What adjustments have you had to make to cater for the changed ways of handling customer care during the pandemic?
There were several adjustments and the first was to do with the staff themselves, trying to help them to be able to deliver while working from home. I had to try and create a comfortable environment for them, which included giving them an ergonomic seat that can support them to sit for the eight hours as they address customers’ needs. You realize that in your home, your seats are not the same as what we use in the office and having good seats was very critical for me in terms of supporting them to deliver but also ensuring that I’m safeguarding their health. Watch Lydia Keya, a Safaricom Customer Experience Executive as she shares her experience of working from home.
The second thing was to also support with connectivity and the systems. We had to give them fibre connectivity, VPN connectivity, and so on. The other challenge was with power outages, as you may experience as a Kenyan, and we addressed that by having as part of our Business Continuity Plan, bringing a couple of the Customer Care Executives to work from the office. The other adjustment we had to make was to do with how we are servicing our customers. By increasing the digital angle, so that we can give them as much alternatives as we can. Now, this included heightening some of the existing platforms, such as the Interactive Voice Response platform to do more, the chatbot, SMS, automating the SMS service so it can do more for our customers.
You mentioned IVR and perhaps you can go more into that. What role does it now play in delivering customer care?
The Interactive Voice Response System is like the entry, the door into getting to the customer service people. The idea is that it is the portal where you can take care of the mundane things. In telecommunication, a mundane thing can be getting the PUK when you have locked your phone by pressing a few buttons and authenticate your identity and retrieve your PUK. If you wanted, for example, to reverse money sent to the wrong number, we automated that as well. You don’t have to do to wait to tell an agent live agent that I sent money to a wrong person and I need that reversed. You can do the initiation of the reverse through the IVR. The role of the IVR in service dispensation is to give that a fast a customer restoration by the customer themselves very quickly and in a very simplistic way. I must mention something today. We still do the Dual-Tone Multi-Frequency (DTMF), which is the “Press One, Press Two” to go to where you can find your service but we have a big dream of changing all that into a conversation or situations where you would just listen to the customer naturally, follow intelligently using key words and take them to where they can find the service. I think that is the next high next level, where we need to take our customers to reduce the very tiresome press one, press two. I can’t wait to see our customers in that level soon. We are looking to do that in maybe 12 to 18 months.
From your experience, what are the latest or most dominant trends in customer care during the pandemic?
Because of the pandemic, customers are relying heavily on telecommunication. And it’s become like an essential service for them, because that is also how they are delivering their own work. The change we have seen is that the customers want immediacy, an instant solution to what they’re going through. We have worked to enable them to also solve some of these things by themselves instead of relying on the traditional way of queuing to talk to an agent. It’s also what they prefer as they want to settle their own problems and they feel a lot more confident when they can do these things by themselves. The second thing is that we have had to increase the speed and resolution levels because customers want instant restoration of service and instant correction of what is wrong because they want to have continuity of their work. So, we have had to look at our processes afresh and empower the front lines so that they are able to give a solution to the customers, while also empowering customers to find solutions for themselves. The trends are driven by the fact that telecommunication has become a very basic need, almost like a hospital.
There has been increased digitization during the pandemic. How has this impacted customer care?
With digitization, you can personalize your experience to the customers pretty well, if you’re using ICT, you’re able to emulate or reflect the customer lifestyles, their preferences, when you’re using technology. You’re also able to be consistent, scale up faster and more easily if you’re using technology. Some of these technologies are going to be useful as we try to have scalability, consistency, and personalization of experiences for customers. However, we also must carry our customers with us. We must be cognizant of the fact that it is not like a button where you switch on for power. It is a learning process for customers, we must walk the journey with them, be patient as they hook up onto the right gadgets that can give them the best experience. Not everybody is using the best smartphone and can do everything they want with it, so we must be patient with our customers. While technology is the way to go, you have to offer the alternative to the customer just in the event that the technology is not yet where they have reached or is not working as perfectly as it should for them.
You have spoken in the past about the challenging work you did while setting up customer care and retail shops for the company before. What would you say was the most challenging task over the course of the pandemic?
Every challenge is unique. The pandemic presented itself in a very interesting way. We didn’t have any lessons learned to pick from, so that you can know which way to go. We had been trying to think of working from home, but we didn’t think it’s going to be scaled to this level. That is the big difference. We also didn’t think that there would be a time when most of our subscriber base would over rely on telecommunication and therefore connectivity becoming a crisis for them. So, for me, the things that were a big challenge was how to move most of the 2,200 customer care executives to work from home and educating them about the pandemic so that they can advise customers. Number two was getting the right technology to enable them work from home. It was interesting as we tried to import over 900 laptops for them as they were used to working on desktops in the office.
The biggest challenge for this was the short time within which we had to cause this to happen and having a seamless crossover from being in the office to working from home. Our customers didn’t even notice that we were transitioning.
The country is currently on a vaccination drive and that has spurred some thinking around the future of work – whether it will be fully working from home, hybrid and some thinking about that. How do you think that will affect customer care?
Globally, those conversations are ongoing. We should look at this from two points: from the staff themselves in terms of the choices they’re going to make because we don’t see a big impact in terms of how they are delivering now that they’re working from home. In a strategic way, I think we can do a hybrid, where you work from the office 40 per cent and 60 per cent from home. The good thing about doing a hybrid is that nobody knows whether the pandemic will completely go away. And we don’t know what other thing can happen in the future of this nature. So, it would be nice to keep up with working from home to good levels. It has good learnings, good lessons, good preparations, and how we can make it even better.
In a nutshell, what do you think is the future of customer care?
I think 10 years from today, the future of customer care is where you empower the customers and where you make products that are painless. So that customer care moves from solving a problem or a pain to increasing value of what you do with our product and service. And therefore, if there is a pain within a product, either a customer can resolve that by themselves or it can be self-resolving, through back-end systems that can see that productivity and be able to solve before you complain.
Your thoughts on Customer Service Week?
We should use the month of October to celebrate the high, the excellence, the things we have done, as opposed to embarking on giving great experience in that month. Customer Experience must be consistent, as always, to improve. The month of October should be to celebrate the great heights we have scaled as opposed to beginning to focus on customers because what more we can do for our customers is ongoing. It’s every day, it’s every hour, and we must always excel at it and then celebrate it in October.