COVID-19 and lockdown brought an uptick in demand for service and support to the Co-op, but the largest consumer co-operative organization in the UK has risen to the occasion.
Founded in 1844, The Co-operative Group - known universally in the UK as just the Co-op - is a £10 billion a year operation, employing 63,000 staff across a range of businesses. These include food - retail and wholesale; e-pharmacy; insurance services; legal services and funeral care, many of which divisions have seen a significant increase in demand from members during the COVID crisis.
Claire Carroll, Head of Sales and Service at the Co-op within the organization's Business Service Center, says:
We saw huge demand increases with customers contacting us in relation to product restrictions and COVID-related queries. We've taken over 13,000 contacts from customers concerned about social distancing.
During her 5 years with the Co-op, Carroll has overseen some significant changes to the organization’s support infrastructure:
We've brought together the different contact centers that support our customers, members and colleagues. Previously they sat within separate business units. We brought them into one central team to realize economies of scale and also to enhance the expertise. The teams that I have in the UK are based in Manchester, Yarm and Newcastle as well as Johannesburg in South Africa. We're really proud of the improvements that we've made across the contact centers. We've won many awards for our Voice of the Customer program, contact center transformation and complaint handling.,
Then came COVID
The overall vision for customer support remains the same, built around delivering personalized service, but since COVID-19 became a reality, things have changed “dramatically”, she adds:
Over the last 12 weeks, we've had a real service-focus on empathy, effectiveness and efficiency.
Addressing that focus has meant ensuring that the Co-op had the right resources and technology in place to provide the best service, while also looking after the wellbeing of the employees who are tasked to deliver it, with everyone following social distancing guidelines:
Because of the work that we do, our sales and service teams are classed as key workers and keeping our colleagues safe has been an absolute priority. In our head office in Manchester, we've had to spread the contact center over three floors, instead of one, for social distancing. We've also had fog cannons in regularly to do deep cleaning. Obviously we've provided everybody with PPE and we stood up home working very quickly.
That included getting laptops and headsets for everyone in Johannesburg, she notes:
I was really proud of the guys there. Within two days of lockdown, they had everyone working from home or a local hotel. I'm really proud to say that we've never had to switch off any of our lines of service during this period.
Food and funerals
Two Co-op business arms in particular stand out at the moment - food retail and funeral care. The former has seen the support teams playing active roles in ensuring the nation gets fed; the latter has had them dealing with highly uncomfortable conversations in light of COVID-related restrictions on how funerals, classed as mass gatherings, can be conducted. Carroll explains:
We've continued to provide great service levels in our food business. We also stood up a vulnerable customer process, where we have quickly become a lifeline providing food for people who were shielding. We partnered with volunteers to ensure that customers who needed us the most received their basic essentials. On that line alone, we've received over 25,000 calls.
There’s also been a surge in funeral-related calls:
In our funeral business, we've also seen unprecedented volumes. Our customer service lines have trebled in terms of volume, with families needing extra support to understand what the funeral would be like for their loved one. Explaining that the funeral that they had envisaged had to be scaled back was quite difficult for some to come to terms with. We've trained an additional 70 advisors to take those calls, and they're just doing an amazing job.
Staffing up to meet this increased demand across the board has been a task facilitated by collaboration across teams in the organization, says Carroll:
Our resourcing teams have done an incredible job. They hired 5,000 temps for our food business in one week. Similarly, in funeral care, we brought in an additional 500 people to make sure that families could say their best goodbye to their loved one in our funeral homes. We've had funeral arrangers answering calls, working across extended hours.
As you can imagine, our social media channels have seen unprecedented volumes. Sometimes it was up to 700%, more than we were expecting and within our marketing function we have volunteers from our events and partnership teams helping to respond to those general COVID queries that come in via social media channels. In sales and service, we hired and trained 130 colleagues in four days to answer the vulnerable customer process that we set up.
The Co-op has been a Salesforce customer since 2016, using the likes of Service Cloud and Community Cloud to support its operational needs. During the COVID crisis, the Salesforce platform has been enhanced with workflows and auto-responses, which Carroll says are able to give customers all the detail they needed about what the Co-op has been doing during the COVID-19 pandemic:
That removed the need for us to respond to thousands of queries, so that we could prioritise those vulnerable customers.
It has been a turbulent and challenging time - the Co-op also moved to a new telephony cloud platform! - but Carroll believes that there are some positive learnings that can be taken forward from the last 12 weeks:
Obviously it's been heartbreaking, considering the amount of people who have lost loved ones. It's also been a worrying time for all our colleagues in the Co-op. But I have to say it's also been incredibly rewarding. I think The Co-op has absolutely come into its own on behalf of the communities that we serve.
in terms of what was what we've learned, COVID has taught has taught us that we can stand up new lines of business really quickly and I want us to continue to embrace that, so that we're always able to provide our customers and our members with the services they need in what ever in whatever the circumstance.
And as she notes, whatever else the post-pandemic period has in store, one thing is certain:
Co-operating for a fair world has never been more relevant than today.