Interview with Auscontact CEO, Fran Southward
Following a long and distinguished career as Assistant Commissioner at the Australian Taxation Office, Fran Southward was recently appointed CEO of Auscontact Association. She gave this exclusive interview to Matchboard.
At a high level, what is the vision and mission of Auscontact?
Our vision is to build, evolve and promote the customer contact community. We support members to improve their customer outcomes, build meaningful career pathways filled with opportunities for personal growth for their people, and enhance the overall capability of the industry. This includes reinforcing the importance of the contact centre as a function within any organisation and its contribution to an organisation’s success.
As the new CEO, what are your immediate and medium-term priorities?
My immediate focus on joining Auscontact has been ‘discovery’. Talking to our partners, our members, the board and my national team to get a real sense of the health of the association. Auscontact have supported their members through some challenging times over the past two years. Our service offer has had to pivot and identify new and innovative ways to deliver our programs and services. We are in a great position with a strong and committed membership base, who are engaged with our programs.
The next step of this approach is around a ‘reset’. Redefining the value we offer our members, ensuring our suite of professional development and training programs are still relevant given our changing environment and the members’ changing needs, reviewing our relationships with partners and identifying any gaps. This all centres around our core business, which is that we are a member-driven organisation, building the capability of the industry through strategic partnerships and a deep understanding of the challenges our members face.
I am looking forward to reigniting a community of practice where members support members, networking events offer insights and learning opportunities, conferences continue to highlight emerging trends and challenge our thinking, and our Excellence Awards Program showcases the exceptional talent across organisations. The medium-term priorities will focus on growth for the association and growth for our members.
What do you believe are the greatest threats and opportunities for the Australian contact centre industry?
Attraction and retention. Like all industries, the Australian contact centre industry is facing staffing challenges. We are working with government and the employment sector to showcase the industry and challenge some of the myths around working in contact centres and giving jobseekers insights into the potential career pathways that this industry can offer. Contact centres traditionally have high turnover, often due to internal promotion opportunity given the skills and capabilities staff develop are in high demand in other parts of your business.
Contact centres can get a bad rap, however client facing services are often what build the impression that customers have about your organisation. Whilst we have seen some fantastic transitions to digital services and digital integrations within the customer experience journey, this has often addressed some of the straightforward interactions customers have. Digital has helped remove some of the ‘noise’ within the customer contact centre environment, often removing low value interactions that can be handled simply through a self-service or automated option. Many interactions and many clients still need a ‘human’ touch, making it more important than ever to really understand your service offer and the channel choices you make. On top of this, the capability of the staff within the contact centre industry is critical to the success of your organisation, both from a customer experience perspective and from a efficiency and budget perspective. If we consider the challenge of high turnover, centres are constantly training and developing people who are highly desirable to other departments or organisations.
The Australian contact centre industry does still face the challenge of offshoring, however the last couple of years and the impacts of the pandemic have seen the appetite for this shift.
Opportunities exist everywhere from a people, system and process perspective. Emerging technology and support systems continue to impress and identify innovative ways to rethink old problems. We have the opportunity within the Auscontact Association to hear and see first-hand some of the breakthroughs that are happening within the contact centre technology environment. Seeing tech organisations which really understand the problems organisations face within the contact centre environment is leading to far more tailored solutions that excite me. The other great thing emerging there is that solutions are much more affordable regardless of your contact centre size.
I could talk all day about the opportunities to rethink structures that impede great customer service, however will just say that the operating models of many organisations remain a huge opportunity both to optimise their ‘current service’, whilst designing a ‘future service’.
How do you think the pandemic has changed the industry?
I think the pandemic has had an interesting effect on the Australian contact centre industry. Organisations everywhere needed to move with pace, changing their views on logistics such as working from home, right through to rethinking what the changed environment meant for customers. I am proud of the way the industry shifted so rapidly, noting many contact centres were classed as essential workers during the height of the pandemic. This opened opportunities for growth in many organisations with some industries screeching to a halt. We saw baggage handlers, pilots, retail and hospitality workers suddenly take up contact centre roles.
All the basics of how we did things needed to change, onboarding, training, all the social aspects that traditional contact centres are renowned for had to be reimagined. We now see some organisations working through what their new normal is for their operating model, some opting to return to a fully in-office model, others applying a hybrid or fully work-from-home option for staff. These are all now new components of an employee value proposition that pre-Covid were not common within the contact centre industry in Australia. They are also having a direct impact on the employee challenges the industry is facing.
Another big change for many is a heightened state of fatigue and we keep reading in the media the need for greater resilience, greater empathy. For some organisations we are seeing a ‘burn out’ factor impacting their staff with a residual impact on wellbeing and mental health. This is something that is more prevalent within our industry post Covid and something Auscontact is invested in helping our members deal with. We have some great strategic partners who are doing great things to help organisations rethink mental health and wellbeing and we will be looking to showcase some of this through our Association.
The other big change I am seeing now is that people want to get back out there, back talking to other people, seeing in action new tools and technology, networking and ‘connecting’. This is why we are focused on reviewing our Auscontact programs to ensure they are delivering in line with that changing need.
How can those working in contact centres future-proof their careers in light of increasing automation and digitisation?
The art of exceptional communication skills and the broader suite of ‘human’ skills that contact centre staff build every single day will never go out of fashion, in fact I looked for them specifically whenever I was recruiting. The responsibility on senior leaders in contact centres is focusing on the broader capability they are building which are then a potential organisational asset rather than a transient skill that disappears at the next best offer. Automation, digital channels, digitisation, bots, AI, we have heard for a long time that these will reduce the need for any contact centres into the future. I think what we are seeing now is that these help organisations funnel the right things away from the contact centre to make space for those important interactions that are currently competing with lower value transactional activity.
If I think of the fundamental skills and capabilities that staff develop in the contact centre, I say that good contact centre staff have the most transferrable skills in any organisation. The communication skills and the deep understanding of ‘customer’ mean that regardless of what part of the organisation you end up in, you have the strongest foundation to be an asset to your organisation. Leaders from this environment are the strongest people leaders I have come across in my career. They know the impact of engagement and culture on organisational performance and know the right leaders at every level impact these critical factors.
Curiosity, challenging why things happen the way they do, why customers need to call, how our digital services could do better are all key capabilities that leaders should be fostering within the contact centre environment. Building this skill through investment in people not only keeps people engaged and growing, but also helps organisations deliver better customer services.