Podcast Ep #2 | Global Organization during COVID Times

About this podcast

We interviewed Stephen Bourdou from Continental Aerospace Technologies. As the Director of Global Customer Support, Stephen tells us how an international company is setting up their customer support teams for success in the times of COVID-19.


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Interview Transcript

Andrea Palten:
Welcome to the Future of Customer Service podcast. I’m Andrea Palten from Inbenta. And I will be interviewing customer support and service professionals to see what is currently working well, what issues they’re trying to overcome, and the future success of customer service. Today, we have Stephen Bourdou from Continental Aerospace Technologies. Thank you so much for being here. Can you tell us a little bit about what actually you do for Continental Aerospace Technologies?

Stephen Bourdou:
I’m the global Director of Global Customer Support. So I oversee the teams in the US on customer service, customer support side as well as technical support and warranty. We also have a set of teams in Germany to handle those regions and then also a team in China. So overseeing all global regions, but segmented into the three regions is how we have it set up in the company.

Andrea Palten:
Nice. Do you ever get to go to Germany? Because I’m from Germany, I don’t know if you knew that.

Stephen Bourdou:
Yes. Pre COVID many times?

Andrea Palten:
And we’re definitely gonna have to talk about COVID a little bit because before we started this interview, Stephen and I were talking offline about some changes that they have to do because of these crazy times right now. So Stephen, I have five questions for you. And I want to start with question number one. What have you done to promote great customer service at continental aerospace technologies?

Stephen Bourdou:
So the big thing for me is the customer touch — the human touch factor. So the aerospace industry is very set in its roots. And they’re used to talking to someone getting the feedback, they’re looking for all those types of things. And to do that, you have to have a team that is just as passionate about providing the best customer service. So It’s building the team from the ground up, then integrating the team globally. So we have the team in Germany and the team in the US and then the team in China. And they operated really like three silos when I came in, and we broke those silos down immediately. So they interact together, they hand off projects together. So if you have a deep technical research type thing to get to a project to get to a customer, they have an engine issue. By handing it off, we can continue working technically around the clock, but the teams are working on it for a while or so. So it’s that work life balance that we’re able to provide, and driving that customer touch that those are the big key factors that I pushed in, in my team. 

Andrea Palten:
That’s really good. And let me ask you about the silos because that happens so often when you have an international company like yours. You said you broke it down immediately. What was one of the big steps? How did you break it down? 

Stephen Bourdou:
Bringing the teams in puts them in their uncomfortable spot, so to speak. So I brought a couple Germany team members for three weeks in the US and I put a couple of US team members in Germany. Now the US team members, when I said “Who wants to go to Germany?”, everyone’s hand raised. When you go to the German team, and ask who wants to go to the US, and you get no volunteers, it’s different – it’s the culture. And it’s very fascinating. In my past life, I worked with a company that was Germany based. And so I’m very versed with them for seven years. So it’s a very interesting facet of how it all works. But once you got them into each area within a day or two, they were excited. They started saying “Oh, this is how you guys did all of this. So look at all you have access to” And so it was a very fascinating eye opening experience, even for me because I wasn’t sure how it was really going to go. I just knew that at first they’re very standoffish about going and I worried how the German team was going to respond to the US team working in their silo. But it was great team work — they worked great together. It was very rewarding on all sides.

Andrea Palten:
That’s good. Sometimes you just need to make somebody do something and then they see the benefits of it. So I know right now, especially, but in general, a lot of companies have limited resources when it comes to customer service. How is your organization managing the lack of time and resources in your customer support department? 

Stephen Bourdou:
Yes, resources are very tight. Here as well. We call it the lean and mean initiative, right? So, you know, we’re lean, we have to be lean, but we have to be still pushing for the answers and pushing to get that customer what they expect. So it’s a very delicate balance, we’re able to do it with the team we have, they put in extra time as needed and they’ve really become very efficient. So, you know, a few things we implemented was a new phone system that’s really helped out, we implemented it right before COVID. It allows us to have much greater visibility, you know, it’s a typical call center type system with just all kinds of options. So we’re able to utilize that. It helps us a lot more with the visibility of our call volume, making sure we don’t miss anything. When you’re lean, things can fall through the cracks. In the US we get about 60% of our customer service tracking traffic is via email Actually, it’s higher than it’s progressing year over year, higher for the email, then phone. You go to the Germany side of the thing and there are 80% email versus phone.

Andrea Palten:
Oh, they have more. I’m surprised by that. I thought that’d be more phone.

Stephen Bourdou:
No. And the reason for that is one of the biggest drivers for that is email, because you’re dealing with multiple languages in Europe. English is really the universal language in aviation. So email it is, people can read it easier than speaking it so they are more comfortable putting it in an email. So that’s been one of the biggest drivers and same with the German team, they will respond in English. Obviously, if it’s within Germany, they speak German, but 90% of their responses are in English, because they get English questions, so it was really fascinating to see that because I was with you. I figured it would be a lot more on the phone and more the touch side of it. But it’s not, it’s email. And then in China, it’s actually almost flip flopped. It’s mostly calls. It’s still a very high relationship, that customer touch point by voice versus email. So that’s almost a total flip. It’s 20% email and 80% phone. They also do a lot more on-site work. Obviously, everything has been limited, but because of that, touch is needed in the Chinese market. 

Andrea Palten:
Yeah, that is fascinating. So now that you have China, America, and Germany, how do you measure success of your customer service organizations globally? And then do you do anything different locally?

Stephen Bourdou:
Yeah, so we’ve tested different surveys, like a survey monkey and things like that. And we just don’t get the response. We’ve even tried to do some giveaways to get them to engage and we do it at the big trade shows too, but you just you almost have to force feed them to get them to use it. The only time I find that they’re volunteering to use it as if they’re not happy.

Our measurement is actually just direct feedback from our customers because they’ll tell the distributor. So we’re a distribution model, they’ll give feedback to the distributor and then that gets back around to us, or the platforms that were in the aircraft that were in the OEMs themselves provide us feedback. We honestly have received proportionately more positive feedback than normal. I just think people, because of the COVID times, are more willing to give that positive feedback because they know the challenges because they’re probably facing the same challenges and either their business or their life or whatever. But we have seen an uptick in the response just in actual feedback going through those channels coming back to us, just not through a survey monkey or something like that.

Andrea Palten:
Yeah, it’s so hard to get people to fill things out like that. So let’s talk a little bit about AI – artificial intelligence. Before we started, we talked a little about what your company’s doing, but as a customer service professional like yourself, I just want to know in general, like where is your thinking when it comes to customer service and artificial intelligence. How do you think it’s changing customer support?

Stephen Bourdou:
So we were actually marching that way as we discussed earlier offline, with the new CRM and then integrating the AI and being able to use those types of tools to help offload the team because again, you got to be lean. But of course, we’re not the only ones out there in the industry when COVID hit. You got to cut and those projects were cut. And so we’re still on our base platforms. And moving that way forward. But I was going to utilize AI. It was a long journey to get there. But it was a step by step implementation. But what we were headed towards is being able to get the CRM system, the new CRM system fully embedded in the system, then move to an AI that would be able to go in our TRP. If the customer says, Hey, I’m working on tracking and understanding where my packages. And as long as they got the sales order number and the Pio number with the account name, the AI would match it all up and be able to send the tracking information and the customer service agent never even touched it. Those tools are very interesting for us. The couple of the hiccups we’re going to see is the language barriers. So those were things we were going to test out. We just never got there. I don’t see it on the 21 platform either, because COVID is dragged out so long, we don’t know, where’s the end point? At least from my perspective, I haven’t seen it yet. We’re starting to open up. But I don’t see that comfort level and that confidence level that says, hey, looks like we’re finally going to be over the hurdle within December, you know, we’re waiting for a vaccine. We’ll wait for this. You hear all these different points. And then on top of that, you got an election year, so where’s it all going to land? It’s not in our budget for 2021. Right now, we are without AI but we’re doing great things with what we have. That’s the key, right? You still have to figure out a way to get to that custom touch point. So we think it’s a fascinating tool. We want to implement it. We just, it’s just gotten pushed down the road a little bit because of the COVID and the stamp. We are today.

Andrea Palten:
So that’s something that we’ve been hearing so much. Every company is somehow either hurt or something got changed because of COVID. Do you have any projections at all? How much time do you think your business fell behind because of COVID?

Stephen Bourdou:
Yeah, so as far as the business, we’re very fortunate and that it has impacted but not to the point that a lot of other businesses have been impacted. The sales team, the production team on the floor, they’ve all done great things and are able to keep us running and keep the lights on and we’re pushing that forward. The shift is, for me, my opinion is just going to be once there’s a comfort level and in the public on this thing’s getting behind us, things really starting to open up once that customer confidence comes back. It will ramp and I think it’s going to ramp up quickly. I witnessed it when the state opened up after the lockdown. And it was like a free for all — I can go to a restaurant, with lines out the door since they can only take 50%. But there were people willing to wait two hours just to be able to sit down, have someone serve them and have great food in that atmosphere, but also to support that small business that’s been struggling. There’s multi step factors there that people are passionate about. So I think once this is behind us, we’re really going to see a nice rise. When it’s going to happen. I don’t have that magic table. My predictions were off, I thought we would be over this in the fall and be able to start moving forward and figure this out. And what our path was for 2021 and beyond, but that’s not obviously here and nor there. 

Andrea Palten:
And let me ask you one last COVID question. I feel like we’re talking a lot about this, but it’s so timely, and it’s so important. What’s the difference between China, Germany and the US? And how are they dealing with COVID? Is one company slowed down even more than the other because of the region or is it all pretty similar?

Stephen Bourdou:
It’s actually very different. Great question. So, China, it opens up for, you know, pretty much 80%. And then there’s another spike and it closes right back down, like a door shuts. So it’s been up and down, up and down, and it’s all regionalised in China. That’s what we’ve been seeing. But the team’s been able to do really well through just being able to contact with phone and video chat and all this other stuff to make sure they’re being served. But yeah, you see that big fluctuations in Germany, it was actually it dropped off the shutdown and then slow ramp up and it hasn’t shifted since. You know, it’s on a very gradual reopening. The teams are able to travel to other regions on a obviously company policies we have a very strict travel policy right now and approval process but they’re able to go to our, our OEMs and our top customers and support them as they’re opening up so so we see that in in Germany so that it’s very regionalized as far as where they’re traveling to you know, neighboring countries and stuff. But we see it definitely nice get back to normal swing happening over there in the US as you know, it’s state by state and we’re fortunate in the state of Alabama and you know, the cases have been lower and keep dropping and, and we’re we’re opening up here and travel is very restricted, but as an as needed basis with approvals we can get to somewhere. We also have the fortunate thing of having our own small plane. So if it’s within 304 mile we don’t have to fly commercial we can get in the plane with a corporate pilot and get there. So those are some advantages we have to get to do that. But all regions are different. So managing that with the teams and making sure you know what these, if we got a very sensitive what we call an AMG aircraft on the ground project or something like that with it, getting a customer have back up in the air, and we have to hand it off to the teams to help us out that we’re managing that expectation because they’re at a different opening point than we are. It’s challenging, but the team’s really pulled through they’ve done as I said, done great things. I was definitely a little stressed out that you know, we’re lean, we don’t have the new systems in place. We were barely getting by with what we had before with the staff and because we knew we were getting to the new systems and we’ve pulled it off quite well. 

Andrea Palten:
That’s really good to hear. The agility that is happening even with big companies that are usually not agile, right now they’re being really agile is just been an awesome thing to see. 

Stephen Bourdou:
It was very interesting, you know, when you tell the team all right, everyone’s going to work remotely from home, starting Monday, and it’s Thursday afternoon. So start setting up, get packing up your desk, get what you need, put in a request for a monitor. Then Monday it was like, alright, are you set up, is everything working right, I can’t come over there and just, you know, make sure everything’s good for you. So we’re walking through and here comes FaceTime. So because they’re on their laptop, they’re face timing each other so I can see what they’re looking at now that they’re trying to reset, like get on the call center. They worked remotely for three months and it was good. The teams are back in the office now. And getting back into that cross-functional mode that we were always in. It’s been quite an experience.

Andrea Palten:
Great. Yeah, that’s a good way to put it – it’s quite an experience. All right, last question for you, Stephen. What is the number one advice you have for customer service departments?

Stephen Bourdou:
Don’t give up the good fight. Utilize what you have to encourage your team, your team is key, right? If you can get them the same passion, you have to be successful as a department as a company. That’s what’s going to drive it. Everyone always seems to focus on the customer, but put more focus on the team because they are stressed out. They have their own concerns. Whether, you know, are they the next one to get laid off if we don’t turn this company around? There’s a lot of personal answers. The best thing you can do is to support them. And then let them support your customers because you’re all one team — that it’s a core thing. A lot of people forget about it in crisis mode, because they’re all focused on getting to the customers. And then they skip thinking about the team, and then not supporting the team will impact your customers more than just focusing on it. So, again, as I can’t stress it enough, focus on the team, make sure they’re taken care of. You’re giving them all the tools they need to be successful. And that’s what’s gonna make your customer success department successful. 

Andrea Palten:
Yeah, I love that. That’s really great. Thank you so much for being here. Really appreciate your time. Thank you. 

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