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.

3 September, 2007

Company Values

I was going through my routine this morning of checking the blogs I regularly follow and it struck me how often some of them deal with values. Both Maria Palma at Customers are always and Tom Vander Well, who I reference here often, seem to address company and personal values issues quite often. I think this is because we are in a customer service business and we recognise the “service” part of that role. If that’s right, it is hopeful for this business that people in leadership are speaking out. The subject of company values is particularly interesting to me right now because I am developing a new website for my company and plan to include a “Mission & Values” section to help describe what we are all about.

Now, “mission” and “values” aren’t the same thing but the process of developing a new mission statement has led me to think about what our values are, and what they should be. How do we want to do business? What sort of reputation would we like to have? What is it that we intend to bring to the market?

I don’t believe that companies are like people. They can’t be “kind” or “generous” or “compassionate” like people. When they seem to behave in these ways, with few exceptions they do so for profit motive (you don’t really think McDonalds “believes” in the Olympic movement do you?). But just the same businesses are made up of people and those people can be influenced to behave in certain ways based on stated values. So if those at the top of the organisation care about how their business makes money, mission and values that are committed to and followed by management are important because they give real people guidance in how to carry out their jobs.

31 August, 2007

Being Successful

Filed under: BPO,Call Center,HR & Staffing,India,social responsibility — shamrin @ 11:38

Living and working in India right now reminds me so much of living and working in the US during the 80’s. The 80’s was a kind of awakening time in America, it was all about growth and “making it” and achievement. Reagan was in the White House and brought with him an optimism that finally overcame the ennui that followed the Vietnam war. During this decade the US made a kind of come-back into a roll of prominence on the world stage. The stock market boomed and Gordon Gekko told us, “Greed is good”.

Now it seems to be India’s turn. Tech jobs are plentiful, people have more options for their lives than ever before and the malls are springing up like desert flowers after a rain shower (within 1 mile of my office there are currently seven malls with 4 more being built, one of which will be the largest in Asia).

The 80’s were a long time ago and my definition of success is a lot different now than it was then. But being here now and working with so many young people, in their twenties and just starting out their careers, I often feel the urge to talk to them about success and leadership and values. One of the things I tell them about success at work is that I believe there are three basic things you have to do in your job:

  • Make money for your shareholders / company
  • Bring value to your customers
  • Have fun

I believe if you concentrate on and achieve these three things, and these three things alone, you will be successful at whatever you do. In fact, if you do these things I think you can dispense with most of the other stuff that make jobs unfulfilling (like following the rules:-). Moreover if you are not doing these things on your current job (especially the third one), you should find a new job.

21 August, 2007

The whole world is watching

Thomas Friedman wrote an interesting column recently for the New York Times about how we all lead public lives now. He says that with blogs and mobile camera phones we are all publishers and paparazzi. You have to be a Times Select subscriber to read the article (alas) but here is the link: The Whole World Is Watching.

In case you’re not a Times Select subscriber, I will shamelessly quote from the article while simultaneously hoping not to offend Mr. Friedman or the NYT both of which I highly respect. Friedman says:

When everyone is a publisher, paparazzo or filmmaker, everyone else is a public figure. We’re all public figures now. The blogosphere has made the global discussion so much richer — and each of us so much more transparent.

He goes on to talk about Dov Seidman and a new business ethics book he has written called, “How: Why How We Do Anything Means Everything…in Business (and in Life)” and says that the lives of young people will now be indelibly documented in the “Permanent Record” that is the internet. Funny how one of the biggest threats that an authority figure could make against young people of my generation was that some mistake or otherwise stupid thing you had done was going to, “go into your Permanent Record”. What he is referring to here is the growing importance of online reputation which is important both to people and to businesses. Your actions are now increasingly transparent in this connected world, with the possibility of word of them spreading rapidly and virally. We marketers try to harness this power (sometimes at our peril) but online rep has a life of its own.

Friedman concludes by quoting Seidman saying,

“We do not live in glass houses (houses have walls); we live on glass microscope slides … visible and exposed to all,” he writes. So whether you’re selling cars or newspapers (or just buying one at the news-stand), get your hows right — how you build trust, how you collaborate, how you lead and how you say you’re sorry. More people than ever will know about it when you do — or don’t.

I don’t necessarily think there is a special message here for those of us in the Call Centre business, but there is definitely a message. How we conduct our business and how we manage and care for our employees will become increasing public information and will impact our online and real-world reputations. Web 2.0 has not gripped India the way it has America and other parts of the west, we don’t have 1 billion bloggers yet, but we’ll get there. And when we do, there are sure to be benefits for organisations that conduct themselves in the most ethical, transparent ways.

15 August, 2007

The secret to personal happiness and success – product improvement

Filed under: BPO,Call Center,ethics,HR & Staffing,off shoring,Outsourcing — shamrin @ 20:21

I’m giving a talk tomorrow to a group of team leaders in our call center. The topic is on “Creating a Company  Mission Statement.” I’ve been working on a proposed statement for our organisation and I’m hoping to get the thoughts and ultimately the buy-in of the people who are really at the pointy-end of the sword on this. But I’ve got an ulterior motive as well, I want to challenge them to create their own personal mission statement for their lives. The reason for this is that I think my company, and it occurs to me on the 60th anniversary of its independence this country, needs great leaders to carry us to the grand visions that we have for the future – and great leaders start with a mission, a purpose, a raison d’etre.

We went to the cinema this afternoon and saw The Simpson’s Movie (review: Two thumbs up, but really just a long version of the TV show.) While we were waiting for the movie start time printed on our tickets, which we keep relearning in India means when the doors open, not when the film is supposed to start, we dropped into a bookstore located  in the Metropolitan Mall here in Gurgaon. There, I saw hundreds of titles on how to improve your job position, how to make millions, how to profit from the market, how to get what you want from others and a lot of similar topics that seem to be quite popular in this booming country. It brought to mind a long-held belief of mine that the way to do better is to be better.

I don’t believe success is a matter of technique. Call me a dreamer, but I believe the way to get ahead in business, to improve your lot, to make all the money you want and to be happy doing it is to make yourself the best person you can be. “What does this mean in practice?”, I asked myself as I thumbed through a book by Donald Trump. What it means is if you want to be happy and successful, don’t read books by rich people, read books by and about great people. Great people with great ideas have something to teach us about ourselves and about life, things that we can incorporate within us and use in all our pursuits for the rest of our lives. Techniques are just techniques, they have their time which comes…and goes.

This brought me around to an excellent blog entry by Tom Vander Well called “Great Service Principles are Great Life Principles“, in which he concludes,

When I’m old and gray (grayer than I am now), it really won’t matter much – in the grand scheme of things – if I helped a person raise their QA score from 83.8 to 95.9. What will matter is that someone picked up on a service principle, applied it, and it made a positive difference in their life and their relationships.

I think the converse of the this concept is true as well, a principled centred life, one based on deeply held and considered core beliefs and positive values will lead a person to be successful in whatever s/he endeavours to do. As the Two Steves at Freakonomics might put it I think; what we are is the thing we have to sell in the market. We can mess with the packaging and I suppose that doesn’t hurt, but it’s the product that really matters – improving the product changes everything for the better.

8 July, 2007

Five things you should do to increase retention, improve customer satisfaction and enhance your business

Filed under: BPO,Call Center,HR & Staffing,off shoring,Outsourcing — shamrin @ 16:55

It’s time to start thinking outside the box. Put down your pencils and stop thinking tactically about how to better sweat your seats or reduce AHT or lower communications overheads. Let’s think strategically about how to make your call centre better from the ground up – and that starts with your agents.

1. Hire a Francine
When I was working in New Jersey for a company called American Management Systems, we had a staff of about 70 really bright, young, energetic consultants most of whom where on their first job out of college. This was the IT business and it was the early 90s so there were lots of job opportunities and lots of money, it was hard to hold on to good people. Our office had great luck at retaining staff and the reason was Francine. Francine was our admin supervisor and HR coordinator but more importantly she was a great listener. She listened to our young consultants’ problems, both business and personal and took a real interest in them and their wellbeing. And when the problem was organisational, she would take it up with our Managing Director and be an advocate for the staff (and badger him until he fixed the problems, often to his annoyance). Get one or two Francine’s into your organisation, they’ll help your agents be happier and healthier and they’ll help you fix things that you’re doing wrong in your employee care.

2. Consider yourself a Restaurateur
Think about how you feel after having a meal out with your friends at a nice restaurant. You’re relaxed, refreshed, in a positive state of mind, satisfied. Now, what is the state of mind you want your agents in when they take that next phone call from one of your customers? What I’m looking for with agents on my projects is what I call “Smiling happy people holding hands”, if you want great customer experiences it’s not just about training, state of mind is important and there are few things that have a more positive effect on state of mind than having a pleasant meal. The quality and diversity of the food are just the start, the surroundings should be comfortable, the atmosphere pleasant and the service excellent. There’s a beneficial side effect to this as well,
people are more likely to want to come to work and they’ll want to stay if they associate good times and enjoyment with their jobs.

3. Make work fun

I don’t know about you, but if I look back over my career the jobs that I’ve had that stand out in my mind as being the very best have one thing in common, I was working with great people and we had great times working and playing together. If you can create this esprit de corps in your centre, I predict you will cut your attrition by no less than 20% and your absenteeism by even more. A lot of this will come from the nature of your managers and team leaders, hopefully you are growing good leaders organicly that make your centre a great place (more on this below). But you can also facilitate a fun environment by providing a fun facility. Set asside some space in your centre for a chill room where staff can go to unwind and have some fun with their colleagues. When I was working 18 hour days building software systems in Malmoe Sweden many years ago we had a dart board and ping-pong table right in the middle of our office that became an essential part of our daily activities. I’m not sure such a low-tech approach would do the trick on its own any more, but it would be a start. You’ll also need music, videos and a few Xboxes. Sponsor tournaments, post results, make it part of your work environment. Create opportunities for your staff to interact and enjoy each other’s company and commraderie.

4. Create Leaders
I suppose some people are born great leaders, but I think you’d be pretty foolish to think that you’ve managed to hire many of them, for the most part great leaders are made. Leaders are important to your business because they compensate for all the misery that management causes. I don’t know a single person that likes to be managed but I believe humans universally like to be led. Managers set guidelines for people and structures within which your people must opperate, leaders open up possibilities bringing out your staff’s strengths, creativity and capabilities. Managers make and enforce rules, leaders encourage and guide success. People quit because of lousy managers, but in my experience having led and been led, leadership forms relationships that last a lifetime. You need leaders to sustain your business and you have to make them yourself. Perhaps I’ll devote an entry sometime to this topic, I’m sure there’s not enough space to suggest how you’ll do this here. You’re definitely going to have to go outside your organisation for materials and lectures. I can personally recommend 7 Habits training but there are many others as well. Also, take the training yourself or you’ll be wasting your money.

5. Walk Around
In a conversation with my CEO last week he was despairing over that fact that he used to know every agent that worked for him by name, but now with over 8000 staff he doesn’t even recognise everyone. Well, it would be an extraordinary fellow indeed who would know a staff of 8000 by name (especially in a business with such attrition) but getting down to the floor and meeting staff is still important. I’m going to make a wild assumption that if you are running a call centre or are part of the executive staff of one, you’ve got something on the ball. You’ve got some business savvy and experience, some leadership skills and some ideas about the way you think things should be done. Your people will only benefit by seeing that in action. Set aside some time in your week, even if it’s just an hour, to go meet the people who are the foundation of your business. You can do it informally, Management By Walking Around as it is called, a term coined by GE Chairman Jack Welch I believe and championed by Tom Peters. Or just think up some excuse to have a meeting with a couple mangers and their teams to discuss how things are going on their process. Farmers don’t hole-up in the barn during growing season, they get out and tend the crops, you should too

16 June, 2007

Leadership is an art

Filed under: BPO,Call Center,HR & Staffing,off shoring,Outsourcing — shamrin @ 12:42

I read a nice piece today in Lee Iwan’s blog called Leading your team to mediocrity. He has some good points there, all of which are worthy of mention but only one of which I will. Leadership is a fascinating and interesting topic and I would recommend anyone with managerial aspriations to study and pursue understanding it (a good place to start would be a book by Max De Pree, former CEO of American furniture maker Herman Miller, called Leadership is an Art). In Lee’s piece he states something that I think Max De Pree would agree with and should be the first thought of any manager who has people working for him/her:

Being the leader involves identifying and eliminating the bottlenecks that affect your people in their work.

I think if a manager only does one thing right in his job and it’s this, he’s going to be successful. This is the essence of leverage, find what’s best in your people and free them so that they can excel. It makes them happy and the results make you happy and all that should make your shareholders/owners happy.

4 June, 2007

Thou shalt train thy staff well

Filed under: BPO,Call Center,HR & Staffing,Outsourcing — shamrin @ 18:22

A while back I wrote the first article in what I intend to be a series of articles based on “The Ten Commandments for Industry” as outlined in a recent speech by the Prime Minister of India, Manmohan Singh. The article was titled Corporate Responsibility and it covered some thoughts I have on how important it is for BPOs and especially Call Centres to think proactively about what we can do to help our staff grow. There is a complementary piece today on BPO India citing an Offshoring Times article on the topic of worklife at BPOs.

The article paints a pretty rosy and sometimes over the top picture of the training provided to BPO staff which I doubt is being done universally, but it certainly should be or at least much of it. For example:

It is important to ensure that the skills to handle people ably and manage and motivate them competently are present in the candidate before entrusting him or her with such responsibilities. (more…)

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