by Kevin Martin |

What a difference a year makes. When the coronavirus pandemic began nearly a year ago and we first went into nationwide lockdown, no one could have predicted all the knock-on effects beyond the devastating human and economic toll. Businesses had to adapt quickly and make huge changes at a rate never experienced before.

From a customer services perspective, this terrible situation has sharpened our focus. Planning and preparation went into overdrive, and at The People’s Pension we geared up for scenarios which could have an impact on our customers immediately, including further lockdowns and restrictions which we have of course now seen and continue to work through. With more flexible and resilient customer services operations in place, there are real opportunities for long-term improvements.

New technology and digital improvements

That’s all well and good, but what have we actually done?

As in the first lockdown, we’ve maintained a clear focus on our most vulnerable customers, while adapting all our services to meet wider customer needs. The difference this time is that we have fully maintained our full service, and our customers can access our services through their preferred channel. We’ve also equipped, trained and provided the necessary support to 250 of our customer services team to enable remote working from home without needing to travel to work in our offices.

During this time we’ve:

  • Increased the number of customer services staff working from home to 80%
  • Implemented new technology including softphones and blended contact channel management so staff can handle emails and calls from home
  • Introduced and adapted virtual floorwalker technology to provide instant responses to call handlers
  • Set up increasingly sophisticated and targeted recorded phone messaging to triage enquiries and direct customers to information they need quickly
  • Continued to provide up to date information on our website
  • Adapted quickly to customer feedback and demand

A small number of staff (about 20%) remain in head office, providing extra support when needed for customers who have complex issues to resolve. This hybrid model is a major evolution in the way we work and means our staff can work more flexibly, meet our customers’ needs and importantly remain protected when working remotely, particularly important as we experience a third national lockdown.

Changes for the long-term

Contact centres will continue to evolve – this is about adapting to different requirements. The key priority for 2021 is to establish strong and flexible operating models for the post-pandemic world. This must involve retaining the things that we have learned worked well, constantly monitoring to ensure we meet our customers’ needs, having the bravery to think differently and being supported  with the technical knowledge that will help us flex and adapt.

Activities over the last few months show a change in customer behaviours. Analysis of calls reveals up to 13% of people are now using the information provided by our recorded phone messages (IVRs, or Interactive Voice Response Systems) to answer their queries. Guiding customers to information on our website and including digital forms to support simple transactions means issues are resolved quickly and simply – freeing up valuable and experienced staff to speak to customers who need help with more complicated issues. We call this ‘digital first with a human touch’.

The challenges are there, of course, including a reliance on technology. Training and induction processes for new starters must balance the need to minimise the number of people in the office with making sure they have the support they need to fulfil the role to the best of their ability in a remote setting.

The full extent of the pandemic remains unknown. Challenging months lie ahead for employers and our members, and we don’t underestimate the effect this may have on them. But the introduction of new vaccines has given rise to the hope that there’s an end in sight, albeit impossible to predict when this may be.

Opportunities for the pensions industry

Through such turmoil and uncertainty, we’ve all had to adapt quickly and improve our services. Many well-governed master trusts have demonstrated their strength by building flexibility into their servicing capability while continuing to fulfil their ultimate role of protecting members’ money.

At The People’s Pension we’ll continue to invest in our digital capability, equipping staff with the tools they need to deal with customer enquiries in order to achieve resolutions quickly and with the minimum of fuss. It’s key for pension providers to support members to become more engaged and interested in what, for many, may make a real difference to the retirement outcome they face. So, we will of course continue to focus much of our effort here.

The pace of change has presented many challenges but, as the old adage goes, ‘necessity is the mother of invention’.  What I have learned during this time is that when faced with real crisis, people rally and come together to find inventive ways to solve what, during normal times, may seem insurmountable issues.

People always make the difference and are the very reason that The People’s Pension exists. But perhaps just as importantly for us are the people who work here, and who are the real difference in the service we offer.