In episode 6, Martyn Riddle chats with the 2019 winner of the prestigious Auscontact Customer Contact Manager of the Year award, Duncan Graham from Allianz Australia. During the revealing conversation, Duncan talks about how he and his team handled the obstacles thrown up by the Covid19 crisis – and introduces Martyn to the crazy world of TikTok.
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Martyn Riddle: [music] Hello, and welcome to In conversation With, a series of podcasts from Verint, 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. Today it’s my pleasure to welcome to the podcast Duncan Graham, group manager, contact centres at the insurance organization, Allianz Australia. Duncan, welcome.
Duncan Graham: Thank you so much, Martyn. Hello.
Martyn: Great to have you on board, sir. Duncan, your LinkedIn profile describes you as an award-winning executive who thrives on developing and leading a high performing and inclusive teams to achieve brilliant outcomes. I love that. You’ve obviously had great success in our wonderful industry, particularly in your there role at Allianz. Could you perhaps start today with a background on the customer services operation at Allianz?
Duncan: Sure, happy to, Martyn. I head up the sales and service division for our Allianz contact centres, specializing in insurance predominantly for car and home insurance. I’m privileged to lead a team of 450 superstars based in Adelaide, Brisbane, and India. Our key mode of channel is our inbound contact centre team, or inbound call handling rather and a small outbound team, plus webchat and email. I’ve got an awesome team, apps with the emphasis is making a difference in moments that matter?
As one would say, the teamwork makes the dream work. I’m really proud of the team and we really emphasizing our great culture, great engagement, results of over 80%. NPS, our customer experience is pretty strong, positive 66. Pre-COVID, we were achieving our service levels for over 18 months. Over to you.
Martyn: I love the moment. The moments that matter, that’s a phrase that I’ve known for a long time. I understand you and your team have been very successful in winning some awards.
Duncan: You can stroke the ego.
Martyn: I try my hardest.
Duncan: I’m not quite sure how to respond to that one, but yes. The team and myself really been privileged and fortunate to develop as an incredible team results, incredible team dynamics and yes, we’ve entered a number of awards and privileged to win a number of those contacts. CCW Awards over the last few years, which has been truly remarkable, and the recognition for the team has been outstanding and truly the deserved. As mentioned, really privileged to lead an incredible team who’ve developed, who performed incredibly well, and the team dynamics of trust and the pride in the team is incredible.
Martyn: That’s awesome. You touched upon the COVID situation. When did Allianz become aware that COVID was going to have an impact on the customer services that you deliver?
Duncan: Pre-COVID wow, those times, how our world has changed in the last couple of months. On a personal perspective, I was attending the change of management training course in late February, ironically with some team members from Flight Centre, and the actual impact of COVID really kind of– the tsunami, shall we say? From a late February perspective, the world has changed dramatically. What we know now is completely different to late February. The anxiety, the fear, the trepidation has really changed.
From a contact centre specific part, probably the highlight or the key term, we had a major central awards early March, and we all planned 150 team members ready to go for our appreciation recognition. A few social beverages fair to say it would be had. Literally, the day before we needed to postpone the award ceremony based on too many team members in a localized location. Having said that, late February we started practically the planning for all the different, what-ifs, the different scenarios.
There’s a lot of, as I mentioned, for us anxiety and trepidation but with the what-if scenarios, if the different centres are closed and working on the different plans associated to those. Then really early March, as I mentioned with the awards, that’s when the impact was really kicking in into Australia, into our culture, into our environment. Then having those plans in place associated with the requirements that we needed to do.
Martyn: You had these wonderful BCP plans, when did it become apparent that they actually needed to become more than plans?
Duncan: Great question indeed. It was challenging times, I don’t think there’s one specific trigger point that we’d normally associated with those, but it was a evolution of so many elements within our news, the organization, within our culture. From a company perspective, we have a strong pandemic taskforce. Then within my contact centre team, a pandemic team as well. Probably the early March is then the plans were in place.
I led the team to ensure the safety of our team was non-negotiable to work on the effective plan, to ease the team members transitioning into a work from home operation. Fairly much shall we say? There’s a few challenges perhaps we’ve come on to, but early March I transitioned the team to actually work from home and then delighted by the end of March, we had 100% of the team working effectively in a work from home and a safe environment, which was amazing, really stand up performance.
Martyn: What does that actually mean for your operation and your staff? You’ve mentioned the transition to work from home. I’m guessing setting up a new IT infrastructure, new social interactions between the team. Take us through some of those challenges that you were faced with.
Duncan: The interesting times. It’s hard to compare to other organizations. I’m really proud to work for Allianz Insurance. The reality in some of the challenges for my particular team, we had insufficient laptops to work effectively in a home environment. Roughly, insufficient laptops, only one-third of our team. We had insufficient licenses to work effectively in the home environment for some of the applications. The dual monitors which everyone would be accustomed to, to working in a working office is simply not there. Part of my team’s based in India, they went into complete lockdown with inability to work in a home environment.
As you can imagine with the anxiety where you see LinkedIn profiles or LinkedIn updates for the most amazing best in class house-based solutions. Absolutely, we were scrambling, but in an effective structured manner to actually overcome some of the solutions while maintaining our employee, safety is paramount. Our customer experience and a business to run at the same time, a whole variety of complexities. As a consequence, really delighted, probably one of the proudest achievements or parts or elements I’ve been involved in with the team, I mentioned two-thirds of the team simply didn’t have– or insufficient laptops.
Two-thirds of the team have provided their own laptops to actually work effectively from home, which is truly incredible and kind of the cherry on the cake. Twenty-two of my team members actually purchased their own laptop to actually enhance the experience to assist with the company. I think that’s truly incredible. We simplified our operating hours to– or rather, we tried to simplify our business. Unfortunately, about a third of our team members were now not having the ability to work effectively either from a lockdown perspective or systems.
Consequently, one of the decisions I made was to simplify the team, simplified the rosters, simplified the operating hours to move to more towards a 9:00 to 5:00 operation. Quite extraordinary times. Usually, we’re open seven days a week with extended working hours, which is the right thing to do to simplify our business. Normally, from an operating perspective for rosters, there’s sufficient time and changes, delighted we managed to change our rosters with all the appropriate communication, understanding, listening with the team to actually go through that rapid approach within a couple of days, which was truly remarkable.
There’s immense sense of trust and relief and pride within the team to actually overcome those challenges very, very quickly. I’d like to say almost like the MacGyver approach, where we would have a challenge, we’d have a hurdle and trying our best to overcome as quickly, agile, flexible, but also as effectively with the paramount is the safety of the team. Don’t get me wrong, it wasn’t perfect. There’s no perfect plan in any of these strategies, but I’m really proud of the outcomes to actually achieve the great success we’ve had.
Martyn: Did that transition or the revised way of working, do you feel had an impact on the delivery of services?
Duncan: Yes, openly, I really pride the team. We have incredibly high expectations. Previously, our speed of answers is historically between 20 and 30 seconds. Our service levels achieved for over 18 months impressive NPS and greats sales perspective. The reality that when we lose a high percentage of our team and ineffective approach in some areas. Absolutely, there’s so much and incredibly tough. Incredibly tough from the traditional metrics, from a customer experience. Incredibly difficult from a average speed of answer.
Moving from a 30-second average speed of answer to quite often, the five, six, seven-minute average speed of answer.
In the marketplace, I think that’s a fair, and I think it’s a pretty good outcome overall, especially compared to previous experiences and the expectations. Yes, it’s fair to say that some customer impact, we’re having to transfer customer the calls, but the key element there was to provide the right business, the right time to simplify our business, wherever we could to ensure we have the right teams that assisting our customers in the best possible position in very difficult situations.
I’m really pleased though, March and April, very tough months, really stressed and tested us to our limits. It’s fair to say we’re now in a good position, we’re now all hands on deck. Everyone’s helping within the organization, helping with our customers. We’re now going back to, or have transitioned to our full operating hours. Our rosters are currently back in place, the majority of, if not all of our team members are now working effectively, either at home.
We also have 44 zero team members working effectively in the office who volunteered to relocate in a very safe environment a month ago. We’re getting back into the operation into full swing, not quite perfect but pretty good.
Martyn: Did the COVID situation itself change the nature or the volume of the calls into the centre?
Duncan: Absolutely. It was unprecedented times in a way, but absolutely, it’s hard to compare when you actually reduce or change some of your operating hours. You don’t have the normal the data to support that. Some of the customer behaviour changes, but roughly about a 20% reduction in some lines of business from a volume. The nature of our customers’ inquiries change, we reviewed, surveyed a lot more customers experienced vulnerability from a pricing perspective or dealing with hardship.
We were ensuring that we had the right empathy, the right alignment with our customers and doing the right thing without going into too many specifics. Can’t say that word today. Ensuring we did the right thing with our customers and being really flexible and empathetic to the times and the financial situation for many customers throughout Australia.
Martyn: You mentioned a couple of times the importance of that teamwork dynamic. It’s clear just listening to you how much that really is part of your own personal DNA in driving the moments that matter through the team. I’m wondering, aside from the actual transactional processing of the calls, your engagement with your team members, that all-important social conversations and interactions how you managed to maintain that level of focus, that’s obviously a very key part of the way you operate.
Duncan: Absolutely. I think everyone who knows me, I really lead by transparency in our operation in terms of sharing the vision, sharing the successes, being vulnerable as well and things that perhaps don’t work perfectly or effectively. As part of the change or the transition, having the communication with the team was critical as it always is, a whole immense amount of anxiety for everybody, rightly so. One of the key elements I decided to do was a daily update for myself, sharing the situation, sharing the plans.
Having the clarity and having that one sense of truth or one sense of direction for myself, added with a weekly video on my iPhone sharing with the team, not greatly edited showing that the whats and all vision of myself. A really good opportunity without sharing the ego too much. It had a really good impact to have clarity of the direction, which has really appreciated. Taking that stage further, the sharing new ways of working with our team members really critical.
We had the emphasis to keep our team meetings, our huddles, our coaching, our one-on-ones maintained for the majority of the times. I think that was really important to do. It would be an easy call to cut out some of the core communications or the core dynamics involved in an operation. I’m really proud of how we managed to maintain the majority of our operations and our connection enhanced with a whole variety of cultural engagement areas from doing step challenges and the step counts, surprising how many teams are doing 15,000 steps a day, which is pretty good in this environment.
Even having cookbooks with the team members, as well as the companies. It’s really cool how really impressive having daily yoga, daily mindfulness sessions, plus several webinars regarding adapting and thriving in a work-from-home environment. Pretty good, in fact, I’m really pleased and delighted that from a company response about how we’re operating within the contact centre team and ensuring when we have those workshops and listening to our team members, what’s working. It’s different.
We’re not all out or enjoying– sorry, I’ll rephrase it. The majority of the team are enjoying working in a home environment, but it’s difficult. It’s not for everybody, but it’s quite intriguing seeing some pets and children in the background and listening and observing how we go.
Martyn: You mentioned mindfulness there. In our last episode, we were chatting with Jess and Fiona. I was contacted and we had a bit of a discussion around the topic of mental health and what this means for the industry and the great people that work at it. Usually, they talked about the yoga and those kinds of activities that Allianz has been promoting. Have you had a conscious observation of the mental health and its impacts and what this might mean for your staff?
Duncan: Yes, it’s a really good point. I’m not particularly expert in this line of business or this field, but it’s intriguing how we respond differently from the psychology of working from home. As I mentioned, it’s the majority of the team really enjoying living the stability, living the flexibility, but there are team members who it’s tough been an isolated space or whatever or having to be with your family all the time, especially when children were at home. I include myself in that example. Absolutely, it’s really important we’re there, we’re empathetic with our team members, flexible.
Really trying to adapt to flexible rosters to ensure that we have our counselling services available, but really promoting our health and wellbeing or mental wellbeing plan with our teams on a daily basis per se in all our meetings and regular communications, both from a company perspective, which has been simply amazing. Then on the localized level, within the microclimate of the contact centre to really adapt. I think empathy is probably the key phrase or the key term to work effectively with our team.
Martyn: I think that shows great leadership. Congratulations on that. Any lessons for you, learned along the way? Anything you would do differently with the hindsight?
Duncan: Interesting indeed. I personally feel really balanced in where we are as a team, as I am as an individual. I have two young children. We’ve been homeschooling our children, which had had it’s– I’d like to say we’ve done pretty well. My wife has been amazing. Don’t get me wrong, we’ve had a few tantrums, many tantrums along the way. I think the key learnings for me has been the appreciation of working for a structured, impressive organization, which has placed the team, our people first and customers and trying to do the right thing in these extraordinary times.
Also, life is short. All the things we take for granted, it’s perhaps not then. The hustle and bustle of life has a- I don’t know, been a refreshing change too somewhat. On a professional perspective, I’ve seen many leaders implementing solutions quickly, effectively with very strong decision making in a very agile manner, which I love and respect to respond to. From a company that there is respect for my team has been amazing, but also that the team dynamics of my particular team, how I’m really grateful of the team dynamics.
The trust we have, the respect we have for each other is really strong. Also, how TikTok can take over your life, unfortunately, is not particularly great.
Martyn: Good job. This is an audio medium, not a visual medium because I do believe I’ve seen a couple of the TikToks from your good self. It certainly brought a smile to my face. Aside from perhaps your wonderful dancing on TikTok what else has this meant for you personally? Just listening to you there and I can hear the key words that keep coming through your responses about trust and empathy. They’re obviously a key and core attributes to you as a leader. Any other impacts to you at a personal level?
Duncan: Any impact at a personal level? For my family, I’ve really appreciated the quality time we’ve had with my particular family. I was unsure how we would respond as a family unit in terms of schooling, being together as a majority of the day. I’m delighted to how we’ve responded as a family, intriguingly. I think that the bond we’ve learned together as a family in terms of the grades for the whats and all has been quite refreshing in a way. I think the time we’ve had together I’d imagine will never be repeated, but hopefully.
Also bizarrely, my new found love of gardening, of all things, I never ever thought I would take into gardening, but it’s amazing.
A couple of meetings I’ve taken to using the garden clippers and helping prune a few trees and a few bushes, which has been quite intriguing. Probably the key one is the need to keep in touch with people. It’s really easy to isolate, to work in your own little location, but the need to keep in touch with either Webex or Microsoft Teams, whatever it may be, to have that visual personal connection connecting with your teams on a daily basis is critical.
Martyn: We’ve started peeling away the layers of Duncan as an individual, as a person. Let’s see if we can find out a little bit more. Almost wary of asking this question, but during this last couple of months, has there been one piece of music that has been your go-to tune that’s kept you a sane or perhaps the other way has actually turned you mad?
Duncan: Yes, a little bit of both. Blinding lights by The Weeknd. My daughter got me into TikTok, I’ve mentioned a few minutes ago. Blinding lights for those who haven’t done it, embarrassingly I’d like to say it’s more my daughter, but it’s actually more me who became a little bit obsessed with the dance move, and each week we do a particularly different dance, which has been great for our bonding. Blinding Lights by The Weeknd is pretty cool. It’s got a little bit of ’80s synth in it which is my era.
Martyn: Who doesn’t love some ’80s synth? How about a book or film, is there one title that keeps you entertained?
Duncan: Got to love Netflix. How good is Netflix? Two standout performances or areas has been After Life with Ricky Gervais, the shameful, the sorrow, the melancholic, the lovely series which is simply amazing. Then the iconic The Last Dance from Michael Jordan. What a legend. From someone who knows nothing about basketball, truly, truly amazing.
Martyn: Finally, Duncan, how about a material object or a gadget, something you just couldn’t be without?
Duncan: Very simply, a football or, in Australia, a soccer ball, absolutely. I love soccer. I’d like to think I’m a Messi but I’m pretty terrible. I still keep playing, coaching my son. A soccer ball. Good question anyway.
Martyn: That’s fantastic. Hey, Duncan Graham, group manager, contact centres at Allianz Australia. It’s been great chatting with you today. Thank you for joining us on the Verint podcast. I wish you, your family, your colleagues all the very best for a safe and happy future.
Duncan: It’s been a pleasure. All the best.
Martyn: Thanks, Duncan.
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.