Outsourcing and Call Center Blog

25 November, 2007

Retention – Why People Work

Filed under: BPO,Call Center,HR & Staffing,India,off shoring,Outsourcing — shamrin @ 21:29

Worrying about staff retention is not an issue that is exclusive to Indian Call Centers, attracting and holding on to good people is (or at least should be) a concern of all businesses. But with staff turning over once or twice, or on some processes more that that every 12 months, it’s a matter that gets a lot of attention here.

Many years ago when I was working at American Management Systems, I learned something that I attribute to Tom Peters but that he apparently attributes to Peter Drucker, that is to treat your staff as if they are volunteers. Volunteers, that means unpaid people who show up to work for the benefit of you and your organisation out of the very goodness of their hearts. Peters, paraphrasing Drucker explains:

Maybe the boss can force a person to show up for work, especially in trying economic times; but one cannot by definition, force a person to contribute her or his passion and imagination on a regular basis. Contributing passion and imagination is a voluntary act, period — and an all-important one in an epoch when brain rather than brawn has become the cornerstone of success and added value.

Well, I just can’t say that any better than Tom did, but I was reminded of the topic this week during a discussion about why people work. I think there are just three reasons:

  1. People work for monetary gain
  2. People work to get a feeling of accomplishment
  3. People work to get recognition

Each of us has a different multiplier for these three motivations and here’s some news, the multiplier for the first one is not as big as you think it is, even here in India. And my experience is that the best people, the ones you really want in your business leading your teams and managing your processes have even higher multipliers for the latter two than do the general population.

Seth Godin laid out a challenge for his blogging readers last week,

What if, when everyone else’s blog was free, you had to charge money for yours? What would you do? How would you make it worth it?

The general question is, what would you do with your product and your marketing if it was always more expensive than all your competitors? I would like to pose a similar question, what if you knew you were always going to be out-bid monetarily for your staff? How would you change your programs? How would you organise, promote and recognise. What if all your staff were volunteers?

21 November, 2007

Leadership Q&A

A reader commented on my last piece about character asking a number of probing questions. Pretty much any one of the questions could make not just a good blog entry but a good book and in fact many of them have. I thought I would take my own crack at these without resorting to references to other peoples work (although their influence will no doubt be felt).

Define the term “Leader”

A leader is someone whose vision, ideas, character and/or position cause others to emulate, work or act in accordance to the leader’s direction or philosophy.

Define the term “Leadership”

Leadership is the expression of vision, ideas and character that causes others to emulate, work or act in accordance to a person’s direction or philosophy voluntarily and without coercion. By “without coercion” I mean that compensation, position, title, etc. are not a factor. Note that this means that one can be a leader without showing leadership as well as the converse.

Define the term “Character”

I use character to mean the morals, ethics and judgment one shows in making ones decisions and taking actions. Character is observable over long periods of time in ones day-to-day activities and more acutely when one is under pressure or duress or when decisions or actions involve complex interplay between individuals. Character has both a relative and an absolute aspect. In a relative sense, ones character can be described by the kinds of choices s/he makes. Character might also be measured in an absolute sense against some common human or societal ideal. When I speak of character here on this blog, I generally am thinking of this absolute measure.

Are there differences in the character of a good leader and a good follower?

No, I think character is orthogonal to whether one is a leader or follower.

Do you consider Bill Clinton as a good leader?

Now I think you might be testing me for consistency. This is pretty complicated but in general I would say yes. You asked me to consider his well publicised affairs in my answer so I will, and in context. In spite of these lapses of character, Clinton ended his presidency with very high approval ratings. People still wanted to follow not because of partisanship (I believe) as we see now but because they still saw something they liked. Obviously there were those who disagreed, but they were in the minority.

Are there two kind of people in this world namely Leaders and Followers? Aren’t Leaders also the followers in some way?

In a mega-sense, yes I suppose most leaders follow someone. The Dalai Lama follows Buddha doesn’t he? I think you have to put context around it to make leadership relevant. In my BPO company, all of us are potential followers, we’re looking for someone to lead us (I believe this is a very strong, instinctual motivation by the way). Some of us have the ability and desire to lead. Some of us are in “leadership roles”. The job of those of us in leadership roles is to identify and help those with leadership ability emerge. If we do that effectively, the leaders, the followers and the company will all benefit.

16 November, 2007

Character Matters

The new website is coming along and with a little bit of luck I’ll finish it before my last day of work at the end of November. They are supposed to be migrating it from the developer’s test site to our test site today and we’ll start heavy testing on it on Monday. There are still a thousand “finishing touches” that need to be done, one of them is final edits on the Management Bios, the material that goes along with the pictures of our executive team. Today we were struggling with the one for the president of the company. We were “struggling” in the literal sense of the word, especially over a bit in there about his charitable work – how to talk about it.

How to get just the right amount of humility and importance into describing how the boss has funded 100 computers for a school that works with poor kids? This wasn’t easy and I’m still not sure we got it right, but at one point my colleague who is responsible for writing the bio said, “Why don’t we just scrap that whole section”. Normally if you have to work this hard to get a couple of lines right in a piece, that’s the right idea, don’t force it. But it this case I said, “No, this matters”, and we kept working on it. I think the boss’s charitable work matters because it speaks to his character and character matters.

To a large extent, “character” is what most of this blog is about. I’ve written about the importance of honesty, of building trust, of providing value and of acting ethically. These are really all personal character traits that I hope we carry through into the way we interact with our customers, our suppliers, our colleagues and the way we do business in general. If I look closely, there are two reasons that I write about these things, one is internal, the other external.

Why Talk About Character
The “internal” reasons for writing about character probably belong more on my personal blog than here, but let me try to summarise them without getting to “all introspective”. Like many people, I figured out a while back that there must be more to life that getting up and going to work every day, there must be more to life than making money, there must be more to life even than the pursuit of happiness – but what the heck is it? I won’t try to explain that here, but I will tell you that I’ve concluded that character building is a huge part of it. Think about the sheer permanence of character; a flood can wash away your house, a war or depression can take your life savings, your wife can run away with the milkman, but your character will always be with you, and it might survive you as well.

My external reasons for writing on this topic have to do with India. I was working in the Czech Republic in the late 90s when things were booming there. They were breaking out of their Soviet-dominated past and preparing to join the EU, but it was nothing to compare to the energy and inertia that I’ve seen here in India. The growth here looks pretty unstoppable to me, but with this kind of growth what they are going to stumble from is a shortage of leaders. The “system” here does not encourage leaders, quite the contrary, it tends to create followers. That’s not good and it’s something well beyond me how to fix it. One thing I do know is that leadership is built on character and if I can contribute to building leaders in any way here, I will have done something useful.

Why Character Matters to Outsourcing Businesses
Call me a dreamer, but I think this is one of those, “Why is there air?”, kinds of questions. Nonetheless, let me challenge myself to justify my idealism. We’re trying to sell services here to overseas buyers. Now, if I believe what the really smart guys say about selling, then people buy on emotion and justify with facts. If I equate “emotion” with “gut feel” then people are basing their purchasing decisions in large part on what their gut feel is about me and my company and that means they are, at some level, assessing my character.

Leadership is another reason I need to worry about character in my business. I need good leaders and I can’t depend on hiring them, I have to build them. I need role models for that and I need to inculcate my staff with the kind of character traits that encourage leadership.

So, the trouble of getting the wording right for the bosses bio was worth it I think. Now I just hope he doesn’t insist on us removing it.

15 November, 2007

The Company Christmas Letter

The company I’m with now, as well as most of my previous ones, have kicked around the idea of having a company newsletter that we would send out regularly to keep in touch with customers. Frankly, I’m not a big fan of these kinds of things. The people you really want to be in touch with are normally important, busy people whose biggest problem is managing-down the oceans of data and inputs they receive to something manageable. Unless your monthly newsletter is a McKinsey Quarterly quality industry analysis, it’s going to look like spam. Don’t waste your time.

We’re just passing through the Diwali holiday season here in India which means that Christmas and the end of the year are approaching (for those of us using the Gregorian calendar). If you want an excuse for keeping in touch with customers, it seems to me that this would be a good time for the president or CEO of the company to write a short formal letter to those valued clients.

Now, in my experience there are two kinds of people in the world, people who write, photocopy and send out Family Christmas Letters to all their friends and relatives and people who hate these letters. The people in the latter category tend not to like them because they are impersonal letters masquerading as personal and because they are kind of boring (“Back in April, Suzy broke her arm  and Fido got second place in the local dog show”). So, let’s not make the same mistake with ours.

Here is my suggested structure for your end-of-year CEO letter:

  • Thank you for your business
  • Thank you for contributing to our success [quantify as turnover/expansion/profit]
  • Our goals for next year are [in bullet form, these should be ones that resonate with customers and be real, quantifiable things that customers recognise will benefit them]
  • We look forward to working with you in 2008, call me if I can be of assistance [CEO’s direct phone number and email]

This letter should force you to think about what you are going to do better/faster/cheaper next year. It should make you write down, at least at a high level, how you are going to improve your relationship with your current customers next year. It should cause you to be creative and use your vision to anticipate your customer’s needs and it should force you to document and commit to some goals.

2 November, 2007

Reputation as an asset

Sweden is a small country, only about 9 million people live there, that’s roughly two thirds the number of people who live here in New Delhi alone. I cannot think of two countries that are more different than Sweden and India. On my first trip to Delhi I offered to share my table at a crowded restaurant with some fellow diners who turned out to be Swedes. I took this as a good omen for my moving here as I have a special place in my heart for Sweden and consider it the most wonderful country I’ve ever had the pleasure in which to live.

In my humble opinion India could learn a lot from the Swedes, driving rules and public welfare come to mind immediately, perhaps they could trade food and festivals in return. One of the things that I know is especially dear to many Swedes is the concept of having a “good name”, your reputation. In a small country, maintaining a good reputation is important because if word gets around that you can’t be trusted, well, you will quite quickly run out of people to do business with.

In India, we are in a big country doing business in a big world. But it’s not as big as you might think. Within any particular industry, it can be quite a small world. During my short time in the Yellow Pages industry, I’ll bet I was not more than two degrees of separation away from 90% of the key decision makers in the industry and after 10 years or so in the European mobile telecoms business, a trip to 3GSM, the major annual industry trade show, was like attending some kind of extended family reunion. And because our best bet as a Call Center or BPO is to sell our services vertically within an industry where we have relevant experience, our selling universe is not so huge. Reputation is going to matter, especially over time.

Reputation management is a long-term, strategic endeavour. It can mean compromising short-term goals in favour of gains that aren’t immediately quantifiable. This is something that Indian BPO’s need to look at carefully and determine a deliberate approach.

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