Faced with the situation that we were, most people would want to run a mile.
A stark assessment from Kirstin Newman, Head of Advice and Occupational Health Services, Bupa, of the situation that the healthcare provider’s Manager Advice Team found itself in over the past few years.
The Advice Team supports over 12,000 of Bupa’s managers across the UK, encouraging and enabling those individuals to be accountable for people performance, wellbeing and capability through the provision of timely advice and guidance.
It’s a relatively small team in comparison to the wider People team headcount within Bupa and the wider workforce that is supported, with just nine people, usually handling around 450 ongoing cases at any one time. It supports managers at all levels, with varying levels of capability, to effectively manage their HR issues, which can range from basic stuff through to more complex.
The Advice Team works collaboratively with the People leadership team and centers of expertise, such as legal, compliance, and occupational health, remotely supporting managers across Bupa’s key office locations and clinics, with an equivalent team looking after care homes, dental practices, and hospitals.
Speaking at the recent European Contact Centre & Customer Service Exchange event, Adele Makinson, Team Manager, Bupa, described the importance of the team’s role:
Our role is key to ensure that we get the right outcomes for our people and our business, so that we can deliver on strategy, as well as mitigating risk of litigation or reputational damage. This can often be quite difficult to balance.
There have, she added, been some challenges encountered over the years:
Demand levels have continually increased since restructuring in 2017. And changes in technology also meant that managers could contact us through various different channels, [such as] telephone email, Teams, Skype. The combination of these two created some real pressure in the team.
There was also another concern – that managers were reluctant to use the service. Feedback suggested that there was a perception of a ‘them and us’ culture, and that the Advice Team was not seen as commercial in its approach. This needed to change. At the end of 2019, there were big changes in the People team, which Makinson recalled unsettled the team, resulting in 100% staff turnover in January and February of 2020:
Some people made external moves, and some people internal. So at this point, we were getting busier, we needed to change our reputation, and we also needed to recruit, induct, and support a completely new team into a complex business, also while maintaining service to the customers that we got.
It was a “scary and stressful time”, affirmed Newman, but out of crisis came opportunity for transformation, with the ambition of becoming what she described as “the most customer-centric healthcare company in the world”. To achieve this, the associated KPIs had to be threaded through the service strategy:
This was really live in our minds as we recruited new capability into the team with an emphasis on behaviors. An engagement score of 80 is the benchmark for the highest performing organizations. We knew [that] aiming to exceed this was key to unlocking success with our customers and achieving and exceeding the NPS metric.
It’s really, really easy to provide textbook HR advice, but it’s really not valuable in driving commercial outcomes. So we needed the team to be really listening to their customers, understanding all the factors in play, and tailoring their advice accordingly. We also knew that the multiple routes to service was not an efficient way of operating. We needed to reduce this to enable a slicker workflow management system, but improve the customer experience at the same time.
Tackling that recruitment crisis was a priority, and the organization appointed individuals from various industry backgrounds and with more people management experience than previously. Half the new team joined in February and March 2020, just in time for the onset of the COVID crisis. This, of course, resulted in a shift to remote working across the organization, with the Advice Team having to support the business in this new operating model.
It was also important to ensure that new starters to the team were engaged and felt they’d made the right decision to sign up. This effort paid off, with an engagement score of 91 after six months, rising to 93 after 18 months, according to Makinson. With the new team established, attention turned to improving the customer experience and to tackle demand and communication challenges. This took a bold approach, she recalled:
We were brave when we proposed to move to full self-service through our demand management tool, ServiceNow, and turn off telephony. This was a big deal for Bupa, as our people have always been reluctant to move away from traditional ways of working. We really were breaking the mold. The team worked together to shape this new way of working, building that accountability for the overall success of the service, and live in our value of being responsible.
Working with one of the HR business partners within Bupa, the Advice Team proposed an 8 week pilot of this new approach within the insurance arm. Makinson said there was scepticism among the frontline managers, but the pilot went ahead:
During the pilot, I held weekly meetings with managers and my team to look at triage times, taking feedback to determine whether there were any tweaks that we wanted to make. The pilot was a great success. We exceeded our initial objectives on triage times and customer satisfaction, and the pilot group preferred the new ways of working.
That achieved, those new ways were then rolled out across the whole business, with telephony being switched off completely in May 2021. This, said Makinson, led to operational efficiency that allowed the team to manage demand better and improve customer experience:
Working relationships continue to grow and evolve [in] being a partner to our customers, and with these, managers have improved their capability and confidence in managing their people.
There have been some significant metrics thrown up along the way on this transformation journey, not least an increase in productivity, driven by lower absence, improved attrition, and higher engagement. There was a 10 point increase in customer satisfaction, a 50% overall reduction in absence equating to £250k. And Bupa had the highest engagement score in the UK insurance business.
The NPS score continues to increase, said Newman, currently standing at 98.3:
Throughout this period, the service demand did increase through the customer engagement that we did and the heightened reputation that we’d created. But we did manage to achieve these results on the same headcount, due to the efficiency and capacity that we’d created.
It’s been about focusing on opportunity over threat to design and deliver something transformative, she concluded:
I’d say that the success that we’ve had with our customers is down to a number of factors – the investment that we made in senior stakeholders, the advocacy that was created through consistency of service, and that we did, and continue to, respond to all our customer issues and concerns. So at a time of real stretch, pressure and change, the team not only maintained service to our customers, but dramatically improved the customer experience.
The learnings for other organizations from all this? Makinson argued:
If you truly look after your people, they’ll connect to the organization and want to look after your customers. We’ve achieved world class engagement, and this has driven exceptional service to our internal customers. This has increased their confidence and capability to manage their people, which has in turn increased their teams engagement and led to better experiences for external Bupa customers.