#LeaderTalk: In Conversation with Mr. Irfan A Khan, SVP, Global Services Group, American Express India Pvt Ltd.
Blog: NASSCOM Official Blog
Irfan A Khan, a senior leader of American Express talks about how a global brand of this size has been functioning effectively during the current crisis and setting new norms in managing customers, and stakeholders while working remotely. But most importantly, never losing the human touch.
1. Please share your thoughts on how you are managing productivity and employee morale during this crisis?
American Express is a 170-year old company and during the course of our long history, there have been many defining moments. The brand was around during the Great Depression of 1929, both World Wars (1914 – 18 & 1939 -45), 9/11 and the global financial crisis. During all these difficult situations, the brand has truly stood the test of time due to its strong legacy of standing by its employees, customers and partners.
The current crisis is of a greater magnitude and staying true to our DNA, we are doing everything we can to back our employees and customers. We have been sensitive that Work From Home comes with an added rider – Work For Home. We have continued to remain focused on understanding and solving emerging needs of our colleagues and customers in such trying times. We have tried to address these new challenges and provide support.
An employee-first approach, fast decision-making, and agile technological deployment has enabled the quick settlement of our workforce at home. We have equipped them with required tools and knowledge, giving them clarity and energized focus to continue backing our customers through this pandemic.
Our leaders ensure regular transparent communication to inspire and inform colleagues about the state of the business and check on their well-being. My leadership team and I ensure a regular connect with teams across levels, particularly with front-line colleagues, to stay attuned to their morale. We also try to share personal experiences of navigating this “new normal” on a regular basis through “silver linings” blog series, podcasts, and virtual townhalls.
These are stressful times so we have also stepped up on the colleague welfare front. We hold regular virtual meditation sessions, weekly consultations, and the likes that provide guidance and support to our colleagues. I’d say these cumulative efforts have paid rich dividends.
2. In a Post-COVID world, what are the disruptions you see in your industry? And, how will you turn them into opportunities?
How we engage with our customers now will determine our future relationship with them. We are doing everything we can to offer our support and service as key differentiators for our customers. And, we have to be prepared to solve their problems at all times. Call volumes have not remained constant and we’ve had to redeploy resources in times of spikes, and we did it with exceptional speed. Our ethos, of course, remains the same – we are never transactional in our relationship with customers and we look towards recognizing the depth and breadth of relationships.
It’s critical that one solves customers’ issues at the very first interaction. Today, AI-based chatbots are doing that effectively and there’s an increased push for digital. But there’s also a catch here – the senior citizens may not be digitally-savvy and we need to realize this and design the delivery of our services for that segment accordingly. A responsive approach is the key. There may also be other customers who aren’t equipped to handle digital delivery and we must remain sensitive to their challenges.
To meet the needs of such customers and provide them with exceptional customer service we have prepared tutorials. The aim is to enhance the customer’s journey with us and remain alert about cybersecurity threats that have greatly increased as well. Similarly, there may be a segment that is genuinely facing problems discharging their debts – how can we help them? All these discrete things incrementally contribute to customer loyalty.
3. How do you see this new model of WFH shaping up? Is it here to stay? Please can you do a deep-dive for us, a SWOT of sorts?
100% WFH for such a long time is a new idea in India. Even I found the idea unusual earlier but it is now our reality. For our frontline colleagues, the digital adoption journey has accelerated significantly and collaborative technologies are enabling this shift and building resilience in turn. These modes of communication have made us reimagine the future.
I believe it has triggered a fundamental paradigm shift, and going forward, a flexible and agile work environment will be the new norm. I personally think that a blended environment will be greatly beneficial and it is a very good thing too in terms of productivity.
The challenge will be building culture remotely and sustaining brand affinity. As colleagues work from home, it takes away face time and relationship-building at work. How communication interventions and technology tools helps us navigate that shift, will be interesting to see.
4. How can India optimize value from this crisis?
To optimize value from this crisis, it is important for India to take action to adapt across some key areas – Skill development to operate at the higher end of the value chain; and demonstrating the essence of ‘Backing You’ coming to life in customer support and service excellence during this time of crisis. Digitalization and Automation are taking away majority of easy tasks and becoming key to ensuring business continuity during these times. Hence its vital that we elevate ourselves in our skills and aptitude to adopt and harness these technologies to enhance efficiencies.
5. Specific Leadership traits during a crisis?
Adversity is the crucible in which leadership is tested. While the foundation of strong decisive leadership remains the same but it’s worthwhile to focus on a few specifically during a crisis. We need to play our part in the new normal by exercising decisive and compassionate leadership. It is important to be situational and demonstrate a high degree of consideration and selflessness. Keeping communication lines open at all times – striking the right balance between empathy and communicating business realities transparently makes a difference during the times of crisis. A flexible and open mindset helps to work through the general environment which will keep on changing in very dynamic way. Lastly, one of the key role of leadership is to drive business results and outcomes. In the crisis its all the more important that there is a clear focus on the short and long term business goals to yield the desired results.
Interviewed by Soumitra Dasgupta, NASSCOM.
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