BGL Group is a major UK digital distributor of insurance and household financial services to more than 10 million customers. It's organised in two divisions: Price Comparison is the organisation behind one of the UK's leading price comparison sites (think: meerkats), while its Insurance, Distribution and Outsourcing (IDO) arm provides a range of motor, home and life insurance products to three million customers in partnership with several of the best-known brands in UK financial services like Budget Insurance and Beagle Street.
All of its work, from car to life and pet insurance, is supported by what it claims to be "state-of-the-art" contact centres and digital platforms. It's a claim that was somewhat put to the test, says Steve Woodford, IDO's CTO, when the global healthcare crisis hit - obliging him to rapidly accelerate what had only really been paper digital transformation plans pre-COVID-19.
For Woodford, there's a definite bit of irony in all this:
Our primary telephony system had never been set up for home working for our call centre colleagues. Whenever that issue came up, which was actually a couple of times, we'd just say, is this something we'll ever really need? After all, we'll never need them to work at home-we like the controlled environment they're in, they like the kind of being around people. We couldn't really see a need for it!
What complicated all this even more is that in this business, a contact centre really matters. When you've had a car crash or your house burns down, as Woodford puts it, emotions are high and so there is still an important role for people in such situations to to be able to have supportive and human conversations, and not just at times of crisis:
Insurance involves very complex conversations sometimes, and customers want to feel there's someone as human as they are on the other end of the phone. We were highly conscious about this; we always want to tie in the contact centre to enable us to deliver those helpful conversations so customers feel they're on a seamless journey.
Woodford says he's always been on a transformation mission at BGL in any case, joining the company from a very non-insurance like background in management consultancy and then the video gaming industry. He adds:
My background is very much in tech transformation, and what I've found with BGL is an organisation of really capable, really passionate people who genuinely believe that insurance is important - who believe what we do is important to our customers, but also that our industry is somewhat complacent and so are determined, and are demonstrably effective, at using IT to make a difference. To protect our customer service, then, meant we couldn't miss a single call.
Going virtual essentially overnight being one such example. What this meant in reality was a team of 25 customer services, business technology, IT Ops and Group Facilities personnel, led by Woodford, that had to throw themselves into getting 1200 contact centre colleagues fully set up for remote working.
To get there, 250 new laptops had to be built, 1050 desktops reconfigured, 1000 new network cables procured-and, Woodford says, the last 900 headsets in the UK had to be snapped up (as you may recall, BGL was far from the only enterprise having to go remote those tense few days in late March). The good news is all this got done in only 8 days, with the result that the entire customer services team was successfully ported onto a remote operating system without breaks in service for customers.
Keep all channels of communication open
Woodford's chosen technology partner for his emergency COVID migration was cloud communications platform Twilio, in the shape of Flex, the latter's cloud-based contact centre solution. As stated, Woodford and his team had already been looking at cloud and contact centres prior to the Corona crisis, running a successful pilot in January 2019 that had provided the basis for a possible move from its existing on-premise solution to a full cloud model when the business felt ready. A key consideration here was the right way to exit off existing systems, he states:
Rather than just blindly replacing everything that was over 15 or 10 years old or even five years old, which is often the approach with IT modernisation, we were asking ourselves, What is it we really want to do? Can't we do it with the technology we've got in place now and how do we just fix those problems?
But as with many businesses, it was the shock of COVID and the realisation that on-premise wouldn't be able to support this radical a level of teleworking that prompted these debates to come to a conclusion and transformation plans advanced.
Over the course of eight days, 25 members of the BGL team transitioned its operations to a Twilio cloud-based contact centre. During this time, 250 new laptops were built, 60 agents were up-skilled on how to use web chat, 1,050 desktops got reconfigured, and the team managed to get hold of the last 900 headsets in the UK. In total, 1,200 agents became fully remote for the duration of the lockdown, and the contact centres remained open and serving customers without interruption.
Woodford's colleague Jayne Lansdell, associate director of process and technology, explains more:
When lockdown came in, our priority was keeping colleagues safe and customers supported, and our investment in this software meant that this was achievable in a short space of time, and without dropping a day of service. We were able to keep all channels of communication open and achieve or improve our customer satisfaction scores, and the team adopted the new system with enthusiasm. We also have a more flexible model for the future as the shape of our workforce evolves to reflect the needs of the ‘New Normal.'"
'How do we get through this?'
In terms of next steps, Woodford says he's looking to explore using AI for more effective query routing and as a way to help increase automation across its voice channels, bringing online and voice channels together so that the customer always gets consistent responses and excellent customer service. But looking back over this experience, he probably voices many a CIO judgement when he says:
At the time you're thinking, ‘How do we get through this?' But it's actually, it's been a very useful step forward for us in many ways - and probably moved our agenda forward by at least 12 months faster than would have happened otherwise.