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The Agile Contact Centre Podcast | Human-centred leadership

Customer Experience Leadership Podcast
Customer Experience Leadership Podcast

The Agile Contact Centre Podcast | Episode 44 | Dan-Hill Smith

From the Agile Contact Centre Podcast, Sean McGinn speaks with Dan Hill-Smith, Chief Operating Officer at TSA Group

Talking about:

– Bringing purpose and meaning into front-line roles

– The importance of building strong connections with your people

– The four traits they look for in every frontline and leadership role

– Building great employee experiences in a competitive outsourcing environment

– The role of technology in delivering a seamless and low-effort customer experience

About the Agile Contact Centre

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Sean: Welcome to the Agile Contact Centre Podcast. In this episode, we talk to Dan Hill-Smith. Dan’s Story is one that will be familiar to many contact centre people. He began his career on the phones while he was traveling Australia and found himself in need of a job to make ends meet. And he’s never left. In fact, he is now the Chief Operating Officer at TSA Group, one of Australia’s biggest outsource providers to brands like Telstra and Australia Post.

This experience has taught Dan that working in contact centres is more than just about answering calls. It’s a human business. Despite all the numbers and technology, and it’s within this backdrop that he shares a model for building engaging workplaces, built on connection and trust, and how they are approaching the retention challenge in a market where salaries have skyrocketed and the unique challenge this creates for outsourcers like TSA.

Finally, he wraps things up with his predictions on customer channels and AI driven data and insights that enable better quality decision making at scale to vastly improve customer experiences. We hope you enjoy the show.

Dan: It’s funny Sean. I do a weekly ‘Welcome to TSA’. Any new hire, any new Frontline team member that’s joined TSA. Every Friday I jump on a call for about 30 minutes or so and just talk about TSA and our purpose and our culture. One of the questions that often comes up, as part of that is a bit of Q&A, which is, you know, how did you get into contact centres?

And the joke that I make, that I make every Friday consistently, is the same reason that everyone else does, which is usually out of a bit of necessity, you know, a little Daniel Smith growing up. He did not dream of a career in contact centres. I’m not sure anyone that gets into the industry does. You know, you want to be a firefighter or an astronaut or, you know, whatever the equivalent is for that, for you.

But I grew up in the UK and I went to university and did sport and exercise. I stayed on for another year and did a fourth year at university to do teacher training. Did a postgraduate certificate in education and then I was thinking about, you know, settling into teaching and having a long term career in that path.

Then I thought, you know, maybe I’ll jet off and do a bit of traveling before I do that and went over to Canada and met some great Australians. In British Columbia we did a ski season over there. They encouraged me to come over to Australia and spend a bit of time and I landed in Australia in December 2009, had a bit of savings behind me which quickly ran out and, and I needed some work.

And I think contact centres for a lot of people is an accessible career or an accessible role with little to no prior experience. If you’ve got a good attitude and good people skills, it’s a really accessible role. And yeah I started at TSA in in February of 2010 and yeah, I’ve been there now for the last 13 years.

Sean: Hmm. Wow. What a stint. You’re right. That’s yeah, I don’t know many people who dream of working in a contact centre. Whenever we do sessions around purpose and we asked people what they wanted to be when they grow up, it’s always firemen, pilot, astronaut and something like that. No one ever says contact centre.

Dan: The interesting thing, though, and obviously I have been in the industry for a long time, I think you stick around for the people that you work with. It does attract a group of people that they’re generally pretty hungry, pretty humble. They’ve got good people skills, they’re enjoyable to work with. And the other thing that you come to realize is the work makes a material difference to the lives of the people that you’re communicating with.

And when we talk about TSA’s purpose and why we exist as a business, I regularly remind people of the impact that they can have on the people that they’re speaking with. Everyone over probably the last 15 years has been conditioned to dread interacting with contact centres. You know, unfortunately people have had bad experiences and, you know, everyone’s had one. You know, they’re the ones where you wait in queue for, you know, a few hours and you get through to someone and it feels like the person’s either incompetent or they don’t really care about you and they tell you it’s resolved, but it’s not resolved.

And then two weeks later, you have to go through that process again. And we try and bring our purpose to life every day. And remind our teams that, you know, you can make a real positive influence on this person’s life if you choose to every single day. And that is pretty rewarding. I don’t think we’re doctors.

We’re certainly not policemen or firefighters. But I think we exist in the layer underneath that, which is, you know, providing a real service to the community.

Sean: You have to find reasons to connect that to something higher than just answering phone calls or responding to chats. For any job but I think particularly in contact centres because of the nature of the work. You know, you do talk to a lot of customers in a day. If you’re not finding the meaning in that, then you probably won’t last too long.

Dan: You know, there’s three types of connection, which I believe most correlate to an engaged workforce. And the first one is exactly that. It’s connection between the work that you do and the difference that it makes in the world. The other, two, connection to leader. It’s the relationship that you have with your one up manager.

And the final one is connection to team, on that feeling of belonging and camaraderie and that feeling like you’re part of something that’s a bit bigger than yourself.

Sean: They’re quite beautiful in their simplicity. But the execution of them is where it becomes challenging. Why do you think in contact centres that being able to build connection across those three levels is such a challenge?

Dan: Firstly, I guess it’s why it’s important and whenever I talk about effective high performing contact centres, it always starts with highly engaged teams, and highly engaged teams, they have great attendance at work and they have really low turnover. And then you have this ability to retain that knowledge, retain that intellectual property within your team and highly engage people that you unlock that discretionary effort.

Why is it difficult? It’s difficult because you’re dealing with human beings and it’s human beings interacting with other human beings and the capability of every single leader within the organisation is variable. And they have different experience. They have different opportunity within their own personal behaviours, attitudes, skill sets, etc.. And, you know, to your point about the actual work itself, there’s a level of repetitiveness within contact centre work which can be really difficult because you’re trying to create highly engaged teams which are dealing with very, very difficult situations, maybe 15, 20, 25 times a day.

And you then have productivity expectations and efficiency expectations and the volume of contact time that you have with those people is usually quite finite. You know, you’d love to be able to bring your team off of the phone and build those three types of connection for 3 hours a day and you know, yeah, that’s not viable, certainly not with an outsourcer relationship either.

So I guess in summary, it’s the volume of time that you have actual contact with people and the capability that you have in your team to actually build that type of connection. We invest heavily in the capability of our team leaders and the relationship between them and their team is an absolutely crucial one. But we’re also looking for every available avenue to make a team leader’s role easier.

So how do you improve the level of visibility and reporting that they have? How do you reduce manual effort or how do you centralise manual effort so that the tasks that they’re doing, which are administration related, potentially can come out their schedules every single day. And you can build really, really highly capable leaders, but if you’re asking them to be sat behind a laptop for 6 hours a day doing reports and administration work, then they’re not going to have the ability to affect the change and build that connection that you actually need.

So you’ve got to do the right thing by your team leaders as well, and not only just build their capability, but also give them enough time with their team in a day, coaching, development. You’ve got to be able to make sure they’ve got enough capacity to have general wellbeing conversations. You know, how do you build relationships with people?

It’s not via discussing performance, it’s about asking them how they are, you know, are they enjoying the work? Do they need more support? Is everything okay outside of work? What are their goals? What are their aspirations? Where do they want to be in five years time? And in the situations where they have low capacity, it’s those types of conversations that are actually often missed.

Sean: Next, Dan talks about career progression at TSA and the four attributes they build on to help their people become successful.

Dan: The thing that we look for at TSA, people often, you know, ask for advice on, you know, how do you progress within the business? And there’s four things that we look for. And it’s actually four areas that we grade within all of our interview processes, regardless of frontline team member, team leader, you know, administration work, QA, whatever.

And it was borrowed and adapted from Patrick Lencioni’s ‘Ideal Team Player’. So two of them are attitudes and two of them are skill sets. So the two attitudes are hungry and humble, and hungry people are positive in difficult situations. They’re solution orientated. They’re proactive in solving problems and they look to inspire, uplift and motivate those around them.

They’ve got a good work ethic, and they don’t mind rolling their sleeves up, and jumping in the trenches, and doing the work with the team. We look for humble people. Humble people are self-aware enough to know that they’re not perfect and also self-aware enough to take their own professional development really seriously. They’re coachable, they can take on board feedback, and they’re also humble enough to say sorry if they get one wrong.

The two skill sets are people smart and work smart. So people smart is that leadership skill, is that human scale, and it’s the ability to be empathetic and recognize emotions in others. Being able to communicate effectively. Being able to work as part of a team and develop and coach and then work smarts is actually the least important and it’s the actual technical skill to be able to do the role.

And when we hire externally for our frontline team member positions, we often don’t worry too much about the technical skill. We can teach people how to run systems, work within processes, follow user guides. The only thing that we really screen for is a basic computer competency, and that that’s the only role really at TSA that we recruit for externally, which is a big part of our DNA.

We hire externally for our frontline team member positions and then post that, we have a 99.8% recruit from within rate. What does that really mean in practice? What it means, our trainers who were frontline team members. Our team leaders were frontline team members. Their one up managers were, their one up managers were, their one up managers were, and I was.

And increasingly now, the people that find themselves in those frontline contact centre roles, they’ve got degrees in all of our shared service functions as well. So we’ve had people come out of our frontline team member roles into HR, Recruitment, IT, tech development, business analytics, QA, workforce management. All of those roles are also filled internally. And yeah, my TSA story is one that happens every single day.

You know, I’m not a unicorn. You come into the business and you’ll hear hundreds of those stories at TSA. Which is one of our, you know, big, big parts of talent retention. We want to be able to offer people a long-term career pathway within contact centre operations. For those people that join the business, like most people do, going, I think this is going to be a stop gap. You know, I think I’m going to be here for a year or two years while I figure out what I want to do. It’s really important that you can kind of change that mindset and get people thinking about, okay, well, what does the next five years look like for me at TSA?

Sean: Yeah, it’s crazy how many people start in contact centres and never leave. Arnie did a biomedical degree and then start working in a contact centre at Uni and then never left. Now we went from working in contact centres to becoming a consultant, working with contact centres.

Dan: I love those stories. Yeah, we’ve had everyone, like in senior leadership roles at TSA is, from butchers, boilermakers, opera singers. Jess, she’s my country manager over in the Philippines. She used to work in retail at Cotton On before she joined TSA. And yeah, I love those stories. It’s fantastic.

Sean: Yeah, it’s great. And I think the point you made before people perhaps they don’t know. They’ve got a view of what a contact centre is. Once they get in there, they find it’s a great place. If you really enjoy working with people, it becomes quite infectious. It’s kind of hard to leave once you actually experience what the environment’s like.

And I think that’s what keeps so many people.

Dan: Yeah, hundred percent. And that environment does need to be a positive one. And you know, there is a bit of variability in people’s experiences with contact centres. But if you end up landing in a really good one, you do get that feeling of camaraderie and that kind of infectious energy that goes with contact centres, which often is quite addictive.

You stick around for a while.

Sean: Yeah, definitely. Hey, you talk a bit about the, like your culture there and I’m curious, obviously for me as someone from the outside looking in, that it’s quite a strong value proposition. Do you wanna talk a bit about anything about retention and attrition, like the markets, where you say the market at the moment obviously, it’s been pretty crazy over the last year and a bit with, we’re trying to find and retain talent.

Dan: I mean the two that you just listed, they’re probably two of the big three challenges that are facing contact centre operations at the moment. You know, the first one is kind of a new one, I would say, or certainly new within, you know, the last ten years, which is recruitment. The other challenges has been around as long as contact centres has been in existence, which is talent retention.

I mean, the recruitment side of things, the labour market has fundamentally shifted. I think unemployment rates in December were about three and a half percent. If you look at December 2019, they were probably maybe be closer to five and a half percent. So, in a period where more people are employed, you’ve also seen this growth specifically in new contact centre positions.

So contact centre work has actually outpaced the growth within other industries materially. So, you know, why is that? Well, through COVID, a number of organisations were heavily impacted by having their contact centres offshore and wait times grew to periods of hours rather than minutes, and those hours were incurred over a period of weeks, not just days. And, you know, we’ve had some great conversations around how customer expectations have shifted materially over the last few years and the pace at which people expect resolution.

It’s an on demand service. They’re used to, you know, your Uber like experiences. And the pace that they want resolution is material. And the level of patience is far lower. And then you have, you know, we were having conversations with one of the big four banks that are actually planning for a major business disruption now every seven years.

You know, that’s not necessarily a pandemic, but it’s a pandemic like event which would have the scale of that level of disruption every seven years. And when you look at business continuity through that lens, it’s no wonder organisation are choosing to kind of repatriate more of their contact centre work to Australian soil, which has made the market for frontline team members so much more competitive than it was pre-COVID.

And recruitment now has kind of pivoted as well. Like we, recruitment used to be screening and now the bigger portion of recruitment is actually talent attraction. Contact centre team member would have somewhere in the region of 4 to 5 job offers on the table as part of the hiring process. And you know, you can believe it and that kind of drives the pace of recruitment, you know previously where, you know, you could stumble around a little bit and, you know, maybe get back to the applicant in a week or two weeks.

You’re trying to, you know, work through that pipeline and get them from end to end in a few days to, you know, to avoid an alternative offer being placed on the table. So that’s massive and that has shifted. And when you think about team member retention, a lot of the conversation goes to salary. I talk about salary and I’ve got this concept which is relative pay fairness.

So, we have a certain volume of limitations that we have being an outsourcer. There’s lots of other outsourcers in this environment that creates a lot of competition and there’s a salary range that we can work within, and there’s a salary range that I would love to be able to offer. But legitimately it wouldn’t be possible because the market wouldn’t be able to pay the rates to actually offer those salaries.

So, transparently we work in the fifties for the majority of our roles, there’s other contact centres internally that have been marketing frontline roles in the sixties and there’s one of the banks out there at the moment that has a role starting with the seven, which is unheard of. But when you think about relative pay fairness, you know, people say, oh you know, to retain staff, you’ve got to pay, you know, 15, 20 grand, 30 grand more than you’re paying right now.

But what relative pay fairness means is, people are always doing this real-time calculation between the remuneration that they’re receiving and the effort that they are going through within that position. And everybody does this calculation subconsciously or consciously, But it’s this balance between. Okay, this is what I’m being paid. What are they actually asking me to do for this level of remuneration?

So, if I asked a frontline team member to do one call a day and they had two people. They’re doing all of their systems and you know, they’re there in real time support. And I just need you to take one call a day. Would you say that you’re being well remunerated? And the answer to that question is obviously, yes. This is the best role ever.

I’ll come to work for 7.6 hours. I’ll take one customer interaction and I’m being paid in the 50 grand. This is great. And then you’re in a situation sometimes where people go, you know what, the complexity in the environment, the difficulty of the customer situations, the quality of my training, you know, the pace of work, the systems that I’m using, the level of support that I’m getting, and then I look at that remuneration in the fifties and they go, I deserve to be paid more.

The effort and the complexity that I’m having to go through for this level of remuneration is not fair at all. So when you don’t have that level of flexibility in the remuneration, the only option that you have left available to you is the environment that that person is working in and the perceived level of effort and complexity of the work that they’re completing.

So that’s usually where we focus the vast, vast, vast majority of our time because that is within our control and when you think about reducing the level of effort and complexity within somebody’s environment, you know, you’re looking at things like the quality, if you’re training and design. How do you bring people into the organization and prepare them for those first customer interactions?

How do you place knowledge at their fingertips and have those knowledge management systems in place so that if the customer does ask a curly question, you know, it’s no sweat, they just can simply find that information and provide a response. How do you think about the level of quality of their flexibility in their working environment? So when they do come to the office, it’s a really positive environment for them to work in.

And they have flexibility not only in location of work but roster flexibility so that the hours that doing, work well within their lifestyle. And then, you know we spoke about it earlier, leadership capability. How do you ensure that they feel supported? You know, they have a one up manager, that they have a really strong relationship with. Someone that they can trust and respect and someone that they know will have their back in a difficult situation.

And all of those things are where we’re investing, you know. All of our resources to ensure that the actual environment our frontline teams are working within. They go, hey yeah, look, I sometimes I get some difficult customers and you know, sometimes I have to deal with, you know, difficult situations or difficult processes.

But you know what? You know, I am fairly remunerated and I do enjoy the place of work. And, you know, if I did leave TSA, I might not have such a great manager in an alternate workplace. And yeah, that’s the primary area for us to focus on talent retention.

Sean: That’s fantastic. I love that concept of those sort of basket of things that people are always thinking about and evaluating against what they’re being remunerated in. It’s, I think it’s so important for leaders, particularly more junior leaders, to have an awareness of those things and not just focus on maybe what might be more obvious things in front of them, like, you know, I’ve got to get my coaching done.

You know, I’ve got to make sure I’m, you know, saying hello to everyone in the morning. It’s more, those are important, but there’s a whole lot that goes into that to them to be aware of, which makes their job that much more challenging. But that’s just the necessity of it, I suppose, in making sure that you provide that type of experience for people.

Dan: And I agree with that. It’s also the most rewarding part of your role though. You know, the only way that we can create really amazing customer experiences is if we create really great experiences for our frontline team members. They’re the ones that are directly communicating with customers. And yeah, there’s a couple of reasons I get out of bed every single day.

One is to create great customer experience because I do believe that people deserve an effortless, seamless contact centre experience. But the other one is to create a place of work where people can be happy. And I think it is probably a little bit of a long bow to say, you know, people would love working. And, you know, love working is quite an aspirational goal to have, but I want people to jump out of bed in the morning and not worry about going to work, not be concerned about going to work, you know, enjoy work.

And if their friend says, you know, how’s your job? They’ll go, yeah it’s good. It’s good. I’m happy that I’ve got a good boss, I’ve got a good environment. I’m fairly recognized and rewarded for my efforts and creating a place of where people can be happy, is an unbelievably rewarding goal to aspire to.

Sean: I like that goal of people being happy because I think work is like life. It’s not, you can’t expect to be happy all the time. There’s peaks and troughs but on balance, when you sit back and reflect on it, what would you say about it? I think if people said, you know, I’m happy at work. I think that’s a huge, huge tick and yeah.

Great aspiration for leaders. So Dan, let’s wrap things up. Keen to hear what you see as the major trends in your space over the next bit of time.

Dan: Yeah, I mean, we spoke a little bit earlier around the trend in customer expectations and how that’s shifting and the pace of which customer expectation is around resolution. The other key customer shift is the shift of communication pathways. Younger generations are far less likely to want to pick up the phone. They prefer self-service or failing self service, text based communication pathways.

And as a result of that, technology is playing a bigger, bigger role in customer interactions. People want to be able to manage their services themselves, and if they do require communication with a provider, they want someone that’s readily available. Live chat, I think will probably be dead in the next kind of 4 to 5 years.

People want to communicate when they’re ready to communicate. So you know that shift from live chat to asynchronous messaging is in full swing and for outsourcers and for internal contact centres, technology is playing a bigger and bigger role. Not only in just the way that you communicate with customers, but also the supporting environment for contact centre technology and BPOs are moving away from just being that bums-in-seats provider.

And I know at TSA we have an internal tech capability. We have engineers in-house, development teams in-house, but for us it’s also about being able to provide accurate advice for the application of technology. And that’s the key differential, which is, there are so many tech companies out there saying, hey, this is what my technology does, but they’re not always great about applying it to a real business case for a customer.

And you think about the, you know, the big, big technology items and you go, okay, automation. What is automation? Well, primarily it’s taking a long process and trying to ensure that the human interaction within that process is as limited as possible. You know, how do you turn 15 clicks into five clicks? But the volume of different processes that exist within the business, which ones are right for automation, which ones aren’t?

And that’s when the operational teams provide those real high-quality insights. And I believe and obviously, you know, some are biased in this space but businesses will look to their contact centre teams for those application of technology. And we certainly have become technology specialists in as much as people trust us. We are speaking and communicating with the customers every day.

We are closest to the coalface and we have the best understanding and those customer insights to actually get the most out of technology. One of the lines that I love and most people have heard is, data is the new oil and I prescribe to that immensely. And the reason behind that is a lot of the technology offerings you need the insights to actually fuel the application of that technology.

And for anyone that’s listening to this that doesn’t have a good kind of foundation in the tech, when we think about data capture, there’s a few different avenues that you can look at, but specifically for customer insights, you’ve got voice analysis and text analysis. So voice analysis is directly into the audio recordings, and that’s primarily used for some high quality insights around tonality, pace, customer sentiment.

But then you can have voice to text transcription services and you then have this data lake, of a script of every single customer conversation that happens within your contact centre. And then you can start asking questions of that data. You can apply some AI technology to go into that data lake and look for themes. And what does that mean?

It really means that you should have a quantitative view of your customer pain points. You should know why customers are calling. How long each specific demand type is taking to resolve. Which customers are repeat calling for the same issue. And all of that data just drives high quality decision making and it’s really exciting. You know, it’s really exciting to think that you can have that level of understanding because you go back three or four years ago and, you know, it’s like, well, what are our customers saying? And you go to your manual QA team and they listen to 2% of the customer interactions and they come back and they say, this is you know, these are the trends that we’re seeing but that voice analysis and text analysis will give you the information to make really high quality decisions.

And then the other thing from a data perspective that we’re seeing is, next best action and how do you use that data for personalization. So customers obviously want a personalized experience and recommendations based on them. And you’re saying things in IVR now. If a customer calls and there’s an open case within the CRM, they’re saying, are you calling, you know, because of the reason that you called three or four days ago and the customer, you know, kind of understands that there’s a history around them and, you know, sales sometimes is a dirty word for some people, but revenue generation is core to any business and understanding what’s happened to the customer, what the customer’s current product holdings is, what their usage is, and then actually making some high quality recommendations based on that customer profile leads to far higher conversion rates, which is absolutely critical for business growth.

The other one that I think is kind of cool is AI in recruitment and it’s just such a simple use case that cuts out so much manual labor. I think it’s a really good one to allow people to get their heads around, you know, what actual functionality AI can offer. So, we did a piece of work together to ask questions of the top 20% of performers within our contact centres for a specific work type.

And then we graded the responses to those questions within specific behavioural attributes. So things like level of competitiveness, level of empathy, level of communication skill, and you then have this profile of what high performance looks like within your team. And then you take that to your recruitment tool and a lot of the recruitment tools out there, you know, regardless of whether it’s SmartRecruiter or the hundred and other ones that they exist on the market. Most of them have some level of AI capability and you design the same questions that you asked your high performing team members to understand those behavioural attributes. Then you have the applicant respond in writing, and then the AI tool will screen the responses in line with what your profile looks like and what you want to achieve.

So suddenly there’s, you know, hundreds of applicants that are being pre-screened by an AI tool and you’ve already got this level of correlation between their responses and your high-profile team member responses. And it removes so much of the subjectivity from a recruitment process when it’s a human being trying to gauge the response to that question.

You know there’s different people within your recruitment team and I think it’s just a really simple and high quality one. You obviously still want to have a conversation with the person, but to remove that volume of manual effort upfront in processes is really great.

Sean: Yeah. And I’m really am excited and optimistic about where AI’s headed for contact centres because I do think it’s, clearly will automate some things but I think, it’s power to augment current practices is really powerful. So, like you said with recruitment, you can scale it, you can reduce the variation, but you also have the human component with it as well, which is really important when you’re recruiting people.

So yeah, it’s a very exciting space. There’s so much in there that I think people can take away. I really love the stuff that you talk about around connection and the way you think about leadership. And then to finish off with the technology, if I think is, yeah, there’s some absolute gold in there for people. So, thank you so much for your time today.

Dan: Most welcome. Thanks for having me on, Sean. Pleasure to catch up.

Sean: Thanks so much.



TSA are Australia’s market leading specialists in CX Consultancy and Contact Centre Services. We are passionate about revolutionising the way brands connect with Australians. How? By combining our local expertise with the most sophisticated customer experience technology on earth, and delivering with an expert team of customer service consultants who know exactly how to help brands care for their customers.

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