Outsourcing and Call Center Blog

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.


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.

4 October, 2007

The Truth Shall Set You Free

Filed under: BPO,Call Center,ethics,personal,Rant,Trust,Values — shamrin @ 23:06

There were a couple of things going on here in the last week that led me to an entry about telling the truth. The first event is that we spent the weekend in Dharamsala, the home-in-exile of the Dalai Lama, political and spiritual leader of Tibet. The second event is that some people on my staff broke my trust and that of my organisation in such a brazen and bold way, that I’m still trying to come to grips with it. Now, it’s hard to explain how these two things came together, so hard in fact that I’ve had to scrap two attempts to do it. Yet I still am compelled to record something on this topic.

I have mentioned here before the reverence I have for the late M. Scott Peck and his series of books that starts with The Road Less Travelled. Peck has insights into how we really are that consistently leave me amazed and that never fail to instruct. In a section of The Road Less Travelled called “Withholding the Truth” he has some insights into truth-telling that I will quote here as they say more than I can on this topic.

Yet the rewards of the difficult life of honesty and dedication to the truth are more than commensurate with the demands. By virtue of the fact that their maps are continually being challenged, open people are continually growing people. Through their openness they can establish and maintain intimate relationships far more effectively than more closed people. Because they never speak falsely thay can be secure and proud in the knowledge that they have done nothing to contribute to the confusion of the world, but have served as sources of illumination and clarification. Finally, they are totally free to be. They are not burdened by any need to hide. they do not have to slink around in the shadows. They do not have to construct new lies to hide old ones. they need waste no effort covering tracks or maintaining disguises. And ultimately they find that the energy required for the self-discipline of honesty is far less than the energy required for secretiveness. The more honest one is, the easier it is to continue being honest, just as the more lies one has told, the more necessary it is to lie again. By their openness, people dedicated to the truth live in the open and through the exercise of their courage to live in the open, they become free from fear.

– M. Scott Peck

It’s funny how often I see in the statistics on this blog that people have searched for something like “call center ethics” or “ethics of running a BPO”. It’s encouraging to me that people are concerned about such topics and I hope that this blog in some way contributes positively in this area. So, if you’ve found this entry with that particular search, here is your pay-off; Tell the truth, it makes life better.

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.

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.

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.

20 July, 2007

Yikes! Customers don’t care about price or features

I ran across a couple of notes today on how people make purchasing decisions, both suggesting that we are pretty irrational – which could be a blessing or a curse for us marketers depending on how you look at it. Joe Cooper writes about how people decide on emotion and justify with logic in their buying process. In other words, the quantifiable features of a product or service don’t count as much as the feeling we have about purchase we are making (you didn’t really think that Nike shoes were somehow better than the store-brands did you?). The implications of this are pretty profound, for example it means the features and benefits statements that fill our endless supply of incredibly boring PowerPoint presentations contribute only in a backhanded way to selling our product (Hooray, can we outlaw PowerPoint now?).

The second item was in Seth Godin’s blog and quoted this amazing fact from an article on eBay buying patterns:

In some categories, more than 40% of the auctions went for more than the Buy it Now price.

This says a lot about the psychology of auctions I suppose (Mark Tillison writes a succinct analysis of this phenomenon in his blog).

If I put these two items together, is says that buyers don’t tend to care (at least as much as we think) about either price or features. Wow.

This opens one to a fascinating area of thought regarding what purchasers do care about. I won’t fully explore here other than to posit what this means to outsourced call centres. What I see in our industry is a lot of us trying to sell our product based on one thing, price. This I contend is a dead end street for any call centre business that has genuine aspirations to become the next Wipro or Infosys. Why? First, because I think the era of cost arbitrage is ending, the world is just as flat for us here in India as it is in the West. And second, because a price-dominated strategy will consistently attract customers who focus solely on price to the exclusion of customer experience and business process. You can afford to have some customers who don’t care about their customers and who are loyal to you only as long as you are the cheapest provider they can find, but if that is your niche, you’re going to have a hell of a time maintaining your base.

So if we don’t sell on price and features, what do we sell on? I think to find the answer to this, one must put himself in the shoes of his customers. If you were going to trust your sales, your customer service, your future revenue stream and/or your current revenue stream to an outside organisation, what would you be looking for? What springs to my mind are things like trust, confidence, consistency, fit, culture, synergy, harmony, all very squishy, intangible right-brained criteria. I believe that if both we and our customers are looking for these things in our business relationships, we’ll have many more successful, more profitable programs.

12 June, 2007

About Trust

Filed under: BPO,Call Center,ethics,Outsourcing,personal,Trust — shamrin @ 18:30

I’ve written before about the importance of building trust with our customers and prospects and it’s almost impossible to talk about it too much. Trust is not just the glue that binds business relationships together, it is the very fabric of our relationships, business and personal. I was riding past the IGI Airport here in Delhi today and thinking about what the great American football coach Vince Lombardi reportedly said about winning, “Winning isn’t everything, it’s the only thing“. Well I think Vince was wrong about that, I believe how you play the game matters, but I will borrow his method of juxtaposition anyway and say, “Trust isn’t everything, it’s the only thing.”

The reason I was thinking about this topic was an article in today’s Hindustan Times called “The Torment of Deceit” by Aash Aurora in a column called Inner Voice. (more…)

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