Jun 22, 2020 | Risk Management

Keeping the wheels on – reflections on what service providers have learnt during the crisis

Payments are always important for companies. They have to be made accurately and on time. In times of crisis, delivery is even more important. The Middle Office at Western Union Business Solutions is the hub for customer service, helping to ensure that transactions go through smoothly and questions or issues are resolved.

Joanne Kennedy, Global Head of Client Services reflects on some of the learnings from the storm that is COVID-19 and what the impact has been on customers.

Western Union Business Solutions is a global operation, processing thousands of payments in multiple currencies for customers in various types of industries. Like many other companies, we knew the pandemic had the potential to seriously interrupt our business. With no direct experience to draw on, what measures did companies like us need to put in place to keep the business going? 

With offices around the world, we had the opportunity to learn from our teams and colleagues in Asia. They felt the impact of COVID-19 from mid-January, so we knew what was coming. We were helped by being able to implement our existing business continuity plans quickly and easily. We were ready to work from home straight away – we had the equipment and connections to facilitate it. Although this meant significant change for our team members, our customers were often none the wiser, and were surprised when they realised the person they were speaking to wasn’t physically in the office and they were able to reach someone first time without needing to queue or wait.

How the workload changed

We are always busy. This didn’t change during the lockdown, but the nature of the work evolved. We have always supported customers with enquiries, problems and questions, but suddenly the help that was needed was different. For some, the furloughing of staff meant that new users were responsible for making payments. They had to learn quickly and to be guided through the process. Others were struggling to work from home, separated from paper records they relied on, or using unfamiliar technology. We found ourselves supporting more requests than before and also creating new users and resetting passwords. Our teams were also very aware that these new working conditions had an impact on our customers’ stress levels, which made it ever more important to execute and to go above and beyond.

With lockdowns taking different shapes around the world, some banks closed their doors completely as a result of the crisis for differing periods of time. This meant re-routing payments and getting funds to alternative destinations. Sometimes individual currencies were unavailable for days, so our teams had to work with the customers to solve for the challenges that ensued.

The impact of COVID-19 on businesses

One of the most immediate impacts of the pandemic was the high number of cancellations of travel, events and entertainment. Many companies had booked their currency exposure a year or more out for planned events or seasonality. We have been working with our Relationship Management teams to help those customers as they close out these positions.

At the other end of the spectrum, some very small companies found themselves winning large contracts to supply personal protective equipment (PPE). They have needed help to get through transactions on a scale they’ve never known before.

Meanwhile other customers have been affected by supply chains breaking down, and new import regulations which meant that goods didn’t arrive when they were supposed to. All this has needed additional support to get back on track.

The importance of team communication

The lockdown has been a time of immense change, of thinking on our feet and adapting to new ways of working. Communication has been at the heart of it. With everyone working from home, camaraderie was at risk. We needed to continue to share experiences, keep up with what was going on and support one another. To do this we instigated virtual team ‘huddles’ – fifteen-minute Zoom meetings twice a day and Zoom chat channels with the wider business. These enabled us to solve problems quickly, celebrate successes and to feel like one team again. They have been so successful we are thinking of keeping them on when ‘normality’ returns – whatever that looks like.

Here in the Middle Office, we have been busier than ever. The number of interactions with customers is changing daily, but there have been far more complex discussions. Throughout the lockdown, our agreed usual service levels have been met and, although our customers have faced many obstacles and challenges, based on the feedback they have provided to us, I am confident that their payments have been one area where they’ve had peace of mind. It has been an interesting period, with many lessons learned. Looking ahead, as the lockdown eases, we are all looking forward to helping customers settle into the new normal. We hope there won’t be a second wave of COVID-19, but if there is, we’ll all be better prepared next time.