Constant Care is a Core Tenet at Maersk
BH: Kristina, could you share the strategy underpinning Maersk’s Global Shared Services? In particular, how have you developed "business continuity planning" as a key concept?
KB: We started our shared services journey more than 10 years ago, with the first service centers serving specific countries or regions only. In late 2002, we underwent a far-reaching Global Strategy Review, and out of that came an initial strategy – enforced top-down – to drive offshoring on a global basis for all standardized transactional processes.
We then set up global services centers, with a small corporate team in our headquarters in Copenhagen. At that time, we had four service centers, and we offshored only those services most aligned with our businesses – for example the forwarding arm and supply chain management service arm.
Up to this point, we’d really been organized by site, and had essentially started with data processing, but over time we got into some more advanced processes. For example, we took on IT support and operation support for the actual vessel operations. Through this, we became much more closely involved with our customers. We don’t support "voice," so it’s all non-voice. We do have some small teams that provide web support on our website, either through chat or phone, and then we have the dealer support, and some telemarketing activities, all of which are supported from India or here in Manila – but other than that, we don’t do voice.
It’s funny, because when I look around, most of the BPOs seem to think that the easiest way to start BPO operations is by providing "voice" support. We always felt that "voice" is too sensitive, because this is really where we can differentiate ourselves, and engage with the customers to create an outstanding customer experience – so we never wanted to change that part of our customer service.
BH: If a customer issue needs to be escalated – ie human intervention – where do you route that call?
KB: Actually, we still have front offices in the countries Maersk operates in.
BH: How would you describe your customer care concept?
KB: Customer care is closely linked to our company culture. One of our core values is called "constant care," and that originates from our founder, Arnold Peter Moller. "Constant care" is all about ensuring that we take good care of what needs to be taken care of today. Don’t try to push things off for tomorrow. Similarly, we proactively prepare for tomorrow – meaning that we try to look ahead, and to anticipate potential risks as they come in.
So it was natural to look at contingency planning from the outset. There are a couple of different levels at which you can plan for contingency – for example, a flooding in one location, which means "local contingency planning." That means, if it’s an entire part of the city that is out, some other site needs to take over. What we used to do then was make sure we’d established sufficient back up in our local agency office. However, we have outgrown that option now. Today, we transfer the work over to one of the other sites that is ready and prepped to take it on.
Of course, there’s another contingency scenario, and that is if global IT systems go down, then all sites are impacted, and then you need to take different measures.
BH: Has that ever happened?
KB: To some extent, yes, last year. Do you remember when all those IT viruses were around? Some of our servers got hit. We had to deal with that. I think almost everybody was hit globally. To work around that, we had to go back to some manual ways of handling data, where we had to use a back up server and similar. That was an IT contingency, which needed different actions of course, and different contingency plans.
BH: How do you differentiate services scope for contingency planning?
KB: You really need to understand shipping a bit to appreciate this. In shipping, the data that we handle is critical. You can imagine, that when a vessel is in port, it’s pretty bad if it just sits there, waiting for plans, just because a site is down. We cannot afford that situation. So the principle by which we operate is that for all processes that are critical and especially time-critical, we spread them across at least three sites. Additionally, we have made great efforts to standardize these processes as much as possible, and to document them all. And for all these critical transactions we run global systems, so that if any site goes down, another site can take over with immediate effect.
BH: How do you test these processes?
KB: We run tests regularly, depending a little on the process. It’s once a quarter for some, every half year for others. We run tests where we actually simulate that one of the sites goes down for a given process that we handle.
BH: What have you learned from these tests?
KB: I think the most important aspect is to actually conduct the test, because if you don’t test, you can have the best contingency manuals and procedures, but you don’t know if they will work until you run them. It’s like a fire drill.
Also, when contingency scenarios happen, people need to react fast, and this is when the communication becomes critical. There will always be a certain level of shock or at least surprise. So you need to effectively program people so that they are more relaxed about the situation. Having gone through a similar scenario before, as part of a test run, helps.
Like any process, "testing" is also a process, and you’ve got to practice it in order to improve on it. The other learning is that communication is everything. And you need very clear roles and responsibilities and governance – in other words who tells what, and to whom. It is absolutely key that impacted and involved stakeholders are informed as fast as possible, and with the relevant information.
You need to ask yourself: How do I make sure that the right information gets to the right parties, through the right channels? Ie, you need to control information flows as effectively and efficiently as possible. You have to get people informed right away, but only once you really know the situation. Sometimes, on closer examination, even though some employee can’t get to work because of a typhoon or flood, the Service Level Agreement might remain unaffected. In that case you have to reassure your stakeholders of the situation being under control and no action being required from them.
BH: How do you decide?
KB: If we call for a contingency plan, there is a risk associated with that – it means that someone in another site takes over the work. The risk is that, since they are not used to these processes, errors may occur or some work may be overlooked. There is typically also a quality risk that comes with any contingency scenario. You have to be sure that it is the right person – with the appropriate role, subject matter expertise, experience, and authority – that makes the decision.
BH: And how have you set up your contingency roles?
KB: You really need to work closely as a team. We have formalized roles, and an overall site contingency manager, or contingency officer. Each of our departments here has a process contingency officer. At headquarters, we have a Global Contingency Officer. In the case of a contingency situation, all of these people are close to the operation and can make the best recommendations. At the end of the day, it is our top management who signs off their recommended plan of action and takes full accountability for it. That means responsibility not just for the process, but also for the people, because ultimately, if any lives are in danger, top management is responsible for making sure that we look after our people.
BH: I assume that given your Asia-Pacific focus, this kind of local contingency planning is fairly important. We’re all too aware of the flood dangers that storms and winds can present in your part of the world.
KB: Yes, to some extent. But I can also tell you that Copenhagen has just been flooded, and Germany and the UK were down with snowstorms last winter, so you can never say never, right?
Our contingency planning is based on the fact that no customer in Germany should have their container or their documents delayed because of, for instance, flooding in another part of the world. We are now fairly well-trained in contingency scenarios because, especially during the Monsoon season, we do experience floods. I think, with the global climate changes, the weather has become less and less predictable, really.
BH: Can you describe an example of when you had to kick in with your contingency plan?
KB: Take for example the typhoon we experienced in July 2010, in Manila. There was a whole knock-on effect from that. First, the typhoon impacted our staff getting to the office. In fact, there was no heavy rain as with some other typhoons, but lots of trees were down and roads blocked. So although we advised our staff to come into the office, some were unable to, especially on the night it happened. As we run a 24/7 operation, that immediately impacted some processes. Then the storm caused a power outage, so certain areas were without electricity for days. It was really on and off, but mostly off. In our office, of course, we have back-up generators that kicked in, but these are usually meant to run short periods, for a typical scenario where the city comes back on-line after a short while. This time, the generators were running for 24 hours, causing one to overheat – and consequently our server malfunctioned as the cooling systems failed. So, although our staff could now come into the office, they were unable to work – not because of the typhoon itself, but because of the knock-on effects.
On the first night we’d already implemented contingencies for some of our processes that were on very tight SLA timelines, like two hours or four hours; we handed that work to our colleagues in India. We took the work back the next day, but again, had to declare a contingency on the following evening. It’s one thing to take over a process – but quite another to transfer work mid-stream, when the team is not able to finalize a task, and someone else has to take over right where the other left off.
Our employees were wonderful. Very committed. A lot was arranged over cell phones, and many found functioning Internet cafes where they could log into work securely. Although they could not access all of the data, they could at least help oversee the work that their colleagues in India were taking on.
BH: For each of these contingency plans that you had to activate, was it always the same decision? In other words: stop operations where you were and transfer to India?
KB: In principle, yes, but it was for different processes, because the one server that was down only impacted one part of our operation. Many of our floors were still operational, but that one server failing meant that we were not able to operate some processes completely on our own.
Also, some of the processes have tighter timelines or more volume to handle on certain days of the week, because they support specific countries where a vessel departs from a given port on a specific week-day, for example. So on the other days of the week, there might mainly be "pre-work" to do.
BH: You’ve been in Manila over a year now. Are you enjoying living in the Philippines?
KB: Yes indeed. It’s very interesting to get to know the culture a bit better. The people are really service-minded, and caring. People here are really quite selfless, hard-working, and generally very positive. What most of our visitors take away is that people here seem to smile a lot – and this despite the fact that many are coping with different kinds of hardships. Most people lead a very basic life, although there is now a growing middle class. One of my colleagues explained it to me as follows: Whenever someone here thinks that there is something they could feel sad about, they just look around and see so many people worse off than themselves – so they don’t take themselves so seriously, but instead they look at the big picture. And so they are all right. Also, people here are used to a lot of natural disasters. It impacts their daily living, and so they just have to handle the challenges in the best, most positive way every time.
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