Photo from Wyndham Annie’s Corner The Silly Hat Episode

What can we apply that we learned from our 2020 pandemic so far? How will it drive long-term change to how we service owners and guests? Here are five takeaways from three of our industry’s top Customer Service executives: Annie Roberts, SVP Club & Owner Services, Wyndham Destinations; Travis Markel, Chief Service Delivery Officer, ICE; and Angela Blevins, SVP Customer Care for Bluegreen Vacations.

Lessons 1: Mountains Can Be Moved!

When challenged mid-March with “sheltering-in-place orders,” all three executives immediately partnered with their IT counterparts to obtain the necessary equipment, tools, enhanced networking and licenses for thousands of agents in multiple countries to be able to service customers from home. While all three companies had limited “at-home” programs, an average of 75 percent of their servicing, pre-COVID, occurred in contact centers with a heavy emphasis on voice.

For ICE, this meant complex international coordination with 1000+ agents in India, Mexico, UK and Scottsdale, AZ. Wyndham’s 725-agent footprint extends between the Philippines, Orlando, FL and Springfield, MO. Bluegreen’s servicing is more domestic, but no less complicated, with operations in Orlando and Boca Raton, FL and Indianapolis, IN. Racing against the clock, all groups were proud to pivot within days and be 100 percent operational within weeks.

Lesson 2: Technology Continues to Play a Leading Role

Microsoft Teams. Zoom. Yammer. Podcasts. LMS Systems. Video Cams. These are the new tech tools today’s executives rely on to remain connected to their workforce. While many of these were utilized pre-COVID, they weren’t widespread or mission-critical for successful servicing. Fully implementing these systems overnight, while ensuring safe and secure integration with all the core data systems, was no easy feat. Without highly capable, committed IT partners, none of these advancements would have happened.

“Next up for ICE,” Travis Markel shared, “is to leverage text and chat bots to become more efficient and allow us to service owners in their channel of choice.” Annie Roberts is focused on “digitizing traditional classroom training to provide more flexible self-service options with coaching support for future hires.” Angela Blevins’ priority is their consumer-facing technology, “to encourage more IVR (Interactive Voice Response) utilization and figure out how to deliver live video servicing for an optimal servicing experience.”

Lesson 3: Virtual Leadership Inspires Creativity & Deeper Connection

Learning to lead virtually is both art and science, with a heavy emphasis on being human. Here’s how our leaders have strengthened their relationships amongst staff, inspiring new levels of productivity:

Annie Roberts. “One of our secrets to successful virtual management has been our Engagement Manager, a dedicated role to drive agent connection. To accomplish this, she hosted dozens of “At-Home Summits,” which helped everyone quickly adjust, along with “virtual socials” for team-building. Our managers have really dialed-up our award programs — it’s so much easier now to recognize everyone globally. I love being able to attend everyone’s meetings and personally congratulate them on their results.”

Travis Markel. “ It’s interesting in that there has been a silver lining in this when it comes to maintaining connection. While we’ve lost the in-person presence, we’ve actually increased our communication cadence globally, meeting more as a collective team now. Whether its sharing performance stats and driving friendly competition through The Big Show blog, a celebration of quarterly performance winners with virtual ceremonies or just taking the time to connect personally through “coffee talks”, we are connected. One of my favorite cultural events was Tea Time, inspired by our Mumbai team, where everyone globally brought their favorite Tea Cup and T-Shirt for a memorable and authentic bonding event. So, in many ways our culture is healthier than ever.”

Angela Blevins. “Certainly, we created a lot of buzz with themed days (hats, t-shirts, food, etc.) but we really took engagement to the next level when we had agents introduce their family members (including dogs, cats, horses and a pig!) to their co-workers. Getting to know each other on a more personal level has strengthened our camaraderie and results. We have also received a lot of kudos for giving everyone more time in their week to pursue Professional Development, encouraging LinkedIn Courses, TedTalks and Webinars.”

Lesson 4: Future Staffing Models Will Be Uniquely Blended

All three leaders concur: no one is rushing back to the office. They anticipate “at-home servicing” will become the norm with anywhere between 50 and 100 percent virtual servicing. While all organizations were forced to “rightsize” their departments due to drastically reduced call volumes, the remaining associates have emerged as superstars. Keeping them safe and healthy at home, and in the office, is their company’s prime mission.

Annie Roberts. “The new floor plan is called “the checkerboard,” where literally every other workstation is being put out of service and “Not COVID Approved” signs are prominent. We launched three new teams (Crisis, Financial and Future) to help us co-create new policies and give team members an active voice in how we handle ongoing pandemic ramifications.”

Travis Markel. “We conducted a survey to determine how our employees prefer to work in the future. We asked about their concerns and sensitivities, as well as how can we help them feel safe in the workplace. Based on their input, we are considering a model where agents may rotate in/out periodically to have the best of both worlds. We will bring teams back to the office in waves as we implement new requirements, such as temperature checks and no public transportation.”

Angela Blevins. “In comparison to pre-COVID, owners are far more tolerant to the use of the chat feature. We’ve balanced our chat and voice, which has dramatically lowered wait times during our most critical times. Agents can handle up to five chats at a time and are generally live within 20-45 seconds. Compared to 2019 statistics, there is overwhelming evidence that “virtual servicing” significantly outperforms office-based results.

Lesson 5: Crises Have Galvanized Workforce and Changed Owner Expectations

Unanimously, the executives concluded that the Black Lives Matter Movement and COVID-19 pandemic have accelerated long-needed changes. More open and meaningful conversations. Highly flexible scheduling options. Powerful digital transformation and systems integrations.

Owner expectations are also changing. The world’s definition of “clean” and desire for “contact-free transactions” is forever changed. Wyndham Destinations put extraordinary effort into their new “Vacation-Ready” housekeeping standards and piloted a first-ever deferred maintenance fee to help owners navigate temporary financial shortfalls. Everyone is teaching guests how to make reservations for amenities such as pool-time (Wyndham uses a cool app for this) and re-educating owners on the distinct advantages of having a home-away-from-home and a dedicated service team to keep them safe and healthy.

As an industry characterized by resilience, our panel of customer experts believes we will emerge from these crises with substantially stronger operations and more authentic relationships with owners, guests, and associates.

Wendy Poe is a Customer Experience executive and recognized timeshare industry expert, honored to have led some of the most celebrated Marketing, Brand Communications & Customer Care teams in America.