business. I’m guessing for Auscontact, you guys are still going to be running your education sessions, but more of an online focus.
How about the awards and a lot of people really love getting involved in the awards process? Could you perhaps give us an update on what’s going on with those?
Jessica: Yes. The awards judging process has been online since 2013. Because of that, it means that there’s no issues with safety for your nominees or for your judges. All the information is up on the website, what we’ve decided to do to make sure that everyone is able to participate. Also, to just provide some happiness and some signings of acknowledgement. Through this difficult period, we’ve created a new award called the Hero Award. The nomination period has been extended. That means that you are able through that Hero Award, that acknowledges those individuals who’ve gone above and beyond through the pandemic, as well as bushfires, flood, and drought that we’ve also experienced recently.
You’re able to acknowledge those heroes, call them out. That’s not limited to just the contact centre, so you do have the ability to call out those business partners that Fiona mentioned earlier in IT and HR. We’ve all been supporting the contact centre operation as well through that awards program.
Martyn: That’s awesome. All things being well, fingers crossed and toes crossed. The next episode of this podcast will be with a past award winner. Let’s see how it goes. I’m wondering if you can guess who that’s going to be. You’ve also just launched a new online community for your members. Can you tell us a little bit more about what you’re looking to achieve with that initiative?
Jessica: Sure. We see the Auscontact community as a safe, supportive, respectful, and empowering online space for our members and the industry at large. It’s a place for us to be able to share news, generate discussion with the aim to inspire collaboration, creative solutions, and continue development. Its intention is to facilitate support and celebrate the customer contact community. It’s been a wonderful gift from you guys at Verint which you guys have been very supportive of Auscontact for so many years and increasingly so during this period of uncertainty, so thank you.
Martyn: It’s our pleasure. I have got to look after leaders. There’s been plenty of serious discussions. Let’s try and lighten the mood a little bit and see if we can find out, perhaps a little bit more about this dynamic joke. During these podcasts, we’d like to discover what’s been keeping our guests sane in the recent months outside of work. We’ve got Jessy here now, is there one piece of music that’s your go-to tune?
Jessica: Not necessarily a tune. The thing that I’ve been using to get through the pandemic is I decided to download TikTok. I’ve decided to spend many hours scrolling through that app. It’s been bringing me a lot of smiles and laughs. I’ve been really enjoying that new social media platform.
Martyn: Making me feel very old because my seven-year-old son who I’ve mentioned once or twice in podcasts has come by, loves it, and particularly the blinding lights song. Him and his mother, my lovely partner had been trying to do that dance and trying to rope me into it and I am blindly refusing to get involved. How about, Fiona, what’s keeping you happy Fiona, from a music perspective?
Fiona: From a music perspective, this will share my generation, I Will Survive which is an anthem, there I say.
Martyn: A bit of Gloria Gaynor.
Fiona: A bit of Glo, I feel like a bit of Glo. We don’t want me bopping around because it makes the floor move because I really get into it in a big way and I’ve got somebody at home working upstairs. He’s going, “Mom, I’m on the phone. Mom, stop.”
Martyn: While we are chatting, how about a book or a film, what’s keeping you entertained in that division?
Fiona: I have to admit I haven’t really had the headspace for a book or film because of a lot of work in re-establishing Auscontact’s direction, et cetera, and financial modelling. My headspace is not so good there. Instead of a book, or instead of a movie, I’m going to say it, I’m a cry-cry cat lady. I volunteer for a charity and we currently have two kittens. Probably not kittens, they’re eight months old. Two purebred Persians, Blake and Justin, who were dumped by their breeder at a pet shop emaciated, covered in ulcers, covered in ringworm.
We’ve pretty much had them almost the whole time and I’m taking great pleasure in rehabilitating them. They’re actually giving me a lot of sustenance in seeing them improve out of sight. They will be ready for adoption in the not too distant future, Mini Kitty Commune.
Martyn: That’s something I can almost empathize with during the ISO period or lockdown period. I have now completed, I would say, the trifecta. It was one more than trifecta. I now almost out of sourdough aficionado, almost. I love my sourdough. I went for the no haircut during ISO and a company with no shaving. Yesterday, I had long hair and a beard so they will go off. The number four, we’ve now adopted a rescue dog.
Martyn: It’s something we’ve been looking to do for a long, long time. We have been trying to find the right dog. Ironically, we’ve had to go to Cannes. Our noodle friend is flying down there on his virgin frequent flyer card a week on Monday and be joining the family. We’re excited about that. I implore people to do go and look after the rescue dogs and rescue cats rather than going to breeders and kennels because you’re doing yourself a much better community service. Jess, what’s the book or movie keeping you happy?
Jessica: I picked up Normal People last week on Thursday night at 7:30 PM. I read it straight through for five hours. I really enjoyed that book because I wanted to read it before I then picked up and watch the TV series. I’m ready to go this weekend.
Martyn: Awesome. How about a material object or a gadget? What is it you’ve not been able to do without?
Jessica: I’m going to be a millennial and say that I’ve been glued to my phone. I will play into that stereotype of not being able to survive without it.
Martyn: Of course, talking to your mother all the time on the phone. That’s what you’ve been doing?
Jessica: Yes, of course.
Martyn: Is that right, Fiona?
Fiona: No. [laughs] Well, we WhatsApp quite a bit, but there’s no talking because millennials don’t use their voice to communicate. What’s my gadget? That could be a bit scary, but no, it’s an iPad. It sits on the lounge beside me whenever I’m on the lounge. Most of the time, actually on my lap. I have to confess I’m Candy Crush-ing still.
Martyn: I’m assuming you’re now on level–
Fiona: Yes, a lot. Yes, that’s exactly right. I haven’t paid a cent. I haven’t bought anything for all the years that I’ve been playing it, but it’s my go-to. If I ever want to have a little bit of some endorphins flowing, then you get your immediate reward when you go up a level. That’s me. Boring.
Martyn: No, that’s wonderful. Hey, Fiona Keough, Jess Keough, thank you so much for your time today. It’s been really interesting and informative. I wish you, your families, your Auscontact colleagues, and members and, of course, the industry all the very best and please stay safe.
Fiona: Thanks, Martyn.
Jessica: Thanks, Martyn.
Fiona: Thanks for the entertainment, Verint.
In conversation with . . . is a series of podcasts from Verint featuring chats and discussions with leading figures from the contact centre, CX and customer engagement industry across the Asia Pacific region.