As consumer technology and products continue to become more complex, BPO providers face a growing wave of challenges when it comes to aligning their agents with evolving customer demands.
To meet this challenge head on, global services provider iQor is leveraging a young, tech-savvy workforce in Trinidad that is helping the company satisfy some demanding retail clients with a combination of front-line customer engagement and product support services.
Headed by CEO Hartmut Liebel, iQor has close to 50,000 associates around the world. As well as strong Nearshore presence in Mexico – around 6,000 product support agents – the company entered Trinidad in 2015 with 200-300 agents, and in three short years is now pushing for at least 1,000 by year’s end.
We spoke to Liebel to get a sense of the company’s goals for Nearshore, particularly Trinidad, and the challenges of developing skills for both product support services and customer interactions.
Nearshore Americas: What kind of business issues and client demands are driving iQor’s global strategy?
Hartmut Liebel: There’s an increased focus on the service experience or the brand experience – everybody would probably subscribe to that statement. Our clients are seeing increased pressure from their bosses and their client base to improve their brand experience. At the same time, budgets are shrinking, so the challenge is to accomplish much more difficult tasks with less. Then you also have the fast-emerging advent of automation, robotics, and machine learning, which is on everyone’s minds.
Clients need to infuse these technologies at the right scale and the right pace, which impacts both the brand experience and the cost points. I don’t envy our customers for having this large task that is just getting harder, but we as an industry, in terms of third-party partners and vendors, have an important role to play to make that possible, especially in most cases where clients cannot achieve this with their own internal resources.
These three buckets take up the biggest mindshare, and, at the senior level, I am seeing this in all the different industries that we are servicing, so, if the industry can perform and deliver on these demands, I foresee a lot of healthy growth for BPO.
Nearshore Americas: What are the high-level challenges that you are facing as CEO of iQor, both internally and looking outward at your client base?
Hartmut Liebel: My main challenges stem from the fact that we operate in both a centralized and de-centralized way. Our internal systems, such as financial systems, operating systems, and ERP are the core bones of our business and are all centralized, but at the same time we have de-centralized operating units and client schemes that are all over the world. This de-centralized approach creates an interesting mix of an entrepreneur culture with lots of small business units, and the leaders of those units feel like CEOs with lots of flexibility, while still operating on the same global system. However, by geography, the variety of time zones and the different service quality requirements all have to be taken into account.
Across geos, we have to make sure we are balancing guidelines and rules for how we conduct ourselves, combined with systems that provide performance visibility, as well as also taking soft topics of communication, brand building, and recruitment into account.
Our clients and everyone in this industry are always looking out for the next breakthrough in improving efficiency. Over the last few years, we have looked at combining the customer service business with the technical parts of the business, because so many of our clients’ service experiences are associated with products, and a lot of their business is driven by mobility devices. We are the only global services company that has customer service and product repair, which has been a massive differentiator for us, and giving us a chance to change how this industry operates.
The end customer wants a smoother experience with much fewer touch points, so I think there will an acceleration in the convergence of the physical and virtual customer service aspects of the industry – physical being the product experiences that people have, and virtual being the contact center. The industry needs to solve the frustration that customers get when having to deal with multiple touch points, so combining service with technical support is something we are proud to have achieved.
Nearshore Americas: Considering iQor’s bullish approach to Trinidad, a small country of just over 1 million people, what kind of recruitment and scaling challenges are you facing there?
Hartmut Liebel: The difficulty in hiring has been similar to other markets, but we have been able to find success through social media recruitment channels. The first challenge was in finding folks who are interested in joining the BPO industry, which is still young in the country. Contrary to other local industries, such as tourism and transportation, which regularly experience ups and downs, BPO is very stable, so we’ve had to find people who are truly motivated to be a part of the sector.
Young people in Trinidad are truly digital natives. They are tech savvy, active on social media, and have provided a good test bed for us to work with some of our more demanding clients in retail – some of the world’s largest e-retailers.
After some initial hiccups, we’ve finally worked out how to attract people with the right motivation and the right skill sets. Trinidad is the one country where we’ve been able to recruit almost exclusively through social media. When we were opening our second facility there, our social media ads gave us 1,500 applicants in the pipeline within a week, and was hugely cost-efficient.
Institutions like InvesTT, local news media, universities, and the government have also been supportive in getting the word out. We now have roughly 500-600 people and have built capacity to accommodate 1,100 across our two sites. The plan is to end 2018 with 750-1,000 people. Overall we’re confident that the market will support our long-term ambition for 2,000 seats.
Transportation for employees has been a top focus, as infrastructure needed to be improved. This meant that we had to adjust schedules in some cases, to make sure schedule adherence works locally. The country could make more improvements, but we have compensated for that with our own transportation solutions, chartering buses to make sure our workforce shows up and can depart at the right time. My hope is that in the long-term that Trinidad will see this as important change for them to be successful in attracting more players like us to the market.
A vast majority of our leadership has come up through the ranks, rapidly bringing down the ratio of expatriate managers in the company. This is evidence that Trinidad has the ability to develop its own management strengths, which I think is the future of the country. To support this, we have mentoring programs in-house, as well as an innovative workspace to attract knowledge managers who want to be part of a modern physical facility. Our omnichannel presence and support is getting deeper, again attracting the right knowledge workers. It’s a mix of providing the tools, having the right talent, and having strong communication.
Nearshore Americas: What are the challenges in Panama, and how does it fit into your Nearshore strategy?
Hartmut Liebel: We always strive to create the right fit for each client demand, and clients typically have a say on which location they want to be serviced from, which is what Panama needs to get more of a shot in the arm. That said, we have had a stable group of clients that have been happy with our service in Panama along with excellent leadership team and experienced staff members.
iQor has maintained a presence in Panama for more than eight years, supporting primarily Spanish-speaking customers. We currently have close to 500 employees there and will be relocating them to a new, more modern facility nearby our existing site in Panama City within the next three months. Even so, the recent excitement and growth for our Customer Interaction business in Nearshore has been in our new Trinidad locations.
Nearshore Americas: As automation is increasingly being adopted in BPO, how is that increasing the challenge of upskilling the industry’s workforce? How is iQor overcoming this hurdle?
Hartmut Liebel: People were afraid of books and cars when they first arrived – this is a continuum of human history. Today, the interactions we’re having with the products are getting more and more complex, so the same is true of interactions with end customers. We’ve found that this is resulting in more interesting jobs, which is having a positive effect on attrition as people are seeing that they are really adding value. There will always be some portion of the workforce that is probably not suited to this learning curve, which is why it’s important for us to capture the right, self-motivated people, as they will always become better and want to learn more.
Our competitors and ourselves are trying to stay a little private on the topic of technology implementation, mainly because they are under development and will represent a competitive edge for us. They are being widely invested in, but the deployment is still at a relatively small scale compared to where the industry has evolved to.
That said, with our product support offering, we are using machine learning inside our repair depots to feed a knowledge management system that is helping to inform our agents on the front lines. Gamification for agent training and agent effectiveness has helped to attract a young workforce, and bots enable agents to focus on more value-added tasks, and adoption of the tech is accelerating at a steady rate.