As part of my series about the “How Businesses Pivot and Stay Relevant In The Face of Disruptive Technologies,” I had the pleasure of interviewing Joanna Swash, Group CEO of Moneypenny, a business which employs 1,000 people globally and supports over 21,000 clients through telephone answering, live chat, switchboard and multi-channel services. Joanna is well known for her commercial acumen and hands-on leadership style, passionate about developing people and creating a culture that breeds success and innovation.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Before we dig in, our readers would like to get to know you a bit more. Can you tell us a bit about your “backstory”? What led you to this particular career path?
Having had my own small business, I recognised the importance of customer service and ensuring you provided an exceptional first impression to clients, so it was an easy decision to go and work for Ed and Rachel (Ed Reeves and Rachel Clacher co-founders of Moneypenny). I believed in the business and what we were trying to achieve right from the very start and had experienced the need for it first hand having had my own small business. I knew that it would be difficult to work for others having worked for myself but I had such respect for what Ed and Rachel were doing and the amazing work culture that I knew it would work with them.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lessons or ‘take-aways’ you learned from that?
It definitely wasn’t funny at the time, but I did learn my lesson. I was heading out to the States for a business trip, looking forward to it and all prepared. However, when I turned up at the airport, they couldn’t find my booking. It turns out I was booked on a flight the day before and they had me as a no-show. I was mortified. It did teach me that no matter how busy you are, you have to be organized.
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story?
It’s actually two people: Ed Reeves and Rachel Clacher, our founders. Their determination and belief in the business was inspiring and amazing. They had, and still have, a brilliant attitude and always put themselves in the shoes of the client, as that is how they had started off themselves. They also really thought out of the box and challenged norms, so that problems were turned on their head and solutions were always found.
In my early career I had come to the conclusion that working for other people wasn’t for me, but the very first time I met them I realized that I was wrong. I was one of their first employees, and they have given me the respect and flexibility to grow to where I am today. I feel so lucky that I have had people who trusted me, even without proof. It blew my mind that what they were telling me about their people-centered business model wasn’t just a sales pitch, it was actually true. From day one Moneypenny felt like a family environment. It was so friendly and enabling and gave me the same freedom as having my own business.
Extensive research suggests that “purpose driven businesses” are more successful in many areas. When your company started, what was its vision, what was its purpose?
Moneypenny came about after one of our founders, Ed had a bad experience losing a huge new business contract because the fax machine (remember them?) of his outsourced admin partner ran out of paper of whilst he was on holiday and they didn’t feel responsible as they were ‘only the answering service’. That was the moment when he felt that there was a better way to run businesses. He sold the concept to his sister Rachel, and Moneypenny hence was founded in 2000.
With successful careers behind them both, they spent time learning from that experience and built Moneypenny on the principle of adding value to businesses big and small, through providing the perfect blend of people and technology-based communications solutions. We believe passionately in supercharging people and businesses to be the best that they can be.
From the very start, culture has been at the heart of everything Moneypenny does and we have spent a lot of time creating the right culture of trust, from hiring the right people, to giving them the opportunity to shine. Our customers trust us to handle their calls and chats brilliantly, and we trust our teams to deliver this. This, in turn leads to extraordinary things — whether that is listening to clients’ ever-changing needs and working together to realize solutions, to light-bulb moments which lead to introducing new tech for our systems.
Thank you for all that. Let’s now turn to the main focus of our discussion. Can you tell our readers a bit about what your business does? How do you help people?
The official description of Moneypenny is that we’re the world’s leading outsourced communications company, providing call answering, live chat and digital communication channels. We work with a huge variety of companies from sole traders to multinationals, from large financial organisations, real estate, and legal firms, to tradesmen, hairdressers, dentists and healthcare.
We operate as an extension of our customers, allowing them to do what they do best, while leaving us to do what we do best. That means establishing meaningful relationships from the outset. We understand that every business is unique, whatever its size or the size of their contract, and it has a unique set of needs and requirements.
Which technological innovation has encroached or disrupted your industry? Can you explain why this has been disruptive? What did you do to pivot as a result of this disruption?
Our people and our tech are at the heart of what we do, so this gives us a slight natural advantage when it comes to disruptive technologies. We are always innovating and responding to business and client needs and one thing that we are really focusing on at the moment is Artificial Intelligence.
This year has seen huge progress in the field, and it will impact how we communicate in the future. Our Chief Technology Officer, Pete Hanlon, and his team of experts, had already identified this as a key focus for us and our industry, and they are working in partnership to embrace the opportunities it will bring.
Communication will always be a business-critical tool in order for businesses to thrive, but how we will communicate in the future is evolving. The current global pandemic has supercharged changes that were already in motion, and we must all implement and embrace new technologies in order to ensure our human connections. In doing so we are further bridging the gap between how we communicate and what a computer understands. We are actively leveraging, monitoring and testing new language processing models to analyze, summarize and advance our live chat and digital switchboard offerings and using AI and cutting edge tech to help our PA’s be even faster and provide an awesome service for our clients
We are also tracking progress in speech detection and will be further embracing these advances, making the interaction between automation and human processes seamless.
We strongly believe that tech superpowers our people and focus on places whereby the caller and customer experience is enhanced through technology and not reduced. Our aim is to make the hand-off between automation journeys and human seamless whilst empowering our PA’s and receptionists to do a better job for our customers by having more information at their fingers tips.
Was there a specific “Aha moment” that gave you the idea to start this new path? If yes, we’d love to hear the story.
As a company we have always looked ahead. Before lockdown people had been more reticent to try new technologies however the pandemic has forced people to experiment with using new technologies. For example, when the Real Estate sector first opened up after the initial lockdown, businesses were inundated with calls and their phones were ringing off the hook and calls were being missed by employees still working from home. We were able to help them with our new Digital Switchboard which uses carefully designed AI voice technology that helps answer high volumes of calls and fields them efficiently to the right people in the company without the need for a receptionist. It is the most advanced and accurate automated switchboard in the cloud.
The system is fully automated and operates just like a traditional switchboard, directing callers to the person or department they need to speak to. Featuring natural language speech recognition, the system puts callers in control enabling them to self-serve with impressive accuracy levels.
Further new services included a Covid screening Bot, integrated into our existing live chat technology to help our sector clients (for example catering, cleaning businesses dentists, hairdressers, restaurants etc) as they reopened their businesses. These helped them by managing visitor and customer safety more efficiently, before any face-to-face activity took place, and reduced the need for complicated visitor management systems.
We also launched specific products and services to help aid various sectors such as a triage chat bot that qualifies leads and prioritises new enquiries for the Legal and Real Estate sectors.
So, how are things going with this new direction?
We’ve found that the voice-controlled switchboard is really gaining in popularity following the widespread adoption and acceptance of technologies like Alexa and Google in people’s homes. We stick to our principle that technology should enhance caller experience not impinge on it and recommend it if a customer’s callers are experiencing long call waiting times or other annoyances as this product can really help here. So watch this space…
Online Live Chat is huge for us and we have seen Live Chat enquiries soar up to 165% as customers couldn’t visit stores or offices. Moneypenny receptionists offer human responses with technology-assisted answers. For clients receiving simple enquiries, an automated chatbot service can be the best solution.
Behind each one of our receptionists lies an arsenal of technology. Our staff are human but powered by machine — we call it Superpowered People.
Our receptionists seem almost telepathic, as before they even say ‘hello’, a chain reaction of technology has been fired into action: a Customer Relationship Manager system recognises incoming numbers and the CRM system then automatically presents all relevant caller information to the PA. If the caller asks about their bill, changing an appointment or anything else logged on the system, our receptionist will know about it in a split-second.
Moneypenny receptionists are trained on the client’s business, but to give them an extra edge we operate a database of Frequently Asked Questions so they can respond immediately, even covering quite obscure questions. Moneypenny receptionists surprise callers with their repertoire of knowledge. For example, for a plumbing client a caller may ask if they need an annual service for a certain type of boiler. Moneypenny PA answers: “Yes, and the good news is there’s a ten year guarantee from the manufacturer on the primary heat exchanger, so that’ll slash the cost if anything goes wrong”.
Data analytics is also one of our passions and we run real-time analytics to monitor our receptionist’s activity, drafting in back-up staff if a team is overloaded. This works particularly well if for example a promotion generates hundreds of extra calls from prospects. Data is also used to improve call handling. Anonymised call transcripts can be read by AI engines to discover patterns, identify new FAQs and common requests, so we’re constantly improving our performance. The end result is intense client loyalty.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you started this pivot?
We saw an issue at the start of lockdown with the explosion of video calls and callers talking for longer as companies had to adjust to the new normal and deal with difficult situations. Previously our receptionists were not able to see if clients were on a video call so would try and transfer calls as they could not see if they were busy. To combat this we integrated our systems with Microsoft Teams, so that our receptionists know to take a message if the client employee is otherwise engaged on Teams, to reduce lengthy delays. Interestingly despite a boom in the use of social media to contact businesses, the phone remains the most important communication method for customers to connect with businesses. 43% of our businesses say phone calls were even more important during lockdown and this is backed up with our figures showing that call volumes were up by a third in the last quarter
What would you say is the most critical role of a leader during a disruptive period?
In any kind of disruptive period or crisis, strong leadership is more important than ever, but not the traditional autocratic, command and control type leadership that you would think could be best placed to steer through a troubled time.
I’m talking about leaders who demonstrate, honesty, authenticity, adaptability, optimism and some creative thinking. Narrowing this down to one critical role, I would label it empathy. Leading with empathy eliminates uncertainty and develops greater levels of trust and loyalty. And this is what you need in such a time, an environment where your people can be more innovative, more inspired and better at what they do.
This applies not only to the work environment but also the personal wellbeing of your people. Showing empathy for people’s situations, listening and communicating with transparency all goes to creating the right environment or culture for your people to thrive and this applies externally, to customers too.
When the future seems so uncertain, what is the best way to boost morale? What can a leader do to inspire, motivate and engage their team?
People are at the heart of everything we do. A compassionate leader, who demonstrates the softer skills should be able to inspire, motivate and engage their teams however uncertain the future may be.
Small acts of kindness can have a big impact on employee well-being and motivation, so this could mean for example sending out chocolate brownies or small gifts with a handwritten note to all employees, or scheduling some non-work related social activities to keep staff going through the cold, dark winter months, such as cooking challenges and quiz nights.
Is there a “number one principle” that can help guide a company through the ups and downs of turbulent times?
People power, and I apply that to your teams and your clients. We’re all human and deserve respect and to be given the opportunity to be the best we can be. Employees don’t want to work for inauthentic managers and businesses don’t want to work with other businesses who aren’t transparent.
As a CEO it is crucial to surround yourself with brilliant people. You employed them for a reason, after all. They should augment your strengths and plug the gaps in your weaknesses, challenge you and inspire you. Your people are your strength so trust them. They should be in such an environment that they are empowered to come up with powerful ideas that can help you through turbulent times.
Can you share 3 or 4 of the most common mistakes you have seen other businesses make when faced with a disruptive technology? What should one keep in mind to avoid that?
Don’t bury your head in the sand. Most CEOs and business leaders I speak to today, are aware of the direction that their business is going in and how technology will impact them. The mistake some will make is in denying what is in front of their eyes because of the need to focus on short term results. There are some very well-known examples of companies that failed to either recognise or adapt to new technologies. In many instances, these companies may have been too large to fail, but they did just that when faced with disruptive technology. In contrast, at Moneypenny we have had a voice tech product for a number of years that we have been constantly refining but it is only now that it is really starting to take off.
Ensure the right culture. Is your business leadership, purpose and vision set up to deal with a future of disruptive technologies? We are entering a time when agility and flexibility in business are key, add to this the need the rise of the importance in emotional intelligence in leaders, now is the time to revisit your leadership team. Are they equipped to harness the opportunities? Can they challenge the status quo and make bold decisions and are you brave enough as a leader to listen?
Embrace emerging technology at the right time. Disruptive technologies don’t just happen. I would suggest that they are inevitable, with some slower burning than others. So, timing is everything. Making sure that you embrace the technology before it becomes truly disruptive.
Customer is king. Putting the customer at the heart of your decisions should be the focus of what you are doing, as without customers you have no business. Technology is getting so sophisticated at adapting and predicting, use it to put your customer at the centre of everything you do.
Ok. Thank you. Here is the primary question of our discussion. Based on your experience and success, what are the five most important things a business leader should do to pivot and stay relevant in the face of disruptive technologies? Please share a story or an example for each.
1:Sit in your customers shoes
As companies had to move quickly to working from home we spoke to lots of businesses who were struggling to divert their phones and did not have the tech they needed to manage their outsourced communications. For example, a large business who had a receptionist that had to travel into the office each day to listen to the businesses telephone answering machine and pass the messages on many hours after they had been received.
Another was a business where the team took turns to have the one work mobile which was being used for all the calls to be diverted through to. Each Friday they drove to another team members house and passed the phone to them who then had it for the next week.
To manage these sorts of problems we needed to pivot and provide the tech they needed. We did this through products such as our Digital Switchboard which we offered free for a three month period for businesses to help them divert calls to mobiles and deal with large volumes of calls cost effectively.
2. Follow the tech and make sure it is integrated into the tech your clients are using.
For example we saw the use of Microsoft Teams rise exponentially for our clients, but it didn’t previously replace the telephony system, so we had to integrate it into our product directly as a direct dial and into our systems so our PAs could seamlessly divert calls to clients.
3.Be ahead of the game. We had already seen a rise in Live Chat before the pandemic, however the use of it has been accelerated and we have seen a huge rise in its use, with an agent able to handle 10 times more customer Live Chats compared with answering one call in the same time, so it is much faster for businesses to use this channel and it helps manage the large customer service enquiries many businesses have seen surge over the pandemic.
4. Help your team use the tech. It is all very well having the tech but teach your teams to use it properly and use tech to help keep your teams joined up. For example we use Workplace by Facebook and I use this to give weekly videos and business updates for our Teams and to celebrate all the little things too which sometimes matter most. We also share positivity notes, healthy recipes and much more.
5. Improve productivity by looking forward. Sign up projects that may not lead to immediate results but allow the team to learn and get ahead of the curve. Keep it going and keep innovating, giving people the bandwidth and the ideas to think ahead with new ideas. Businesses have had to embrace the use of digital communication technologies in order to ensure business continuity. This forcing of their hands will see the wider adoption and acceptance of technologies as both the technology advances and the new-normality resumes.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
‘Make life work’ When people ask me how to maintain a positive work and life balance, I have always drawn a big circle in the air and said to people it doesn’t matter how you do it. It is all in your circle and you just need to be flexible and make it work. This has stood me in such good stead over the years.
How can our readers further follow your work?