The Cost of Living Crisis – Part 3

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There is so much concern amongst both front-line staff, managers, and all our customers, about the rising cost of living, and the increasing difficulties of making ends meet.

In the third and final part of this editorial series, we explore what this means for the contact centre and customer service sector, both for the customers and our people, the effect it is having, and will continue to have, on our People and Customers, and what can Employers do to support, with a range of views from those running operations, and those supporting people and vulnerable customers. 

How do we 'define' Vulnerable Customers?

“In Board rooms, operations meetings, and vulnerable customer teams up and down the country, and globally, this same topic is on the agenda” says Carolyn Delehanty, Vulnerable Customer Experience Consultant at Delehanty Consulting.

“Vulnerable customers” is a phrase used between businesses and regulators, but through experience, advisors have learned not to use it when talking to customers. It’s been met with many-a-gasp from customers with whom the phrase doesn’t resonate. “I’m not one bit vulnerable I’ll have you know; I play tennis 3 times a week and am living life to the full!” was the chorus in the contact centre through the early 2000’s.

So, for years now, the debate has run on about how to refer to this group of customers. Alternatives include:

  •  Customers in vulnerable circumstances
  •  Hard to reach customers
  •  Extra care customers
  •  Extra support customers

Listening to customers frequently as I do through my engagements with clients, none of these really sit any better with customers. Further, when I invited a group of vulnerable customers from an insurance firm to a customer focus group, I asked how they felt about the term “vulnerable customers” being applied to them. About half were completely accepting of it – “That’s what other companies refer to me as so it’s fine” and the other half were just accepting of it – “Well, yes I guess by virtue of our disability/circumstances, we are vulnerable”. Not one customer objected to being called a vulnerable customer.

So don’t get caught up on this and use your time to better effect to get on and make improvements they’ll value. I’m not for a minute dismissing the importance of language but it’s definitely not their biggest pain point so it shouldn’t be yours!”.

How do we 'identify' our Vulnerable Customers?

“This is another challenge facing many organisations currently. Rightly so too. If people who might be vulnerable aren’t recognising themselves as such, what hope do we have when talking to them for just 5, 10 or 15 minutes?”, says Carolyn.

But all too often the majority of efforts are focused on frontline advisor’s listening skills whereas significant gains can be made by looking further afield. As a CEO from a water company recently said, “If you’re not triangulating your data, you’re missing a big opportunity and frankly, you’re letting your customers down.”

You’ll have a wealth of data about each of your customers already, for example::

  •  Where a customer pays a bill or makes a deposit, on the same date + or – 1 day, it’s reasonable to assume that’s near their pay day.  
  •  Where a customer engages after 5pm each time, might they be a 9-5 worker?  Or after 8pm, have they got kids?
  •  If their calls/live chats take longer than normal, might they have a poorer understanding of what’s going on?

You probably know more than you realise. But you can also acquire further data externally to build the picture of that customer’s potential needs. Common sources include:

  •  Government bodies e.g., Department for Work and Pensions, local councils etc
  •  Charities who are advising your customers (through signposting or not)
  •  Open Banking
  •  Housing Associations
  •  Data Suppliers e.g., Royal Mail, Experian, Equifax etc

Data triangulation is an ongoing process of thinking about what you need to know about your customers, what data could inform that knowledge, finding it from credible, reliable sources and using it to build the picture of what’s going on in their lives.”

How can we support agents when dealing with vulnerable customers?

“Additional training focused on dealing with vulnerable and distressed customers that are struggling in the current climate is a positive step for all front line and second line support personnel.” says Simon Hunter, Chief Commercial Officer at Sensée.

“This training should focus on showing people how to be more empathic, of the importance of spending more time on calls (where necessary), and on how to make sure people mirror the language of customers to provide positive reassurance that they are being listened to. Collecting together details of where people can get additional help is another positive step. This may include local charities, food charities, and a directory of charities that specialise in, for example, mental health, financial and family support.”

What options are there to better support agents?

“Providing an option to work-from-home (WFH) is one way an organisation can reduce daily costs for employees struggling with cost of living increases. Homeworking not only removes the time wasted travelling to and from work – which in itself could have financial implications if that time could be put to better use – but also the expense of car, bus and/or train travel” says Simon.

It can also create savings in other ways, such as reducing lunch costs and removing some of the usual daily tea/coffee, snack costs. For organisations that can’t provide a WFH option, there are many other options too. Such as extending work hours, subsidising the cost of travel to and from work, or even setting up a low cost local company bus service.”

“Introducing gig talent (GigCX) may help”, says Megan Neale,  Founder and COO at Limitless.

“While GigCX may not be a silver bullet to solve issues surrounding the employee experience, it does have the commercial benefit of allowing businesses to invest savings back into their organisation to combat the rising costs of talent acquisition and retention. 

It also delivers empathy-driven customer service in an extremely flexible model that can augment customer support. Companies are increasingly aware of its benefits: 72% of customer service managers that we surveyed across the US and UK have either added or plan to add gig talent (GigCX) to their customer service and engagement models.”

The income GigCX Experts earn is also for many a helpful supplement that can bridge gaps financially, and because they only take on the tasks they want, GigCX Experts don’t tend to report burnout as an issue. 

Our recent survey of over 600 GigCX Experts shows that 96% are happy to continue with GigCX for the foreseeable future, 90% say GigCX has improved their lives, and 83% say that GigCX has had a positive effect on their mental wellbeing. It’s proof positive of just how important flexibility is in today’s changing customer service landscape.”

How do we retain our people?

“So, what can you do to hang on to your best talent and keep your employee attrition rate down? It’s all about feeding your people the things they need to be engaged and fulfilled workers”, says Lee Russell, Client Solutions Director at Davies Learning Experiences.

“The three key ‘food sources’ to focus on are:

1. Trust. Empower. Repeat.

Trust and empowerment are a match made in heaven. You can’t give or receive one without the other. Let’s remind ourselves of the key components of trust:

–  Motives: understanding people’s why and not just assuming you know the reason they turn up to work every day.

–  Competence: nobody likes it when knowledge or skills fade. Understand what makes your people shine and what development they need.

–  Common purpose: ultimately, what are we all striving for? This is different to motives; motives are personal and common purpose is shared and is focussed on the collective good.

2. Communication and trust

Openness and transparency are vital tools in an employer’s toolbox. Developing a culture that allows open and honest conversations helps to build trust not only between the employer and the employee but between colleagues. As many organisations are operating the hybrid working model, you should consider enabling channels to invite colleagues to bond with one another to create a positive working environment. 

3. Work-life balance

Having a balance between work and home keeps people happy and enables them to feel more control of their lives. These lines are often blurred but as an employer it’s your duty to introduce policies that facilitate and encourage a healthy work-life balance. Creating a healthy balanced environment will benefit your business with increased employee retention and happier, less stressed workforce with boosted morale.

There’s no getting away from it, employee retention is a challenge for all organisations right now, irrespective of industry. The savvy businesses out there will take the steps necessary to improve their operations and hold on to their talented and valued employees. But an effective employee retention strategy cannot just be a flash in the pan. It takes commitment and consistency from those leading it to really work, and to ensure that your most valued people stick around.”

How will this affect the outsourcers?

“The cost-of-living crisis puts an additional pressure on an industry that has already been hit hard, how we react to this and ultimately re-emerge following it will be reliant on strong people processes and an unwavering focus on CX”, says Colleen McCann, Business Development Director at HGS UK.

“Where brands partner with organisations to deliver their CX / Contact Centre the differentiator for who you partner with should be the focus on people. How does this organisation look after their people? This ultimately will reflect how your customers are treated. A minimum wage, “rack ‘em and stack ‘em” approach won’t drive the customer experience that will attract and retain customers, growing your brand. The world is very different from 10 years ago (arguably, even 5 years) and customer experience should be at the heart of every business.

The outsourcing industry can’t achieve this alone. We need the support of our partners and brands to help make the difference. In situations where margins are tight and growth is important, costs are squeezed in a race to the bottom which isn’t sustainable in this current environment. If retaining and attracting customers is the crux of your business, then providing the right CX needs to be valued as an investment. A long-term view on the future growth and opportunity of the business won’t look to squeeze CX costs (ultimately front-line salaries) but will create a future focused customer centric view that will generate revenue through memorable customer experiences.”

“The challenges facing businesses and their customer service agents today have shifted: contact volume is higher and more digital and issues are often more difficult and critical to the customer relationship”, says Megan.

“A deeper urgency and sense of empathy on the part of agents is required. Coupled with the increasing costs of living, agents need more support than ever before if they are to stay in their roles and to provide continuous high quality customer service. If companies don’t start thinking in this employee-centric way, they may find that the difficulties of talent management are making a material impact on the business. 

Our recent research has shown us that 44% customer service managers are finding hiring employees is harder now than it was pre-pandemic, one-third cite staff resignations have increased in comparison to pre-pandemic levels, and 62% say they have had to increase recruitment spend in order to meet staffing minimums.” 

A final cautionary note on vulnerable customers

“The ambition to identify all your vulnerable customers and to improve the name for them comes from the right place – the desire to serve them right – but don’t let it hold you back from making tangible experience improvements for those you’re already aware of”, concludes Carolyn.

You know who the vast majority of your vulnerable customers are already.  You’ve also got a pretty good idea what their biggest pain points are.  Use Inclusive Service Design to define and evidence those pain points, inclusively and collaboratively redesign them, prototype them to prove the business case and then deploy the improvements rapidly to the delight of customers, colleagues …and commercials!

Let you not be the person who makes a suite of “improvements” none of which are noticed or valued by the majority of your vulnerable customers or improve the performance in your vulnerable customer measures.”

Thank you to our editorial contributors:

Carolyn Delehanty, Vulnerable Customer Experience Consultant at Delehanty Consulting

Simon Hunter, Chief Commercial Officer at Sensée

Megan Neale,  Founder and COO at Limitless

Lee Russell, Client Solutions Director at Davies Learning Experiences

Colleen McCann, Business Development Director at HGS UK

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