For the first time in the series, we visit India and chat with Ratan Kesh, Head of Retail Operations and Service at Axis Bank, one of the country’s largest financial institutions. Ratan explains what the Covd19 situation as meant for his team and the delivery of services – and also what the lockdown has meant for him and his family, including his admiration for the extraordinary talents of his wife.
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Martin: 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 drive the leaders in this space, and what makes them tick? My name is and as well as being your host for this series, I’m also a Verint Vice President of Marketing for the region.
For today’s podcast, we’re heading out to India for the first time, specifically the great city of Mumbai. India is a country that initially appears to have escaped the worst of the initial impact of coronavirus but unfortunately is now battling the spread of the illness across the nation. Given a population of approximately 1.4 billion people, that’s a huge challenge and one that is no doubt creating its own unique circumstances for the country’s businesses. With approximately 5000 branches and 18,000 ATMs around the country, Axis is one of India’s largest banks, and it’s at the forefront of the efforts to maintain excellent standards of customer service. Joining us on the Verint podcast today, the gentlemen leading this effort for the bank, Ratan Kesh, head of retail operations and service. Ratan, welcome. Namaste.
Ratan Kesh: Namaste. Thanks a lot for having me here. We are delighted to be part of this podcast and look forward to having a wonderful conversation with you.
Martin: I gave a brief summary of Axis Bank in my introduction. Could you give our listeners some more information on the bank and its operations and where it come from?
Ratan: Look, Axis Bank, as you are aware, is a headline bank in the country, third-largest private sector bank. It caters to almost all segments of customers both in the consumer, as well as in the wholesale segment. We offer bunch of products, almost every product that either a retail or wholesale customer would need in the banking and financial domain. Within Axis Bank or as part of the Axis bank family, we have got a range of subsidiaries, which are fairly large in their own rights. Whether it is Axis finance, Axis securities, Axis AMC, we just have a new acquisition, in that sense, we got an insurance.
Technically speaking, you talk about banking and financial products, we do have it in our foray, and we call it as one Axis. That is our ability to really offer whole of Axis Bank products and really fulfil customers all needs in the banking and financial services. That’s Axis Bank. We recently launched our new ad campaign, we call it as Dil Se Open, which is open deep inside from your heart. When we launched it in January, we looked at it, the bank’s performance, and we actually were very happy to notice that the bank has delivered 100 X returns in the stock market since inception. That way, it’s a very fairly satisfying journey for the bank and its founders and those who are associated with the bank.
Martin: As I mentioned earlier, India initially looked have escaped the worst of the coronavirus situation, but it’s now severely impacted with many regions in lockdown, and the virus is still spreading rapidly. I’ll be interested to find out when did you and Axis become aware that COVID-19 was going to have an impact on the delivery of your services?
Ratan: Look, very interestingly for us, our MD, in particular, and the management committee, we anticipated the fact that COVID could actually have an impact in the country and in the operations of the bank, way back summer in the third week of February. What we did is that it was a bit of a casual conversation, but then sooner we took it very seriously. By that time, it wasn’t much of an effect in India at all. We said “Okay, what if it has to hit us? What do we do? Are we ready for it?” Therefore, keeping that in mind, a high powered team committee was formed, and the committee was advised to really look at what could possibly be done.
During this period of three to four weeks still, the actual lockdown happened in the country, and that was a pretty much of a fast forward. From that point, it started increasing the number of cases to lockdown. It was a quick sudden decision. For us, as a bank, we had good three weeks or so to prepare ourselves, and we ran a series of BCPs. We do operate across the country for the branches, but we do have three or four large operating centres. We call it as an asset and a processing centres. What we did is that we actually BCP to say, “If one has to go down, if two have to go down, if three, If all four are going down, what happens?”
We actually prepared ourselves to anticipate those scenarios, started creating work from home capabilities by providing laptops, even moving desktop to the residence of the staff members, enabling the technology systems, providing VPN, VDI access, using communication tool like a Microsoft Teams. We did all of that things pretty much in advance, and that put us in good state. Me, personally, I was part of– I’m continuing to be part of BCP team for the entire operations. I would say, while it did hit us very strongly but we were fairly prepared, to a great extent to continue. What you call it? As essential services, which is banking. Some of the services are very, very essential for the country and the consumers of the bank. We were fairly ready, I would say.
Martin: I tried it with other guests on the podcast about the BCP or business continuity planning process that organisation have in place to cover unexpected situations. Most of them have suggested that whilst the BCP framework was useful, the COVID-19 situation went so far beyond any normal planning exercise, then most of the reaction had to be on the fly. Was that the same as Axis?
Ratan: Oh, yes, of course. Most often than not, we look at BCP as something that our operational risk or a governance team would force us to do. We never necessarily take it to the fullest but COVID taught us that look, “This is something, which is real, and this is something, which is very, very important.” Just to give some dimensions of it, we implemented Microsoft Teams just in flag two days time. Today, 70,000 people are using Microsoft Teams in the bank. We had a VPN and video access, our capability for running some of the technology systems. Some 16 to 17 ad systems being run on VPN, VDA before COVID. Now within excess of 700 systems.
The number of concurrency users in VPN, video, IOS, somewhere in the range of, let’s say, 400, 500. Now it is more than 7,000. Now, these dimensions do happen. It needed a significant amount of technology changes and technical team had to really come together, along with our partners and really make it happen. To that extent, I would say it was a very, very sudden decision, but it moved very quickly. All of us collectively, both on the business, technology and operations, and larger community, we all felt that it is a duty for all of us, not only for our customers but for the larger community and the country, to really make sure that we allow as less disruption as possible and continue to run banking operation to support our customers and the community. We felt good, and we continue to feel good about really supporting the country in that sense.
Martin: I’m just wondering with the rapid adoption of some of these new technologies that you mentioned there, Teams. I’m guessing a lot of that wouldn’t have been within your standard and regulatory framework. How did the bank go about making sure that what you’re rushing to deliver these services, you’re still able to retain that framework as it was appropriate?
Ratan: As a bank, we decided that look– we need to take a few deviations from the normal governance rules orthat we do. Fortunately, it was almost like a levelled playing field. Regulators allowed certain divisions, especially the telecom operators, and I will talk about that bit more on the contact centre side what we did. We did create a separate– We call it as COVID CMC, Chain Management Committee. The COVID CNC team code quickly looks at it and fast track some of the approval processes.
What we did is that we made sure that every single deviation that we took, we actually recorded all of that. We bifurcated the deviations into four broad categories. Process division, location, technology, and people divisions. Process division, again, we look at whether it is a customer-facing process, it is an internal process, or it has got regulatory implications.
By doing that, we divided them into high, medium, and low prioritisation. We have got a series of diligence, enhanced due diligence as you call it. We instituted all of that to make sure that while we run the operations with some of the deviations, we are not creating any additional risk of running those. Just to answer, therefore, we had COVID CNC, we instituted it very quickly, which allowed us to review and take quick decisions, but we created a fallback mechanism to ensure some of these are having additional due diligence at the backend to make sure that there are no additional risks being incurred.
More specifically on the contact centre side, look, we had to create an avenues for the customer to reach out to us. In these trying circumstances, customers had a lot of needs. Therefore, we ensured that we create enough work-from-home capability for the contact centre. We are the first bank in the country to have created 500, 1,000, 1,500. Today, we are having 2000 work-from home-capabilities with recording facilities, with adequate endpoint security.
Actually, our staff members are taking calls sitting at home delivering customer care services to the customers. In that sense, our technology partners, whether it is platform solutions provider, Dataware, or it is our that recording solutions provider, Verint, had come forward and really supported us in that journey, I would say. It’s been quite a helpful support from each of these partners.
Martin: I’m wondering what that’s actually meant for your operations and your staff. It’s one thing to enable this provision of a new services and to rapidly adapt to the situation that emerge. In reality, what did they actually mean? Did you find an increased level of calls were coming through to the contact centre? Did you find that your staff were able to offer longer shifts or shorter shifts? Can you give us some insights to what actually you meant on the front line?
Ratan: Given the fact that people are not able to work out of their houses across the country; therefore, if there were any problem with regards to banking, they needed to call up the call centres. While the total transactions volume would have dropped fairly significantly compared to pre-COVID days, but even in those transactions, there are need for customers to reach out to the customer care lines. We were somewhat in the range of operating somewhere in the range of 50%. Now we are back to almost 90% of pre-COVID volume on the call centre side.
Also, what we did was that we actually broken down all operational activities, including customer care activities into C1, C2, and NC. C1, being critical one, which is hot listing, fraud dispute. All of these are bare necessities, you must make it happen. From day one, we ensured that C1 is running 100%. For the C2 activities, we started opening windows ranging from the product lines, which are important ones. Therefore, we are the first bank to open all Verint alliance from 9:00 AM to 6:00 PM, and we have extended this to 8:00 PM, and some services are still running 24/7. That’s how we continued this. We have now almost 24/7 for almost all the services, except few, which are not necessary.
Impact on employees, as I said that all of us collectively and then the rank and file feel that they are doing something for the country to continue running the bank for the larger community. To that extent, everybody rallied around to provide the best possible support. Interestingly for us, in cities in India, there are huge traffic problems at times; therefore, a staff would be spending somewhere in the range of one and a half hours both sides to really go to office and come back from office. Staff were able to devote part of the CR time for doing extra work in this period of time. Therefore, if you look at per day productivity, the staff member per day productivity has been higher than pre-COVID days.
Martin: You’re a couple of months into this new way of working. Are there any lessons learned along the way or anything that you would do differently with some hindsight?
Ratan: Yes. Lessons learned, one clearly, for me particularly, I believe that the BCP, what we call our Business Continuity Plan and Disaster Recovery, some of the ones which are defined by the classic textbook governance principles. I believe now, I have come to realize, and those are to be taken very, very seriously, and those are real, number one. Number two, You always used to believe that once you have human connect, team members are all sitting together, we’re discussing certain things. That is the most efficient way to do things.
I realized that with a good technology capability like video-audio connectivity and the ability to have a collaboration tool, it is as efficient; sometimes more efficient. That is a good change to have, and probably, some of these are going to be permanent change even beyond COVID. That’s a good realization. Third, largely, I would say in the organization, crisis brings people together. That’s always the case, but this COVID crisis actually brought all of us together.
Rather than trying to look at a siloed departmental view, I could see each and every employee started looking at, “Can I help someone else?” Therefore, rally around and support, collaborate. Collaboration quotient has gone up significantly during this COVID time, which is a very good permanent change to happen. It should take the whole country forward in a much more rapid manner once this whole recovery starts
Martin: It’s interesting that by being further apart, you think you brought people together. In the contact centre, the natural day-to-day interaction, the social conversation that goes on, the casual catch-ups and chats between team members. Obviously, none of that is no longer possible in a face-to-face environment. Wondering what the Axis has done to try and maintain or even enhance some of that key interpersonal social interaction.
Ratan: We have some bit of offline and so to say team member with team leader collaboration that is happening. There are few days in a month, maybe the Saturdays of the month, the team leader will call up the team members, have coffee together on a team’s platform, or discuss about something, which is anything other than work. Some of these things were discussed. Second, of course, I would say we created what we call as employee Corona helpline to the contact centres. Employees and then extended families, wherein anybody has any need for medical support or any other query clarification regarding insurance and any of this stuff, those are all supported to the contacts and the staff.
What happens is that when people are working on some of those areas, they are not really working, they’re actually looking at it as a very different way of doing things at that moment, but that’s a pure– I would say human part of the service. They actually look at it very differently, and that brings them back to that balancing their whole paradigm and which helps them do professionally. Some bit of fun stuff on the collaboration tool platform and some bit of social support service that really keeps them in the balance and control to make sure that they’re able to enjoy their work.
Martin: Unfortunately, the coronavirus situation in India doesn’t look as though it’s reached its peak yet, and it’s far from stabilizing. I’m wondering what the immediate future looks like for you and your operations?
Ratan: It is obviously the number of cases are growing every day. For us specifically, within the bank, if you’ve got one or two cases identified in a particular office on any given day, obviously, you need to do contact tracing and then quarantine a bunch of stuff. They are now out of office for that period of time. Sometimes even the office itself would get locked down. It’s a big challenge, but we’ve been very, very clear about the fact that the human safety and security of our staff is far more important. Therefore, we are pushing hard every single day as part of my operations in BCP. We track how many people have been able to move back to work from home capability every day, so that drive continues.
Why we do that is because we believe that some of these are more permanent ones. We will continue that. Our endeavour is that even post-COVID, at least 50% of our staff members will possibly be working from home. Then they may be coming to the office and maybe alternate a day or two days a week. By doing that, we’re not only strike a balance between the realistic requirements for the bank and therefore save certain costs. We get adequate productivity.
We also eliminate some of those monotony in terms of really them coming to office twice a week and then continuing about it. I don’t know how to predict about the virus and the situation in the country. My sense is that it’s going to go slightly worse from here on before it becomes better. As an organisation, we are going to keep improving about it and improving the lives of the people. That’s, what is our endeavour?
Martin: You touched upon it earlier, some of the lessons that you have learned, but I’m wondering what impact it’s had on you, as a senior executive, as a leader, and also, what it’s meant for you personally?
Ratan: Quite interesting actually. For the first time in life, probably, I stayed at home for so many years. Consistently, with my wife, two of us have been here. My son is away. He was in a college and then he moved to a relatives place, so good. Very interesting that we spend almost more than three months together, and at a personal level, she has now realized that I generally work very hard, and therefore, her respect for me for the quantum of work that I used to say that I do, she has actually noticed it personally, and therefore, there is appreciation about it.
For me, I used to think that, household work is always complex and difficult, but I didn’t realize that it can be that complex. My appreciation and respect for her work and managing the home and managing all those complex equations is far more complex than really managing technology systems or people. She managers everything, starting from technology to people, to collaboration, to connectivities, to everything. I realized that that’s very, very complex job.
Martin: I’m sure your wife will be delighted to hear you giving her such compliments. [laughs] You’ve owned yourself some good brand new points there. We’re touching a little bit on you as a person, and personally, let’s even find out a little bit more. Has there been a particular piece of music that has kept you sane during the lockdown?
Ratan: No particular music per se, but my wife is generally a good singer, and fortunately for her, she’s been practising a few songs almost every week. A couple of songs. Once she’s ready, she would ask me to sit down at the end of my day and say, “Do a recording.” Put the Karaoke, I’ll do a recording on the mobile phone. Those are the moments I look forward to, and I enjoy doing the recording and then listening to the songs. That’s interesting for me. Also, my wife admitted herself into a online painting course, and very surprisingly, she has discovered a hidden talent.
She’s doing some fascinating painting thanks to her good and teacher. My job is once the painting is finished, I give some expert comments, and I have learned the art of giving comments on something, which you don’t understand at all. Then click pictures and send it to few books of my friends and others and get some of those appreciations saying, “It’s a great picture, nicely done, nice art.” Then send it back to her saying, “This is what the comments we got.” I also give a comment on a her music. I don’t understand anything about music, but I give a comment. How to really give comment about something which you don’t understand is something that I learned.
Martin: Not only is she the CEO of your household, your wife sounds like an amazing lady with many, many different talents. Has there been a book, a film, or a TV show that’s been your go-to– a bit of entertainment during the lockdown?
Ratan: I love this, Hassan Minhaj soap, the Patriot Act that I got hooked on to. I do get a chance to see that once in a while. I have finished the Netflix series on Michael Jordan, The Last Dance and that I loved it. Of course, I liked some of the Lionel Messi dribbling skills and that I’ve been watching once in a while. I love watching Lionel Messi always, so I’ve been doing some of this stuff.
Martin: Does this mean you’re more of a soccer player than you are a cricketer?
Ratan: Yes, that is indeed true. I have played soccer.
Martin: Excellent. That’s good to know. My son will be very happy. He’s a big soccer player as well for an eight-year-old. Finally, is there a material object or a gadget, something that you just couldn’t be without at the moment?
Ratan: No. For me to survive, this laptop and as a fallback option, the iPad and iPhone, and that’s my– every moment, I cannot live without these. The mobile phone, it’s constantly ringing most of the time. As I am with you on the call, I would have got some seven, eight missed calls, so I love to take those. These are the best few gadgets, which are there with me. My iPhone, my laptop, the iPod, but that’s with me almost always. That’s it. Nothing. No other special gadget.
Martin: You’re obviously a very, very busy person, and we won’t keep you any longer. Ratan Kesh, Head of Retail Operations and Service at Access Bank in India. Thank you for joining us today on the Verint podcast. It’s been great chatting, and I wish you, your family, your colleagues, all the very best for a safe and happy future. Thank you, sir.
Ratan: Thanks, Martin, for having me here. It was wonderful talking to you. It was a good break from the day-to-day schedule to answer a few questions and really in prospect. It should help me, just that I’m giving answers itself will help me. I look forward to catching up with you when you come from India, or I do travel to your country. Thanks a lot.
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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.