When the role of IT within the Federal Court of Australia underwent significant change, it became clear to Graham Harrison, the court's director of information technology services, that it was necessary to refocus the organisation's IT support centre to accommodate these changes and be able to respond to the needs of judges and staff appropriately. The Federal Court employs around 350 people, including 50 judges, and is represented in every capital city in Australia.
Since 1996 it has been undertaking an upgrade of its IT infrastructure and has migrated from a mainframe and MS-DOS-based environment to a WAN and Windows 95-based client/server environment. It is also in the process of upgrading its core case management system.
"In 1996 we were predominantly using dumb terminals and stand-alone PCs running MS-DOS and WordPerfect," Harrison explains. "We had a limited network, and each location tended to be isolated. Very few judges had PC access. Now they all have a laptop. They also have access to the Internet and to a CD-ROM library service of law references. With our new communications infrastructure we are now truly one Federal Court of Australia." However, according to Harrison, this new infrastructure and the judges' willingness to embrace it brought new challenges for technology services and required a detailed look at the way the directorate was operating. Consequently, the court began to restructure the IT support centre at the beginning of the 1998-1999 financial year.
"Senior management recognised that there needed to be change and that we needed the flexibility to be able to adopt the new technology that was coming down the pipeline," Harrison says. "We wanted to identify the method by which we managed the service process, and the resources and skill sets we required to deliver that service. We needed to be able to provide the same level of service that we do in Sydney to all our other registries around Australia, since we are a central support centre for a national court."The court conducted interviews with the IT staff, senior management and internal and external clients to identify strengths, weaknesses and challenges for the future. A senior management team was then established to identify and map out the proposed changes. Previously, when a call came into the help desk, it would be passed over to whichever individual support officer had the expertise to resolve it. That person would then handle it in the course of his or her other ongoing tasks. Now the court is restructuring technology services so that the help desk has overall carriage and management of the task as a group. If the members of the group cannot resolve the problem in the first instance, they draw on the functional workgroup, or operations area, that now sits behind the help desk. However, they will still manage the call in terms of interfacing with the client.
"That [set-up] is not embedded yet," Harrison says. "We are restructuring the section as a whole and the way we manage the help desk will flow on from that.
Instead of a help desk area that just logs and tracks call, we are looking at a client service centre in its own right. We've identified the importance of the service centre and are consequently putting more resources into that area.
We've also identified that there'll need to more upskilling there, and we're looking at moving some of the skill set from the back-end operations area to the help desk, where they will manage more of the day-to-day tasks." However, given the relatively small size of technology services, Harrison does not consider the court's service centre to be a conventional help desk.
"Some help desks solely answer calls and provide telephone support; we don't have that luxury, due to limited staff resources. Of the 13 staff in technology services, three are presently involved in the help desk doing level one and level two support, which accounts for 60 to 70 per cent of calls. We draw on another three staff who do level two and three support. However, at various stages, all the staff, including myself, may be called upon to provide support to clients," Harrison says. "We realise, though, that we need a more dynamic support centre that is flexible and that can be more responsive. What we're putting into this whole restructure is the ability to manage the call, keep the client informed, and make sure its resolution doesn't get lost, due to location or complexity," he says.
The biggest challenge for Harrison in refocusing the support centre has been managing the cultural change, as the restructure involved taking people out of their comfort zones. So he endeavoured to involve his staff extensively in the different phases of the process. This culminated in a team-building weekend away that he believes gave them the skill sets and confidence to meet the challenges of change: namely their job descriptions, their responsibilities and the reporting hierarchy.
The weekend was broken into three components. In the first instance the team reviewed what its members had achieved in the restructuring process in the previous six months, so they could market these changes to their clients and help them understand where technology services was coming from. The staff also undertook a personality review to identify their individual strengths and their ability to interact with each other and the clients.
The second part of the weekend consisted of a field day and involved outdoor activities, including bushcraft skills. The team was taught both as a group and on an individual level. According to Harrison, the idea was for staff to learn new skills they had never needed before and how to use them. "It was also to understand that individuals could have one skill, but those individuals had to contribute as a team to be able to achieve an end result," he adds.
The third phase involved a review and summary that reflected what the team had achieved during the past six months and over the course of the weekend. Sounds like fun; but has the weekend really helped back in the office and the cold light of day?"The staff, I feel, are a lot more tolerant and understanding," Harrison claims. "They're also more committed. Some frustrations have come out of it [the weekend], in that now that they've seen the light at the end of the tunnel the staff are very keen to achieve results, complete the implementation process and move forward. But that's resting on management, as in myself, to finish off the necessary paperwork that goes with change.
In fact, Harrison admits that it has taken a lot longer than he anticipated for hard deliverables to flow from the change process. Change in itself, he says, is a disruption; and while it will bring benefit in the long run, technology services still has its day-to-day work and the projects it has on board. This adds an extra level of stress to the process; but he's confident, they'll win through.
"We're right on the edge of where things are starting to happen. We've identified what was required, we've identified the process of how we want to restructure, and we have the consensus of the staff in supporting that change," he says. "We're currently presenting the new structure to senior management.
They have endorsed it in principle, and the last stage now is to finalise the job descriptions. New positions will be emerging from the restructure, and that in itself will be a two-month process. Once that's done we can move the staff around accordingly."However, Harrison adds that the process will be one of continuous improvement.
The next step, he says, is to place greater emphasis on project management and to implement the Information Technology Infrastructure Library (ITIL), a European IT standard that is now gaining international acceptance.
Harrison also believes that restructuring the IT branch and reviewing the help desk processes in parallel with day-to-day operations proved to be too much to ask of his staff. In hindsight, he would have undertaken them separately and thinks he would have still achieved the same results in the same timeframe, but that it would have been easier to manage.
Blood, Sweat and Call Centres
IT help desks are often lumped together with call centres as one and the same thing. While they have common features, as well as differences, to be effective they both need a strong customer focus, whether the customer is internal or external to the organisation. Call centres, though, are sometimes perceived as high-tech sweatshops. They conjure up images of users being put on hold interminably or working their way through a complex interactive voice response (IVR) system, with no option at all to speak to a fellow human being.
Carolyn Adams, executive manager, Telebanking, Bank of South Australia, accepts there are very real examples of practices within the call centre industry that are not satisfactory. However, she thinks that overall the call centre industry is now recognised as a highly professional one to be in and claims that the call centre or telephony channel in the Bank of South Australia provides great options for both the bank and its customers. For the customer, it's extended hours of operation and 24-hour access to their account information; for the bank it has provided a way of centralising its transactions and minimising cost.
"The bank understands the need to resource the call centre correctly and provide us with the right technology. It also understands that this is a people business. No matter how flash your IVR system or how state of the art your GUI might be, if you don't have the right people with the right motivation and the right environment, your customers won't receive the service you would want them to," Adams says.
It seems that others agree. The bank's telebanking operation has won a string of Australian Teleservices Association (ATA) industry awards in recent years, culminating in 1998 with winning all four state awards and two national titles: Team leader of the Year and Call Centre Manager of the Year.
Telebanking has been operating in the Bank of South Australia since 1989.
According to Adams, it supports all the bank's core business units and handles any transaction or enquiry that in the past would only have been handled in the branch environment. Before assuming her current position in August 1995, Adams spent 18 years in rural banking, followed by a stint managing the Bank of South Australia's head office and largest retail branch in Adelaide. She has also held training positions, worked as executive assistant to one of the bank's general managers, and spent time in re-engineering and IT projects.
Since Adams took over at Telebanking, the operation has doubled in size. It continues to grow, as a result of becoming part of a national call flow strategy with the bank's parent company, St George Bank. It currently employs 160 people. Adams herself reports to the chief manager of the Direct Bank of St George in Sydney and also has a dotted line reporting relationship to the managing director of the Bank of South Australia. "It's an interesting and challenging role for me because it's given me an opportunity to have some influence across all business units within the bank, as well as becoming quite a strong player within the call centre industry," she says.
According to Adams, the call centre is highly dependent on technology, especially in terms of telephony and the IVR system. The centre, she says, has a very simple front-end IVR system with just two layers. While staff are multi-skilled, they also work within specific teams or units, and via the IVR system, customers can select the most appropriate operator to speak to.
Although Telebanking does not have a custom-built GUI to all the bank's core systems, Adams says it is IT that enables access to customer information and provides the tools to manage people and costs. And while there are telephony, hardware and software specialists within the call centre to provide support, Evans and her team still work closely with the bank's IT people and external suppliers. It is critical, she says, to have a strong relationship with both and a mutual understanding of Telebanking's business and their restraints.
The big issue for Adams, and one that she presented on at the Pacific Rim Customer Support/Services & Help Desk Conference in Adelaide in May, has been managing the growth of the operation. "Twice we've doubled in size from one year to the next. That growth has often meant a change in the requirements we have for people and finding the right people to accommodate that has been a challenge. Communication is also an issue when you're growing. What worked for 60 people may not work for 120.
"The call centre industry is still relatively new and there are not a lot of role models out there. You feel you're out on the leading edge all the time and have to learn by your mistakes," Adams says.
The Human Factor
According to Graham Harrison, the director of information technology services for the Federal Court of Australia, only one in four IT professionals have the right skills, aptitude and personality to work in support. They need to be good listeners, be very tolerant to the idiosyncrasies of clients and the problems they bring, and be able to analyse and diagnose the information that's presented to them, he says.
"You also need people who are prepared to go the extra yard. It isn't a nine-to-five job by any means. The court is committed to keeping the duration of cases to as short a time span as possible. In fact, the Federal Court has been rated as the most effective of all superior courts in Australia as far as clearing caseloads, and the technology and the service centre have to be there to support those outcomes.
"So I'm thankful I have a strong and dedicated workforce. Despite the stressful environment in which they work, in the three years in which I've been director, staff turnover has been only 5 per cent a year, which is a good indication of their dedication," he concludes.
Carolyn Adams, executive manager, Telebanking, Bank of South Australia, has an open mind as to the type of people who are suited to working in a call centre.
In the case of Telebanking, she says, ages range from 18 to over 60, with a good mix of males and females. New recruits undergo three weeks of classroom training, followed by getting three weeks of structured mentoring while on the job. Many of them are students of some kind, and she thinks it is often the flexible hours that attracts them to the job. Others, she says, see it as a foot in the door to a career in banking.
As banks have downsized, there have been fewer opportunities available, particularly for newcomers. Joining the call centre is one way for them to learn about the profession and from there, progress within the bank. However, the profile of the people Adams seeks and retains has also changed over time as the nature of the work has. Four years ago 60 per cent of the calls the centre received tended to be simple balance enquiries. But since the introduction of IVR and Internet banking that figure is now only 12 per cent.
With an annual staff turnover rate of less than 1 per cent, though, Adams has reason to feel pleased. Not only that, she claims she receives an excellent response to advertisements for new positions in the centre, and this in a city (Adelaide) to which many other organisations are relocating their call centres.
"The South Australian government has done quite a bit to raise the profile of call centres within the marketplace, and I think the response to our job advertisements speaks for itself. We never have a shortage of people willing to put their hands up to at least going through the selection process," she says.
Another speaker at this year's Pacific Rim Customer Support/Services & Help Desk Conference was Donal Crotty, founder and managing director of Irish-based consultancy Enlyten.
Crotty believes the perception of call centres as high-tech sweatshops came about because historically they were never recognised for the value they brought to the business. They were not seen as a core function, but rather as a cost overhead. Consequently, the staff were relatively poorly paid, conditions surrounding the call centre were poor, and career opportunities within it were limited. Crotty also thinks too much emphasis is placed on the role of IT in call centres.
"All technology does is facilitate things, such as the connections and the routing and management of calls," he says. "It's a support tool. The reason it has such a high profile is because it's tangible; it's something you can put a price on. The most important thing in a call centre, though, are the two groups of people: the people who communicate knowledge and deliver the service and the people to whom they are delivering the service. That's where the value of the call centre lies.
"In a support environment you receive between 25 to 35 negative calls each day.
People don't ring because they're happy, they ring because they have problems.
You start as their psychoanalyst; but the difference is psychoanalysts resolve nothing, they just facilitate people to resolve their own problems. [Support personnel] have to first be psychoanalysts and then fix the issue for the customer. On top of that you have to deliver results for your company. Then you need a technical skill set to understand the function in which you're operating. Finally, like a sales rep, you must be able to close the transaction satisfactorily.
"You can test people for competency, but you select them for attitude. If you get the attitude right, nine times out of 10 you'll get good people who will stay with you, do the job and enjoy it," Crotty says.
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