We stay in Singapore for Episode 9 of the Verint podcast and this time chat with Kailash Ramalingam, Managing Director, Contact Centre and Servicing Platforms at DBS Bank. We find out how the bank had prepared for the impact of Covid19 even before the devastating extent of its spread had become apparent – and Martyn gets indoctrinated to the wonderful world of 1980s Tamil music.
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Martyn Riddle: Hello and welcome to In Conversation with a series of podcasts from Verint featuring chats and discussions with leading figures from the contact centre, CX, and customer engagement industry in the Asia Pacific region. During this series, we want to find out what customer service organisations are doing during these challenging times and try and 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 the series, I am also Verint’s Vice President of Marketing for the region.
For today’s podcast, we’re once again visiting Singapore, a country that’s currently battling to emerge through the second wave of the coronavirus that has so severely impacted the country and the wider region. Today’s guest is the Managing Director for the contact centre and servicing platforms of the country’s leading bank, an institution that was named the world’s best bank by the global financial publication Euromoney in its 2019 Awards for Excellence. From DBS, it’s my pleasure to welcome to the Verint podcast, Kailasam Ramalingam. Kailash, hello.
Interviewee: Hi, Martyn. How are you doing?
Martyn: Kailash, I am okay. Kailash, you have a long and distinguished career in the financial sector, the vast majority of which has seen you developing, implementing, and managing best-in-class customer engagement operations. I’m guessing you’ve seen quite a transition to how financial institutions and large enterprises in general handle their customer engagement. What makes your approach at DBS so special?
Interviewee: We have been actually envisioning the future of customer centre for a while. We actually came up with a 4A model, which stands for any time, anyone. We started this concept somewhere around 2016, to see that how do we build a bank towards this particular model given that the future is going to be work comes to people and not people coming to work.
As you know that customer centre is traditionally, are labour-intensive function, we have huge amount of people in the customer centres, we have high attritions related to that. We want to transform the whole unit into a technology-enabled, customer-centricity and future journey-enabled organisation.
We have been investing quite a lot around this area in terms of infrastructure, systems, processes, thought process, and everything else. What we’ve done over is we’ve actually reskilled a lot of people over the last five years. We’ve actually created new roles in the customer centre towards this angle. We’ve expanded the service channels from a traditional call centre to go on alternate channels like email, social media, video tellers, live chat, and secured mailboxes. We have introduced new technologies like voice biometrics, analytics, and chatbots. I think pretty much everyone knew we actually were looking towards this particular transition.
Martyn: Singapore initially looked to have escaped the worst of the coronavirus situation but now, unfortunately, has been severely impacted by the second wave. I’m interested to find out when did you and DBS become aware that the COVID-19 was going to have an impact on the delivery of your services?
Interviewee: We had an early read on the situation towards end of December when there was actually a news of pandemic spreading in Wuhan, in China. Call centre by nature is always designed to actually have an active-active kind of a setup for handling calls. We do have two sites in Singapore that actually handle calls. What we mandated at that point is that we actually implement split operations, which means that there will be no movement of staff between these two centres. That was the first thing we did towards end of December.
As we were actually progressing through January and early part of January, we were seeing that the government was actually putting a bit of restrictions on people travelling from Mainland China into Singapore. That also strengthened our BCP processes or what we call business continuity processes. We were thinking, “Okay, should we pilot some of the work-from-home arrangements?”
Martyn: In a way, you’ve almost had three phases. There was the initial phase from Mainland China and then you kind of witnessed the pandemic spreading across Asia and eventually into Singapore. What was the bank’s response to the emerges? Were there any differences between that initial phase and then when it really impacted the wider Asia region?
Interviewee: Yes, there was actually what we call a calibrated approach. The first approach is to ensure that our business continuity planning processes actually are working in place. That was pretty straightforward. It was working, and we had no issues. We started tracking all the staff who are actually falling sick and everything else and there was pretty no issues around that particular area. What actually triggered the next set of actions was when the Singapore updated the DORSCON status to orange, which means the level of intensity actually has gone up one notch.
At that point of time, I actually got my team to actually work together, see that what can actually happen worse from here on and what is the impact if one of the centres gets infected. What would be our action on? We then thought that, okay, let’s start putting in procedures, process and enhancements in place to make people work from home, and that’s where we started towards, early part of–, to pilot the whole procedure/processes to actually, people to work from home.
The good thing is we were actually almost prepared for this because of an incident that actually happened towards last year. Mid of last year, towards Q2 to Q3 last year, we had a bit of unrest in Hong Kong and that triggered a process of what happens if our staff is not able to come to office? So, we started putting in technology changes to enable people to work from home, and we were testing that in a small basis in Hong Kong and Singapore towards Q4 last year.
That gave us enough amount of confidence that we should be able to implement if a situation warrants it. In February, we were actually implementing this on a very small basis, roughly around 30 people working from home, just to confirm the process and the procedures work correctly and people are able to take calls and the customers don’t have any complaints.
Martyn: Then what was the trigger for the wider disaster recovery, business continuity and what did that actually mean? Was it a technical transition? Was it increased calls from their customers? Give us some insights as to what was the trigger process?
Interviewee: As we progressed towards February after the DORSCON status was upgraded, we saw that the number of infections in Singapore were rising. I took a call with my team to say that should we wait for the situation to worse and then take actions or should we proactively move the people to work-from-home in the interest of employee safety? Being a labour-intensive organisation or a unit in this particular bank, our staff are our biggest asset and at any cost, we need to protect the safety of our employees.
That was the first and foremost concern from and we told them that, okay, towards end of February, let’s increase the number of people working from home to ensure that there is an alternative that’s actually workable. We started with that. We started moving people working from home. The actual trigger that came in was towards March 14th or around that period when the government actually started putting travel restrictions in and out of Singapore. That’s the point we realised that the situation is getting worse and we’ve got to fast track our work-from-home.
So, we quickly organised a task force, and we started moving people in large scale to work from home, and in two to three weeks’ time, we migrated almost 90% of our staff to work from home. Keep in mind, we’ve got close to 650 staff working in Singapore, and we pretty much got around 550 staff to work from home in three weeks’ time.
Martyn: You already touched a little bit about your BCP, your business continuity plan and of course most organisations have such a process in place and you were somewhat lucky you were able to almost have a test run of that last year. I’m wondering though and it’s a conversation I’ve had with other people on this podcast, the theoretical premise that goes into a BCP versus actuality, how close were they in your example?
Interviewee: One of the key aspects from BCP on a theoretical business to practical business is the logistics. You’ve got people to come back, take their laptops, their headphones, we need to check whether they have a conducive environment to work from home. What I mean by conducive environment is, “Do you have a proper broadband connection at home that can actually enable for us to take calls?” Secondly is, “Do you actually have a room that you can actually have for yourself so that you’re not impacted by the background noise?”
This took a while because we did actually comb through the list of staff, whether they have a conducive environment, and if they don’t have a conducive environment to take calls, we actually had an alternative for them, “Okay, you can actually only take non-voice channels like chatbot or live chat or secured mailboxes.” Because we actually operate on different channels, we had that flexibility for people to be assigned based on what is a conducive environment for them. That was one basic advantage we had.
Martyn: What did it mean for DBS bank as well? Did you see a change in the nature of inquiries through your contact channels, an escalation in the volume of calls or the type of calls that your staff were receiving and handling?
Interviewee: We did see early spike in the type of calls coming in because of a lot of government measures, relief measures, as well as the solidarity payment. That actually had a call, but we were able to manage it to a larger extent because we actually had a good digital platform. We were actually diverting customers to go to digital to get their needs satisfied, and we also built in chatbot capabilities on our channel, which actually we were able to enable customers to apply for the relief measures without needing to call the call centre. Other than that, we don’t see a big jump in calls coming in.
Martyn: That’s good to know. You’ve enacted your BCP, you’ve managed to deploy most of your staff into a work-from-home environment. Obviously within a well-running contact organisation, that social interaction between staff is often very important. When staff are working from home and obviously that’s separated, what kind of measures did you put in place to try and maintain that level of social interaction and friendship between your staff?
Interviewee: Martyn, you rightly pointed out right. Contact centre is a unit that actually thrives on actually people engagement, social interaction. That’s what drives this unit a lot. One of the few things that people started missing at early days is the engagement. What we did was we actually started having virtual huddles through Teams before the start of the shift for the people. That’s one thing we had. Then, we had our team managers doing what we call a one-on-one calls with the staff almost on a regular basis to ensure that their needs are taken care of and they don’t feel like they’re being left alone.
The third thing we actually did was we actually had always available training team on standby so that in case the staff actually has got some queries or has got some issues to be sorted out, the training was always on standby 24/7 for them to actually be helped out. This was all possible because we had a good collaborative set of tools that actually helped our staff to handle both calls as well as these things seamlessly.
Martyn: How do you think the staff have found this new way of working?
Interviewee: The staff were a bit surprised that call centres could actually work from home because that was not what they were actually preparing for, because we were always of the feeling that it’s very difficult to move a call centre to work from home, but we have been always advocating to the people that it’s only a matter of time before we move people to work from home because it’s inevitable at some point of time that work will come to people instead of people coming to work. What actually surprised me as a manager was how easy it was actually to migrate people to work from home.
The moment we actually gave them the laptops and actually we gave them the infrastructure and actually told them how to sign in, it was almost like a breeze. Everyone felt that, “Oh, I just changed my office cubicle into a home cubicle, that’s it. Everything is working as per normal and I don’t see a difference.” To me, I thought that would be a lot of initial hiccups, initial troubleshooting which we have to go through, but to me, it actually came through quite easy. I think I will have to credit my technology team, my infrastructure team to make these things easy for me so that our staff and my customers are actually quite equally happy.
Martyn: You mentioned technology and you’ve also talked about the use of collaboration platforms such as Teams to perhaps facilitate some of that social interaction. Typically, that sort of collaboration has fallen outside the realms of regulatory or compliance frameworks but that we’re finding as more and more organisations are adopting it, that they need to consider that as part of that framework. Has that been a case with you guys as well?
Interviewee: No. We have a robust infrastructure that actually secures our customer data and our collaborative exchanges. All those things actually are secure, so we don’t see a problem with it because we were actually preparing for it in any eventuality. So, we had no concerns around that particular area. Our collaborative tools were actually working within our network and within our secure premises, so we don’t have an issue around that as well.
Martyn: That’s great to hear. Any other lessons learned along the way, anything you would do differently with hindsights now that you’re well and truly immersed in this situation?
Interviewee: I’ll put it this way. In a short-term, I think people are finding it easy and actually no difference. Productivity is actually upheld. The good thing is customers are quite happy with it because they don’t see any degradation in service. We see more people coming into chatbot, live chat instead of coming to call. So, that’s good trend for us to observe. Our customer satisfaction ratings are going up. Our compliments have actually gone up. Our complaints have come down. In a while, in a short-term, i think it all looks good.
What we are really focusing on is how long will this continue. If you want to do this on a long-term basis, how do we actually manage staff-wellness, how do you manage social behaviours? Because we don’t want people to be kept in a single place for a longer period of time because people need interaction. We are in the midst of actually finding out what is the best operating model going forward once this COVID situation eases up. Given that we are not going to go back to normal, we need to find out what is going to be the new norm. There is work to be done. We need to find out what is going to be the long-term impact of this particular arrangement.
Martyn: Kailash, you talked earlier on, the fact that you’ve got a long and distinguished career in this financial sector. I’m wondering having seen as many different situations as you have in that career, what impact this particular one has had on you as a leader?
Interviewee: I think one important thing is actually it vindicates our strategy that you’ve got to be prepared for any eventuality. You don’t actually implement things when the situation warrants. You’ve got to actually have a thought process, a vision in mind to say that, what else can go wrong? And get prepared for it. That constant preparation and investment in technology, people, and infrastructure over the last few years, that’s actually what has actually helped us to do this in a very short period of time.
If not, we would have been actually caught unaware of this particular situation. We wouldn’t have known how to react to it. It’s the thought process, the vision of the bank in investing on technology and people over the last few years has actually helped us to do this. That’s one, I think I’ll take away from this particular situation, “It’s never too late to invest on something which we think will actually help you in the future.”
Martyn: Have you discovered anything about your own leadership style that you perhaps weren’t aware of before?
Interviewee: Yes. One thing I actually discovered that I’m actually open to talking to people over collaborative tools, which I was not a big fan of in the past. I was more of a person who actually, needing face-to-face interaction or actually using a phone to interact. But this situation has made me appreciate that the use of collaborative tools for engagement is not a bad idea. In fact, I find these tools more useful than the traditional tools and mechanisms.
Martyn: That’s great to hear. You’re touching a little bit more now on you as an individual. I’m wondering what else this whole situation has meant for you, not as a leader at DBS but as an individual, and any personal impact it’s had on you?
Interviewee: Yes. I think one thing I came to realise is that how priorities change during a crisis from working towards perfection, all those things, you’re suddenly pivoted towards employee safety is the first and foremost thing you need to look, because that actually puts everything into perspective. That’s the one thing I actually learned that people are your biggest asset, and if you protect your people and if you do the good thing for your people, they will actually turn up and actually help you out. That’s something I personally experienced in this particular crisis.
The second one is you realise that you actually have more time with your family. Then, you actually find out who are your friends in this particular period of time. They reached out to you and then checked whether you’re good or not. Those are the three things I think I experienced in this particular situation.
Martyn: Hopefully you found out you’ve got more friends than you ever thought you had before and that they’re really good and true friends. Let’s see if we can find out a little bit more about Kailash as a person. I was wondering during this whole lockdown process, has there been a particular piece of music or a particular band or artist that you go to, to try and keep you sane?
Interviewee: I’ll give you my background. I grew up in India during my childhood days. It was always about the classical music of the ’80s. I come from Southern India from a state called Tamil Nadu. I used to listen to a lot of Tamil songs that come from the ’80s and the ’90s. That’s something that actually keeps me going, giving me the nostalgic memories. That’s one area. In terms of artists and bands, I’m not that specific into artists, but I listen to a lot of classical songs.
Martyn: How about a book or a film, is there one title that has kept you entertained in particular over the last little while?
Interviewee: One thing, I found the new, what we call a bit of an addition, is Netflix. I was not a big fan of Netflix before this, but now, I’m glued onto Netflix. I’m actually, what we call binge-watching a few programs on Netflix like The Last Dance was one good thing I actually really liked it. The other one I really liked on Netflix was the Money Heist. These two ones I really enjoyed watching the full episodes. The one I probably wasn’t aware, I actually liked it was the Korean series, Crash Landing on You.
Martyn: I’ve had to admit this before on this podcast recording that I am one of those rare, rare people that I don’t have a Netflix subscription. I have a total admiration for people who can take– Rolling out these wonderful Netflix titles, and I just had to smile and nod and assume they’re wonderful things. I’m wondering also, finally, is there material objects or gadgets, something you just couldn’t be without at the moment?
Interviewee: At this moment, is going to be my iPhone. It’s not just an addiction to iPhone, it’s mostly because I am a person who’s actually curious for information. Anything I come across, I quickly check either on LinkedIn. I go and search and actually want to find out new information how people are doing things and what are the things actually happening across and how it is going to impact my area of work or how I can use that to improve my work. So, a phone is something, I would say like words of Steve Jobs. It’s an extension of my hand. It’s something I can’t live without.
Martyn: That’s great. Thank you so much. Kailasam Ramalingam, Managing Director of contact centre and servicing platforms at DBS. It’s been great chatting to you today. Thank you so much for joining us on the Verint podcast. I wish you, your family, your colleagues all the very best for a safe and happy future. Thank you, sir.
Interviewee: Thanks, Martyn. Thanks for having me. It was wonderful talking to you.
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.