In Conversation With . . . Sara Harrup

Verint Team November 29, 2020

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In conversation with . . . is a series of podcasts from Verint featuring chats and discussions with leading figures from the contact centre, CX and customer engagement industry across the Asia Pacific region.

Episode Transcript

Martyn Riddle: Hello, and welcome to In conversation With, a series of podcasts from Verint that usually feature chats and discussions with leading figures from the contact center, CX, and customer engagement industry in the Asia Pacific region. During this series, we usually find out what customer service organizations are doing during these challenging times and try and discover what it is that drives the leaders in this space and what makes them tick.

My name is Martyn Riddle. As well as being your host for this series, I’m also Verint’s vice president of marketing for the region. As I alluded to in my opening, this edition of the Verint podcast is taking a slightly different approach. This week, Verint has proudly announced a new community partnership with Foodbank Queensland, the largest and most trusted hunger-relief charity in Queensland. Each year, Foodbank sources and distributes over 14 million kilograms of essential groceries, so a large network of frontline charities who support the one in five Queenslanders that are in crisis.

During the pandemic this year, Foodbank Queensland has seen an extraordinary increase in demand for food relief from those frontline charity members. These organizations are reporting that new demographic groups who have never had asked for food assistance before are now seeking aid. With Verint’s strong presence and great customer base in Queensland. We’re delighted to partner with Foodbank in the region and I’m humbled that the CEO of the organization, Sara Harrup, joins me as today’s podcast guest. Sara, Hello, and welcome.

Sara Harrup: Thank you. Thanks for having me.

Martyn: It’s a pleasure to have you onboard and thank you so much for the opportunity to partner with Foodbank, please, and we’re very excited. Now I provided a very brief introduction to Foodbank Queensland. Could you perhaps expand on that and explain to our listeners, just how the charity operates?

Sara: Yes, so we think of ourselves like the pantry to the charity sector. We have over 320 members across Queensland and all of those members are charities who are doing food relief work at the front line. We are like the grocery store that a pantry we provide product to them to support them with the work that they do.

Martyn: Now, one of the opening questions are usually asked by industry guests is when they first became aware of the impact that the COVID crisis would have on operations. Could you share with us your perspectives are on the Foodbank Queensland experience? How did you become aware of the pandemic and what did it mean to your operations?

Sara: We were very fortunate that all of the Foodbanks in Australia are part of a larger federated model, so we’re a large Foodbank network and Foodbank Australia actually sits on a number of key committees with governments. We were fortunate that we’ve got our heads up fairly early, particularly around supply chain interruption, so it did give us a little bit of time to prepare. Then I think, generally, in this country, as in many others, it was one of those constantly evolving situations. So sometimes awareness doesn’t necessarily help you to act because the situation particularly in the early days was changing every day.

Martyn: Now, many large corporate organizations, of course, have wonderful things like business continuity plans in store in preparation for something like that this might come along, I’m guessing as a charity organization, you wouldn’t have had such a full DCP, or did you?

Sara: Now, we absolutely do. Yes, now so we have a business continuity plan, the thing we didn’t have was the pandemic management plan. We do have now. We were fortunate in that we activated that plan and we were working actively through it. It’s really only eased off in the last month and it’s given us a really good opportunity to test that plan. Actually, now looking at revisions to it, because we’ve seen real-life occurrence of what can happen and some things we’ve predicted and other things we couldn’t have.

Martyn: That’s a good segue, what changes did Foodbank need to make to continue operating? I’m guessing at the very same time that there was a rapid increase in demand for your services.

Sara: Yes, look, I think there were a couple of things. The first thing was significant supply chain interruption, so we very rapidly saw a decline in incoming donated food and groceries. At the same time, in a usual business continuity plan, you’re not thinking about distancing and what you should be disinfecting. Those were the new things for us. Given that we have member charity shopping directly with us in our warehouse, some of the challenges there was trying to work out well, are we like, a retail grocery store, do we approach it like that? Some of the changes we made were around limiting the number of people in the warehouse at any given time.

We have a cleaning schedule, which still goes on, which happens all throughout the day where we’re sanitizing high contact surfaces, temperature checking everybody before they come in, which was still doing, screens on our point of sale, desk and reception desks. Yes, from that side of things is not something we thought of before, and initially, that was felt different but it’s just actually become part of the normal now.

Also, in terms of the core work that we do, demand is definitely still growing and we’re also looking ahead to food insecurity is linked to people’s financial situation. As people who have been receiving support from government initiatives, as that starts to drop off, we are anticipating another change and another increase in demand.

Martyn: You briefly touched upon the volunteers, how have they reacted during these challenging few months? I’m guessing they needed to change a lot of the behaviors and the way that they interacted with you.

Sara: Yes, look, it’s interesting a lot of our volunteer workforce, were in an older age group, and so weren’t able to volunteer with us and that’s been good and bad. We had one lady that volunteered with us who was actually 90 and when we started to reintroduce those volunteers back into the operation, she actually said, “You know what, I’ve actually realized that I really like sleeping in.” It was a great life ahead to decide that up to serving 20 odd years of volunteering, that she thought she’d give it as much as she needed to.

It also gave us an opportunity to really look at our volunteer program, and recruit a whole range of different volunteers. We’ve actually fared pretty well. We’ve had quite a lot of people volunteer with us who ended up without a job and just really wanted to feel that there was doing something during their days and contributing and keeping busy.

We had groups of volunteers from organizations who didn’t have work for their teams to do and saw the opportunity to start engaging in volunteering instead. We’ve actually got more volunteers now than we did have at the start of the pandemic, and probably a greater diversity in our volunteer workforce.

Martyn: Now, those volunteers are obviously very important, but also Foodbank relies upon a wide range of partners to keep your operating particularly the retailers, the farmers, the growers, how have they been able to support you during the pandemic?

Sara: Look, I think it’s just been one of those things where we’ve kept the conversations going with them and where they see an opportunity to assist they do. For a lot of our growers who are partners with us in regional areas, they were less affected by the pandemic. They prepared themselves for loss, and then the effects didn’t filter out to them as much. So it hasn’t affected some of our fruit and vegetables supply, but certainly, for the major retailers who support us, they were in really challenging territory, because they were trying to meet demand from retail customers and also trying to support us with the levels of support they usually give us.

We had some good support coming through with much-needed product and sometimes we had to be flexible about what it was and when it arrived, but overall, our major national donors have been really, really great. Then, of course, the supply chain correction that occurred once panic buying ceased meant that we ended up with quite a lot of toilet paper and some of those other staple items that had been wiped out during the panic buying. Yes, that was interesting. We actually had a mountain of toilet paper.

Martyn: That early panic by the major supermarkets in March, April, that had a big impact to you initially?

Sara: It did, we actually had empty shelves and one of the things about Foodbank Queensland is that we work on a very fast throughput. We do that because we have quite a small warehouse space and so the only way we can make that work is we move things through quickly. Plus, we deal in a lot of fruit and vegetables, and necessarily, that has to be moved through quickly. What that means is if there’s an interruption to what’s coming in the door, it doesn’t actually take long before things start looking pretty empty here. We saw a fairly immediate impact in terms of very empty warehouse.

Martyn: Has there been any lessons that you’ve learned along the way, anything that you would do differently now with the hindsight of the last few months?

Sara: Yes, look, I think probably a couple of things. We’re very much looking at where our dependencies are, in terms of where we source donations and product from. Just thinking about, is there a way to diversify that a little or have alternative sources so that, we can keep bringing the food in the door if things happen. Certainly, we were on the same journey as everyone else around all the work-from-home staff and it was, we were operating a warehouse and those operational stuff.

They need to be here at work, but we also have a portion of our staff who are in other administration and finance roles. We’ve learned how to do working from home. I think probably in the early days, we struggled a little bit with that around how to coordinate everybody. I think now we know how to do that, so we could apply that again. Also, I think the other learning is just around when you’re in a situation like we’ve had this year and information is changing daily, for us, we have 320 charities coming and visiting with us, but they often might be volunteers themselves, volunteering with the charities that they’re with.

Communication and trying to give clarity to our members as quickly as possible, but also in ways where it’s got the best chance of reaching the people who actually come here to get the product. I think that’s a learning as well. Just, what we’re hearing is just there’s been so much change for people, that any support that we can give them around, managing a very rapidly changing environment is very useful.

Martyn: Now, a lot of your funding comes from the corporate sector. I’m wondering whether there was an impact on that funding as a lot of organizations perhaps drew their purse strings a little tighter over the last few months, as they were trying to work out what the impact would be on their own businesses. Did that have an effect on your operations?

Sara: I’m going to say we were preparing for that, but we’ve been extremely fortunate that that hasn’t happened. We rely on funding across a range of parts of the fundraising sector, so from individual giving to corporate to philanthropy. We were seeing a bit of dialogue around whether some of that would become difficult, but it’s actually been really okay. I think it’s testament to potentially a culture that we have in this country that when things get difficult, people actually can even step it up a notch and really up the level of their support. I’ve been very fortunate enough.

I think the other thing that we’ve done throughout this process is, really work out what is the value that we can deliver when we’re working with people around fulfilling their donor passions and interests. It’s given us an opportunity to make sure that we’re managing our end of those relationships extremely well.

Martyn: That’s good to hear you’re pushing through and driving the success further forward. We are already talking about Foodbank Queensland in particular here. Has there been a similar situation with the other food banks around the country?

Sara: Yes. I think what I’m hearing from other food banks is that they’ve all got good strong relationships with the people who support them. Their experience has been similar to ours. I guess the issue for us, and for all of us, is really around when you have a demand increase, you need to find a way to fund that. The challenge for all of us is to keep trying to increase the amount of support that we get so that we can actually make rising levels of demand.

Martyn: We’re heading into the Christmas period, the summer period here in Australia. What does that mean for Foodbank Queensland? What does the immediate future look like for you guys?

Sara: It’s going to be a busy period. Our member charities are telling us that they expect significant increases in demand between now and Christmas. Interestingly, told us that people started asking them about what their ability to support people would be around the Christmas period as early as April. I think Christmas is a time where we very much associate food with that time of year.

The food really is a vehicle for people coming together and spending time together, but people who are doing it tough are in marginalized groups, it’s a very important time of year for them. It’s a time of year where they tried to have some hope about the future. The ability to have something to eat at Christmas to share with family is a really valuable thing.

We’re certainly hearing that demand, expected demand will be higher than last year, that’s not unusual in the times that we’re in. We’re also hearing some concerns from our members that they won’t have enough food to meet the demand that’s out there.

Martyn: Which is obviously not a great situation. Hopefully, that situation could be resolved and more products can come through your warehouse. Hopefully, we can ease that burden on a lot of people over this festive period.

Sara: It’s also, of course, a time in Queensland where we get a lot of our natural disasters, particularly, in the North. We are the most disaster-prone state in the country. There is an effect this year that we have, so we are very carefully watching activities, storm activity. I think this country is one that we don’t do things by halves, do we? [chuckles]

Martyn: That’s true. One could almost say we are also the most resilient states in the country, but that might be getting a bit parochial. You’re well-regarded CEO, Sara, what does this mean for you personally? What impact has it had on you as a leader?

Sara: I think for me, my biggest reflection on it is around the power of having a great team and really we operate here on very much the senior management team and I very much a consensus decision-making model. To do that, well, you’ve got to be prepared to put in the time to have difficult conversations and make sure that you’re all aligned. I think we’ve had a very strong focus on that during this period, so that we are operating from a place where we’ve got very strong consensus around the decisions we’re making. Particularly, because you might think decisions in uncertain territory.

There are some assumptions and risks that you can’t test and you might know about. Normal CEOs and normal senior managers are always making decisions with incomplete information, but this year, I’d suggest that there’s been more incomplete information than usual. For me, it’s been really very much about drawing on the strengths and diversity of people in the same management team here.

Martyn: Do you think that’s impacted your management style and the way you’re going to lead the organization in the future?

Sara: I’ve always had that stall. I think, for me, it’s caused me to look for, I guess, ways of deploying it, so perhaps doing it in a more structured way. I’ve also always been a CEO who very much cares about people’s wellbeing, but we have deliberately structured a bunch of things this year to have an even greater focus on that. We’re trawling a few things as well, we’re trawling meeting free Wednesdays. So we’re having a guide, a few different things to see what’s working.

Martyn: A meeting free Wednesday. That sounds like nirvana to me.


Sara: It is. It’s interesting because there’s always an unintended consequence of these things. One of the unintended consequences is that, particularly, the managers who struggled to get the time to sit and think strategically and write business cases and get behind the desk for an extended period of time. On meeting free Wednesdays, they are churning out really important pieces of work, but then the flow on to that is circulate to the rest of the team, really let’s discuss.

It’s actually making us more productive. I think initially we’re watching Tuesday’s and Thursday’s and saying, “Is there a squash effect? Are Tuesday’s and Thursday’s actually becoming more meeting prone?” We’re now also having the discussion around not having a meeting. We’re using other tools. We’re using a mural board tool to replace meetings. To get other ways of getting feedback about things. We’re staying flexible and trying lots of different things.

Martyn: That’s great to hear. Whilst we’re getting a bit more personal, let’s see if we can find out a little bit more about Sara as an individual and what keeps you occupied away from work. Is there a particular tune, or a style of music that keeps you sane, or puts you in a happy, or relaxed place?

Sara: Well, I have very varied music tastes and the only thing I don’t like is metal, that kind of music. I have children who are musical. The eldest daughter plays saxophone in a wind orchestra. I have a daughter who’s in a pretty professional ballet program. So, I listen to anything from classical to jazz, to– I have Triple J on my radio, but there is a bit of a funny story around here because we have a safety share here at the beginning of every meeting. One of my safety shares is that sometimes I like to play the music from the Pirates of the Caribbean movie on the way to work, but I’ve actually realized that it’s so upbeat, and motivating, and dramatic that it makes me speed. I’ve stopped doing that now because I kept catching myself over the speed limit.

Martyn: Well, I can honestly say in 20 episodes, that’s the first time somebody has cited the Pirates of the Caribbean as being a tune. How about a book, a film, or a TV show? Is there any one title that really keeps you entertained?

Sara: It’s interesting, I don’t watch TV and I rarely watch movies, but I am a bit of a podcast fan. My podcast of choice, there’s one called The Plant Priest podcast. I’m a bit of a science nerd and he’s a guy that’s right into the nutrition space. I listen to that. I like listening to– There’s a minimalist podcast. I find that quite eye-opening because it makes me examine my stuff. Sometimes I throw things away and then I realize I need them two weeks later. So, yes, into podcasts. That makes me happy and that makes the journey to work interesting and productive.

Martyn: If you’re into podcasts, I can thoroughly commend one called Verint, In Conversation With. You should give it a listen sometime.


Sara: I’ll try it.

Martyn: Finally, how about a material object, or a gadget that makes you happy? Something you just couldn’t be without.

Sara: It’s really interesting, that question. Because I listen to minimalist podcast, I ponder that thought all the time. I ponder things like, “Would it be my rice cooker?” And then I go, “No, you’ve got a saucepan. You can do that.” I think I’m going to say the dog harness that I put on the dog, because my dog is an escape artist, so there’s no way I could walk the dog every morning without his little dog harness.

Martyn: Sara, this has really been a revealing discussion and highlights. We are so proud to be able to help in just a small way with our community partnership. If listeners want to get involved with Foodbank Queensland, or indeed Foodbank in any of the States in Australia, either personally or through their organization, what should they do?

Sara: Well, they can go to our website. There’s a whole bunch of areas on the website where you can look at how you might want to get involved. If you feel like you want to volunteer, you can express an interest there. If you feel like donating, you can go through a donation process there. I think that’s probably the starting point. Then it’s really about matching what people’s interests and passions are with what we do and working out what works.

Martyn: The website URL would be?

Sara: We are

Martyn: That’s awesome. It’s Sara Harrup, Chief Executive Officer at Foodbank Queensland. Thank you so much for your time today. On the Verint podcast, I wish you, your family, your colleagues all the very best for a safe and happy future. Thank you.

Sara: Thank you very much for having me.