I was asking myself the question, “What business are we really in?” while reading an article on the changing market for BPOs. Maybe this seems like a strange question and perhaps it’s not one that I would want to ask out loud in the office. I assume that if I did some people would give me a strange look and say, “You’re in the Call Centre business” or “BPO” or “KPO” or some such with an implied “, stupid”. But I think it’s important, regardless of the industry you are in, to constantly ask yourself this question. It’s important because most industries are in a constant state of change, especially now in the internet age; it’s important because your competitors are changing, in an effort to steal your business; and it’s important because your customers are changing, striving to do things better, faster, cheaper and more profitably. Hopefully we anticipate these changes and stay one step ahead of the competition and our clients, but if we don’t at least follow them closely, ultimately the train will leave the station without us and our business will be gone with it.
Speaking of trains, in the US, there is a classic example of making this mistake of not knowing what business you’re in. In the first half of the 20th Century, the railroads made the mistake of thinking they were in the railroad business. As it turned out, they were actually in the transportation business. Along came the US highway system with its ability to provide cheap fast and direct haulage of freight by truck and people by bus, along came air travel to take people and goods long distances fast and the railroads got into trouble. By defining themselves too narrowly they lost their market with most of them going broke and certainly the state of the rails in the US today is not a model for where any of us would like our businesses to be years from now.
So what business are we, who work in these places called BPOs or Call Centres, in? I think we are in the professional services business. I propose that we have everything in common with Accenture, with KPMG or any other consulting firm, with any law firm or any accountancy. We offer professional services to business in the form of customer services, sales and support. Just like Accenture we hire and train the best staff we can find to perform a value-added service for our customers (although hopefully we don’t turn them into blue-suited cyborgs as well). Just like KPMG, our customers put their trust and faith in us to advise them. Just like my solicitors at Dewey, Cheetum & Howe, who represent their clients before a court, we represent our clients before the market – who pass judgement every bit as sharply as the high court. Our skill, our profession, is Customer Interaction in the case of the Call Centre and Business Process (improvement) in the case of pure BPO work.
The reason this distinction is important is because it is easy to fall into a trap of thinking we are selling a commodity. In going about our business, we often think of what we do as “selling seats” and with the machinery of hiring, training and attrition, the whole operation can feel like an assembly line – but we mustn’t let ourselves think this narrowly. Just as we are selling seats, consulting firms, accountants and legal firms are selling hours but I can assure you they do not view themselves as commodities, indistinguishable from their competitors. My solicitor back in the UK, who works for a small 3-person firm prides himself on his skills at outmanoeuvring and out-skilling his big London rivals. When I worked for American Management Systems, a consulting firm now called CGI, we distinguished our organisation as a meritocracy and a no-BS organisation that delivered work, not just PowerPoint. We had a corporate personality which we projected to customers. So we Call Centres must do as well for the sake of growth and even survival.
Another reason why it is key to see ourselves in the professional services business has to do with self-image, it matters who you see as your peers and competitors. It’s part of human nature somehow that we become what we focus our attention on, and this applies to businesses as well (which, as it turns out are mostly run by humans). OK, maybe we don’t have the pedigree required of a consultant hired by A.T. Kearney or an analyst at Goldman Sachs (or maybe we do), but we should aspire to these level of professionalism. We should have as our primary and active goal building the reputation and skills of our business to the level of these great firms. I propose that any company that does not subsume these lofty goals will instead be consumed or perhaps just go the way of the dinosaur.