The SARS-Cov-2 pandemic has forced both businesses and individuals to quickly adapt to a new context and adjust their operations accordingly. Business Review talked to Ioana Mihailescu, Customer Operations Director at Vodafone Romania, about the importance of customer care in times of crisis and how the company has proactively addressed its customers’ needs in order to remain closer to them than ever.
By Anda Sebesi
How have customer care needs changed during the SARS-Cov-2 pandemic in Romania?
When looking for support or facing a problem, customers generally expect availability, friendliness, clarity, and a quick solution to their requests. The pandemic, however, shows us that customers are more likely to turn to companies they trust to deliver on these needs, even in times of crisis.
I believe that customers are now expecting us to be there for them as a trustworthy partner in challenging times. Our mission – now more than ever – is to ensure a reliable and stable network that is capable to support everything they need to do these days, with the best quality mobile and fixed communications services, as well as continuity in our customer care activities. We also understand how important it is to go the extra mile for each and every customer and deliver on their needs, which are very different now as they are facing new challenges during this difficult period. If we look at the numbers, I am proud to see that we’ve really succeeded in supporting our customers in a truly meaningful way and that our commitment has had the best response. In the last three weeks, we have recorded significant improvements in customer loyalty and the number of cancellation requests has dropped, which shows that customers understand it is important to stay with the trusted operator with whom they have built a relationship over time.
From a channel perspective, due to the COVID-19 crisis, we have had to adapt by limiting operations in retail and direct sales to comply with social distancing requirements, so we planned for a seamless and fast switch in digital and customer operations channels for those customers who preferred face to face interactions. While we’ve kept our presence in 55 percent of our physical locations thanks to the efforts and dedication of our retail employees, we have intensified communication, education, and support for our customers to ease their use of digital tools or calls and we’re seeing good progress in this direction.
From a resourcing point of view, we have seen a shift in the intervals when customers interact with us. Normally it would have been quite challenging to adapt quickly, but the work from home model has allowed us to accommodate the new peaks more easily, as agents are no longer limited by the time it took to physically reach the office and are able to login much faster and be there for our customers when they need it most.
Social media, especially Facebook, is the channel that has been growing fast and we have intensified our efforts and invested more resources, not only to have a deeper engagement with the social community, but also to spot and solve customer requests directly through this channel, where users are trying to reach us.
What trends have emerged in the requests coming from your residential customers during this period?
To us, caring for our customers means supporting them with truly relevant and meaningful offers and solutions. Of course, during these difficult times, there has been more need for our customers to stay connected with their loved ones. We have proactively addressed this need; from the very start of the crisis we have provided tailored offers to facilitate customers’ communication with their family and friends, through unlimited roaming calls to Romania from France, Italy, Spain, Germany, UK, and Austria, all free of charge, as well as international minutes for mobile and fixed lines for calls from Romania to those destinations.
There are also other trends that have been triggered by the new context, which in terms of customer care we address through our digital channels. Customers who were used to paying their bill in cash and who could not perform such a transaction while staying at home have been educated by our agents or through online tutorials. Supporting our customers in using digital tools to manage their services, access and pay their bills is today a large part of our customer service activity. Customers who have kids or teenagers and who need more data traffic for schooling or gaming and entertainment are offered upgrades for their mobile or fixed bundles. Additionally, we are supporting students’ access to online education through a dedicated special offer called Student Pack, which is available in the Vodafone Shake app, consisting of 40 GB of monthly data traffic, enabling them to watch the #TeleScoala online courses on the TVR YouTube channel. Also, students aged between 16 to 26 get free access to a number of online educational platforms, without using up any data traffic. Moreover, customers who need technical assistance for TV and fixed internet are serviced by our field technicians, who are safely equipped and instructed regarding the preventive measures they need to take in order to protect themselves and the customers, or remotely through our call center consultants.
What are the primary needs of your corporate customers right now? How have they changed? What has Vodafone been doing to support them during these times?
Generally, business customers have two main needs: proper and reliable connectivity and fairness of price. The COVID-19 crisis instantly impacted some of our business customers on the connectivity side. Many people started working from home, therefore the huge demand for our work from home solutions meant faster implementation, and our back office teams went the extra mile to quickly activate hundreds of services for our customers so they would not face any disruption in their business. We’re also seeing an isolated trend in some sectors of economy which the pandemic crisis has affected to a greater extent, with businesses that had to halt their activity completely due to social distancing requirements or others that have experienced a significant slowdown as a result of the falling demand. Together with our Account Managers and commercial teams, we’ve been working closely with those businesses to find solutions to bridge the gap until they get back on track.
We do foresee changes in the business segment in the future, such as accelerated digitalization. We take our role as a business partner for our business customers seriously and we are constantly connected to understand their current and emerging needs, aiming to design solutions for each and every one of them together with our commercial teams.
What are the measures Vodafone has taken in order to provide the best customer care services during this crisis?
We have two combined approaches in our customer care activities. One is to act proactively in order to address the recurrent needs that emerge across the customer base, while the other one is to support customers on a case by case basis, with personalised commercial offers or technical solutions, depending on each specific situation. As a proactive care measure, we took the commercial decision to expand bundles with extra resources – data traffic, roaming, international minutes, etc. – and we will continue to listen to our customers and provide more customised offers in our effort to help everyone in a way that really makes a difference in these times.
I also believe that some of the measures we took long before this crisis enabled us to provide the best customer care services today and to be prepared to offer the same quality of services in an extremely difficult context, which nobody could have anticipated. One is our strategic plan to digitize customer operations and we are accelerating our actions to deliver more on this channel. Another one is Vodafone Romania’s continuous innovation and investment in the networks to support the growing demand. Especially during such moments, the resilience of the communications networks, their capacity to accommodate massively increased traffic without affecting service quality are so important. I am very proud to say that we have great commercial and network teams and the customer-centric view is present in all our functions.
As a reactive measure, there was the decision to move the customer care team outside the office, to work from home, and, most importantly, we made that decision one week prior to the enforcement of the State of Emergency, which gave us the time to safely move our people and also had zero impact on the availability of customer care services. Today, all our metrics are looking very well. We’ve seen an increase in customer satisfaction – measured through the Net Promoting Score, which has reached an all-time high. The abandoned call rate has decreased compared to the period before the crisis and average handling time is also dropping, which shows that the team is focused, motivated, and has the proper framework to do the job at high standards. Fast decisions as a result of the simplification of processes and flows have enabled us to improve service levels far more effectively than before, and we’ve received thank you notes from customers who, for instance, appreciated the activation of complex services on the same day they requested them. This would not have been possible without the remarkable effort, intensive work and dedication of all our teams, of which I am very proud! Even though we have a new decision-making process in place, encouraging quick decisions, we see that empowering people is what brings the most benefits today.
How has the usage of online payments and other digital tools evolved among Vodafone’s customers lately?
Even before the crisis, we had been working to improve the Bill & Payment services on our website, but also in the MyVodafone app for mobile customers and MyVodafone Fix & TV app for our fixed services customers. It is helping a lot in these times, as we have included a bill digest section, where residential and business customers can find information about their bill much more easily. We see an average uptake of 25 percent in digital payments and 15 percent in prepaid recharges. We are also redesigning the help and support area, either through digital content or through human support. Our campaigns are backed up by human agents in all touchpoints to educate customers with step by step tutorials on how to use our digital tools. I also want to mention Andreea, our automatic speech recognition persona that answers *222 calls – we are currently improving her and with the help of our Big Data team, we have identified the most common queries and this has enabled us to generate faster responses.
What are the main challenges Vodafone is facing in its customer operations during this crisis and how is the company dealing with them?
There are challenges related to readiness for the immediate future, but also to the sustainability of today. No one has ever been through a similar crisis, so dealing with several scenarios is normal. Our plans for the future include accelerating our digitization efforts and extending to business customers even more. Furthermore, we will continue the integration process between mobile and fixed services and deliver on our convergence plans without affecting business as usual in either area. And we have to prepare for what’s next, after the lockdown is softened.
At the same time, we have to ensure the sustainability of customer operations as they are today, until the end of the state of emergency or even longer. The team has adapted well and very quickly to the new way of working. The framework has changed for us all, bringing new conditions related to both work and personal life. We have to learn to manage ourselves before we excel at helping others. We have to pay more attention than before to our own wellbeing, focus, and time management. At Vodafone, we strongly encourage people to maintain a balance between work and life, to disconnect and have time for personal matters even during what used to be business hours, to stay in shape, be healthy, find time to be creative, and stay connected to their communities. We host internal webinars with professional coaches, we allocate time to talking about our colleagues’ concerns during video calls, and we have intensified communication across our internal social platforms. Our wellbeing translates into our customers’ wellbeing and helps us meet their expectations of friendliness, clarity, and fast solutions, as we can stay empathic in each and every interaction with our customers.