4 minute read

In their words: life on the phones

Aaron MacDonald
25 June 2020

We’re an essential service provider and our business is underpinned by a commitment to be there for our customers when they need it. But what happens when something goes wrong?

Customers need someone to talk with, to ask for help, to share their concerns and to try and find a resolution. Those people – our customer service representatives (CSRs) – are on the frontline in our contact centres in Melbourne and Adelaide.

Two of our CSRs – Peter Hanley and Maryanne Dang – share their stories below on how the COVID-19 pandemic has affected them and our customers. Both Peter and Maryanne work across residential customers and business customers, and they provide unique insight into a difficult – and important – role in our business.

Maryanne Dang

Melbourne Contact Centre, Victoria

Moving from working in the office to working from home was a fast transition. It came with its own share of problems – there were some IT issues for me, for example. But once it started working fine, it became so much easier and convenient – my whole team has loved working from home.

For our customers, at the start – it was even more difficult. There was a lot of confusion in the community, but AGL rolled out our COVID-19 Customer Support Program quickly – and that was a huge help for customers, as well as for us on the phone. It became very easy to guide customers through the process and let them know what their options were – in terms of deferring payments or making payment contributions. It was an easy process, and there weren’t very many bad calls after that at all – people were so grateful and happy that there were things we could do for them.

It was heartbreaking at the beginning – to hear people losing their jobs and not knowing what to do, and only being able to help them out as much as we could. It was a stressful time. Once our Customer Support Program came in as well as the government assistance, things went a lot more smoothly.

It made me feel incredibly grateful that I had my job.

I go through all the basics with them – make sure they’re on the best plan, make sure they are saving every penny they can. Taking that extra time means that they hang up feeling heard and their problems sorted out – and it saves them from calling back, which they probably don’t want to do.

There’s a metric in call centers generally called Average Handling Time, or AHT – how much time you’re supposed to spend on the phone with a given customer. Although I do care about AHT, I’m really happy that AGL allows me the time to follow through on customer commitments. For me and for my team and for AGL, customer experience comes first.

Not every call can end in a fairytale ending. Sometimes there are problems that we can’t address. Sometimes we’ll have to escalate things because of matters like domestic violence. I know I can’t solve every problem. All I am focused on is relating to them and empathising with them and trying to do the best I can for them. As long as I’ve done that – I’m happy.

Peter Hanley

Eastwood Contact Centre, South Australia

I was amazed that we were able to get everyone out of the office and start working from home in three days, right at the start. Nobody missed out on shift time, and we’re all working normal hours.

And importantly, there was no real change in how we engage with customers who call us, and I think that’s been really important to them – knowing that we’re here and that we can help them.

How quickly we brought in the COVID-19 Customer Support Program helped a lot. At the start, before the program, it was a tricky conversation to navigate for people – they were asking if we were going to take money off their bill – and really, we’re just billing them for what they’ve used. It’s hard, and for a lot of people, money’s tight and there’s a lot of stress. The program helped a lot. We could get customers involved in that and tell them to pay what they could when they could. Taking away that pressure to commit to a date helped them a lot.

I work across business and residential customers, and a lot of them – they were just scared. Especially right at the beginning when restrictions kicked in – they had no idea what was going to happen in a week, let alone a few months. I’ve had people call me in tears or break down on the line because they just don’t know. Families don’t know whether they’re going to be able to pay their bills – small businesses don’t know if they’re even going to exist in a week.

We were quick to respond, and that’s been a big help for them. We could explain where we were, tell them that (through the Customer Support Program) we’re not disconnecting them or not putting late payments on or not putting interest on large market accounts. We could ask them what they needed from us in terms of payment timelines.

Sometimes it does take its toll on you. We might take ten calls a day – we might take 40 calls a day, depending on the queue. And if you’re getting one after another from distraught people, it eats away.

It's kind of business as usual now. Customers on calls are a lot more relaxed, and there are a lot more business as usual issues to solve. For most people who were worried at the start, we’ve helped out and they’re less stressed now.

We got difficult calls outside of the pandemic, and the way I dealt with it was to never say that I understood. Because generally you can’t totally understand what the person on the other end of the call is going through, and they don’t want to hear you saying that.

The difference during the pandemic is that we can understand – we can relate. We talk regularly in the contact centre about this: we personally are lucky to have our jobs, but we all have friends that have lost businesses, immediate family members struggling to pay the bills – this is the one time we can all relate. We are all in this together.

When you hear hardship after hardship, that can take its toll. But we band together as a team – we talk about our concerns and our calls; how we can do better and how we are going.

The thing that helps the most, though, is knowing that we’re doing what we can to help. Knowing that we’ve hung up the phone and helped somebody out – taken away some of their stress and strain and anxiety – that’s what’s important.