Delivering outstanding customer service in a global pandemic

tmgroup CEO Joe Pepper looks back at what it really took to deliver outstanding customer service in the middle of a global pandemic.

“Today, our productivity is higher than it’s ever been, which has been crucial as we are now experiencing volumes far greater than we would usually expect to process at this time of year”

Joe Pepper, CEO tmgroup

In recognition of National Customer Service Week, our CEO Joe Pepper looks back at what it really took to deliver outstanding customer service in the middle of a global pandemic, and how our Client Services team continue to adapt and thrive.

At some point over the last six months I commented to others that one day we will look back on 2020 and reminisce fondly, and it is certainly true that people who survive tend to look back at seismic events which impact on all our lives through rose-tinted glasses.  The shared experience creates a commonality to which everybody who lived through it can relate, and although I’m not for one second suggesting that this pandemic has affected us all equally given the sacrifices at home and work that so many have made, the vast majority of people have been primarily effected by a few key factors, whether it be an inability to see friends and family, having to deal with the challenges of home-schooling, or the mass migration of workers from the office to home.

That move from office to home working has been both a challenging and a rewarding experience for many, but particularly in the context of providing service.  As an example, my car insurance renewal quote came through in April, and as ever it was the traditional 10-15% rise.  As I usually do, I used the price comparison websites to understand the market rate, and then attempted to contact the insurer to see if they would match or get close to the comparable quote or cancel the policy.  It quickly became apparent that getting through to speak to somebody was going to be a major challenge, and eventually I decided that given everything else going on it was going to be far simpler to accept the renewal quote, and deal with it again next year. This is clearly a poor customer experience driven by the challenges of the moment.

Those challenges are universal, and at tmgroup we have had to rise to meet them just like everybody else.  We’ve been providing services to the legal market, predominantly property data and searches to the conveyancing market, for over 20-years from our headquarters in Swindon, Wiltshire, with a subsidiary business Property Searches Scotland and sister company Conveyancing Data Services  operating predominantly from Glasgow and Reading respectively.  Whilst there was a degree of flexibility in working offered across the business, the vast majority of our 300+ employees were firmly office-based, and nowhere was this stronger than in the area of our Customer Services teams.  So when we made the decision, on the 17th of March this year, to close our offices, none of us really knew what was to follow, and it was to the huge credit of the operational management within the business that we were able to successfully move all staff members out of the office and into home working within 3-days, so that by the time the UK Government announced the lockdown on the 23rd of March we were already out of the office and working from home.

If moving people out of the office and into working from home wasn’t complicated enough, continuing to provide the award-winning levels of service that tmgroup is renowned for was going to prove even more challenging.  The immediate challenge that we needed to address in the three days it took to move people out of the office was telephony.  It was ironic that we had the plan to move to a VOIP system on our 2020 roadmap as a Q4 deliverable, but now we had 3-days to implement something, and we had to rely on some herculean efforts from our IT and Operational teams to work with our suppliers and do just that.  A system was implemented, but it would continue to cause us some challenges over the subsequent couple of months as we fine-tuned a system in live that we would normally have done behind the scenes.

The second major challenge was the market that we operate within.  Our technology empowers the services that we provide, but that doesn’t mean that all the services are delivered purely by our technology, and manual intervention is very often critical and why our people are so important.  We handle complex search requirements on behalf of clients who operate in both the residential and the commercial sectors, and we need to order searches and access data from hundreds of suppliers including all the local authorities across England and Wales.  In normal times we could reasonably expect most searches back within 10-days of order, but there will always be some areas where searches can take substantially longer.  Each local authority chose to respond to the challenges of the lockdown differently, and therefore being able to communicate the status of each with our clients became crucial.  Again, relying heavily on the expertise and long-established relationships that our Operational Management team have with our suppliers, we were able to quickly produce and maintain an up to date blog to keep our customers aware of how each area was performing.

The market challenge didn’t stop there however, as one key dynamic we noticed quickly was the change in the user base for our product.  Many of our clients had furloughed a number of their employees, and that meant that the people using our system and contacting our Customer Service team were not necessarily the same individuals as we had before, and that meant that we were receiving far more calls than we would typically have expected to receive in relation to the volume of work we were carrying out.  That meant that we again had to react and focus our attentions on providing a strong level of telephony to those new users.

Despite all of these challenges, we never shut down our operation – even for a day – and continued to look after our customers when they needed us most

As property searches are often ordered several weeks into a property transaction, and can take several weeks to complete, the lockdown did not mean that we went from being busy on the 23rd of March to being sat around with little to do on the 24th.  Volumes dropped quickly, but we continued to receive orders throughout the lockdown period, particularly in the commercial and social housing sectors where the entire process typically takes longer than in the residential market.  As lockdown was lifted in May, we saw a steady increase in demand so that by the end of July we were back dealing with volumes we would normally experience at that time of year, and since then we’ve seen volumes go even higher, partially incentivised no doubt by the UK Government’s temporary reduction in Stamp Duty.  This change meant that we again had to act proactively to avoid become outpaced by demand.  Recruitment freezes implemented in lockdown were lifted, and system development work was focused on improving our workflow tools to enhance productivity.  We noted early on that individual productivity actually increased when certain groups worked from home but coupled with that could be a reduction in overall team productivity.  We took the decision to make the Swindon office Covid-secure and partially re-opened on 10th August for an identified small group of employees who had a strong preference for working an office environment.  That was a huge success, and by the end of September a second cohort returned to the office, this time those being identified as working more effectively within a team environment.  Having 20 people out of 300 back in the office doesn’t seem like many, but it’s made a huge impact on our overall productivity and the ability to deliver a growing demand for our services.

Today, our productivity is higher than it’s ever been, which has been crucial as we are now experiencing volumes far greater than we would usually expect to process at this time of year, and the expertise of our Customer Services team is even more critical to our clients than at any other point in the last decade due to the ongoing challenges facing our suppliers.  Despite the changes and challenges of last six months, our annual staff survey took place in August and evidenced a significant improvement in the level of employee engagement in the business and a stronger sense of teamwork.  We continue to provide an excellent level of customer service in a very difficult market, and that is something to be proud of, and also partly why I still think we may eventually reflect back on this strange year and wonder if adversity was the mother of invention all along.

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