In this episode, Martyn Riddle chats with Liam Hindle from AGL about the impact of the coronavirus situation on the customer service operations of a large energy provider. Liam explains the importance of a solid change management process and explores what the future ways of working might look like as organisations adapt to the evolving situation.
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Martyn: Hello, and welcome to In Conversation With. A series of podcasts in 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 organizations 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 a host for this series, I’m also Verint’s Vice President of Marketing for the region. For this episode, we’re once again back in Australia. With so many people working from home during the lockdown, I thought it would be interesting to talk with one of Australia’s largest energy providers. I’m delighted to welcome to the Verint podcast, Liam Hindle, Change and Communications Manager at AGL. Liam, good afternoon.
Liam: Hi, Martyn. Thanks for having me, man.
Martyn: It’s a pleasure, sir. Hey, Liam, as I mentioned there in the intro, with so many people working from home during the lockdown, I’m guessing that must have had some impact on the customer engagement process at AGL.
Liam: Yes, look, it definitely has. I think, like many other organizations, we’ve had to very quickly move into a really different way of working, our contact centre up until the first lockdown. I say first-lockdown because we’re in a second lockdown now. I’m based in Melbourne at the moment. Up until that point, we didn’t really have very many call centre operators working remotely. When things changed very quickly, in March, like many of the guests you’ve had previously, we had to get into a room with I.T and really work through how to get 1500 people able to work remotely when it was not something that we’d done previously.
We’ve seen a really big change there, we had to deploy new software onto people’s laptops. We had to get laptops to people who didn’t have them previously. It was a really effective and really exciting venture. Actually, we managed to get things up and running again in the space of about two weeks with very minimal impact to any of our call queues. It was a tough time, but it was done really quickly and really efficiently.
Martyn: That’s a pretty impressive turnaround. I’m wondering if the nature of the course has changed during this lockdown process.
Liam: Yes, look, we did notice, especially initially, there were certainly more people calling us to discuss their own changed arrangements. At AGL, we introduced a COVID support package very early on into proceedings. Essentially, we really wanted to make sure that with so much uncertainty and with so many things going on in people’s lives that, it was one less thing for them to worry about in the short-term.
We introduced a program with different payment options and bill a deferral so that people could get on top of the other bits and pieces that they had on. This was before the Australian Government announced all of their own business support packages. We just wanted to make sure that again, it was one less thing for people to worry about.
Martyn: With the learnings that you’ve made along the way, have you adopted any proactive measures to perhaps reduce some of those call handling steps?
Liam: Yes, what it’s probably done is, it’s seen us accelerate some of the things which we were already doing and wanting to do more of over the next year or so. Early on, we’ve been using digital channels much more. The COVID support program was something that could be fulfilled online by customers. We’ve really managed to utilize our IVR a bit more effectively to deflect people into IVR channels to self-serve. We’ve also really bulked up our webchat and messaging capability over the last little while as well. Very much aimed at trying to give people choice in the way that they interact with us and trying to just make it easy so that people don’t have to focus on something like an energy bill.
Martyn: You touched upon this a little bit earlier on, but let’s go back to the March timeframe when the pandemic became an issue in Australia. You’ve talked about your IT guys all getting together in a room and deploying some kind of BCP. What was the initial approach and thinking around your actions?
Liam: Yes, look, one of the core values at AGL is carrying every action. I think that really guided the approach that we took for both of our customers and our staff, as well. The initial focus was very much how do we get something up and running so that we can be very proactive and give our customers the options that they need to be able to do what they need with us quickly. I think that internally, we had a really big focus on how do we get that infrastructure right? How do we make sure that people are able to work remotely? I think it’s been about seven years since we started doing remote working and flexible working more broadly at AGL, but we’ve never had an environment where everyone is doing it.
I think in the short term at the very start, there was a real focus on making sure that our network and the infrastructure could handle the thousands and thousands of people that would be logging on which is obviously considerably more than what we would have had in the past. We’ve also put from the outset there was a really strong emphasis on communicating clearly and frequently to our people just to make sure everyone is connected to what’s happening and up to date with the latest information as well. It’s been great to see each team finding different ways to do this.
We’ve got a combination of centralized communication structure to make sure that messaging for the entire enterprise is out and clear for everybody to be able to see. There’s also a real focus on making sure that at a local-level, teams are communicating in a way that works for them, and that they have the right tools and resources to be able to link people together and maintain engagement through a really tough time.
Martyn: We’ve covered this on a couple of previous episodes, where I discussed with contact centre the leaders, the challenges that they’re facing trying to maintain that engagement with their remote workers. We’ve heard plenty of stories about the social aspects that are missing, the water cooler talk for the office, and how you can try and replicate that in a remote environment. You just mentioned there you have thousands of employees working from home, obviously, what do you think the longer-term impacts are on employee engagement and operational discipline? We can’t survive on Teams calls and Zoom meetings forever or can we?
Liam: Well, it’s an interesting question. I don’t think I personally can survive on Teams or Zoom forever. I certainly find it pretty gruelling to be in back to back video conferences all day. I think there’s more and more studies coming out now from various organizations. Microsoft released one recently talking about just how much more concentration and how much more effort is required when you’re on a VC versus being in person. I think the type of concentration that you have when you’re on a video conference is, it can take a fair bit out of you. It’s something that we have to be pretty mindful of.
I think at the very beginning, there was almost a bit of a sugar rush or novelty to the situation. I think that there were also people who enjoyed having the ability to be able to do some of the more high focus work that they have away from some of the distractions of an office environment, but I think the longer it goes on, the more people are starting to remember some of the benefits of being in the office together. Obviously, culture is one of those key things that can be hard to define at times, and also really important to making sure that an organization isn’t just able to work, but actually thrives when they’re working in any environment.
I think the whole drive to bond that humans have and the need for us to be able to be together with one another and be able to collaborate and talk and just have those water cooler conversations, as you say, that’s something that’s missing at the moment. I think that’s probably something that we need to keep our focus on. Look, there’s lots of things that people do, whilst we’re remote working to try and replicate that. Making sure that you put time in to just talk to people within your team or within your sphere at work that you wouldn’t necessarily talk to every day. Or just putting in meetings where there’s not necessarily an agenda or a particular topic that you’re there to talk about.
It’s more about trying to provide an opportunity for people to connect. Look, I think there’s a bit there that it’s certainly difficult. If you go on to the topic of operational discipline, that’s also really tough. A lot of the ways that we work within the call centre environment as well are based on people being in the same area together and people building that shared sense of identity with one another as well. We put a real emphasis on coaching within the call centre. Coaching side by side is a really powerful tool and a really effective way of keeping people engaged and giving them the information they need to do their jobs. Doing that remotely is more difficult.
I think we’re just trying to work through ways now that we can try and make it easier for our team leaders in the call centre to be able to do those things when they’re not in the office.
Martyn: Perhaps we can explore some of those future ways of working a little later in the podcast. You’ve mentioned there a couple of times change and a well-run and successful organization is always learning and adapting and developing new ways of operating. However, even when people are working together in the same location, implementing changes effectively can be quite challenging and I’m guessing remote working exacerbates that situation further. How are you managing to accomplish all this at AGL?
Liam: Yes, it’s something we’re learning a lot about at the moment, actually. At AGL, we use the ADKAR model for change management, which is basically about outlining an individual’s journey through change. Going from awareness to desire to knowledge, to ability, to reinforcement of a change. What we’re finding so far, and we’ve had a really good test case as we’re actually in the process of implementing the Verint Km Pro solution to our call centre and back of house functions at the moment. What we’re finding is that building awareness is something that’s actually fairly easy to do in the remote working world. Our communications channels stack up pretty well and it’s fairly easy to give people information in a remote world.
We’re also finding that that knowledge is something that’s not too difficult either, we’re finding that our E-learning and things like webinars are working quite well for us. When you look at some of the more human elements of the change management process, that’s probably where we find things a little bit more challenging. Building desire, building capability, which is often very much linked to coaching, and reinforcing a change, things that are proving a bit more of a challenge at the moment so much of effective change management is about building connection, listening to people, coaching, providing context, all of these things that they’re usually done most effectively in person.
As I mentioned before, in the contact centre environment, our team leaders play such a critical role in these things, and just not being able to walk around and talk and connect with people does make that job really hard. At the moment, we’re trialling a range of different ways to do this more effectively, and we’ve had some success. From using analytics better, to hosting really open and anonymous Q&A sessions so that people can share their feedback with us and we can really get to the bottom of how things are going from a change management point of view, to trying to provide more high-quality insights to make that coaching process, which is now a bit more difficult, a little bit easier.
I think doing this and also as a business putting a bit more emphasis on highly effective prioritization, which can be elusive for some businesses. It’s something that’s difficult to achieve, but I think what we’re doing at the moment is trying to put more emphasis on not consuming an agent’s bandwidth. Making sure that we’re putting a little bit more thought into when we’re sequencing changes so that people are able to effectively absorb whatever that changes.
Martyn: You mentioned the Verint KM Pro solution, perhaps I could be a little bit self-indulgent here and ask for your thoughts and opinions on the importance of knowledge management in a modern context environment, and particularly one such as this, which is crisis-driven, everybody’s scrambling around, I’m guessing you place a huge amount of importance on that knowledge.
Liam: Yes, absolutely. Yes, it would have been amazing if we’d rolled it out before all this had taken place. Because I think ironically, that having that knowledge management solutioning would have made some of the things I described earlier a little bit more easy. We’re finding that introducing this KM Pro solution is already making a big difference. It’s a substantial change to the way that people follow processes and to the way that people interact with the content that’s available to support them in their roles. What we’re saying straightaway was implementing this is less skilling is required.
We previously had a process or still have a process in the call centre where if an agent needs to upskill on a particular topic then they can log that in a register and someone will come around and skill them at some point or they see them and skill them. Introducing that KM Pro solution has immediately seen gains in that area. It’s easier for people to just look up and use the search functionality within that tool to answer some of those more obscure inquiries that they can get sometimes. That’s made a really big difference. At the moment, AGL is going through a bit of a transformation as well.
Over the next few months, we’ll be moving into the multi-product retailing space and selling things like telco products. As we introduce something that’s completely foreign to a lot of the people in our workforce, it’s more important than ever, that we have a really robust knowledge management solution in place.
Martyn: We talked a little bit about the ways of working and as lockdowns were slowly easing, I’m not sure if that’s going to be the situation much longer around the country, many organizations are now evolving to some form of hybrid working model perhaps with some staff in the office and some staff still working from home. This perhaps may give rise to organizations having to consider multiple methods of management and day to day operation, balancing what can be done in the office, what can be done remotely? What are the different styles of employee engagement that are going to be required? I’d be interested in your thoughts, Liam, on what our work environments will look like overcoming six to 12 months.
Liam: Yes, it’s a really good question, Martyn, and there’s obviously a lot of opinions floating around at the moment, and anytime you’re asked for a forecast for what something could look like in the next six to 12 months you risk looking like a fool in six to 12 months, but I think one thing that I’ve noted is that a lot of organizations in Australia have had the ability to do remote working for a long time. I think in the 2018 innovation survey that the Australian Government does, 80% of large businesses and 50% of small to medium businesses offer remote working for people, but there’s often a lag between something being available and something being adapted and culturally acceptable within an organization.
My feel is that the last few months have really been an accelerant for that for remote working being something that’s much more culturally acceptable and something that people realize, hey, there shouldn’t be any stigma about this, it’s certainly something that can work for us as an organization, and it’s something that enables us to give our employees a lot more flexibility. I do find it funny that broadly speaking we’ve gone from pockets of mild scepticism about remote working to some people embracing it to the point where you’re practically reading obituaries for the office, but I think that the long term solution probably lies somewhere in between those two extremes.
I think from a practical point of view so much innovation is much more effective when done in person. There’s a reason why when companies introduce innovation programs, one of the first things they do is usually try and co-locate cross-functional teams in the same area, and when you lose that, by having everybody working remotely, then it can be difficult to replicate. We found within my own team anyway, that some of the activities that we like to do, either around strategy planning, or innovation, or even just group problem solving are more difficult to do remotely. I think that these sorts of activities absolutely are best done in an office environment.
I think what we’ll probably end up leaning towards longer-term is that hybrid environment that you spoke about before, where we have people working remotely on Sundays, and then coming into the office and giving people the ability to shape their week so that they can make sure that the days that they’re in the office are the days that they’re doing a lot of those very collaborative activities that they need to do with their peers. So much of the best ideas that people have happen accidentally, or at least the first genesis of those ideas does anyway. When you’re working remotely, nothing happen by accident. Everything’s planned, everything is scheduled, everything is very sort of rigid in that regard.
I think that we’re probably saying people realize now that there really is a time and a place for getting back into those situations being in the office, being in the same room with each other, and just finding that spark that can be really, really hard to replicate in the remote working environment. I think what we’ll probably see over the next six to 12 months, Martyn is more of an emphasis on employee experience.
I think we obviously have spoken about customer experience for a long time, I think the focus will probably turn to employee experience, particularly as we find that remote working is something that we either do permanently or for at least for an extended period of time, some of the things that we might have put up in the first few months of working remotely, we’ll need to find ways to sort out. Yes, I see a future for the office without a doubt, and I think what we’ll end up with is that environment where people have the choice to be able to structure their work to be able to do certain things at home and then certain things with their peers in the office.
Martyn: Taking that concept to stage further, I’d be interested, to get your thoughts on the impact of generational change, not only from the design or implementation as an employer in ways of working but also as an employee. It’d be very easy to lump people into genix, or the great nomads or whatever, but I’m guessing each of those may have a different preference for the way they want to prescribe the work, also the way they want to consume the work.
Liam: Yes, I think that’s right, and I think as well when I talk about employee experience, it’s really, really important that we understand, and the only way to do this is to go out to our employees and ask them and really deep dive into what does their ideal working environment look like? I think there’s probably a generational element to some extent, but sometimes that might actually work in the reverse of what your first instinct says.
I was talking to a friend of mine who works for one of the leading law firms in Australia and a lot of the juniors there when they’re working remotely, basically are sitting at home, in a shared house with four or five other people hammering away at work for 12 hours a day, but they’re not picking up the learnings that they get, the learnings they get just from observing the partners in that firm and all the other people in there, they’re not getting that knowledge transfer from the more senior people.
I think we’ve got to be really mindful that for people who are starting their careers, or perhaps have moved into a new area and are trying to learn new things, a lot of the learning that they do is not formal learning, and it’s not even self-guided training. It’s about observing people and seeing how others work in the workplace. I think that we potentially underestimate how important that is.
Martyn: Yes, I agree. I got plenty of colleagues, some who just relish this opportunity and they’re missing all the commuting and the access that gives them to get more stuff done, and I’ve got other colleagues who just can’t wait to get back in the office and are just really missing their interaction and the social element.
Liam: Yes, absolutely. I’m definitely in the bulk of the people that are missing the office. I’ve enjoyed the ability to focus more. Now, that’s certainly been something that’s been helpful from time to time, but everyone’s experience of this is different. I think we just need to make sure that, as leaders and within organizations, we talk to our employees and we understand what they’re working experience is like.
I think when they’re in the office, we’ve got a lot of control over that employee experience. Even the little things like making sure that the kitchen is stocked or the toilets are working. Everything in that employee experience is something that the business has some control over. Now, when people are working remotely, business loses a lot of control over some of those small things, or pebbles, as I sometimes refer them to, which are really important and they can really add up. They can really change a person’s engagement with the business and their motivation levels too. I think it’s important that we don’t underestimate just how important some of those little things are in people’s day-to-day.
Martyn: Mentioning toilets and pebbles in the same sentence is perhaps not the vision I wanted to have right then.
Hey, Liam, it’s been great to get your thoughts, insights, but now, as is traditional on Verint podcast, let’s see if we can find out a bit more about you our guest as a person. I’m wondering, has there been a particular piece of music that has been your go-to tune during the past few months?
Liam: [chuckles] Yes. Look, there’s a few. I’ve got a 6-month-old at home, so aside from the nursery rhymes on the toys that she’s got, I found myself listening to a band called OJ. They’re an old favourite of mine. I don’t actually know how to describe them. I guess they’re probably indie rock or something like that. It’s a very chilled, mellow music that’s quite good for just taking a bit of a break and relaxing.
Martyn: I must admit myself, I’m not familiar with OJ, but I will go and do the research and see what we can find. However, if you want some advice on Upsy Daisy, Peppa Pig, or any other– I can probably give a little bit more help in that direction.
Martyn: How about a book, a film, or a TV show, is there any one title that’s at least keeping you entertained?
Liam: At the moment, we’re watching a show on HBO called McMillions, which is a short documentary series about the McDonald’s monopoly promotion in America, and the fact that it was rigged for the first 10 to 12 years of its existence, which is a story I’d never heard of before, but it’s absolutely fascinating.
I enjoyed that and I’ve also just finished a really, really amazing book, actually, called When Breath Becomes Air. I’ve just forgotten the name of the author now, it’s easy to Google it. It sounds like a really grim read, but it’s actually a very moving book. It’s basically written by a neurosurgeon and it’s his memoir on life as he’s battling a terminal illness. He’s a fascinating thinker and it’s an incredibly moving story and well worth the read.
Martyn: Two great recommendations there. Finally, how about a material object or a gadget that makes you happy? Something that you just couldn’t be without.
Liam: I have to go with two. The coffee pod machine at that moment is getting an enormous workout. I absolutely couldn’t live without that at the moment. Then my e-reader as well. Again, we’ve got a six-month-old, which means that our sleeping patterns are a bit all over the shop. I can’t really be flicking a lamp on to read a book. Thankfully, you’ve got the e-reader with the backlight to keep me entertained.
Martyn: I’m sure it’s getting a damn good workout as well. [laughs] Hey, Liam Hindle, Change and Communications Manager at AGL. Thanks for joining us on Verint podcast today. It’s been a thoughtful and informative discussion. I wish you, your loved one, and your colleagues all the very best for a safe and happy future.
Liam: Thanks, Martyn. I appreciate it, man.
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.