Since the industry launched in Nicaragua in the mid- to late-2000s, BPO operations in the country have commonly been managed by foreign expatriates, but the original batch of agents that the sector developed are now taking the reins.
When Convergys and Sitel first entered the country and kick-started the industry, they inadvertently created a generation of young, aspirational BPO leaders that have climbed the career ladder to take up executive positions – an example that other developing BPO markets should take notes from.
Leaders in Tune with the Local industry
“People who have been learning BPO best practices from mentors for years are now driving the market, and that trend will continue,” said Henry Ordonez, Site Director at Ibex Nicaragua. “Call centers are now being run by Nicaraguan people who know the market, understand the culture, and are in tune with topics like wages and talent attrition, rather than foreigners who have to go through a cultural learning curve.”
Ordonez himself is an example of this trend: a 29 year old site director with 10 years of BPO experience who started his career at Sitel as a customer service rep. Now he is leading a team of 700, with plans for 900 by the end of 2018 — all serving existing clients. With new sales, Ordonez expects to build the full workforce to 1,200 by the end of 2018.
While there has been a certain degree of scepticism about his age, Ordonez believes that as long as people know that the position was earned, not granted, and that concept stays honest and transparent, then career-minded individuals in Nicaragua will continue to follow his example.
“From a cultural standpoint, people in Nicaragua fully accept that the opportunities for growth are there, but also understand that they have to build it for themselves,” he said. “Even so, there is still a gap in leadership, so companies are trying to fill that gap, mostly through internal pipelines.”
Developing from Within
According to Sitel, there is a large pool of underutilized, well-educated people in Nicaragua, as many people attend university but are under-employed when they graduate. Even so, the company has noticed the same propensity for management positions within its existing hires, so promoted some to supervisory roles to manage US-based work at home agents (WAHAs).
“We have 3 operations managers and 1 director managing 81 WAHAs in the US. These are typically people we have been developing from within, and our first operations manager for WAHA was a track trainee,” said Val VanDegrift, Country Manager and VP of Shared Services at Sitel. “The advantage for us is that it’s given our advanced employees an additional free development path, and the US agents that deal with these mangers have been very positive about it.”
VanDegrift is incidentally one of the key industry mentors that Ordonez referred to, along with Manuel Diaz, Country Manager at Onelink BPO, himself a young executive in his early 30s, and a leader with a proven track record of top-level operations roles.
Since starting with 250 agents, Onelink has grown to 1,300 employees and 1,450 seats — 15% part time, and 1,000 who are fully bilingual. Diaz attributes this growth to a focus on developing an already ambitious workforce.
Pioneering New Management Programs
At Onelink BPO, people have been so eager to grow their careers within the sector that Diaz and his team developed a unique leadership program that was quickly rolled out across the entire company.
Project Y (stylized as ProYect) is a coaching and development program that lays out a definable career path and is designed to groom future managers, supervisors, and directors for the industry. It includes the study of basic skills, such as Excel, email management, coaching, creating action plans, and other abilities that are required to work in any call center. Applicants of Project Y need to be white belt Six Sigma certified and top performers from the previous quarter in order to participate.
Launched in October, 2017, the first wave of ProYect trainees at Onelink was made up of 36 people, 11 of which graduated and were promoted to escalations and supervisory roles. Furthermore, when the program was launched it immediately resulted in an attrition reduction of 1.5 percentage points, mainly because of the interest it generated within the company.
“For our team, the opportunity to become the future industry leaders has been a much more attractive benefit than any monetary rewards,” said Diaz. “Even so, as the market gets bigger and more players enter the country, people in the talent pool have more options to choose from. Besides the competition for managerial talent, English education levels are starting to fall behind. The industry needs to invest more into developing bilingual programs at language institutes and schools so we can start advertising our companies at an earlier stage. We have a good pool, but versus the growth of the industry it is still not enough.”
The Next Level of BPO Talent
At Ibex, 60% of the Nicaragua workforce is younger than 35, so they are digital-savvy, socially active, and well-acquainted with technology. Even so, there are certain risks that come along with the benefits of a young population.
“While the workforce is very young, a lot of people coming into the industry don’t have previous experience, so it’s vital to provide non-traditional call center training to the future leaders of this industry,” said Ordonez. “If we promote an associate to team leader they automatically become a face of the company, which can be a risk. It only takes that person to say the wrong thing to really hurt the brand, so when we on-board these new leaders we use the right guardrails, such as training in social intelligence, engagement, and effective communication skills.”
Ibex has also developed an internal leadership and development course, even hiring an experienced manager to lead those programs, and the results have been lower attrition, higher engagement, and a more developed internal pipeline – attrition is currently between 6.8% and 7.3%, and 81% of the company’s promotions have been internal.
Today, the people that are eligible to join the industry have a wider range of companies to choose from and certain expectations about how they should be managed. Wages, compensation, and benefits are now very similar wherever they go, so it really comes down to a preferable culture, and it’s that culture that will determine how the next wave of new leaders will emerge in Nicaragua.