In conversation with . . . Stuart Beaumont

Verint Team June 15, 2020

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Episode Transcript

Martyn Riddle: Hello and welcome to In Conversation With, a series of podcasts in variants featuring chats and discussions with leading figures from the contact centre, CX, and customer engagement industry in the Asia Pacific region. During this series, we want to 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, and as well as being your host for this series, I’m also Verint’s Vice President of Marketing for the region.

For today’s podcast, we’re off up to Singapore, a country that I love and that initially appeared to have escaped the worst of the COVID-19 crisis. It was then hit by the dreaded second wave and to a large extent remains in a tight lockdown situation. As the Managing Director & Global Head for Standard Chartered Bank’s Voice & Virtual capability for their retail banking arm, being based in Singapore has no doubt given our guest today, more than a few challenges to overcome, I’m excited to hear just how he did that. It gives me great pleasure to welcome to the Verint podcast, Stuart Beaumont. Stuart, welcome.

Stuart Beaumont: Thank you, Martyn. Great to be with you today.

Martyn: Stuart, your LinkedIn profile highlights that you are responsible for the context and the strategy and performance for over 10 million clients across more than 30 countries. You do this through a range of channels, including voice, live chat, conversational AI, email, social media, and even video.

Stuart: It’s a great job, I won’t lie. It’s not without its challenges and certainly, COVID-19 is one of those big challenges. I’ve been really pleased over the last five to six years with what we’ve been able to achieve.

Martyn: As I mentioned in the introduction, Singapore initially looked to have escaped the worst of the coronavirus situation, but then got smashed by a second wave. Where did you and the Standard Chattered become aware that COVID-19 was going to have an impact on the delivery of your services?

Stuart: We knew quite early on as one of our primary contacts in our hubs is actually based in China in Shenzhen. Really, from the end of January, we’ve been on high alert and managing through the various scenarios. We started to move into split operations, we’ve been looking after the health and safety of our teams, building occupancy, we’ve been limiting that just to ensure we’ve reduced the spread or the risk. At that particular time, in late January, we even initiated a second sight in Hong Kong. I must admit, coming into February, we thought we were through the worst of COVID-19.

We managed the China outbreak, but then it seemed to get a whole lot worse when our next two biggest hubs, India and Malaysia, were forced into lockdown by their respective governments.

Martyn: Was there a difference between that initial response and the secondary impact to those additional hubs?

Stuart: Absolutely. In hindsight, what we did in China was actually quite simple. The government there handled the outbreak quite well. We never had to close any of our operations. We never had to move any of our staff to working from home. We’ve now had to do a lot more. To be honest, it’s probably been the most difficult time of my career.

Martyn: What did it mean for you and your operations and your staff–? I’m guessing a technical transition, increased level of course. Can you take us through some of the changes?

Stuart: I suppose I’ll split it into what we’ve done for our clients and then, of course, what we’ve done for our staff because we’ve had to address both needs. As a bank, we’ve been hit fairly hard by the crisis. Certainly, for our clients, loan moratoriums have been big, whether it be mortgages, credit cards, business loans, personal loans. We’ve managed through that in the contact centre. I’m really pleased as a bank though, that we’ve also done a little bit more. We’ve been doing a lot of fundraising. In fact, we’ve committed $50 million for those in the community that have been impacted by COVID-19.

Our staff get a chance to join that fundraising effort. As a corporate bank, we’ve also allocated a billion dollars in investment for those companies who are fighting COVID-19. On the employee side, certainly, as we’ve now moved into lockdown mode, we’ve had to help them work from home. Just to put it in perspective, we have four and a half thousand contact centre agents. Working from home was never considered prior to this. It’s just a matter of days, we moved 1,500 of those to working from home. For our staff, we’ve had to supply them with VPNs, we’ve had to supply them with Wi-Fi, we’ve had to supply them with laptops.

We’ve also given them allowances to purchase small items to make their homes suitable for work. We’ve also added some health and wellbeing programs along the way for both the employee and their family.

Martyn: How about innovations to keep your staff engaged? We’ve heard in previous episodes of teams do all sorts of wild and wacky things to maintain those important social interactions? How about the Standard Chartered?

Stuart: It’s not easy, I have to be honest with you, Martyn. I think we’re still on that journey. We are considering implementing a more BAU work from home model, but we realized we need to change a few things. Firstly, technologies. We’ve tried to up the collaboration and socializing through technology. As a bank, we’ve had to really quite quickly implement new tools and be at video conferencing tools or collaboration tools. From a social aspect, now we’re into a very good routine of running various show entail meeting. Once a month, we’ll get all the teams together over video conference from their homes.

We’ll start sharing various hobbies that we do or maybe new skills that was picked up during lockdown. Of course, we’ve kept up with our happy hours. It’s always nice to finish a week with a virtual happy hour. Our staff, I have to be honest, there are quite happy, proud, and excited to be working from home. I think they feel very empowered and quite entrusted that they’ve taken out bank technology, and they’re working from home. We certainly realized that this is going to get quite tedious for them. Many of them don’t have a home environment that’s conducive to working eight hours a day.

Martyn: You mentioned that you have teams operating across a wide variety of countries. I was wondering if you’ve noticed any differences in the responses from those different countries.

Stuart: We’ve guided by the government and their rules around lockdowns or movement control orders. The biggest markets for us where it’s been impactful is Malaysia and India. If you look at India, for example, they’ve also had a regulation over many years to stop voice over IP. The concept of the softphone has been rolled out. Pleasingly with lockdown, they’ve removed that or they gave us a dispensation for a period of time. We have moved 90%, 95% of our teams working from home.

In other markets, we’ve continued to have our contact centres work from the office, making sure that we reduce our site occupancy levels, bringing in food and drink to our staff, so they don’t have to go outside or reduce their risk of being exposed and maintaining a great cleaning rhythm, daily cleans twice weekly, deep cleans. Every market has been a bit different. The most challenging has been probably been India, to be honest. With their lockdown, we were given just a matter of hours’ notice that we wouldn’t be able to come to the office.

Again, as a contact centre that’s never worked from home, we use desktops. We don’t give our staff laptops. In one particular location in Chennai, we were given four hours’ notice by the landlord that they’d be closing the building. I was most proud and pleased of our team. We hired a minibus. Our team leaders went into that building, we stripped it there of assets, we took all the desktops, we loaded it into the minibus, and then we delivered those desktops. There were agents home so they could continue working.

We’ve had people try and come to the office in India, and have been turned around quite aggressively by the local police and military. Even though they’ve been given some passes, we do have some passes where some staff are eligible to come to the office. It’s been really quite impactful in India and in Malaysia. Every market has had their challenges.

Martyn: I’m guessing that you had a business continuity plan ready to go before the crisis hit. I’m wondering how close that plan was to the action that you had to take in reality.

Stuart: I think it’s fair to say, Martyn, the BCP went out the window. This has really changed the game around business continuity planning for businesses and contact centres, of course. Our traditional BCPs were all about assessing fallback locations based on power grids, flood plains. When we saw the issue in China, initially, our offices in Shenzhen, which is just across the border from Hong Kong, we thought, “Let’s go and fall back to Hong Kong,” even though we had a couple of offices in Shenzhen, we will fall back to Hong Kong, but this virus has transcended borders.

We’ve quickly realized that finding a fallback location is not that easy. Going forward, as I mentioned earlier, we need to create an environment where we always have a percentage of our workforce working from home. We can increase the tap or decrease the tap as we require. Working from home is really the only way that we can manage this type of crisis. I must say I’m really pleased with how we’ve handled it. I’ve spoken a lot about the challenges, but the delivery of services has not skipped a beat. We have been bang on.

From a customer perspective, yes, we did see some pretty big peaks early on when governments were announcing their loan moratorium, so the volume spiked. Then, the volumes did subside. A lot of what we do in the contact centre in a bank is answering a lot of inquiries, and taking a lot of requests around credit cards. Of course, credit card usage in markets where we’ve had a lockdown has decreased. That’s meant our volume in the call centre has also decreased. Because we’ve implemented the work from home model, our agent capacity has been upheld, maintained.

As I said, we did run out of laptops, but we gave them desktops. Our staff attrition has dropped considerably. People are not in a position to be skipping between jobs at the moment, so we’ve got a fairly stable workforce. I think the only issue we’ve had in terms of maintaining capacity, and therefore our service levels is, our productivity has been impacted only marginally, maybe about 10%, but not because of behaviour. Again, a market like India, we’ve been dealing with VPN drops, or WiFi drops, power outages, having to log back in all the time.

Really, our capacity has been well maintained, and our service levels have continued. I’m actually really pleased with how the team has managed this.

Martyn: It’s amazing that you and the team have been able to maintain such great levels of service despite all those challenges. You mentioned that some of the staff have had various issues along the way. Do you think working from home will continue to be a core component of your service delivery as restrictions are eased?

Stuart: Yes, it is, but we’ve got a lot of work to do. As you mentioned earlier, we’re in 30 countries. In some countries, our work from home model will work, in others, it won’t. It won’t work, maybe because the regulator doesn’t want it or maybe the broadband infrastructure is not solid enough or maybe it’s the fact that our workforce just don’t have access to the tools and technology they need. As I mentioned, initially, our teams were very excited to work from home, and they felt very empowered. As the weeks drag on, the home office is not always suitable.

I’ve seen video clips, I’ve seen photos of our teams working from home, and we’re talking about 21, 22-year-olds who are still living at home with parents and maybe even large families in small homes. They’re taking 50, 60 phone calls a day from their bed, or maybe from the kitchen bench, while also maintaining their home duties, struggling to collaborate with their team leaders, and getting the support they need. We have to find a more sustainable way of working from home. I am worried that as COVID-19 drags on and our lockdowns drag on, that we’re going to run into more and more employment concerns, and that’s fair.

We’re trying to bring people back to the office where we can. A lot of people have voiced their need and their desire to come back, get the social interaction where they can. It’s a challenge for us, but one that we will continue to work on over the longer term.

Martyn: You mentioned their collaboration and that’s very interesting is we’re finding that in a rush to transition to work from home environments, many organizations are deploying collaboration tools such as Teams, Zoom, BlueJeans that normally wouldn’t be monitored and are compliancy, or regulatory framework.

Stuart: True.

Martyn: How have you found that at Standard Chartered Bank?

Stuart: It’s a challenge. We have very strong policies and governance around data security and privacy, so it’s not that easy to implement new tools and technology overnight. We want to make sure that they integrate well with the rest of the bank systems. We’re still effectively working from home using the same tools and technologies that we had in office. I think that’s why a future BAU work from home model will require some technology upgrades. One of the areas we’re really struggling with at the moment is our ability to train new hires into the contact centre.

We’re lucky that our agent attrition has dropped, but we’re soon going to reach a point where we are going to have to induct new people. We’re going to try and use BlueJeans our video conferencing tool, but some of our markets where our agents have just taken a new job with a bank, they don’t have the tools where they can sit at home on a laptop or a desktop and dial in via BlueJeans or Zoom. The best that they have is a smartphone. Our training is seven weeks. Seven weeks of classroom training, and we’re trying to do that with someone sitting at home on their smartphone through video conferencing.

It’s not suitable. It’s not adequate. We have a lot to do in terms of getting better tools and technology for our teams. I think one of the other things that we’ve realized is that even though they are at home, and let’s assume they are trained, as I mentioned earlier, they’re taking 40 to 50 voice calls a day, background noise, distractions. We’re seeing client preferences change more towards chat and text-based communications, so we’re going to up the ante there in helping clients migrate to chat, maybe web forms, or even email.

That allows our workforce to work from home in a more comfortable manner, in a more sustainable manner rather than taking the traditional voice call.

Martyn: We’ve heard that you first started deploying your COVID response back in January. Here we are now, nearly six months later. That length of time must have had an impact on you as a leader, and how you’ve handled the changes.

Stuart: Yes. Of course, we’re all working from home. I’m working from my dining room table in my apartment. In a way, yes, that’s hard. It’s beneficial to know, though, that everyone’s in the same boat, including my entire leadership team. In fact, we’ve probably increased our level of communication. I’ve probably never seen my remote team so often now that we use video conferencing. It’s become the norm. I’ve learned a lot through this and certainly one of the things that I’ve learned is not to stop communication just because you’re working from home.

You actually have to increase the level of communication. My role has been to open doors, remove barriers, and push over hurdles. I’m allowing our teams or ensuring that they can do the things that they need to do, to keep our servicing going. Really, I’m most proud of the people who are in-country, hiring those minibuses and delivering those desktops to people’s homes. I’m most proud of our trainers that now sit on 24/7 teleconference bridges to answer the inquiries that our agents have when working from home.

These are the real heroes of COVID-19. My job has just been to ensure that I remove as many of the challenges that are put in front of them as possible.

Martyn: The impact this would have on you as a leader is clear, but I’m also wondering, Stuart, what this meant to you as a person, as an individual, as Stuart Beaumont?

Stuart: You have good days and you have bad days. There’s no doubt about it. I’m here with my wife and my two children. All four of us in the apartment, my children have been homeschooling, my wife is working, and we’ve been sharing the dining room table. I think you have to acknowledge that not every day in lockdown is going to be a good day. The working hours have been long. Home time and work time has been blurred, so I’ve tried to maintain some semblance of normality. I do try and establish work hours versus family hours.

The only chance that I get to go out of the apartment is to either pick up groceries or do a little bit of exercise. The chance to do exercise has certainly allowed me to free my mind a little bit, certainly when I do have those bad days.

Martyn: We’ve touched on you as an individual. Let’s see if we can find out a little bit more about you as a person. Throughout the lockdown, I’m wondering, has there been a piece of music or maybe a book or film that has kept you sane?

Stuart: Yes, I do like to read. I’d have to say that my reading has probably increased during lockdown. There’s no chance to go out with friends. There’s no dinners, there’s no weekend socialization, so a chance to read a good book. I’m currently reading a book called Console Wars by Blake Harris. Growing up in the ’80s and ’90s, I had a Sega Mega System, and a lot of my friends had Nintendo. This book is about the console wars that happened in the ’80s and ’90s between Sega and Nintendo.

It’s fantastic to read now, as an adult, to understand how cutthroat that industry was back then and how Sega took on Nintendo. I’m only about two-thirds of the way through. Very excited to read the remaining book.

Martyn: I think that mentioning Sega may let on how old we are, but they do say that to be this good, it takes ages. Aside from the reading, any other activities that take you away from it all?

Stuart: Yes. Between reading and exercise, probably my two go-to. I know you and I’ve been chatting about this previously, but I love to cycle and I love to run. I try and go out every morning, go for a bit of a run. That clears the head and then I come back to the dining room table. It’s really quite sad that from 8:00 AM till 6:00 PM, you can barely do 500 steps when living in an apartment. The ability to do that run in the morning and maybe if I get half-hour to go out for a bit of a walk on the weekends, I splurge a little bit and I go for a longer cycle.

Singapore is a small place so you can pretty much get around the entire island on a weekend ride in Singapore but I absolutely love it. Unfortunately, it’s all solo at the moment which is not quite as fun and I’m looking forward to a time when some of the restrictions ease and I can get back cycling with some friends.

Martyn: Finally, how about a material object or a gadget, something you just couldn’t be without?

Stuart: Oh, I love my laptop. [laughs] That’s probably the one device it’s never far from me, whether it’s taking social media or reading a paper or working, of course, but that’s probably about it, Martyn.

Martyn: That’s awesome. Stuart Beaumont, Managing Director & Global Head for Voice & Virtual, Retail Banking at Standard Chartered Bank, it’s been great chatting with you today. Thanks for joining us on the Verint podcast. I wish you, your family, and your colleagues all the very best for a safe and happy future.

Stuart: Thanks, Martyn.

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.