Outsourcing and Call Center Blog

7 December, 2007

India – Masters of Customer Service

“If you want to provide your customers with really first class customer service, you have to go to India.” The Germans have developed a second-to-none ability to build cars, the Japanese televisions and, in my opinion if your HiFi isn’t Scottish, it’s crap. Now where in the world do they have more experience, more people, more managers, more executives devoted to providing customer service and technical support than here in India? So it just stands to reason that we are the world’s best, right?

How does that sound? Are you buying it? Seth Godin is on a roll this week about customer service and call centers. In his piece called The discipline of one ring he alludes to the vast difference in customer experience for customers of companies who have committed to answering the phone on the first ring and the experience many of us are more used to (I was in a 2-hour queue with my hosting company this week who tout their support as being “exclusively UK-based”). I will leave it to Seth to examine why this customer experience makes a difference, but I wonder how many Indian Call Centers are ready to promote, sell, staff and manage a one-ring level of customer service. If we don’t understand this concept, aren’t able to articulate the advantages, aren’t willing to sell the reasoning and move our prospects and customers (where appropriate) in this direction, then why not?

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.

21 October, 2007

The Death of Outsourcing, The Rising Rupee and Michael Porter

In an online debate featured in Business Week, Sabrina Siddiqui argues that Indian outsourcing has peaked (article brought to my attention via The Outsourcing Blog). Her three main arguments are:

  • The rising value of the Rupee, up some 8.4% at one point this year
  • Indian wage inflation running as much as 15%-25%
  • Poor infrastructure unable to sustain growth

Well, there is no arguing the facts here, the first two are well known and I can attest that here in Gurgaon we are often running on back-up generators for nearly half the day while the power grid sparks and flames-out somewhere, often spectacularly (I once watched a street-side transformer burst into flames and sparks like a roman candle around the corner from my office while 6 locals worked to change the tire on my car and 20 others stood nearly underneath the thing obliviously).

Now if you are in the Indian Ministry of Finance then you should probably be worried about these things but if you are running an Indian outsourcing company and you’ve been paying any attention to business thought over the last 30 years, you’re not too bothered. Why? Because if you have, you would have known long ago that the game of wage-arbitrage was risky and unsustainable and you would have established a position for your organsation that was insulated from currency fluctuations.

Enter Michael Porter
Michael Porter is one of the preeminent business thinkers and strategy gurus of the late 20th and now early 21st centuries. He has written a number of business books that are at the core of competitive thought for the last 30 years. He would, and I’m sure has, had a lot to say about the competitiveness of Indian business. I will wildly summarise what I think is applicable to Indian outsourcing.

Porter says that there are but 3 strategies to being competitive in your industry, they are:

  1. Be the lowest cost producer in your market (cost, not price – there’s a difference)
  2. Develop a special capability or unique Intellectual Property that allows you to command premium prices and is difficult for others to copy
  3. Find a niche market and dominate it creating a barrier to entry for competition

Product Differentiation Reprise
For a long time in this blog I have argued that we must focus on quality, quality people, quality training, quality methods and quality delivery and that price doesn’t matter. The reasons and rewards for doing this are manifold and I have and will cover them elsewhere, but following the quality trail would firmly place a company in competitive Strategy 2 – as opposed to where many of us are, trying to be in Strategy 1. But Strategy 1 is futile. Why? Because international currency fluctuations are utterly outside your control and by betting on Strategy 1 you are placing the success of your business on luck and on the Central Banks of India and the United States, it’s a sucker’s bet. Moreover, to succeed at Strategy 1 in outsourcing would require a company to have the lowest labour cost, in other words, to pay the lowest wages in the industry. I think the best phrase to describe that tactic is an old one I learned while growing up in Kentucky, that dog don’t hunt.

So, Indian Outsourcing Company, if you have invested in IP, been creative in the development of your products, been innovative in introducing quality and delivery schemes and generally developed your reputation for delivering outstanding products and services, you’re not too worried about all this currency and wage turmoil. OK, your diesel fuel bills are ridiculously high, but your customers will accept some additional costs because they are addicted to your product.

10 October, 2007

Is Outsourcing Ethical?

As I’ve stated previously, I get quite a few visitors who are searching for information on call centre and outsourcing ethics. I normally interpret this to mean that they want to run an ethical call centre but clearly many (if not most) really are thinking about whether it is ethical to outsource at all. You really can’t know about who is visiting or why, unless someone leaves a comment, but I imagine the people looking at this issue may be managers who are thinking of outsourcing and wondering if it is the “right thing to do” or maybe students assigned to write a term paper or participate in a debate. Who knows. But as a Westerner sitting in India and working at an outsourcing firm, well, I should probably say a thing or two about this, and I’ll try to keep it as personal as possible.

Free Markets & Competition
I haven’t always been a marketer, at university I studied economics and got my undergraduate and graduate degrees in that discipline. When I was studying economics, Milton Friedman had just won the Nobel Prize and was emerging as a force on the national stage, most of my professors venerated him as did I. This made me a bit of a free-market guy then. Now in my later years I have certain reservations about free-markets as well as capitalism in general but I do accept that we live in a society that generally favours both. I submit this as background for my belief that outsourcing really isn’t anything special, it is the free market at work.

For pretty much my whole career I have been in Sales or Marketing. In each of my positions my job has been to increase the revenues of the company that I worked for and I can’t think of a single time, even with Illinois Bell and with AT&T, where I didn’t have competition. The nature of competition is to beat the other guys. Say what you will about a pie that’s big enough for everybody, but that’s not what’s happening on the ground. Out in the trenches we are fighting for each project, to win each RFP and to succeed while others fail. When the other guys failed, I assume people lost their jobs. I know that’s what happened in my company in Sweden. Our sales guys failed to get new work because some other companies were offering to do the jobs better, faster and/or cheaper and a few hundred people who used to be working on billing projects were gone.

Winners & Losers
Now I’m with a company whose business is outsourcing. My main goal is to take all of Wipro and Convergys and Genpact’s business. If I am successful it means I will hire lots of new staff and they won’t. The losers in that game though really are the insourced staff who will lose their jobs because my company can do the work better, faster and/or cheaper. That sucks, it really does, I’ve been laid off before and it’s not nice. But it’s not a matter of ethics, it has to do with this system that we are part of called capitalism and the reasons aren’t personal they are economic. One of the sharpest people I’ve ever worked for or known is a guy named Mike Durance who is the CEO of a Canadian new media company. One time when I was working for him, I was probably complaining about having to fly coach class on an international flight at the time, he said, “the nature of business is to continually cut back and reduce costs”. Some people call this a race to the bottom, I don’t know.

Of course there are winners in all this. CEOs (like Mike) will increase their bonuses for reducing costs and that should benefit shareholders as well. As I understand the politics of America for the last 6 years or so the prevailing belief is that if wealthy people are made even wealthier, that’s good for everyone (reminding me that David Stockman who introduced us to this “trickle down” theory during the Regan administration is now under indictment and facing 30 years in prison. I wonder if that’s enough).

For the people who lose their jobs to outsourcing, it doesn’t matter whether their jobs went to India or Indiana, the impact is exactly the same. The remedy is exactly the same too. Americans are lucky enough to have this incredible economy and incredible creativity and amazing flexibility that, on aggregate, keeps creating new jobs in new industries for new people to flow into. You could try to block this whole cycle with some kind of legislation, but then you would get France and god forbid, no one wants that.

Ethics and Outsourcing
For me personally, I have to face the fact that I am a part of a capitalist economic system. This is not altogether bad, it’s the only system I’ve ever known and it seems to have generally been quite successful. Capitalism has done some wonderful things for a lot of people, just ask Bill Gates or Richard Branson or Roman Abramovich or my dad. My father’s father scratched and clawed his way through a tough life but his eldest son became a respected and successful professor of Chemical Engineering in large part because of a system that rewards hard work, ambition, creativity and flexibility and is relatively blind to social class. As part of that capitalist system my job is to make more money and jobs for the team that I’m on at the time. Right now that team is in India and if anyone thinks it is unethical bringing greater wealth to this country that by some accounts has 836 million people living on less that 50 cents a day then I’ll plead guilty to that.

To me, of greater ethical importance is how my company treats its employees and how the country I am in deals out social justice. Frankly, I am less comfortable on these issues than I would like to be. I came here to learn and one thing I have learned is that we in the West have a respect for the intrinsic value of human beings that is not universally shared. I have seen this on the streets of Delhi and in the news and I’ve also seen how it permeates the workplace I am in as well. I am left with the feeling that if we in the West export some of our values about respect for the individual along with a few jobs we will have made the world a better and more ethical place.

6 October, 2007

Short-Timer’s Syndrome

Filed under: BPO,Call Center,India,Marketing,off shoring,Outsourcing,personal — shamrin @ 12:51

Well, If you’ve been following along here you know we signed up for a year’s stint here in Incredible India and the end of that time is approaching fast. When I was at AT&T many years ago we had a name for that thing that happens when a person has taken another job and is in the final days or weeks of the old one – “Short-timers Syndrome”. Anyone who has ever changed jobs knows what I’m talking about. The symptoms are a desire to take long lunches, have casual friendly conversations with your colleagues, call friends on the phone and generally go about your workday in a relaxed sort of way. It’s like a big long exhale. Alas, like a drunk on a runaway roller-coaster I am not destined to cruise gently into this goodnight.

The Website
For one thing, the website I’ve been working on, which is officially about a week behind schedule, is probably more like 3-4 weeks late (please don’t mention this to by boss). Since my project manager for it has vanished I’ll need to really bear down on this task if it’s going to get finished, and I haven’t even had a single comment from my management on the content so getting approvals on my radically new marketing approach should be an absolute joy (not).

Cold-Calling
I’m not sure if I’ve mentioned it here but I’ve been managing an expansion of our call centre’s footprint into the UK market. Suddenly last week that turned from a management and oversight task to a hands-on do-it-yourself cold-calling task (for reasons hinted at in my last entry). Now, the last time I did cold-calling was during the Carter administration, an era during which dinosaurs roamed the earth and we carried something called a “Bell Boy” pager because mobile phones had not been invented. Fortunately I’ve got a smart, energetic young protégé working for me to whom I am laying-off most of the heavy-lifting on this task. But still, between the 3 of us in Marketing (now Marketing & Sales) we’re committed to come up with a slew of qualified leads and conversions in the next eight weeks. If you smell something burning it’s probably the phone lines between India and London.

OK, well I don’t usually write about such personal things here in my business blog but I realised this morning that there were no real rules here so I could do as I wished. If you are a regular reader here, please stay tuned. I’ll continue to write about BPO and Call Centre issues for at least the rest of the year or so and it could actually get pretty exciting around here.

17 September, 2007

5 Key Values for Call Centers (or any other business)

As I’ve mentioned here previously, I’m working on drafting a new company mission statement and identifying a set of “company values”. I’m a bit ambivalent about the idea of creating company values for a couple reasons. First, I don’t think companies have actual values, people do and it can be dangerous to get these things confused. I’m willing to move past this based on the argument that one need look no further than the late Dame Anita Roddick to be convinced that a single person’s own values can guide a whole company and the way it operates.

This is related to my second concern, that values are actually quite important for people and they shouldn’t be messed with or taken lightly by marketers (like me) merely for crass monetary gain. If we’re going to come up with values that we talk to our employees about and that we make public with wall posters or websites, our management damn well better believe in them with their heart and soul otherwise both staff and customers will quickly see through them for the sham they are. I think in the case of Roddick’s Body Shop chain, her consistency in this regard contributed much of their success and the fact that they are now one of the most trusted brands in the world.

So, what are the key values that I believe a call center should embrace? They are:

  • Strive to achieve customer delight in all your activities,
  • Foster trust and personal responsibility in all of your relationships,
  • Develop your people personally and professionally and encourage them to reach their full potential,
  • Be boldly innovative, in solving problems, in exploring new business opportunities and in anticipating and meeting customer needs,
  • Be honest and transparent in all your business dealings.

I don’t know if this is a complete set, but I’m pretty sure that any organisation that accepts and adheres to these as its “values” will be a good company to work for and to do business with.

9 September, 2007

Standard Chartered Revisited

Filed under: Customer Service,India,Marketing,personal,Standard Chartered — shamrin @ 10:41

In August I wrote an entry called “The whole world is watching” in which I suggested that the way we do business and the way we treat employees is more important than ever. I went on to say then:

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.

Well, maybe I wasn’t giving India enough credit. Last week I took Standard Chartered Bank to task on this blog for a shameful level of customer service from their call center and an incident that occurred in their local branch. On Friday I received two phone calls, one from the branch and one from the call center apologising for the problem and assuring me that this is not the level of service they expect customers to receive. They said that they had seen the blog and were prompted to call and make amends. There had apparently been quite a fuss in the branch over all this too as the one of the staff came out to apologise in person when he saw me at the ATM on Saturday.

I was a little taken aback by all this because I’m not used to a bank really giving a damn when I complain, ask anyone that banks in the UK and they will tell you the same thing. So full credit to Standard Chartered for their mea culpa, I think they did pretty much everything they could after the fact to fix things up. Now the proof is in how they do things better, I hope they do.

But I was just as taken aback by the fact that someone at Standard Chartered found my comments here and triggered a response within the organisation that led to me being called. That’s no small feat and it makes me wonder if they actually have a program to monitor their online reputation. Whether they do or whether finding my comments was just some amazing coincidence (like my wife running into a high school classmate here in Delhi this weekend) it demonstrates that large organisations do care about their online reputation. We would all do well to follow this practice in the future.

28 August, 2007

What should you outsource? Almost everything.

Filed under: BPO,Call Center,ethics,Marketing,off shoring,Outsourcing,Trust — shamrin @ 14:13

One of the blogs I read regularly is by Seth Godin who writes mostly about marketing in a very pithy informative style. In a recent entry called The Scarcity Shortage Seth mentions two topics that are close to my heart, outsourcing and trust. Towards the end of his piece he says:

So what’s scarce now? Respect. Honesty. Good judgment. Long-term relationships that lead to trust. None of these things guarantee loyalty in the face of cut-rate competition, though. So to that list I’ll add this: an insanely low-cost structure based on outsourcing everything except your company’s insight into what your customers really want to buy. If the work is boring, let someone else do it, faster and cheaper than you ever could. If your products are boring, kill them before your competition does.

I just had to stop and think about what this notion meant to my outsourcing business. On the one hand, it’s really good for us, if Seth is right then we’re in the right place to help more and more businesses become hyper-competitive and focus on their core skills. But we mustn’t skip over the first part of his comments because they apply to us as well; respect, honesty, judgement and trust built through experience are skills we must hone and values we must adhere to in order to serve the market we are in.

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.

10 August, 2007

Trust, it’s the key to building the business

Filed under: BPO,Call Center,Marketing,off shoring,Outsourcing,Strategy,Trust — shamrin @ 20:02

This is so simple it’s almost not worth mentioning, but its so important it must be. Our business is all about trust. Our customers are putting the fate of their businesses in our hands. For those of us located in India or any other off-shoring location, our customers are putting the fate of their businesses in the hands of foreigners in a foreign place with foreign names and foreign customs. Like the fact that someone figured out that you can eat lobsters is a testament to the power hunger, the fact that someone figured out this off-shoring thing could work is a testament to the profit motive.

The quest for profits is obviously very strong, so strong in fact many of us have begun to think that it’s the only factor that customers consider when they buy things. Well if that were true, no one would be using iPods or wearing a Rolexes, or driving BMWs or shopping at Nordstrom. And, if it were true in the business services business that we are in, Accenture would not exist nor would Goldman Sachs, nor Fedex nor IBM. But they do, so what’s going on? You could say that what’s going on has to do with branding and that would not be far from the truth, but if you go deeper I think you find it’s about trust. Both consumers, who do not have the profit motive, and businesses who do, trade with brands and companies that they trust.

We in marketing, in sales and in the delivery chain for BPOs and Call Centers need to focus our efforts on trust-building and trust-earning. Seth Godin (who writes the marketing blog I wish I did) brings up an aspect of trust in his recent entry “Shipping and Handling” suggesting that customers won’t do business for long with mail order companies who hide there profit in S&H charges.  I think he’s spot on about this, I know from my own experience that I always avoid eBay auctions where the S&H charges are inordinately high. We don’t trust businesses that pile on hidden charges (banking industry, are you listening?) and we think twice before patronising them a second time once burned. I think it’s healthy and a good idea to take a look at our pricing, at our policies and at our flexibility with our clients to ensure that we are building trust.

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