It was Sunday March 22 and much like the rest of Australia at the time, I stopped to tune into the Prime Minister’s daily press conference.
" In the past, the majority of calls were from customers wanting a service and we provided it. It was fairly transactional…. now the team was suddenly dealing with emotional and challenging conversations.”
When I heard him announce Australians experiencing financial distress could withdraw up to $A10,000 from their superannuation, I immediately knew it was going to be a challenging week.
The next day was one in my working life I will never forget. My team, which manages superannuation related customer queries, was flooded with calls from customers anxious to access their funds.
Call volumes were already well above average due to the pandemic-related market uncertainty. But the day after the Prime Minister’s announcement, not only did call volumes skyrocket, each call generally took longer than usual as customers struggled to understand the process for accessing their superannuation. At that time, things were moving so quickly that it wasn’t generally well-known that requests need to go via the Australian Tax Office. And that there would be a four-week delay before the process would be in place. And even longer before they would receive their funds.
Apart from the volume of calls, the thing that really stood out for me on that Monday and in the weeks following was the nature of the conversations my people were having with customers. In the past, the majority of our calls were from customers who were wanting a service which we subsequently provided. It was generally a fairly transactional relationship.
Suddenly we had customers wanting to share very personal stories with us, so the team was now dealing with the new emotions, stories and challenges our customers were facing due to the pandemic.
Some of these stories were tough to hear. These customers weren’t making things up, they genuinely needed this money, and some would plead their case in the hope of getting “ahead of the queue” which the team did their best to manage.
However, many weren’t just looking for assistance or for help – they were looking for someone to listen. On top of other regular servicing calls, our team were helping 15 to 20 of these customers in extreme circumstances in a day. That's highly unusual.
It was very clear the pandemic had a real impact on many of our customers and I’m glad we’re available to help in some way.
Building a sense of community among physically distanced teams
While we always had the capability for people to work from home, prior to COVID-19 usually only eight to 10 people did so on any given day. Now there are more than 250 people taking calls from home, on top of the staff who continued to work from ANZ offices.
The downside of this is that many of our people were sitting at home, managing call after call on their own, wondering if they were the only one taking the really difficult and emotional calls from customers.
Dealing with difficult conversations all day on your own can certainly take its toll on your emotional health. The sense of support you get being in the office among colleagues can’t be underestimated. It helps you pick yourself up and get ready to face the next call. You feel like you’re part of a community that’s looking out for each other and dealing with the same issues so you don’t feel quite so alone.
To maintain everyone’s mental wellbeing while our staff were dealing with these increasingly emotional conversations and working remotely from their colleagues, we had to really make sure our people still felt connected and part of something bigger.
My leadership team and I have made a conscious effort to constantly communicate with our teams, much more than usual. We’ve been having more informal one-on-ones and catch ups, and reaching out to people both over the phone, email and teleconference.
We are also trying to maintain a level of connection and social activity for our teams. It may not seem like that big a deal but it’s really important. Also, unlike other departments, we can't simply pull everyone off the phone for half an hour to have a social Zoom chat so we’ve had to be creative and have been trialling different things.
As a leader, my natural inclination with the volume and types of calls we were receiving would be to travel between our different contact centre locations and talk to my people face-to-face but with COVID-19 restrictions in place I couldn't do that. So I had to get a lot better at gauging how people were feeling without that physical connection.
I’ve also learnt that emails can usually wait but if someone is calling me, they probably can’t. So now I always prioritise calls over email. I like a chat but even so, I feel like I’ve never talked so much on the phone in my life! A real positive to come out of this is that I feel like I know many of the team much better on a personal level.
The new normal
We’re still taking well above average numbers of calls but I feel like the team has a good connection and rhythm going now between those working from the office and those at home.
We’ve also been able to hire more people into the team to meet demand and COVID has forced us to adapt our training methods which has turned out to be a very positive thing. In fact, I’d say we’ve advanced about 12 months in one month in terms of our training strategy and approach.
Under the social distancing rules, instead of training new staff in a small meeting room like we would normally, we’ve used video and other technologies, as well as setting up screens and speakers across a whole floor so those working from the office could learn from their desks. This way, we’ve been able to train a larger group of staff.
This has been a strange period for us all. In particular, some of the distressing calls and stories we’ve heard from Australians really doing it tough as a result of the pandemic will stay with many of us for some time. However, we’ll also remember the incredible resilience they’ve demonstrated at the same time.
I’m proud of how our team has stepped up to play their part in supporting our customers through one of the most stressful periods of their lives.
David Lovell is Head of Contact Centres for Wealth Australia at ANZ