Mary Graham on the challenges facing today’s operational managers
Interview with Mary Graham, General Manager, Operations
You started in the customer contact industry in 1974. What was it like in the early days?
Back in those days, people didn’t tend to work unsociable hours – it was so much easier to achieve a work-life balance. Business was in the main nine-to-five if you worked in an office. A lot of mothers still didn’t work, and when it came to telephone contact, you would invariably find someone at home during the day.
I returned to the UK from Canada in the late 1980’s. Growth was phenomenal, as were the employment opportunities. But by then the landscape was already changing. Customer contact roles had gone from well paid to relatively low paid – agents were earning less, but expected to do a lot more.
You’ve seen the introduction of an ever stricter regulatory framework in financial services. What do you make of it?
It’s added a level of complexity that was unimagined in the 70’s and 80’s. Back then, honesty was a given, on both sides – nobody worried about a lack of honesty, as they do today. But with the industry’s rapid growth and competitive pressure, we needed regulation. Things have improved since then, but there’s still some way to go.
Technology for customer contact has been magnificent in supporting the new regulatory framework, helping to ensure compliance and safeguard both buyer and seller. But in some ways it’s added to our problems.
To drive high standards and verify for compliance we listen in some cases to 100% of sales calls. That requires a significant quality team, which works independently of the operations team. They have the final say on whether call is compliant or not – and if it’s not, it has to be reinstated by the manager – that means the manager has to call the customer back, to ensure they fully understood the call. Only then, assuming the call can be reclassified as compliant, is it passed for fulfilment. Monitoring 100% of calls demands a huge resource – it’s a cost both to ourselves and our clients but we need to do it. But the question is… where do you stop?
What do you see as the biggest challenges for operational managers today?
These are some of the biggest challenges as I see them:
People: Operational managers have to deal with so many more people issues than ever before. Things have changed, not just in the contact centre, but life in general. There are more problems, but also there’s a tendency for people to more readily air their problems and expect help in dealing with them. We see a lot because staff are younger, and often on lower-end salaries. As a result, there’s a much stronger focus on pastoral care.
Absenteeism due to stress, pressure of work and life problems is high. We deal on a daily basis with all sorts of issues, some minor, and others much more complex. We need care processes which never existed in the past and we need to ensure that operations managers, in addition to being good day-to-day managers, are skilled in dealing with pastoral issues with empathy – but can also assist in getting people back to work.
Controls are ever tighter: With technology to support it, extensive monitoring is the order of the day. As a result of issues like PPI mis-selling and large-scale losses of personal and credit card data, many companies have become very afraid of doing the wrong thing, or failing to secure personal data adequately. So now they monitor everyone and everything, all the time.
How do you see the future for the customer contact centre?
Regulation won’t go away, and it will probably get even tighter. It will begin to impact industries beyond financial services, commanding resource and time, and putting pressure on operations teams. It’s essential, but it adds a level of stress and anxiety to today’s contact centre operation.
Talking of stress, I foresee a growing need to mitigate stress with personal and health services, and tools like mindfulness. We encourage people to take breaks from their desk and move around. We run programmes like smoking cessation, discounted gym memberships and a cycle to work scheme, and we have visiting professionals carrying out basic health-checks. All this is to help equip staff to cope with the modern-day challenges of their busy work and personal lives.
Congratulations on your ‘Woman of Influence’ award last year.
Thank you – I wonder if it was for endurance! I’ve had a long career; one I wouldn’t have changed for anything. I’ve seen so many people develop and grow, entering the industry as agents and moving into management roles. It remains an industry with so much opportunity, but it’s undoubtedly a very challenging environment in which to work.