19 January 2021
2021 is here and hoping everyone has had an enjoyable holiday season and wishing you all a happy new year.
Alongside the good feeling of a fresh start and the hopefulness for a better year ahead for all, I am very conscious of the inevitability of the ongoing impacts of the pandemic on consumers facing vulnerable circumstances and the crucial and sometimes demanding role of customer care complaint professionals.
During 2020, the impacts of the pandemic caused a huge flow-on effect across the complaint handling industry which largely responded with agility and care to meet the fast-changing needs of customers, many facing vulnerability and hardship, and some for the first time. It is fair to say that complaint professionals have been playing a vital role to what is akin to an essential community service in responding with empathy and support to consumers.
I have valued the opportunities I have had to speak with members throughout 2020 and as the year drew to a somewhat more positive close, there was increased focus on 2021 being an opportunity for new beginnings for complaint handling and customer relations. There is a clear intention and increased recognition of the importance of identifying dissatisfaction, acknowledging and valuing customer feedback, and bringing forward the lessons learned to inform systemic change and for consequent business transformation to become the ‘new norm’.
Our recent member survey Complaints: The New Most Valuable Asset revealed an industry under flux and more responsive to reviewing systems and processes to meet changing consumer needs. The SOCAP Future of Complaints Whitepaper presents the complete findings, and rightfully endorses the integral role of the complaint professional in providing respectful support and reaching equitable outcomes which gain consumer trust, and build brand reputation. It also identified the need for upskilling, empowerment, and resilience support to enable complaint professionals to continue effectively responding to customers.
The SOCAP Future of Complaints Whitepaper reveals that complaints professionals experienced an increase in caseloads, particularly since the start of COVID-19 in March 2020. A significant increase in customer vulnerability was reported by 83% of respondents, in terms of heightened emotions and anxiety, and or identified needs or requests for hardship support, with an expectation for the trend to continue through 2021. Complaint handlers are drawing on their key personal attributes supporting the exceptional interpersonal and communication demands of the role and recognise essential skills must be developed to support effective engagement and management of customer complaints, especially during a time of crisis. Human centred communication skills, such as listening, building rapport, and showing empathy are now not only expected but are intrinsically needed by consumers, especially those facing ongoing vulnerability.
The need for upskilling Complaint Handlers in a number of key areas has been stated by 45% of respondents, many highlighting the importance of frontline staff having essential customer service and complaint handling skills. As many customers may find themselves facing vulnerability for the first time, complaint handlers need to be skilled in the identification of vulnerability, as well as able to assess and implement effective customer solutions. As the pandemic continues to impact households, complaints handlers are apprehensive about continued and increased customer vulnerability triggering more instances of unreasonable complainant behaviour, causing added work stress and a strain on staff resilience. Effective strategies to maintain staff wellbeing and resilience is critical to supporting their ability to respond effectively to customers.
As households rebalance to a new normal post COVID-19 they will be looking to their public and private services for understanding and support which will play a role into the future for brand reputation and organisational regard from both consumer and staff. Complaint handlers are calling for more empowerment in their role with 32% wanting greater organisational recognition of the value of complaint handling resulting in greater autonomy to resolve complaints and influence business transformation.
Into 2021 we see a consumer experience-focussed future, reliant on empathic human skills delivered by industry-qualified complaints handling teams. It is time to build on the lessons drawn from royal commissions into consumer care, the quick pivot learnings to customer response through the pandemic; putting the interests of the customer first, building trust through engagement and product transparency, and support by an organisation that guarantees oversight and accountability.
21 July 2020
Will growing community kindness support improved ethical business behaviour?
The impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic continue to devastate individuals, families and communities across the globe yet simultaneously we have seen a rise in empathy as more people and organisations respond to people doing it tough, with kindness. During a crisis, the very best of human nature can rise to the challenge and it has been heartening to see and hear so many instances of resilience, empathy and willingness to support others.
Simultaneously, ethical business behaviour is rising to the forefront as the banks and many other organisations are reviewing their ethical practices and decision-making processes, post the findings of the royal commission to regain consumer trust and improve customer service. I am wondering if the increase in empathy we have seen to date during the bushfires and the coronavirus pandemic is the catalyst to support ethical business transformation across wider business operations.
Complaints industry steps up with ethical response
As SOCAP Chief Executive , I have been proud to witness so many member organisations working to understand the challenges and vulnerable situations customers are facing, and respond fairly, with empathy, care and business agility. Policies and procedures have been swiftly reviewed and changed to better support those in hardship and meet customer needs, and in return consumers have shown patience to increased waiting times and the challenges of adapting to new systems and ways of working. Members have also spoken about how there is a rethinking of the role of a KPI service structure, initially waived in recognition of the challenges to staff suddenly working from home during the pandemic. There are now further questions regarding the potential negative impact of result driven performance strategies on customer care and a clearer identification of true customer success and satisfaction.
There is clearly an across industry review of what is important in a new environment when business-as-usual just doesn’t make sense, nor outmoded processes that can exacerbate customer vulnerability. At SOCAP’s recent Customer Vulnerability Forum, there was much consensus to the idea that ‘if something good can come from the difficulties of this year, we will become a kinder society and empathise with those in our communities who are doing it tough’.
While we may hope for continued kindness and improved ethical business behaviours - new systems, processes, culture and quality assurance are essential. Organisations need to undertake targeted actions and across-organisational approaches to review existing cultures, values, attitudes and collective beliefs. Training in ethical complaint management and conflict of interest is essential to inform and inspire ethical practice and decision making that improves client service.
Ethics training upskills industry
In June, NAB announced an education program for its bankers including upskilling on ethics and conflict of interest. They have recognised that ethics training is one of the keys to reducing business risk and I see this as a real opportunity for business.
Artificial Intelligence (AI) and ethics
Artificial Intelligence and robots are expected to be the most impactful technology on commerce and the consumer experience, yet another area rife with ethical concerns with data bias the inherent challenge. Dr Catriona Wallace explains in SOCAP’s Consumer Directions, that the systems we require to sustain our lives are becoming increasingly reliant on machine-learning algorithms to function. “Bias in AI comes from two primary sources,’” explains Dr Wallace. “First, less than 10% of coders in the AI sector are women, which means that there is the potential for conscious or unconscious bias to be built into the algorithms. Second, the data that is used to train the algorithms, which is historical data, is often a reflection of the data that has been collected reflecting society’s past norms.” The major challenges of managing ethics in AI comes from a lack of regulation, legislation or guidelines to monitor its development and use. With AI technology being about five years ahead of the legal system, Dr Wallace recommends that in the interim businesses need to rely on frameworks, guidelines and ethical leadership.
The relevance of ethics to you and your organisation
Ethics relate to an individual's moral judgements about right and wrong. Decisions taken within an organisation may be made by individuals or groups, but whoever makes them will be influenced by the culture of the company. The decision to behave ethically is a moral one and employees must decide what they think is the right course of action. This may involve rejecting the route that would lead to the biggest short-term profits.
Along with good corporate governance, ethical behaviour is an integral part of everything an organisation does. Usually we see that having a creative and well managed corporate and social responsibility program is in the best interests of all stakeholders, which includes the consumers, shareholders, employees, suppliers, and other business partners in the supply chain.
Unethical behaviour, by comparison, may damage an organisation’s reputation and make it less appealing to stakeholders and employees.
An organisation’s reputation and the trust of customers are two of its most important assets. Organisations can protect their standing in the community and improve employee engagement by creating a workplace where ethical conduct is the norm.
SOCAP offers online training on Ethics for Complaint Professionals, essential training for business, professional and organisational ethics. This online course structured into three accessible learning modules addresses ethics and decision making, the connection between ethics and professional practice and the risks of conflict of interest.
15 June 2020
What I learned about DFV and the role of professional boundaries in providing service support
Attending a session last week of our Domestic and Family Violence (DFV) Awareness for Complaints Handling training was indeed sobering.
It is an excellent program delivered by Lifeline Harbour to Hawkesbury for our SOCAP members on the customer care and complaints management service needs imperative for our members to be aware of, in this vital area of customer contact and support.
As well as the core learning outcomes of working respectfully with all consumers and those experiencing vulnerability for any number of circumstances including domestic and family violence, the setting of boundaries was brought home to me.
For every compassionate complaints and customer care professional, asking of themselves and perhaps their organisation “what can I do, what should I do, what more can I do”, it is critical to understand where your boundaries as a complaints and service professional are, and why they are in place, for your, and your customer’s welfare.
Professional boundaries are those rules and limits that prevent the lines between the consumer professional and the customer from becoming blurred. They are set by legal, ethical, and organisational frameworks to maintain a safe working environment for both parties.
Particularly during these difficult times, due to the impacts of coronavirus, the importance of setting, implementing and holding professional boundaries is crucial as customer care and complaints handling professionals are met with more distressed customers facing vulnerable circumstances such as financial risk, hardship and health and welfare issues.
One of the circumstances which can lead to high levels of vulnerability is DFV. Tragically, since the coronavirus lockdown a significant increase in domestic and family violence has been reported by women’s support services across Australia. In NSW alone Women’s Safety NSW have seen a 40 per cent increase in the number of cases of domestic violence issues.
Lifeline Harbour to Hawkesbury’s Cutty Felton says in regards to boundaries: “Without imposing on consumer professionals the obligation to become experts in DFV or to act as counsellors or therapists, it is important that an ability to more readily recognise or accept what it is a client might be disclosing, becomes a necessary part of the skill set of everyone who engages with clients experiencing such vulnerability.”
She also endorses the importance of knowing and holding the boundaries of role and conversational boundaries. In SOCAP’s Skills Based Domestic Violence Awareness program, there is detailed discussion of the need to apply those procedures, processes and polices that might be in place and, particularly, of the unintended, and sometimes catastrophic, consequences of violating/ignoring policy.
Professional boundaries must be managed with care and empathy and by ensuring consistency between organisational policies and protocols and how and what is communicated to customers. For this to happen, staff need to know exactly what is and isn’t expected of them. When staff are fully informed and trained, they are equipped to actively protect themselves, and their consumers, whilst they are fulfilling their roles.
Of course, it is imperative that the factors contributing to vulnerability are well understood to ensure that the required care is provided. Special skills and communication frameworks are vital for identifying, assessing, and responding to customers in vulnerable circumstances. However, it is not the role of complaint professionals to act as a counsellor or to provide long-term support; it is to listen and hear, respond without judgement, with empathy, be culturally appropriate, provide fair processes, appropriate referrals and be empowering for the customer.
‘Raising Domestic Abuse Awareness: reducing stigma and raising safety for consumers and colleagues’ in the Spring 2019 edition of Consumer Directions.
14 April 2020
Connection supporting staff resilience
The need for support and connection between staff and management is greater than ever with so many people suddenly working from home during this challenging time. While the benefits for community safety are real, the negative impacts can include feelings of disconnection, social and professional isolation. The role of leaders is critical at this time to reach out to staff and create pathways for connection.
We are all experiencing increased stress due to the impacts of COVID-19, plus for many there are added complexities of working at home – especially for those with children. There is also a reported tendency for staff to be spending long hours at their computer without taking breaks. To add to that challenge, complaint handling professionals are faced with an escalation in calls and customers with various forms of vulnerability.
The recent SOCAP webinar on ‘Coronavirus and Complaint Handling’ on 26 March found our panellists: Dini Soulio, SA Consumer and Business Services; Juliette Mansted, Suncorp; and Justin Tsuei; addressing a range of issues including the vital role of managers in supporting and connecting with staff. They all stressed the importance of proactively reaching out to provide support to individuals and keep teams strong and resilient. Staff need to feel an ongoing connection to their organisation and to their managers and teams to cope with the remote arrangements and increased pressures.
Panellists agreed that main role of the leader at this time is to adapt and prioritise in order to look after staff, keep them connected and have strategies to support mental health. Be proactive, in reaching out to staff first, have conversations to understand individual concerns and challenges, and be there for them when they are responding to those difficult calls - which are on the rise. If this situation continues for a protracted period of time, people need to practice self-care and pace themselves to avoid burnout.
Telstra and Suncorp panellists explained how they had implemented simple yet targeted strategies to support team connection, including:
- Virtual daily team engagement
- Morning and afternoon 10-minute virtual coffee meetings
- Sharing or self-care activity
- Chat groups with themes, topics, or wear a hat!
- Light-hearted communications to release stress: sharing memes and jokes
- Team challenges to interact with other teams: e.g. most steps, best photos
- Friday end of day virtual drinks
It is also important to talk with colleagues about their working from home set-up and discuss most suitable working and meeting times. We need to be mindful people have suddenly been faced with new ways of working, and we need to accept that children and pets are likely to feature in digital meetings, or colleagues may become distracted. To support staff in this unusual situation our panellists believed that organisations and management need to be flexible with staff and their working hours.
Our panellists reported that productivity was going well, with a greater concern for staff not taking breaks and sitting at their computer for prolonged periods of time throughout the day. Rather than the potential risk of lower levels of productivity, the concern is that such behaviours can lead to unhealthy and unsustainable habits.
It is worthwhile checking in with staff about their workplan for the day including planned lunch and other breaks such as physical activity, and mindfulness breaks. Managers need to determine if employees working from home are overworking and consider whether policies such as shutting down technology after hours are necessary.
A key message from SOCAP webinar panellists was to trust staff and be proactive in staying connected with them. We are in an environment where we need to trust people and relax our specific requirements and be flexible and realistic about the changes as people adapt as best they can.