Quality and Training Executive Ivy Milazzi and guiders from our contact centres share their experiences of responding to the increased need for money guidance during Covid-19.
Coronavirus has had a financial impact on so many people who experienced income shocks and changes to their circumstances almost overnight. We had to make changes just as suddenly to meet their money guidance needs.
Remote service delivery
At the time the UK went into lockdown, the team at MaPS was already prepped to work from home. While we did that, we also focused on minimising the effect of Covid-19 on our customer service by helping our debt advice partners and contact centres around the UK to transition to remote working too. Because of this, customers experienced very little transition when they used our front-line services.
I never had the opportunity to work from home in previous contact centre roles. It’s quite a new experience for our front-line colleagues too. It’s a big change, especially when you’re used to having colleagues close by to share ideas and questions with.
Team support and wellbeing
Although our guiders are used to dealing with heavy conversations, Covid-19 hits closer to home because it’s affecting everyone. We or people close to us are affected, and working with customers who reflect our own worries makes it emotionally challenging.
In life generally, we’re encouraged to be strong and somewhat self-sufficient. Working on the front line, it can feel like you need to take ownership of everything that’s happening, but we’re being intentional about sharing our experiences with our colleagues, and learning that it’s OK to be patient with yourself. The team has had virtual team lunches and coffees and touched base regularly to support one another.
As we go through this transition into a new normal, it’s been worth remembering:
- we’re all going through this together
- we’re all adjusting to a different way of communicating, and we may not always respond as we usually would, and
- I need to be kind to myself as well as to others.
We’ve done a range of things to ensure the front-line teams feel connected and supported. For example, we’ve created a new email inbox and instant messaging and conference call groups so that teams can share queries and tips. We also worked hard to arrange support as quickly as possible, knowing that our front-line teams would be overwhelmed with customer contacts.
The money guidance team and I were involved in putting together a range of Covid-19 training materials that were created to support our colleagues at our contact centres in Selkirk and Caerphilly, as well as the technical specialists in pensions guidance across the UK who began supporting us with money guidance queries. Being involved in these sessions, listening to and responding to queries from our pensions guidance colleagues was a new experience for me.
Just as we’re feeling more isolated, we’re all working more closely than ever. Front-line money guiders, pensions guidance colleagues, partner agencies and back office teams are sharing this experience.
In March, the MaPS money guidance contact centre alone received almost double its forecasted volumes, resulting in nearly 30,100 customer sessions across our channels:
- phone lines
- email, and
Further calls were placed to our pensions guidance services.
In the final two weeks of March, website visits totalled 1.1 million each week – 200,000 more than usual. Visits lasted on average five and a half minutes as people took time to read through the information and follow links to other relevant pages.
Busiest week to date
The busiest week during the pandemic so far commenced on 23 March, when the UK went into lockdown. Volumes increased by 74%, resulting in 8,423 sessions across all channels in that week.
Priority guidance topics
The most common themes customers wanted to discuss were to do with entitlements to benefits, support schemes announced by the government such as the Job Retention Scheme and Self-employed Income Support Scheme, so that customers could ensure they have an income to continue meeting their commitments.
On the website, key topic areas were:
- the specialist coronavirus pages
- benefits and Universal Credit, then
- credit issues and mortgage holidays.
How we responded to meet increased demand
With the increase in demand, customers who needed support were waiting longer than usual.
We responded by introducing a Covid-19 specific option on the money guidance helpline and digital channels to support consumers and manage demand, and we identified volunteers from our pension guidance services who were trained up to offer additional support.
Additional training packs had to be put in place and there was a need to work quickly to overcome barriers such as different telephony technologies and support structures.
On 7 April, the pension guidance team went live answering the Covid-19 line, supporting a noticeable reduction in call waiting times.
Reflections from the front line
Some of our money and pensions guidance team have shared their experience of responding to customers during the Covid-19 pandemic, including the types of queries and feedback they’ve received, their training and the effect on their own wellbeing.
Guider and customer wellbeing
Sara – Money Guidance Team Manager
“It has been an unsettling time. We directly see and hear the impacts of Covid-19 from some of those most harshly affected, with an increase in calls regarding people struggling with food and basic costs as well as upheaval within their jobs; either being made redundant or being sick and therefore relying on the benefits system, which has been the main call driver for us. We also had to cope with changes to our own ways of working and adapt to everyone operating remotely.
I am proud of my team and colleagues for persevering through this to ensure we can be a guiding light to these customers who need us the most. It has been tough for the guiders, who don’t always have the answers to every query, but have been reassuring and guiding customers on the next steps and pointing them in the right direction.
With this sudden increase and change to the calls we are receiving, we have had to work closer as a team to share our knowledge, which reminded us of the importance of effective communication. Part of my role has been to ensure my team has the tools and capability to do this, not only physically but mentally as well.
We have arranged catch-ups and support groups to ensure we are looking after our teams and each other. This has been a vital part of managing and leading so far, stressing the importance of mental wellbeing, especially with those who cannot cope well with this drastic change or to those who are isolated and alone. Having this relationship and communication I feel has kept people motivated.”
Asking the right questions
Fiona – Pensions Guidance Technical Specialist
“Our Covid-19 Special Forces team are all swapping notes and sharing information throughout the day, so there is a real team spirit at play even as we all work remotely.
One of the similarities between the Covid-19 line and the The Pensions Advisory Service helpline is the importance of careful questioning, as the initial query may not represent the main money issue the person is facing.
For example, a lady who initially wanted guidance on how to trace a lost savings pot turned out to have health issues as well, and was struggling to understand statutory sick pay, which was in turn preventing her from paying off her debts.”
Supporting vulnerable workers
Lucie – Pensions Guidance Technical Specialist
“A stand-out conversation for me was with a lovely lady aged 61, a full-time carer in a care home who had received an NHS letter instructing her that as she is vulnerable she must self-isolate for 12 weeks.
However, her employer said she needed to continue to come in or else submit a sick note each week, because other vulnerable colleagues were continuing to work – one of whom has only one lung. On this basis, they refused to furlough her, and this demonstrated an unfortunate but revealing gap in the measures that some employers have taken, where some workers find that they will be punished for complying with government advice.”
Lynette – Pensions Guidance Technical Specialist
“I’ve always gained a great sense of satisfaction from helping the public with their pension questions, so I relished the challenge of volunteering for the Covid-19 Special Forces team.
It was not until we had our initial training session – covering various measures such as furloughing, the Self-Employed Income Support Scheme, and of course the numerous existing state benefits – that I realised how much I had to get my head round in just a few days’ training.
But as I have helped people to keep their benefits, their house – or in one case, their pride and joy, a brand-new car – I’ve found customers to be enormously appreciative of the support I’ve been able to provide.”
Samantha – Money Guidance Agent
“A lot of the individuals I have spoken with have been unable to get clarification on specific matters such as furlough, the Job Retention Scheme and childcare support.
My colleagues and I are coming across new scenarios and different challenges every day. We are all regularly keeping each other up to date with changes that are being made by government. Keeping up to date with everything does ensure we can provide the best possible service.
I feel that being able to help individuals who are mentally or financially struggling due to the current pandemic provides me with a great sense of accomplishment and helps in doing our bit for the country.
Feedback I’ve had from customers includes people saying they’re glad to have made contact, and I’ve been thanked for talking people through all the information available when, for example, they’re elderly and not comfortable using the internet.”
Keeping up to date
Rachel – Pensions Guidance Technical Specialist
“I am still learning every day, particularly as legislation is changing daily. I watch all the government’s updates and keep my eye on any changes that appear on the internal Covid-19 information pack. It is vital that I stay up-to-date to give the best customer service and experience possible. In turn it gives me great job satisfaction to help people who are struggling financially, physically and mentally.
I have had a very positive response from the customers I’ve spoken to so far. Feedback has included:
‘I feel a lot more at ease now after speaking with you, I have been worrying for days.’
‘Thank you so much, I now know what I need to do. I have been trying to find this information, but it’s too complicated to understand just by reading it myself.’”
Paul – Pensions Guidance Technical Specialist
“We had some excellent training from the money guidance team. I’ve also been really impressed by the knowledge, diligence and willingness to share information among my fellow Covid-19 Special Forces colleagues.
Some enquiries have been from single people living on benefits, finding they are short of funds while unable to leave home, but unfortunately still finding certain creditors leaning on them for payments to be kept up on time. Solutions we’ve provided have included help in requesting payment freezes on loans, contacting local councils if they’re offering hardship payments, checking benefit entitlements, or even helping locate the nearest foodbanks.”
Rising to new challenges
Alyss – Pensions Guidance Technical Specialist
“I wasn’t sure exactly what I would be getting into when I joined the Covid-19 helpline – it felt very like it did when I was starting in pensions guidance for the first time. The queries I’ve had have been all over the scale from simple to complicated and it has been an exciting challenge to rise to.
I spoke to a lady who has a low credit rating due to a previous bankruptcy and helped her find out about basic bank accounts. I’ve looked for contact details for local councils, suggested how to ask for discounts and payment plans from utility providers and landlords, and supported a gentleman with suicidal thoughts in finding ways to alleviate his financial difficulties.
It’s been an absolute rollercoaster, but I have enjoyed every second of it and it has been amazing to get a deeper insight into what my colleagues at MaPS do every day.”
Use our guide to offer our money guidance support to your employees and customers. If you need money or pensions guidance at this time, please do contact our front–line services.