Moving Kenya’s largest call centre into homes

Before Covid-19 struck, the Safaricom call centres were a hive of activity as hundreds of staff sat in one space. While the pandemic demanded social distancing, the business of customer care had to go on. Here’s how they did it.

21 Oct 2020 . 3,393 Views

Since the pandemic began, a few customers have noticed background noises when they call 100. Some caught on that the people handling their inquiries appeared to be working from home.

They might have been surprised, and they had reason to be. They had just encountered a result of painstaking work done at breakneck speed done to keep Customer Care staff safe and the service they provide, going.

When the pandemic struck and companies got into a mad dash to enable their staff to work from home, the onerous task at Safaricom fell on the shoulders of Anastacia Ngahu, a Senior Manager at the Information Technology Service Centre.

For her and the team at the Digital Information Technology Department, it was a rush against time. They needed to minimize disruption of critical functions as they transitioned staff, including those at Kenya’s largest call centre, to work from home.

“The pandemic happened abruptly. There was no time to prepare. We were required to support staff to work from home immediately,” recalls Anastacia.

This meant that a solution had to be found for the 2,000 call centre agents, who normally worked from desktops. Laptops had to be sourced urgently, but this was complicated: shipping was difficult due to closed borders.

Fortunately, though, there was a delivery of 300 laptops for routine operations. These were quickly configured for the first batch of agents to work from home. But these were not enough. More laptops were still needed.

The team had to turn to the local market, but it was not easy, as other companies were also furiously looking for computers. They found another 400 machines that were configured and were issued to more agents at Jambo Contact Centre (JCC) and Eldoret Contact Centre.
In just two weeks, 700 customer care agents were working from home.

“Demand was still high. There were still agents working from the office, who we needed to transition home. So, we placed an order to import 500 more laptops,” Anastacia explains.

However, this would take between four and six weeks to be delivered.
In the meantime, the team needed to find a solution to support the agents to work remotely. This came in the form of the ‘Virtual Desktop Infrastructure Over Internet Solution’ where computers would operate from the cloud and only needed a monitor. These were available in the office. They were configured and issued.

An experience about two years ago, while the Eldoret Contact Centre was being set up, offered great lessons for Anastacia’s team when the COVID-19 pandemic struck.
“We had chosen to equip the new contact centre with Virtual Desktop Infrastructure. This was a concept we had been designing to enhance user mobility. The thinking then was to allow for mobility by transitioning users to work remotely and access documents, while ensuring adherence to requisite security controls. They could also use different devices without depending on a computer or laptop,” she explains.

Anastacia has worked with Safaricom from 2003, starting out as a consultant, and joining the staff in 2006.
She was actively involved in setting up the desktop infrastructure for the four locations in Nairobi and regional headquarters such as JCC on Mombasa Road, Thika Call Centre and Eldoret Call Centre, including the Retail Centres, which have grown from six to more than 50 across the country.

“Had we not prepared, we would not have achieved this enormous task. At Digital IT, we were well prepared with Safaricom’s future in view. We had cloud-native systems that made the transition manageable. All in all, this challenge brought lessons and opportunity. We learnt that when we do things, we should think of the future because it will soon be here,” Anastacia adds.

Today, 1,928 agents, accounting for about 90 per cent of the headcount at the call centre, are working from home, accessing systems, collaborating and maintaining service levels.

Augustine Ojino, the End User Support Manager, remembers the draining process of deploying the equipment to enable the staff to work from home.
“We had to make sure that social distance was adhered to. Thus, we issued the equipment in batches from different locations and staff had to come sequentially to avoid crowding. Before we issued the devices, we configured them and only signed off after they were happy,” Augustine explains.

The call centre agents were also sent step-by-step self-help guides for different systems to help manage the transition, as there would be no IT person in case of challenges. As a last resort, they could call the service desk. Constant communication was maintained through existing staff communication channels and frequently asked questions compiled and distributed.

Initially, the service desk was inundated with calls. According to Prisca Namatsi, a Service Desk Engineer, they responded to up to 100 calls daily. This called for the support team to be supportive, understanding and patient with their customers.

“Fortunately, one of our team members developed a tool—the Abby Chatbot—to sort out most of the users’ problems, which significantly brought down the number of enquiries and staff eventually got used to the new normal,” Prisca explains.

The chatbot helps with routine tasks, such as resetting and unlocking passwords, which formed the bulk of requests by the staff to whom working from home was new. The rest of the enquiries were handled on phone; or having to selflessly go out of their way to physically support staff in their homes.

“Teams and Yammer, all within MSO365 and SharePoint, had just been deployed the previous year. Talk of prior preparation! This allowed sharing of documents and collaboration. Zoom also became very key for corporate communications and webinars. The team had to quickly learn and support the same,” explains Peter Mukera, an End User Administrator.

Besides network latencies and power interruptions, staff members working from home with children and constrained spaces saw some equipment suffer physical damage due to spillages or falls.
While these are being handled on a need by need basis, Anastacia says the transition has been seamless.

“Our customers have not even noticed any change in service. We remain notoriously customer obsessed and have not dropped on any service level agreements,” Anastacia says.

The Customer Care executives have gradually adjusted to the new realities and some, like Lydia Keya, now go about their work from home with ease and have adjusted to new routines.
Throughout the over a decade at Safaricom, Anastacia says she has learnt that nothing trumps the value of preparedness, which she says helped make work “a lot easier”.

This story is part of the Safaricom@20 celebrations. For 20 years, Safaricom has developed new technologies and innovations to support and enable Kenyans to communicate, connect and to go beyond.

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