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COVID-19 has changed the way customer service operations in the finance sector works – and these changes create an opportunity to transform the sector for the future

 

By Fiona Coleman, Founder and COO at QStory

Implementing the right technology will be a key factor as companies need to better manage remote and disparate teams

The banking and finance sectors, like many others, are going through a period of rapid change. The COVID-19 outbreak has meant that businesses across all sectors have been forced to operate in a home-based environment to protect staff and customers, but forward-thinking organisations are re-evaluating how they work and where they work for the long term.

They are assessing what technology can be implemented to allow employees to embrace the changes needed and deliver long term operational changes that will deliver benefits to the business in a number of critical areas that could differentiate them in a competitive market.

Whilst many companies will have had some form of plan to implement a remote working strategy and technologies in the future, the pandemic has seen these accelerated dramatically, and those who were unsure of the success or practicality are now realising there are benefits that are much broader than initially imagined.

Jes Staley, the Chief Executive of Barclays recently commented that the bank would be looking at a more de-centralised approach to staff working, with the utilisation of local branches becoming remote offices for more employees. “I think the notion of putting 7,000 people in a building may be a thing of the past, and we will find ways to operate with more distancing over a much longer period of time. You’re going to find we use much more significantly our branches as alternative sites for investment bankers and call centre workers and people in the corporate bank.”

Barclays will not be alone in that approach in the finance sector. It is no longer desirable to sit hundreds of workers in close proximity in one large office or contact centre with the associated health risks. The enforced experience of allowing employees to work from home or remotely has proved that productivity and efficiency levels can remain high, despite the initial fears.

Not just business continuity – the sector is changing

The pressure on the financial sector to be able to provide timely and accurate advice to customers has never been so important. The rise of challenger banks such as Monzo and Starling in the sector has highlighted the high standards of customer service and efficiency that consumers demand and places additional pressure on traditional providers to perform better or be left behind.

Staley was quoted as saying, regarding Barclays: “It’s an extraordinary thing that technology has allowed us to keep this bank so functional, given the fact that 70,000 people are doing it from their kitchens.”

The basic technology that facilitates homeworking has been available for years. The experience of Barclays is not unique.

It has been the implementation of new innovative technology that has allowed business not just to continue during the crisis, but actually in some cases provide better customer service levels.

The sector as a whole has been conservative in its adoption of new technology until now, but COVID-19 has forced their hands.

Those who have not and instead relied upon legacy technology are really feeling the pinch as they are unable to keep up with the rapid change in customer’s expectations and attitudes towards online and app banking. Recent research has found that 41 percent[1] of companies were looking to switch business banking providers due to the slow customer support that has been offered during the COVID-19 outbreak – that rate of change could be costly in a market where traditionally loyalty has been long lived.

What was holding back homeworking in the finance sector?

Recent research[2] undertaken during the early period of the COVID-19 outbreak found that of the 265,840 people surveyed globally who worked in the financial services sector, 56 per cent of them had never worked at home before, higher than the general average of 52 per cent globally across sectors.

There was then, before the pandemic, an apparent reluctance from the finance sector to embrace homeworking.

A report from ContactBabel analysed corporate attitudes relating to homeworking. They discovered that organisations were worried about: Effective Communications (48%), Technology Concerns (38%), Productivity Concerns (24%) and Trust (18%).

In addition, conservative attitudes to risk, a need to retain high levels of compliance within the regulatory landscape that surrounds the sector, and the sensitive personal information required to manage customer accounts, meant that some organisations have been reluctant to allow work outside the controlled contact centre environment.

However, the advantages of homeworking have been proven in other sectors. Indeed, remote working is in many sectors no longer considered a privilege but an effective way of increasing productivity and employee satisfaction rates.

A recent survey by Airtasker found that remote, home-based workers tended to work 21.9 days a month with office-based workers on 20.5 days. It also showed that office workers were spending on average 37 minutes a day in unproductive time, compared to just 27 minutes for home workers.

If the finance sector is able to address the regulatory and security concerns, then there is an opportunity for businesses to benefit from the additional productivity gains seen in other sectors.

Significant Opportunities of Change

There are a variety of stakeholders who will reap the rewards of finance organisations who implement a long-term shift to home-based working in different ways. By considering them in turn it is easier to identify the potential of a shift in contact centre operational strategy.

Customers – Customer service levels are the measure by which customers judge their provider. The business continuity experience from the COVID-19 pandemic has already taught the industry lessons on the importance of being available for customers in need.

Customer service in the long term means that agents provide timely and relevant advice to customers. Queries have to be answered quickly, issues resolved, products delivered and services provided. Agents who are based at home can be more flexible and can be brought online at short notice to react to a surge in demand, and with the right technology in place, their training and support can be delivered when they have capacity maintaining standards and service.

Employees – For many people, working from home has been a sudden and major adjustment. It is hard to overstate the strangeness of the situation. New routines, creating a work-space in their house and dealing with balancing of work and childcare, often in the same room are significant challenges.

These are pressures and stresses that many will never have dealt with before. Add to this the possibility of new equipment, processes and procedures, it is easy to see that for some, homeworking can be a daunting prospect, especially being so alien to their usual contact centre environment. It should not be underestimated that homeworking is not an easy transition for staff, despite the assumption that it is a preferred solution for agents.

Ther are benefits for many who want to work from home and the opportunity to be more flexible and to reduce commuting times can be attractive, but steps need to be taken to make the transition smooth if it is a long-term plan

Space, technology, contingency plans for interruptions in WiFi or power supply need to be considered if the switch to homeworking is to be more permanent. These factors are well   catered for within a contact centre, but are not generally so in a home. Companies have to replicate all the redundancy provisions they have in an office on a micro scale for each employee to make their services robust.

However, staff who embrace homeworking could find an opportunity to develop a successful career that previously may not have been possible. Location, family, caring commitments, and other personal factors can be more easily overcome and accommodated in the home environment with the right support.

Employers – Arguably the biggest burden of change will be felt by the employers, as they have to tie all sides together. Contact centres are, on the whole, busier than ever, but employers are currently having to find ways of setting up safe working environments in the office.]

While the economy recovers from the crisis, not only do they have to ensure that workers returning to the office have sufficient space for social distancing, but actually they have to decide on which workers need to return to the office and prepare for the possibility of a second lockdown.

Expanding the use of homeworking can support employers trying to navigate these issues and maintain or even increase service levels with the right solutions in place.

Managing remote teams is a new experience for many in this sector, all at a time when they are under more pressure than ever. They need to be able to maintain oversight and provide the same levels of support to employees as they had in the corporate environment. This means collaborating, managing workflows and assessing progress. All of this, on the face of it may seem difficult to achieve.

Financial institutions who are able to overcome these barriers could unlock a series of opportunities. They are able to access a workforce that is not located within a commutable distance from the office, they are able to recruit for the best staff, whatever their location. They can offer flexibility, split shifts and a working environment that could attract people previously unable to join the team and therefore reduce turnover and increase retention.

The future of a business who embraces homeworking could open up a more diverse, more engaged, more motivated and better supported workforce serving customers with high levels of capability that differentiates them from competitors.

How homeworking can change the financial service industry?

The financial service industry relies on customer service to sell products. Changing working practices and using home-based workers will increase; flexibility because of the use of shorter, split and micro shifts of 1-2 hours for peak times and evening shifts. It will deliver an improved ability to deal with the peaks and troughs of demand experienced by contact centres, reduce staff attrition and attract a new type of employee.

As Barclays has already indicated many within the sector will not be returning to large corporate offices, changing the way that employees work and engage with customers. The future requires new technology to coordinate operations that are based in small offices, homes and branches all over the country.

There is an opportunity to improve customer service experience and differentiate the organisation from competitors through deployment of the right technology and proper consideration of the challenges ahead and shape the financial services sector for the decade ahead.

Technology

The ContactBabel report highlighted a number of decisions that the businesses will need to make on their underlying systems including the following:

  • The ability to add and remove agents quickly from their systems; possibly across multiple locations/countries
  • Businesses will want homeworkers/remote workers to have access to the same functionality they have in the contact centre or centralised office
  • Management information on the individual and each team
  • MI systems need to be quick to deploy and easy to understand

Ensuring that managers can ensure efficiency and productivity from their team, whilst not being able to manage them face-to-face, is crucial. This is where technology can play a key role. Being able to offer management solutions used in a central office location, to a now remote team, gives companies a huge advantage.

ContactBabel again pulled out some key action points for remote workers and managers. These include:

  • Make sure that agents’ contact information is up-to-date and available to management in both online and offline
  • Ensure agents understand how they clock on/ clock off their shifts, as well as how management will supervise that they are doing so
  • Agents should check their schedule the next day before they log off for the evening
  • Any planning tools should be flexible enough to handle agent absences at very short notice without having the recreate the schedule manually

Workforce Management and associated solutions need to take full advantage of the flexibility of remote working agents, whilst providing the same level of real-time management and support as the centralised offices do.

Remote working forces agents to develop independence and take control of their work, and businesses have to support them by implementing technology to support this.

The future is uncertain, and there is still much to resolve with the return to a fully open economy but for some in the finance sector, the benefits of homeworking and the realisation, that with the right solutions, teams can be effectively managed remotely, will change their businesses forever.

[1] Encompass Corporation/Censuswide 2020

[2] Leesman Global homeworking survey