COVID-19 – lessons learned and the ‘new normal’

COVID-19 – lessons learned and the ‘new normal’

The world is facing unprecedented times in 2020, as the Coronavirus pandemic has completely shifted the way we live, work and do business. In the face of this infectious disease, the world has responded in several ways – including the “lockdown” of many industries, sectors, and businesses in a bid to flatten the curve and reduce the number of new infections. 

In the face of this lockdown, people have been urged to remain at home where possible and to be cognisant of social distancing when leaving their homes. Many organisations have been tasked with overhauling their business strategies and practices in order to remain afloat, while certain sectors have been deemed “essential” – and have been expected to continue running in order to protect and save lives or enable access to basic needs and services. The latter was true for Merchants – as our people were deemed essential in providing people access to services such as banking, insurance, travel, and communication. 

As the pandemic hit, contact centres globally were flooded, as consumers reached out to their banks, insurance companies, airlines and other service providers in search of information on what the pandemic, lockdown levels and restrictions would mean for their lives, jobs and finances. For a short while, consumers were happy just to be able to talk to a contact centre agent – as they desperately sought solutions to assist them in adjusting their lives to the reality of COVID. It might seem to some, that for that brief moment, customer experience (CX) was no longer a priority for the consumer. However, our lessons have taught us the opposite is true.

If anything, COVID-19 has highlighted the absolute importance of CX for business success in the ‘new normal’. Those businesses seen to be practicing kindness, understanding, and providing positive experiences for their clients during this unprecedented time will certainly win the market share in the future – as those who fail to provide positive CX will become redundant. 

Just as important as the experiences of the end consumer, of course, is the experience of the Merchants customer. These businesses were tasked with the need to overhaul operations and business strategies almost overnight – while also having to increase customer experience staff to prioritise the CX during this time. Some contact centres in certain regions, such as the Philippines and Canada had to completely shut down under certain government regulations – highlighting the need for a multi-region strategy and presence when it comes to BPO and customer experience partners. 

The pandemic has taught us that we have excellent capacity, as a business, to deal with high complexity challenges due to the resilience of our people, our ability to ramp up quickly to support our clients locally and internationally, and our multi-region presence. These factors have assisted us in ensuring business continuity for our clients throughout the pandemic. 

Mobilising our people to continue operating during this time certainly translated to changes for our own business in terms of daily operations, as we worked, and continue to work hard, to ensure the health and safety of all our people during this time – while operating as an essential service in South Africa. The lessons learned during this time will always be valuable to us as a business as we move toward the ‘new normal’ as a society. 

How did we respond?

1. Health & Safety (H&S)

The health and safety of our employees remains our top priority during this unprecedented time. Merchants moved swiftly, even before the announcement of the South African national lockdown, to implement H&S measures in all our operations for those staff who were not able to work from home. 

To date, we have implemented several H&S standards in all our operations, including sanitizing stations, social distancing protocols, temperature checks and masks and gloves for employees. This is extremely important in the contact centre environment, where several people are working closely as a team – and is something we will continue to adapt and implement as we move through new levels of national lockdown and regulations, and into the new normal. 

Where staff have been tested positive for the virus, we have strict protocols in place to deal with this – including the isolation and testing of other staff who might be at risk and the fogging, disinfection and deep cleaning of the space in question. 

2. Self-regulation

Self-regulation when it comes to the implementation of best practice protocols within a business at this time have been a top focus, even being included in the government gazettes. When COVID-19 was identified as a threat in South Africa, there was a lot of uncertainty about which businesses would be identified as essential – and it was at this time that Merchants began to focus heavily on self-regulation in terms of successfully implementing H&S practices in all our operations. 

As our managing director, Zain Patel, sits on the board of BPESA, Merchants is proud to have had the opportunity to play a fundamental role in the development of industry guidelines for self-regulation when it comes to H&S, which have even been implemented by organisations in other sectors. Zain discussed Merchants’ approach to self-regulation, best practice and remaining compliant during the pandemic with local B2B publication, Engineering News, as part of a feature on business practice during COVID. 

These best practices have been instrumental in allowing the business to continue running during these unprecedented times.

3. Remote working

Merchants employs more than 5 000 people, so it was important that the business began to implement strategies aimed at reducing density in all its local operations as soon as COVID-19 became a threat – especially given the high risk environment of the contact centre.

Besides being able to reduce density, Merchants also needed to ensure that all employees being deployed remotely were able to provide their clients with the best possible level of service. Thus, the business took a three-pronged approach:

  • A portion of our staff were enabled to work remotely, through the setup of remote working environments that enabled them to continue working in small teams from multiple locations. 
  • A large portion of staff were enabled to work from home (WFH) with hardware secured through some of the business’ technology partners. This was a significant change for our business and our staff, as the trend had not yet taken off in South Africa as it had in many other countries. By acting swiftly to deploy our staff, we were able to secure the right technology before the rush by many other businesses to do the same. 
  • A much smaller portion of our staff continue to work from our offices – which are fully set up in terms of the H&S guidelines outlined by local government, the WHO and industry bodies. 

This three-pronged approach is aimed at ensuring our staff are kept safe, while still being able to carry out their functions and serve our clients. 

While the effects of COVID-19 have been unavoidable for almost all businesses across the globe, Merchants believes these can be used to guide businesses toward success in the new normal. As more businesses look to adopt multi-region offshoring strategies when it comes to BPO, all of these factors will continue to play a part in our success in a post-COVID world. In fact, we expect to see growth in South Africa’s BPO sector post-COVID, as the country’s capabilities in this regard have been highlighted during the pandemic. 

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