Outsourcing and Call Center Blog

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.

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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.

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.

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.

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