In episode 3 of the series, we chat with Stephen Lewis, Chief Digital Officer at the next-generation BPO organisation Probe.
Steve gives his thoughts on how the Covid19 situation has accelerated the digital transformation plans of many customer service organisations and explores how the expectations of consumers have changed during the lockdowns. As an added bonus, his lockdown music selection should put a smile on your face.
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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 the challenging times and try and discover what it is that drives the leaders in this space and what it is that just makes them tick.
My name is Martyn Riddle. As well as being your host for this series, I am also Verint’s Vice President of Marketing for the region. Today, I’m delighted to be joined by Steve Lewis, Chief Digital Officer at Probe, a next-generation business processing outsourcing organisation. Steve has a long and distinguished career in the customer services industry, working with a number of technology and service organisations in the sector. Steve, welcome.
Steve Lewis: Hi, Martyn. Yes, thank you for the opportunity to connect.
Martyn: It’s a pleasure to chat once again. Steve on your LinkedIn profile, you state that born-digital organisations have become experts at delivering a near zero-touch experience, but that this can only be done by those who understand how to combine the best of human capabilities with AI, analytics, and automation technologies. Given that most organisations delivering customer service are not really born-digital, what do you think of some of the barriers that need to be overcome?
Steve: Yes, that’s a great question. I think there are the obvious barriers that we all come across in terms of legacy systems and in some cases 50, 60-year-old systems, which I think a lot of the automation vendors are now starting to tackle. I think there are a lot of other less obvious barriers as well in those organisations. It’s the way they’re structured, it’s they’re departmentalised that they’d have just developed over time. In many cases, no one can really explain why it is like that now. I think also the processes. The processes that just existed and just build. I think those organisations struggle with those, whereas obviously, the born-digital, they’ve had the ability to design things from the ground up.
Martyn: Do you think that the rapid change forced upon companies as they’ve had to adapt to the COVID-19 situation, has perhaps presented an opportunity to accelerate this digital transformation?
Steve: It absolutely has. Well, I think the first four to six weeks has been everybody grappling with just getting their businesses up and running. I think we’ve all had very, very interesting, and quite different experiences as consumers across many organisations. I think now is where we’ve come past that and people are getting basic operations up and running. People are starting to realise that, yes, they absolutely have to do things differently. It’s not the old way of working. I’m looking at a quote here from, I think, ISG, one of the analysts out there. “Automated will be essential to survive.” It’s not just accelerating, it’s actually a question of survival.
Martyn: It’s interesting, our own experience that Verint has been and the number of organisations that have taken this massive disruption as the opportunity to almost press the reset button, and perhaps bring forward huge digital transformation projects 6, 12, 18 months. Are you finding something similar?
Steve: Oh, yes, absolutely. We’ve got multiple conversations going on now that in the past would have just gone really slowly, would have had demos, et cetera, but clients are now asking. We’re in discussions with one client, for example, how we can stand something up in about two weeks in terms of an automation solution to cope with expected volume peaks. People are just making decisions a lot quicker than they used to.
Martyn: I think the COVID situation has forced a big change upon us, as individuals, as consumers, for example, ordering groceries online and a range of other e-shopping experiences, telehealth. My own son, unfortunately, had to speak to a doctor last week, and he did that via video. Also that video collaboration for both family and of course, the endless work video conferences. Do you feel these changes have altered our expectations on the customer service we expect to receive from organisations?
Steve: Absolutely. I think it’s interesting you say that, the telehealth example. I was having a conversation as well with a GP who runs a bunch of medical centres in Victoria. As the whole thing hit and I was saying to him, “I bet that they will start to accelerate the telehealth and you’ll be able to do teleconsultations.” He just didn’t believe me. He said, “Oh, no, no, no, no. It’s been something they’ve debated for years.” Well, guess what? It’s happened. They fast-tracked approvals, and it’s working.
Look at all of us sitting on video conferences talking to each other. Previously video was fairly rare still. It wasn’t used that often in corporate. I think people still preferred face to face. People have now learnt to do things less face to face. I think as well as from expectation perspective, people have learnt that they can’t always speak to somebody, we’ve probably all had experiences where we’ve tried to either get a refund for a flight. I personally had that experience with an airline, and just haven’t– the call centre’s closed, basically, we can’t get through. We’ve gone other channels and those organisations have done well. They’ve presented those options. Even if they’re not– for a quick option, it’s just email. Chat is obviously better but as long as it works and helps the customer, that’s great.
Other organisations have fared less well. I had a recent example with a credit card company. The IVR routed me to a team, but it was the wrong team. The team tells me, “Oh, you’ve been routed here because obviously, they’re overloaded so we’ll transfer you to the right place.” Back in the IVR, back to the same team. I think there’s a whole trust equation people, we as consumers, have of organisations. I think, yes, it definitely alters what we expect. Also, the trust impact of how we were dealt with during this crisis by organisations will stay with many people for quite a while.
Martyn: I think that last point is a very interesting one. At the beginning of the situation, I had to also make some travel changes and the experience at that stage was, shall we say less than a happy one. Obviously, been pursuing that over the last few weeks and now have resolved the situation. The way that the organisation is now handling those requests is 180-degree transformations. Obviously, there are people out there recognizing the change that needs to be made, and more importantly, are implementing that change. Given that our expectations as individuals, as consumers have obviously morphed tremendously, what do you think it is exactly that organisations now need to do to try and get ahead of this consumer expectation?
Steve: Look, I think people obviously need to review what has worked. I think those that did well, obviously, a lot of those things were stopgap measures. They need to stop and think about, “Okay, so what worked well for our customers? Where did we slip up? Where did we lose that trust?” Trust is critical. Customer interactions are all about friction, and people have certain expectations. Obviously, during crises, such as COVID, people were willing to accept that it would take some time. We were willing to wait for periods for refunds, but if you really genuinely mess me around, that’s not great. Organisations now need to look forward and start to think in new ways. How are they going to respond in future if this happens again? How do we avoid slipping into the old ways? Because it’s all too easy just to go back to doing the old things.
Were still obviously, not out of this, we’ve still got issues and challenges with the way we serve customers. We need to think in smarter ways about how we do it. Obviously, to do that, we need to look at our processes and those friction points. I’m a great believer in walk in the customer shoes. Processes may be a big word for a lot of people, but really, it’s just get in the customer’s shoes and walk through the organisation when they’re trying to do something, and just see all of the moving parts and all the people who touch that. How can you improve that and make that experience better?
Then again, as well, don’t forget employees. Everybody thinks, okay, customers is obviously key and King, we need to fix that. Let’s look at our employees as well. As we’ve shifted to work from home with employees, what did we do there? What challenges did they face there? What challenges will they face in the future? How do we make their life easier? I quote from, I think it was The Economist in 2019, that 48% of time is actually lost to tedious processes in organisations and organisation from those employees. How can we use AI and automation technology? How can we improve our employee experience as well and make it easier for them to get their jobs done?
Martyn: Perhaps that’s a good link to talk about your own organisation, your own situation as a very large BPO in a region. How has Probe handled the situation and the expectations been put on you by your clients?
Steve: Yes. Look, everyone has their own story. I think there were those who responded well and early and those who responded late. I think we were fortunate enough that we recognised that yes, this was going to be a major issue. We saw the lockdowns coming in the various geos we operate, like the Philippines and so forth. We moved very quickly to a work from home model. We were able to do that quickly because we very much leveraged cloud technology. That obviously benefited us. With our 2,000 onshore staff, moving them to at home.
Then in fact, with some of the restrictions in what clients allowed us to do in work from home in offshore locations, we’ve wrapped up onshore. Also, it will increase demand. Clients will come to us where they haven’t been able to get people working with other providers in some cases. In a period of about four weeks, we ramped up an additional 1,000 staff working from home. I think we’re pretty pleased with that approach. It’s also led to further conversations, obviously, with clients about what does that look like going forward? I think it presents some interesting opportunities.
Martyn: Probe, itself, has clients across many different sectors and industries. Are you seeing different challenges or unique challenges across those various industries?
Steve: Yes, we are. Retail, we do a lot of work with retailers, so obviously, everybody– I’m sure you’re the same, Martyn, but I’ve even got to know the courier by first name now, Cameron who came with my regular deliveries as we quickly switched to online ordering. Of course, what’s then happened is all their providers got swamped.
What’s the usual thing you do? I got the notice that my order is being shipped, but it hasn’t come yet. We’ve got huge peaks in online orders. We’ve worked with retailers to put an innovative solution. One online retailer, we’ve put in a natural language speech solution at the front end that actually is able to detect when people are asking about order status and playing a banner.
In that case, 3% of customers are hanging up, we’re capturing further information about what they want, getting them through to somebody, and just delivering AHT savings of 20 to 30 seconds. Anything we can do to use technology to smooth demand is obviously key in retail, looking at that.
Travel, it’s all around refunds as we talked about earlier, whether it’s from the airline space, but even some of the people we work within the transport space, I’m not sure– I can’t remember the last time I used my Opal card in Sydney. A lot of people wanting refunds and processing has been not surprisingly tough. Again, the whole legacy issue thing.
We’re working with those clients on automation solutions so that they can be better prepared both to service now but also in the future so that they can take the manual out of that component and focus people on servicing the customer in places they need to go.
Martyn: I think that point about technology is an interesting one. We have clients out there, and one of the key things they’re looking to us at the moment for is their analytics and trying to understand what it is they need to do, how can they really preempt some of this avalanche situation, what processes can they really implement to drive that change?
Martyn: That’s driving more of a demand in our knowledge systems, and also intelligent virtual agents that are able to deflect some of that avalanche behaviour, and freeing up the agents to take those more serious calls. I’m assuming that something that’s replicated at Probe?
Steve: Yes. Definitely, yes. We’re seeing that demand for virtual agents. Some of the agents we’re working for in the government space, we’re having to provide those specific COVID-related support services and so forth. We’ve been building intelligent virtual assistants to provide people that information as to remove the demand on the centres. We’re deploying process mining tools to better get a handle on the work that they’ve got is happening and how we can further optimise that. Definitely seen a huge interest in that space.
Martyn: What about the people? The frontline agents working at Probe, how do you think they’re handling the situation? Both on behalf of their clients and obviously, the impact it’s having on them as individuals?
Steve: Look, I think we’re very happy the way that everybody’s rallied, obviously, we’ve moved very much to the use of remote technologies. We’ve got regular video call-ins with all our people, we’re getting very positive feedback. In fact, I was just talking to one of our team members in New Zealand actually, and they’d done a survey, the staff there, asking how many of them would like to continue working from home and it was an overwhelming vote. People are actually embracing the work from home and as long as we keep the collaboration and the discussion going, I think that’s really good.
I think what we’re hearing as we talk to our clients and look forward, it’s what do we do with bricks and mortar? If people are enjoying and work from home and it’s working so well, is that a model that continues into the future? When we do go back to bricks and mortar, how do we ensure we’re safe? I was speaking to a client earlier today who said that they probably wouldn’t be going back into the office until the 1.5-meter social distancing rule is over. It’s really quite interesting.
What we are obviously looking at both for ourselves and our clients is the digitization of interactions that used to be in person where you particularly had to go in person. Again, looking at how we can accelerate that shift.
Martyn: Yes, I think the commercial real estate sector could be a very interesting one in a few months’ time. Do you see any other trends? Obviously, working the from home looks like it could be here to stay. Any other trends you see emerging?
Steve: I think obviously this, as we all know, we follow the news, this isn’t over yet. I think this is becoming I think some use the new abnormal. This is something we’re going to have to start living and working with this. It’s fine to talk about all of the new– how it accelerates digitization, and there is a lot of customer employee demand. The number of calls I’ve been having with clients around, how do we start to make smarter use of this technology? How do we make our people more productive? How do we automate or partially automate customer interactions? One of the biggest challenges is going to be how do we fund that?
It’s fine to talk about that, but how do we fund that? Because clients are just not going to have the money as you go forward. People are going to be struggling to survive. What we’re looking at as a key provider, at Probe is, how do we make that easier for clients to buy that from us? Because obviously, we can bundle people and technology solutions.
They’re not necessarily just having to buy the technology upfront in its own right. We can take over and run the operations, and we can deliver that 10%, 20% lower cost, and that allows us to fund that technology-led transformation. I think you’re going to see probably more of that happening as people become capital constrained. I think, as we said, the work from home will continue.
Martyn: I think on the funding front, it’s going to be interesting to see what the government approach is going to be. Not only in Australia and New Zealand and around the region. Our government’s getting in position to put in place schemes and funding arrangements that are going to enable this transformation or are they going to enable or allow the free market to just run its course and see what comes out the end of it?
Steve: It’s a very, very interesting market dynamic. I don’t honestly know the answer to that. I just do know that. You’ve been in the industry a long time like me, I’m not going to give away your age, Martyn.
I have not seen, I was saying to Andrew, who’s our CEO this morning, in my whole career, I have not seen an industry like it is today in terms of what the accelerated decision-making, the appetite for doing things differently.
I think it presents tremendous opportunities for organisations to get ahead by embracing this technology. Again, back to what we said earlier in terms of making sure they’ve got the customer trust. Again, doing the right thing by the customer and the staff, making sure that we’re using digitalization in the right way.
Don’t just go down the old way of, “Okay, well a chatbot is a bot, it just sits there and automates and it stops people getting to people.” No, that’s not what it’s about. It’s about how to use technology and people in a really smart way. I think it’s all about how do you augment.
Martyn: One of the things we try and do on this podcast is getting inside the mind and the person that we’re talking to and find out really what it is that’s driving the leaders in the industry. What has this whole situation meant for you at the moment? I appreciate it’s had a fairly big impact probably on you and your travel and your interactions with your colleagues but also with your family, some interesting changes?
Steve: Yes. Yes, yes, definitely. I think you and I were messaging about this a few weeks ago. I’ve got older kids like yourself, Martyn, I’ve got three university-aged children. I think for us in our family it’s been beneficial because you think how often you see university-aged kids normally. Well, they’ve all been home. I think it definitely has brought us closer together, we’ve spent a lot more time together as a family and played a lot more games. Even the kids themselves were saying, I was quite surprised to hear that they’ve actually enjoyed that time rather than being itching to get out. Although I think from today, you are actually allowed to go in the pub in New South Wales.
Martyn: Assuming you’re not going down the pub and assuming your kids are doing more TikTok than they are podcasts, you can tell me quietly, are you looking forward to them going away again?
Steve: [laughs] Oh, look, obviously it’s nice to see them getting out again with their friends but we’ve had a lot of fun together. I know one of the other things you were keen to hear from me as well is the type of music. You know how kids don’t always like parent’s music so one of the challenges I’ve been doing, I’ve been going through my 80s and 90s Spotify playlist and trying to wow them. Playing music that they actually go, “Oh, that’s pretty cool, dad.”
Martyn: Yes, I tried that with my seven-year-old, I’m not having much success. Has that been one–
Steve: What was that Duran Duran, or Wham?
Martyn: For some reason, he likes Steve Miller Band, but I haven’t listened much to that one. Is there one piece of music that really has been your go-to piece then during this situation or one that puts you into a calming sense of mind or an excited sense of mind?
Steve: Oh, I think it’s just– it’s not just one piece. I think it’s just the
Steve: playlist. The likes of Beth Orton, Mellencamp, Tom Waits, Hozier. Just going through, playing that kind of music.
Martyn: Excellent. How about a book or a film, if we’re in this lockdown situation forever, which, thankfully, it appears not to be the case, is there one book or film that is going to be your go-to piece of entertainment?
Steve: Aside from the Netflix shows and stuff we all binge, I think in terms of a book, I’m a big fan of historical fiction, I’m just– I like to learn while I read. You may remember the Blackadder TV show, there’s actually a character in there called Flashman and there’s a whole book series called Flashman by a Scottish guy called George MacDonald Fraser and he plays this caddish sort of person called Flashman in various historical situations, from the Indian Mutiny to the Opium War. I’m sort of going through– I think there are about 12 books in the series. Very interesting.
Martyn: Not sure I remember Flashman– I remember Flashheart but that was a totally different show.
Steve: There we go, ‘Flashadder’ he was called in Blackadder. [laughs]
Martyn: [laughs] Rik Mayall.
Steve: Yes. [laughs]
Martyn: Finally, how about a material object or a gadget, something you just really couldn’t do without that’s going to keep you occupied all the time?
Steve: For me, its got to be my running shoes [laughs]. I just really can’t sit still, I love getting out, and exercise. I was very pleased when we had the lockdown that we were still able to get out. I think I would have struggled a lot if I was somewhere like Spain where I literally have seen people running a marathon on their balcony.
Martyn: It’s been interesting and eye-opening for us all. Steve Lewis, Chief Digital Officer at Probe, thank you so much for your time today. It’s been great chatting with you again. I wish you, your family and colleagues all the very best. Please stay safe.
Steve: Thank you, Martyn, same to you as well. Thanks very much.
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.