In episode 2 of this innovative new series, Martyn Riddle chats with Shane Hackett, Manager Customer Services at Brisbane City Council, Australia’s largest council.
During the chat, Shane explains the preemptive steps that the council took as the threat of the Covid19 situation grew larger. And he also provides an insight into what has been keeping him entertained during the lockdown situation.
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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 to 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 this series, I’m also Verint’s Vice President of Marketing for the region. Today, I’m delighted to be joined by Shane Hackett, Manager of Customer Services at Brisbane City Council, which also just happens to be my home council. Shane, welcome.
Shane Hackett: Hi, Martyn. Thanks for having me.
Martyn: It’s a pleasure, sir. Shane, can we start with the background on the customer services operation at Brisbane City Council? How many customer service staff do you have? What are the sort of calls that you handle and what is the typical volume of transactions?
Shane: Sure. The Brisbane City Council Call Centre runs 24 hours, 7 days a week. We haven’t actually closed since 1996 for even one minute. We serve the whole of Brisbane city, which is about 1.4 million residents and ratepayers. We do that with 221 employees in the contact centre. There’s approximately 180 agents and then team leaders, quality support staff. We’re across five different sites. Two of those are actually call centre sites, but all five have a front counter, so face-to-face operation. Of our 1.15 million contacts we have about 735,000 phone calls per year.
We use the engagement management professional product from Verint. We call it Optimise, to manage our knowledge and our workforce management. We have, at last count, 4,431 knowledge articles. Brisbane City Council has a very wide range of services, ranging from immunization of babies when they first at one-year-old children and right all the way to cemeteries and cremation. Really cradle to grave. Our top enquiry types are, as you would expect from a local government, your roads, rates and rubbish, parks, potholes, that kind of stuff.
Martyn: A very comprehensive range of services.
Shane: Yes, for sure. It’s something that actually keeps the job interesting. Our agents, we have no IVR, so every time they pick up a phone call, answer an email, respond to a social media posts, or have a person come in to the counter, it could be on one of those 4,431 enquiry types, knowledge articles. It really keeps it fresh and we couldn’t do it the way we do it and provide the level of service we do without the knowledge management system from Verint.
Martyn: That’s very kind of you to say. It’s also true what they say that never a dull moment in Brisbane. At the moment, the entire customer service industry is finding itself in a very unusual place due to the COVID-19 crisis. When did Brisbane City Council become aware that the situation was going to have an impact on the services that you deliver?
Shane: It really kicked in for us when the World Health Organization declared the pandemic on the 13th of March, Martyn. That’s when we really realised that we were going to have to make some big changes.
Martyn: What was the council’s response to the emergence of that situation? What was the process you guys went through to change the way you deliver those services?
Shane: Basically my job in our contact centre’s job was to support the way that the rest of the council had to transition in services. Within about a week and a half, two weeks, we closed 33 libraries. We closed swimming pools. We modified our crematorium services and cemeteries. We cancelled a whole lot of active and healthy events in parks, yoga classes, all that kind of stuff. The contact centre was crucial in supporting the rest of council on its operations, by having consistent and timely information to customers as they called in.
The biggest change for us was moving to work from home. Within about two weeks we moved almost everybody to work from home. The biggest challenges there were technology. Getting the technology set up in people’s homes. We had already been doing a pilot for two years. Probably just over two years ago, we thought we would do a full-time work from home pilot. For two reasons, one was the drivers back then were flexibility for staff, but also business continuity. Having people working from home and to spread out across the city really reduced our dependency or our single-point sensitivity on buildings and sites where power could be knocked out or there could be flooding or there could be a leak in the roof or there could be a fire. Having our people spread across the city, in their homes, was something we were very interested in, particularly with Brisbane’s propensity for storms and bad weather during the summer storm season.
We transitioned our people to work from home based on our knowledge from that pilot. Of 15 people working from home for two years. Something that was really good was the role that those 15 people who had two years worth of working from home experience played as, I guess, leaders and supporters amongst their colleagues. They wanted to do that. They really put their hands up and they said, “We want to help the rest of our colleagues to adjust and adapt to work from home.” That collegiate approach was really warming to see.
Also, the other challenge apart from technology was just the physical setup from home, just the workstations and making sure it all happened in a zero harm way. Making sure everyone had ergonomic office chairs and that they were all set up in a way that they actually, then, weren’t going to be harmed with all the best intentions, in working from home.
They were probably the two biggest challenges. Some of the more particular challenges we had is that we have our five front counters when people come in and pay rates and register dogs and do business face to face. Particularly a lot of our elderly customers like to interact with us that way. Particularly with elderly customers, as you know with being in a higher risk category, that was a real challenge for us. We decided to close three of the five front counters and just keep two open for more essential business. They are still open, they’ve remained open the whole time through this, with obviously lots of social distancing and hygiene measures in place.
The last thing we had adapted to is our lost property service. We manage actually the lost property for the council. Returning of umbrellas and wallets and school bags and hats, and so on left on buses and in bus stops and in council facilities. We just adapted there to just return essential items only.
Martyn: A lot of change of a normal standard operating, working practise. You mentioned earlier on, different sorts of calls coming through because of the situation. How did you find the overall volume of calls? Was there much difference there?
Shane: Overall contacts, so across all channels, contacts increased by 2.5% during March and into April. We actually had an increase in contacts. The phone channel was pretty well steady. It didn’t change too much at all. Where we were dropping off calls from, maybe a business is closed, so it doesn’t call us about their business anymore. That was being replaced by COVID-19 related phone calls, and that pretty much levelled that out. The 2.5% increase was driven by social media.
We went from, we usually would be in about 6,000 social media posts that we would respond to, that we would action that are actual enquiries rather than just comments, per month. That went to over 10,000, so close to doubling of social media related, the use of the social media channel.
Martyn: I’m actually, as a resident of Brisbane, genuinely surprised that there’s only 2.5%. I would have imagined you’d have had a lot more general public ringing in asking for social distancing guidelines and that sort of a query. Did you find that those kind of queries did come and some of your more regular types of enquiry dropped off?
Shane: No, we didn’t really get that many of those type enquiries because that information really is driven out of the state and federal governments. Our enquiry types were more like, “Can I still go to the tip?” or the waste transfer station “and drop off my rubbish?” “Is the pool still open?” It was more around our services of social distancing. What can I– Can and can’t do. “Can I go out in public?” That was more state and federal government.
Martyn: Okay. That’s interesting to know and interesting to learn. You said you felt somewhat advantageous that you had had a segment of your team working in remote fashion for a fair little while and they were able to act as mentors or as leaders in the wider transition. Were there any additional innovations that you felt were really useful during this transition time? Any particular activities or processes that you invoked to try and streamline or make this whole process a lot smoother?
Shane: Yes. I think that the key part, and this is what we have learned already from our trial or pilot, was just the importance of connectedness and physical and mental health. We already had things in place for the pilot group for keeping socially connected with their colleagues, for doing stretching, and lots of fun and interactive ways to keep in touch with your colleagues and your team leader while you’re working from home. We just rolled them out more broadly to the rest of the contact centre. Also, the staff have come up with their own things, their own ways to do it. Dance-off challenges and all sorts of stuff like– Well, anyone who works in a contact centre environment knows how important fun is and keeping it a fun atmosphere, we really just encouraged that and encouraged it even more, put a greater emphasis on it with people working from home to make up for that lack of physical contact and physical interaction.
Martyn: Is there any footage of you, yourself, in a dance-off? Do we get to see some of that at some stage?
Shane: I’ve been challenged. I’ve been challenged. I’ve already been involved in Silly Hat Day and lots of other stuff but the dance-off is probably coming, I would say.
Martyn: I look forward to seeing that. How, in general, do you think the staff are reacting to the situation? Obviously, the staff themselves have got their own domestic pressures brought around by the crisis and yet through that, they’ve obviously got to deliver the service to the citizens and the customers. How do you think they’re handling it?
Shane: They’ve adapted really well, but there’s been– I guess, Martyn, for me the lesson has been everyone’s an individual, everyone has their own story and their own circumstances. You really just need to work with them. One size doesn’t fit all when it comes to change particularly such a rapid change as this.
Just as an example, one of those particular circumstances would be an employee who lived in a unit potentially in a share house type environment and worked through the night so they’re a night shift. They’re in a smallish unit or townhouse talking to customers all night through the night. The impact of that on their flatmates, their roommates or even family keeping them awake. That was the kind of thing that we had to work through with individuals.
Obviously particular challenges with supporting parents with homeschooling. You can’t work and look after a child effectively, particularly children under 12, but particularly when you’re in a call centre environment, you’re totally focused. You can’t just duck away. You really need to be focused on your job. We had special HR support for individuals and team leaders, in particular, supporting the team leaders to work through those individual circumstances.
Martyn: I’m interested in that focus on the individual and keen to understand what impact it’s had on you personally as a leader and as an individual. Any lessons you’ve learned along the way and perhaps things about yourself that you found out that you weren’t aware of before?
Shane: Yes. One thing that I’ve learnt is the importance of stakeholder relationships and informal contact in maintaining those relationships. In an office environment, you go out to make a coffee at morning tea time and you’d bump into a colleague or another agent doing the same and you’d talk about the football on the weekend or the family holiday that was coming up. You don’t really get that informal interaction, it’s much more formal when you work from home.
Needing to really make sure you don’t forget about reaching out to people and maintaining those relationships which are the cornerstone of good business outcomes. Being more deliberate about it, I guess that’s something that I’ve really really tried to do. Also, the other thing I guess was I’ve been more productive without the travel. Without having to move between meetings, without having to physically travel, I’ve just got more time to actually get the job done.
Martyn: With the restrictions slowly looking as though they’re going to be lifted or eased back, do you think you’re going to revert back to some of the older ways, or has this really been a catalyst for a whole change of business approach?
Shane: I don’t think we’ll go back to the way we were working and I think you’d probably find most businesses would say something similar who have transitioned to a work from home. I know that in our staff surveys, the willingness and comfort to work from home has gone through the roof. There was much more apprehension. People adapt, don’t they? They’re really adaptive and they adapt really quickly.
We haven’t been through the process, we’re just starting now to look at recovery planning and really how our workforce might look and how we might operate in the future. There’s been so many positives that we want to capitalise on, particularly flexibility for employees. Employees are wanting more and more flexibility in their job as time goes by and we can capitalise on some of these learnings to really provide more opportunities than we could in the past. Now, a trial that might take us a year, two years actually happened in a week and a half. Yes, we’re going to really look to capitalise on that.
Martyn: It’s interesting how these things can change preset thoughts and perceptions we had around what we do as a business. If we can, let’s maybe go back to a bit more about Shane as a person and as an individual. Let’s imagine for just a moment that this lockdown situation is going to last forever, and please let that not be the case, but if that was is there one piece of music that you are going to listen to, or would like to listen to that keeps you going? That is your go-to tune?
Shane: One of my favourite songs that I actually play through my headphones when I’m going in to do a presentation, or when I’m going into a fairly serious meeting, where particularly when I’m going to be the main person, is Nobody’s Fault but Mine by Led Zeppelin. I really like that song and I really like the message that it says to me, “This is your time, take responsibility.” It’s all about ownership. Owning your own future and what’s in your own control. Yes, that’s the one that I listen to and have done more so since COVID.
Martyn: Now I like that, and who doesn’t like a bit of Led Zep to keep them going– get them fired up?
Shane: Oh, spot on. Exactly.
Martyn: How about a book or a film? Is there one title that is your go-to for entertainment?
Shane: I’ve just been watching more so than films, a bit more of Netflix, like who hasn’t? I like stuff that just takes me away that is a bit fantastic but not too fantastic that you don’t have to really apply too much thought to. A series that I’ve watched that I’ve enjoyed lately is the Ozarks. A story about an American family that moved from the big city to a small town and their adaption and adjustment there. Then also I like to watch the Marvel movies, Thor and those kinds of ones. Just need that escapism I suppose, Martyn.
Martyn: I’ve had to admit this before on two fronts. First of all, perhaps some may say embarrassingly, I’ve actually never seen a superheroes movie, and perhaps even worse, I’m not a Netflix subscriber. I am a unique individual and it has been mentioned before.
Shane: Yes, you’ve got a whole lot of opportunities in front of you.
Martyn: [chuckles] So much time to– so much titles to watch. Finally, how about a material object or a gadget that you’re going to keep with you in eternal lockdown? Something that you just couldn’t be without?
Shane: For me, my escape, my hobby is boating and fishing. I have a fishing boat up in the shed, and so that’s really a great place for me to go and they always need maintenance. Martyn, I don’t know if you know. You’ve heard that BOAT stands for Bringing Out Another Thousand, so there’s always something to do. There’s always some tinkering, there’s always something to keep me occupied with my boating and fishing gear. Fortunately in Queensland, we’ve been able to continue if we need to go fishing, to go fishing for food and I have been able to go out and gather some food for my family during the crisis. That’s really given me that something to look forward, that light at the end of the week. That has really helped in my work-life balance and keeping me going through this.
Martyn: The Hackett family having fish for tea every night, I like that. That sounds good. The boat acronym also resonates somewhat as a gentleman who just sold a yacht. An old, old, old, old yacht a couple of weeks back. The phrase that, “The happiest days of your life is the day you bought and the day you sell it,” that also rings true.
Shane: Yes, there you go.
Martyn: Shane Hackett, Manager of Customer Services at Brisbane City Council, it’s been great chatting with you today. Thank you so much for your time. I wish you, your family, your colleagues, and of course all the citizens of the great city of Brisbane, all the very best, and please stay safe.
Shane: Thank you, Martyn. It’s been a pleasure.
Martyn: Thank 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.