Syncing humans and technology for success – Nichola Hazard

8 July 2014

In the pensions market, where change is constant and rapid, delivering a high-quality customer experience is a challenging task. Future Banking speaks to Nichola Hazard, who heads the customer-contact team at UK pensions provider Aegon, about the demands it places on people and technology in a multichannel financial services market.

A wise person once said that change is the only constant, and this has never been truer than in the financial-services sector. In the pensions market, for instance, a wave of regulation has forced pensions providers to become ever more agile at adapting their products, which has a knock-on effect in the delivery of customer services.

When new regulations come into effect, there is an immediate wave of queries from customers wanting to know how the new regime will impact their efforts to save for a financially secure retirement, and pensions providers must respond in real time.

"The core challenge can be summed up in one word - change," says Nichola Hazard, head of contact at Aegon UK. "It started with the Retail Distribution Review change and, through that, we started to see a real change in the profile of the customers we were dealing with. Prior to that, we mainly dealt with financial advisers or other financial services professionals, but following the change, customers were making the choice not to use a financial adviser and, in some cases, come directly to the contact centre.

"The challenge for us was that the customer often understood the outcome they were trying to achieve, but maybe didn't know how to ask for it. We had to adapt our approach in terms of how we handled calls, and make a changes to training and support materials to move away from using technical and jargon language towards simpler language that customers would understand. We are seeing that further through the pension reform changes because we were dealing with customers who may not have been to see a financial adviser, but were auto-enrolled into pension schemes, either through inertia or sometimes through choice, but who didn't have the support to navigate them through major changes."

For Aegon, the priority was to change its approach to customer interaction in order to be responsive and detailed in its service delivery, while at the same time keeping the answers simple.

"Often, when we deal with customers, they are going through a major life event such as the loss of a loved one, retirement or a divorce. So, we ask our advisers when they speak to customers to use what we call the 'mum' test. They must ask themselves when they are explaining things to customers whether their mum would understand what they are saying. It helps them make sure they steer away from technical information and jargon. It's not about dumbing it down, it's just about making it easy to understand," explains Hazard.

"There is no better example of change than when George Osborne gave his budget speech, and I sat live in the contact centre with the management team watching the speech and understanding the radical changes to pension regulations, some happening right away, and in a few moments watching call volumes spike as advisers and customers called to ask what it meant for them, at the same time as we were trying to work out what it meant for us. We had to make real-time changes to processes and information, and train our people to adapt to the changes," she adds.

For Hazard, it was important to achieve simplicity without patronising customers.

"If there is one thing that customers tell us, it's to please make it easy to do business with them. The mum test is an example of the philosophy that we apply to make things simpler for customers," she remarks.

Leveraging the digital domain

The simplicity and responsiveness customers desire can be largely achieved through digital channels, which increasingly enable the financial-services industry to compete with the standards of customer service set in other industries.

"Customers' expectations have changed across all sectors, not just financial services," says Hazard. "There is more of a sense of immediacy from customers. You can sit up in bed, browse Amazon, order a book and have it downloaded to your Kindle in seconds, and that is what customers expect. We live in a 24/7 society, so when customers want information from us, they want it immediately. The whole concept of service standards has eroded and disappeared. Customers set their standards of what they expect from us not by other pension providers, but by their online bank or the company they buy their holiday from.

"Positive experience of services does not happen by accident, it must be designed."

"The best way to fulfil those customers' needs is through a digital offering. You couldn't afford to run a 24-hour contact centre, and customers want information at a time and in a place that suits their needs. There is a growing demand for immediate information through digital channels, but it is not just about the service offering, but also about how that channel is supported. Customers want support through their channel of choice, so that could mean webchat or dynamic FAQs, because if they are getting information online they don't want to leave that channel to send you an email or call the contact centre," she adds.

So far, the uptake in the use of digital channels has manifested largely through Aegon's online channels, rather than through the wider arena of social media, but Hazard understands that no digital channel can be left unmanaged.

"Our spike is more on the computer side at the moment, and although there is little activity on social media, we do expect that to grow. We don't expect people to have private discussions about their own pension pot on a social channel, but we do expect them to discuss their expectations of financial services institutions through social media," says Hazard.

A moving target

Digital channels will inevitably have more bearing on the delivery of customer service in the years ahead, but there is a fine balance to be achieved between what technology can provide and what human interaction contributes. Hazard believes that without the right people, no amount of technology will deliver excellent customer service.

"Recruit for attitude, train for skill. You can teach people about pensions and investments, but I can't teach them to care. I don't want people to say they are sorry because it is in a script, or to demonstrate empathy because I have told them it's the right time to do it. We need people who care about customers, and that is about recruitment and selection," she remarks.

"Beyond that, we use an embedded knowledge-management tool so that they have the right information as well, but it is about having the right people with the right attitude and then understanding on a real-time basis what service it is that you are providing."

Achieving the balance between technology and people is central to Aegon's approach to customer service - an approach that Hazard has honed during her 20 years' experience in contact centres.

"Across every sector I've work in, which is a lot, I have applied four key principles. The first is to understand your customers' needs and the type of service you aspire to deliver. Positive experience of services does not happen by accident, it must be designed. You need to understand what emotions you're trying to elicit through every step, and then design processes to deliver that. The second core principle is getting the right people. It doesn't matter if you have great processes or systems. The person having that conversation with the customer is what counts. You need people with the right attitude and capability," Hazard remarks.

"Thirdly, once you have those people, give them the tools to do their job. All of us, at some point in time, will have called a contact centre and got frustrated because we've got through to someone who is really friendly, but who can't answer the question. Without the right tools, the customer and the member of staff become frustrated. The final principle is just to never stop."

During Hazard's years in contact centres, she has seen them evolve beyond all recognition, but the core priorities remain the same, no matter how they change to fit the omnichannel environment in which financial services must operate.

"It is about listening to your customers, listening to your people and never, ever stop changing. That is how to deliver a cost-effective contact centre while achieving the level of service to which you aspire," she concludes.

Nichola Hazard is an MBA graduate with substantial experience of working at a strategic and operational level in customer experience, across a variety of business sectors. She has designed and delivered customer-experience strategies and programmes supporting major cultural changes.