A paradigm shift is on the horizon for Contact Centres
In our season finale, Aileen Allkins, CEO and Founder of Aileen Allkins Consultancy (AAC) joins the pod booth to discuss whether the Customer Service Industry is on the precipice of a paradigm shift in the way they operate or whether businesses will go back to the way they were
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Guest Speaker - Aileen Allkins
Aileen Allkins is the CEO and Founder of Aileen Allkins Consultancy (AAC) which assists companies aspiring to differentiate by delivering a world class customer service experience. She has over 30 years’ experience transforming the customer experience of some of the world’s best-known technology companies.
Aileen established AAC to help businesses develop a continuous connection between the company, its people, culture and customers. It addresses the issues she spent decades resolving for leading software giants, including Microsoft and Hewlett Packard: how to increase customer and employee satisfaction while ensuring alignment to the company’s strategic and financial objectives.
If we don’t look at investing in training and technology to enable micro learning, how do we attract people to come into these jobs? How many new CX agents leave during their onboarding training period because it’s dull? How do you get them to come in and have the most amazing experience and feel that this is the place they want to work, learn and stay for at least a couple of years? It has to come from the top. As an industry we have got to think differently.
- Someone who has managed circa 25,000 agents how did you go about improving or maintaining employee engagement from an inhouse and outsourced perspective?
- Technology should be enabling the Customer Service workforce, yet we still see the frontline agents being undervalued and often underutilised. How do you believe the industry can improve in both these areas?
- Technology and automation = reduced simple contact meaning agents likely to have to deal with more complexity. Do you anticipate the role profile changing i.e. more pay, more skills required etc? And critically do your see companies reinvesting the cost saving back into upskilling staff?
- On the people front – How do you think the industry goes about raising the profile and change people’s perception of the Contact Centre Industry?
- GigCX is the buzzword in Contact Centres circles at the moment but what is stopping companies adopting the use of GigCX workers to scale the contact centre workforce when needed?
- Ethics is an emotive topic in business at the moment, but why is it imperative that the leaders in the CX space take more of an ethical approach to outsourcing as part of their longer term CX strategy?
- Looking into your crystal ball, what do you think will be the biggest change we will see in the Contact Centres in the next 5 years?
Simon – Welcome to CX Chat with Matt and Simon, the podcast series where we discuss some of the hottest topics facing customer experience professionals today. My name is Simon Thorpe. And as ever I’m joined by my colleague Matthew Dyer. And if you haven’t tuned in before, we like to describe ourselves as two chaps with big opinions and bags of enthusiasm for the CX industry. So Matty, how the hell are you how are your Holly Bob’s treating you?
Matt – I’m good thanks. It’s nice to have a few weeks chilling out with the family in a different surrounding.
Simon – And you’re coming across loud and clear even though your currently camping at the moment. So this is very much recording on the go.
Matt – I’m actually in a static caravan tethering off the mobile phone. So fingers crossed.
Simon – There we go. Lesson learned that you really can podcast from anywhere, which we love the podcast, coming out from from holiday. And now sad to say this is the last episode of Series Two. And but we have a cracking theme to end on something we’ve been really excited about and a guest that well, want to introduce her, you’ll realise why we’ve been so excited. And but yeah, cracking same, isn’t it Matty?
Matt – Yeah, definitely. I don’t know about you. But I’m having loads of conversations around automation and homeworking, which are two topics that are often talked about, but never really acted on as they’re seeing is just too hard, or a compliance nightmare. I think COVID-19 has turned the contact centre on Ted really. And these concepts and a few others, often on the periphery, now appear to be must haves for every contact centre. And from speaking to lots of organisations, they’re really keen to understand the the operational impact of both.
Simon – Yeah, absolutely. And I suppose that the framing that we’ve we’ve called today’s episode is are we on the precipice of a kind of paradigm shift for the contact centre industry as a whole. And for those very thoughts and topics that matter just mentioned, we, we wanted to get someone on the show who truly understands, and, you know, this impact on an organisation and, and some of the, you know, is willing to give a candid view of whether the customer service industry really is, you know, about to change, or you know, when hopefully we finally get back to normal, will we go back to the way we were. So without further ado, and I’m absolutely thrilled to introduce a lady who is a true experts in the customer service industry. So let me just give you heard her background, she has worked for some, well, absolutely ginormous worldwide brands, including the likes of Hewlett Packard, where she was the VP of worldwide software support at Microsoft. Now I’ve said this twice, she led a team of over 25,000 frontline engineers and frontline staff. I mean, it’s just absolutely huge and interestingly she’s explored the whole concept of the gig economy and workforce something that we’ve touched on the podcast previously. And she’s more recently become a senior advisor for the Boston Consulting Group in the CX space and at the same time has branched out to create her very own consultancy business. Let’s take a deep breath after that huge introduction. But please welcome Aileen Allkins who is just a superstar guest to help us finish the episode so Aileen big welcome to the pod booth.
Aileen – Thank you so much. I feel so so welcome.
Simon – You’ve done so so much. It is an incredible CV that you have.
Aileen – Yeah, I’ve I’ve been very fortunate to have found a career I’m doing something that I just love. And you know in many career discussions with with my managers over several years, topic conversations around you know, what’s next and why not branch out into a different functional area have always resulted in me concluding the running customer services support is what I love, and I would retire and being a CX leader. So here I am.
Matt – Yeah, question for you Aileen. Sabio sees Boston Consulting Group as the North Star from a consultancy perspective. The question I’ve got is how did you manage to get that advisory gig with them?
Aileen – Fairly simply, I’m at my time at Microsoft, I actually engaged with BCG pretty early on because given the size and scale of the organisation, I knew that I would need some help really sort of understanding what was there and looking at it more strategically. So I worked with them over the course of the four years that I was at Microsoft, and then when it was time for me to move on and I let them know that I would be setting up my own consultancy, they approached me and asked me if I would be interested in being a senior advisor with them. So, of course, I jumped at the opportunity because it means I get to work with some amazing companies, great brand names, and all entirely to do with customer support, customer service, customer experience. So again, it was a great opportunity for me.
Simon – It must be I mean, I said to you, when when we first met, I’m hugely jealous of that, the things you’re doing so yeah. Should we get on with it then folks? Because I think this, this is a huge grounds to cover here. And we, you know, as ever, we want to get stuck into the meat of the topic. Aileen, I, first of all, we’d love to pick your brains about something because I mean, we will know we’ve had lots and lots of of service and CX leaders on the podcast, but we don’t believe have had anyone who has, in their career managed such a huge workforce. I mean, over 25,000 frontline. staffs, engineers, agents, I mean, that is just gargantuan. And I’d love to pick your brains. First of all, I’m sure everyone would. How would you go about trying to improve and maintain employee engagement? You know, I’m presuming you were using in house outsource operations as well. I mean, that just feels like a monstrous monstrous piece of work straight off the bat.
Aileen – You know, it isn’t it isn’t. And first of all, it means you cannot personally know your organisation at the level that, you know, you would have known if you only had, you know, 1000 people or 2000 people. So, you’ve really got to have sort of strategies in place for being very closely connected. But without it being sort of personal one to one interaction. So I always just apply a very few simple guiding principles, when I’m leading, you know, scale organisations. And the first one that I always apply is, I truly believe in the link between employee satisfaction and customer satisfaction. So if you truly believe in that, then you lead on to the next sort of guiding principle, which is the the people at the frontline delivering service to your clients are your most important asset. So I always look at, you know, my organisation is, that’s what I have, I have people. So with those two things put to one side, I then also conclude that my insource people are as important or my outsource or as important as my insource, because they are touching my customers representing the brand as equally as an employee would. And in fact, you know, the customer service departments are usually touching your brand, and your customers more than anybody else on a daily basis. So I always, first of all, had the guiding principle of being that they are my most important asset. And then with that, how to really keep them engaged and motivated. The first thing I always try to do is to and again, you need an amazing internal comms team. And you have to dedicate resources to sort of employee engagement programmes, it doesn’t just happen by accident. So really investing in, you know, resources and programmes to focus on employee engagement. But I try to focus on helping that those frontline teams see the relevance of what they do, and the impact that they have. So it’s connecting the dots for them, if you do this thing with this customer, here’s how all those dots Connect, and that’s delivering on the company’s mission statement. And, and I think when people can see how what they do matters, and it makes them feel different, it makes them feel more engaged, and then also building pride. And, you know, don’t you want to go home at the end of the day? Well, we’re all home now anyway, but if you don’t you want to be able to say to your family, um, you know, I did something amazing today, already with this. And, and if you imagine what it’s like, for a lot of contact centres is a, it’s a really tough job. Some place people are not that nice to them, how do they go home at the end of the day and say, I’m proud of what I did today. So I like to help people build pride, have empathy for them, because the job is not easy. So really understanding what that job is like, great communication, and then aligning on and sticking to some core values. So for example, a core value I would look at would be trust. And I know we all say that, but trust your frontline team to do the right thing for the customer. Now some won’t, okay, but we tend to, we tend to try and over control the whole organisation because a few people don’t do the job well. And in fact, you take away all empowerment and all creativity and all desire for them to use their natural behaviours to do a great job for the customer because we try to over control. So I try. Those are my sort of guiding principles that seemed to work.
Simon – It’s so good to hear. And before we move on, I’d love to hear whether you did any you mentioned right at the top of that answer, then that you were absolutely tuned into the idea that employee satisfaction and customer satisfaction were linked, did you this is something we’ve talked about on the podcast previously, did you do anything and to kind of evidence that in organisations you were working in, I mean, I obviously gut feel, we kind of implicitly know that those two things align. But I’ve wondered if you if you’ve done anything to kind of do the maths there. And particularly, you know, in these big organisations,
Aileen – So both at Microsoft and HP, I mean, very simple math, Employee SAT went up year, on year, every year, and in some places, you know, outperforming the average across the rest of the companies, and at the same time customers SAT year on year increase. Now, that to me is very simple. It is very difficult to put a direct correlation on and the reason being is because you’re also doing a million other things, than just customer SAT. So you know, that hearing always is the challenge for you know, leaders of call centres and support organisations that how to prove a direct connection between an action that you took and the impact on the customer. But the way I look at it is very broad to say employee SAT goes up, as you look at it through, you know, your daily, your pulse surveys, and your all your sources of getting employee feedback. At the same time you look at the graph the line graph for customer SAT, and if they’re both trending in the same direction, you can draw a conclusion very difficult to prove direct correlation, because of all the other things you do.
Matt – A question I’ve got is you touched on, I guess, people being the most important asset and I think we’re definitely much proponents of that. But technology should really be enabling the customer service workforce. Yeah, still see the frontline agents being undervalued. underutilised. What’s your view, around what the industry should be doing to improve both these areas?
Aileen – Yeah, I think on the technology side, you know, despite the fact that I’ve worked for large technology companies, I’ve yet to see, and by the way, other companies I mean, you know, I now work with, it’s very interesting to me, because a lot of them are big technology companies, and I’ve yet to find a support or customer service organisation that is delighted with the tools and technology that they have, to enable them to do a great job. So, you know, the story that the cobblers children, that tends to be, you know, very, very prevalent in the in the sort of tech industry in terms of the tooling. And what I would say, though, is that I think, you know, coming out of what we’re not out of COVID, but, you know, we’re out of the worst of it were that you had that massive need to move everybody to work from home, I actually think it has helped put a spotlight on the value of the customer service organisations. Um, you know, I’ve written a few papers, I had one recently on the good, the bad, and the ugly, of, you know, how companies have managed during COVID. And some companies have, you know, really stepped up and customers and differentiated through how they’ve served customers and, and others have not, and, but I think it’s put a spotlight on how important Customer service is. Because as consumers we’ve been we’ve needed to access customer service functions much more than we’ve we used to, but it’s also helped accelerate a lot of digital transformations. And, you know, a number of leaders that, again, as I engage with them, they talk about their digital transformation plans that, you know, we’re we’re due to sort of take place over the next 18 to 24 months, kind of got accelerated into three or four month period. You know, companies have had to move more to, you know, online, and, you know, online customer engagement, online buying and all the services that go around that. So it’s accelerated. And but I still think going back to you made the comment of undervalued and I think underutilised and I don’t think that underutilised in us they’re not busy, but I think underutilised in terms of what value they can bring to the company. I, I worry that I don’t think enough CEOs and truly truly see their customer service organisation as a differentiator. I think they say it in the same way that they say diversity is really critical to our business, right. It will hear when you sit in these senior meetings, you’ll hear the following the number one problem In our businesses diversity, and then you’ll hear later, the number one priority in our business is data privacy and security. Right, then you’re here, the number one priority is customer experience. So everything is important. Um, and, you know, not that I would like to be in their positions trying to run, you know, companies with with all of these sort of, sort of competing priorities. But I think, in a way, I think a lot of the time lip service is played to how important Customer service is, I think they know it is but how much is it truly invested in and truly used as a differentiator strategically used as a differentiator? I think there’s still a long way to go there. And then, you know, you on the underutilised, I think, as I said earlier, you look at the, you know, in some places, like at Microsoft, it’s, it’s millions of touch points with customers over the course of a week, and, you know, multiply that up through the year, all of those touch points are an opportunity to reinforce a brand message or an opportunity to deliver incremental value to the customer. And they’re just not leveraged and again in a strategic and scaled way. So I’m not seeing a light at the end of the tunnel on those things, yet, I am seeing technology accelerate in terms of enabling the frontlines because the move to work from home has really shone a light on some of the very inadequate sort of tooling and infrastructure that a lot of companies have had unfortunately.
Simon – It’s a such an interesting topic, there’s and I agree with you, I think we’re in such a, because of COVID, with technology moved on so quickly, and forced the hand of lots of organisations, but question for you. In respect to the workforce, and the front line, there’s lots of technology coming through that is designed to strip out the simplistic and, you know, less involved enquiries so that customers can automate and do the, you know, work to their own steam, which is fantastic. But that’s naturally just going to drive more complexity through to your front line. And in all of the years I’ve worked in contact centres, it still remains that contact centres tend to be this kind of transient labour. You know, it’s a, it’s increasingly getting tougher and tougher. And as a as a place of work, as you say, you could spend the whole day getting shouted out, you’ve often got to navigate 15 different systems to get to an answer, you’re not necessarily empowered, you have to, you know, clock in and clock out when you go into the bathroom, you know, we’re not necessarily encouraging these people to be the kind of faces of our of our of our brands. And, and I, I just wonder what your opinion is, in terms of how do we change that, because it’s fundamentally going to have to change or we’re going to, you know, the balance is going to tip in the wrong direction. But what’s your take on this?
Aileen – Yeah, I, first of all, I think it comes back to the comment earlier about, unless the CEO and the top, you know, the top leader in the company, unless they see their customer service organisation, truly as a differentiator, or even not as a differentiator, even just as a way of, you know, compete competing equally. Honestly, I think unless it comes from the top, the industry cannot change it, because a lot of customer service organisations, especially in bigger companies, you know, they’re pushed further down the organisation, they’re not actually sitting around the leadership table with the CEO, and the CEO, direct reports. And so I think it’s got to start coming from the top of the organisation. Now, there are many amazing CX leaders out there, who know what they want to do, who really would love to change things, who’ve got great ideas and great vision. But again, without the support of the organisation, because it’s transformative. You know, if you think about what you’ve just said, in terms of, you know, automation is eliminating a lot of the simpler volume, you know, bots are doing that AI is doing that. And people are, you know, you’re moving work to self service more to communities, and it’s changing, it absolutely is changing the profile of work coming in, in turn, that that increases the cost of the individual. All right, increases the training that’s needed, it means attrition, in that, you know, typically I think the contact centre industries got one of the highest attrition rates and from a from an industry point of view, and the technology sector has got this got the highest. So you combine those two, if you have technology contact centres, you’ve just got like no chance. And so if you’re constantly training people in roles that now require higher skills and higher profiles, you might need three or four or five, six months worth of training, and course, then you’re losing people, it’s going to be more and more challenging to deliver great service. And again, it has to come from the top. So if honestly, if budgets don’t translate to looking at the profile, and really thinking about CX in a different way. And I think if we don’t look at investing in training and technology to enable, like micro learning, and because gone are the days when you go and sit in a classroom for six weeks, and by the way, that was always really boring anyway. And you talk about, you know, how do we attract people to come into these jobs? I mean, you probably know better than I do, how many new CX agents leave during their onboarding training period? Because it’s so dull. How do you get them to come in and have the most amazing experience and feel that this is the place that I want to work and, you know, I’m going to learn here and I want to stay here, you know, at least for a couple of years, until, you know, I can learn sufficiently. But it’s got it has got to come from the top. And then we as an industry, I think, have got to think differently as well. I mean, how many companies pay their outsourced suppliers by the minute? How on earth, I don’t know how you can expect people to feel excited, motivated, deliver the great experience when they’re on the clock, by the minute, the objective is to get you off the call from the customer as quickly as possible. You’ve got to really change the entire financial model. I think, and again, I’m not entirely sure I’m seeing that happening.
Simon – You know, I think it’s going to take some real bravery for us to change this whole thinking as an industry and not just, you know, bravery in the in the dimensions of a CX leader, but also, you know, financial people and finance people have been brave, CEOs been brave. I mean, yeah, I haven’t seen much of it happen. Aileen. But have you come across that at all?
Aileen – Yeah, I think I mean, I had an, you know, my own experience of trying something new when I was at Microsoft, um, and it was, you know, I think, incredibly successful. But a really good example of as you just said, you got to change the entire business model. So, you know, what we did is looking at some of the consumer support, and you know, where traditionally, you pay by the minute or you pay by case, and I wanted to see if we could experiment with saying what would happen if you took away all the traditional measures of handling times and response times. And if you just said to the frontline teams, you figure out your objective is to deliver the best experience for customers that get them to be the happiest they can possibly be. And it doesn’t, we don’t really mind whether that takes you five minutes, or 20. Because at the end of the day, the belief being it will all balance out somewhere along the line. And so what we did is we took him a headcount of 1000 people, two brand new sites and with brand new partners, and that was important because and that was outsourced partners. That was important, because I didn’t want any legacy, any preconceived ideas, any Well, I know that this is how they like to work, because this is what we’ve experienced in the past, I wanted completely Greenfield sites with Greenfield thinking, and so to sites 701, 300 in the other locations that, you know, we’re very unusual. And paying for the headcount, as opposed to by minute or by case, and it was great, because we delivered the highest customer SAT from those two sites, and, and very high engagement from the workforce. But what did it do? It drove up things like cost per case. But what we weren’t really thinking through differently was, but the productivity is different. And you’ve got to not look at it as cost per case, you’ve got to look at it as a sort of wider approach and say, you know, are we getting through the cases? Because, are we not getting as many cases because we’re educating the customer during that call, so they’re not coming back for the second call, because very often, you know, you don’t fix things first time, though, but it takes the whole company, you know, down to the even to the CFO, who could be used to looking at traditional measures of cost per incident and average handling times as the way of setting budgets. And and so it’s not easy, but it you know, we had a really good stab at it. And again, it was a great experience to do something like that.
Simon – That’s amazing I mean you truly were brave. That is that is a staggering, staggering story. Great that you’ve put, you put yourself out there to do that and also prove that what you hoped you’d prove which is phenomenal.
Matt – Just on that Aileen. So when you’ve done that really good experiment, then later on using the gig economy. How did that present itself from a stats perspective? Was that a positive move? or What was your thoughts?
Aileen – Yeah, we’ve had nothing, let’s say we’ve had at Microsoft, we had nothing but good experiences with moving to the gig economy. And so first of all, everything, every part of the business that we use the gig for, we saw a decrease costs and an increased customer SAT. Okay, so why would you not use it when those two, those two things, you know, work together, there are challenges with it, because, you know, you are constrained by what type of work because of, you know, a data privacy, customer information, you know, you’re limited to what sort of work you can give to the gig economy. And also, the question of, if the work is the sort that doesn’t require access to log files or customer data, that’s really a great target for automation, as well. But my belief, always, by the way, on the automation side of things is, I would I always want to give customers a choice as to, would you prefer to be served by a person? Whether that’s, you know, whichever channel that might be through.Or would you prefer to try and help yourself because not everybody wants self service. And, you know, some people would prefer their first point of contact to be with a person. So, gig still has a really relevant place. And I think it’s, I think, is only just beginning and in terms of what it can do, I think not enough CX leaders even know, actually, about the the option of using a gig workforce in their in their sort of entrance CX experience. So but for me, it was it’s been a great experience.
Simon – Well, that is a whole topic in itself that we’d love to cover in more detail. But as ever, with our podcasts, we’re starting to run to the end of, of time, and 18 to finish ways it would be great to get your perspective on, you know, if you imagine you had a crystal ball. You know, we’ve gone through just gargantuan changes, you quite rightly said over the last six months, which is probably changed the world of contact centres forever as it is. If you look maybe five years ahead, in your opinion, what are the changes that you expect to see around a kind of service culture in the contact centre space?
Aileen – Yeah, if I had a crystal ball, and I think there’s two crystal balls, one is what I would love to see. And then one is what you will see. What I want to see, you know, finally, digital transformation accelerated and, you know, the, you know what’s possible. And, you know, if I take an example, in the banking sector, I recently created an account with Monzo. My God, how amazing it was good enough, easy thing to do. And I love it, I actually just go on and move money around I just because I love playing with my account.
Simon – I do the same with Starling.
Aileen – But the reason I have an account with Monzo is because I was really unhappy with my other bank, HSBC, because of how painful experience was just trying to do the simplest of things. And I got so fed up with it. In the end, I thought, right, I’ve had enough. Now the point of all of that was tech I know that technology exists, and it can be used, it can be deployed to deliver great experience, because some companies are doing it. And the companies that are not doing it are now we’re starting to look unfavourably at them because our assumption is that they don’t care enough about the customer experience to do something about it. We know the reality is, is really, really, really difficult to rip out old systems and put new ones in. So it’s a lot easier if you’re a new company to start from the beginning. But I think rolling forward, companies are going to have to make some hard choices. I think they’re going to lose customers because we’re very open to just taking our business elsewhere. So they’re going to have to make some decisions to invest and either risk losing customers because they don’t or delaying maybe revenues whilst they’re in the transition, but there’s going to be some tough choices. And and I think you will see some stars coming out of it the companies that are and you know, they are realising that CX does matter and is a differentiator. And I think you’re gonna see winners and losers really standing out a lot more starkly than perhaps they are today. I’m meeting so many companies, relatively small tech companies who are developing software to enable the agents I love them all even if I don’t know whether the products work that well or not. The the concept I love because there are tools to enable and empower, not all about, you know, tracking and measuring. And, you know, it’s how do I empower How do I enable, and the fact that I’m seeing so many of them over just over the last few months, and they seem to their businesses seem to be accelerating, I have to believe that the crystal ball would show the best of the best call centres are going to be using technology in in the enabling of the workforce, not the replacing of the workforce. That would be what I would like to see as well.
Simon – Well said, well said indeed, well, Aileen, what a fantastic way to finish season two, and to have someone with with your knowledge and experience and have done it on such a big scale with such global businesses. I mean, I can’t think of a better way that we could have finished so thank you so so much for for giving up your time and, and sharing some of your insights with us. It’s been really, really great. Have you enjoyed it? I never asked you whether you’re a regular on podcast or not.
Aileen – I have enjoyed it. You’re very great host both of you.
Simon – Thank you.
Aileen – So I am not too much of a regular on podcast. So maybe this is something I can do more of.
Simon – There we go. You should be. Mattie, what a great one today.
Matt – I thought it was brilliant. I like the concept of having more bravery to try new things and have a new open mind. I think that’s that is definitely lacking from conversations we have. So hopefully people will tune in, have a listen and kind of think, well, if we can do it at scale at 25,000 people then, a call centre with 200 people, it’s probably worth ago, so.
Simon – Absolutely. Absolutely. Well, once again, thank you so much. And as we said, this is the last in in the season for season two, a huge thank you to all of our guests that have taken the time to join us and an even bigger thank you to everyone that’s listened. And just just to finish with I’m actually leaving or have left Sabio now and so I am taking on a new role with a company called PegaSystems and, and I start very soon. So we are we’re going to put a pin in it in terms of the podcast for a little while Matt and I have loved doing this. And we certainly hope we’re going to be back and hopefully in the new year in some form or another so this will be the last for for a few months time. So when for those of you who have been tuning in and supporting the podcast over the many episodes, we’re really really thrilled that you’ve you’ve taken the time to listen and as ever, we hope you stay safe and and do get in touch with your feedback. Let us know how what you thought of it and Aileen’s on LinkedIn. We’re on LinkedIn. So please do get in touch but for now. Thanks for listening, take care and goodbye.