When the full force of the global pandemic hit, many client organizations suddenly recognized that the quality of their customer relationships needed to be understood at a much deeper level. This realization led to another discovery: when it comes to global services partnerships, clients want to be closer to their outsourced partners, believing that agility increases when cultures and time zones are closely compatible.
Geographic proximity, in a few short months, rose to become an even more crucial factor in determining where and with whom customer support work should be sent.
But Tariq Alinur, the head of Global CX at Spirit Airlines, doesn’t agree with the premise. Instead, he believes the pandemic produced a different set of lessons, starting with the opportunity to capitalize on new digital workplace conditions and related tools that underpin global partnerships, even if partners are in far-off time zones. “I think Covid has changed the perception, now that most of us are working remotely,” says Alinur, who spoke to us recently about the decision Spirit Airlines, headquartered in South Florida, made to locate about 40% of its support workforce in South Africa.
Alinur does not see a problem with working with a partner that is at least 24-hours away by plane. The rewards are worth it.
“It’s a long flight. There’s no minimizing that,” says Alinur, who just returned a few weeks ago from visiting a newly-opened outsourced center in Kenya, with its partner, CCI Global, which has over 8,500 employees, almost all in Africa. “We have a really solid team in place. They have really learned and embraced our culture. They live and breathe Spirit.”
The South Africa BPO sector is in fast-growth mode and it is not difficult to see why. The sector employs over 270,000 workers and that figure is forecasted to rise to over 775,000 jobs by 2030, according to a new report from McKinsey. Close to 20% of the country’s exported BPO services are directed to North America, amounting for approximately 13,000 customer service agents. Marquee clients like Sprint, Amazon and Altice are part of the wave of US-based companies currently leveraging South Africa.
One of the key advantages South Africa has over the Nearshore region of course is that a single country is far-better positioned to marshal resources and fixate collectively on a goal – in this case becoming one of the world’s premier outsourcing locations. Gartner reports that South Africa outperforms both India and the Philippines in the quality of its labor pool as well as in the robustness of its educational system.
“There is always a high sense of empathy in their voice, that’s the big thing,” says Tariq Alinur
When Spirit began outsourced operations in South Africa in March, 2019, Alinur was immediately blown away by customer-sat results. During the initial go-live day, seven different customers asked to speak to a supervisor in order to pass along messages of praise for the performance of agents. “The passion of these folks is very strong, it is warm and inviting,” says Alinur. “There is always a high sense of empathy in their voice, that’s the big thing.”
Alinur’s empathy remark is especially important to consider. First of all, the capacity for empathy is not distributed evenly across all nations and all cultures globally. Ask any corporate CX decision-maker and they will tell you that some cultures are far more evolved than others in cultivating the empathy gene.
Alinur, who was raised in England and South Florida by parents of Guyanese descent, doesn’t believe the Nearshore region is particularly outstanding in this area. “We really struggle with empathy, especially in the Caribbean,” he notes.
Industry analyst Peter Ryan, of Ryan Strategic Advisory, argues that South African contact center agents tend to be very good at problem solving and thinking fast on their feet. “It is true that South Africa has a great level of empathy down to the agent level,” Ryan said. “It has been a reason for the country’s success in the UK and Australia during the past two decades.”
Forrester Principal Analyst Ian Jacobs goes as far as to say that recent trauma experienced by citizens around the world means that customer service needs to evolve and adequately reflect appropriate levels of compassion. “These consumers, already emotional and anxious over pandemic uncertainties, are dealing with unexpected hardships (financial and otherwise) and need a new type of empathy-heavy support,” Jacobs notes in a recent brief.
Digging into Empathy
We know of course that culture plays an important role in influencing the empathy response. Although scientific studies on the topic appear to be limited, there is a common belief that in ‘collectivist’ cultures, where the individual is raised to believe their self-interest is superseded by the interests of the group (a trait most commonly identified in Asian countries) the tendencies for empathy are comparatively higher. However, that theory fails to hold water when trying to explain South Africa’s apparently well-evolved empathy reflex. The country falls into the ‘individualistic’ category and therefore would be tending toward a Westernized cultural-adaptation model.
If it is in fact true that the Nearshore is comparatively weaker in the empathy response, it makes sense to question whether training is an effective way to move the needle. Jacobs reminds that there are tools that are designed to ‘amp up’ empathy, pointing to real-time speed analytic tools that push behavioral cues to agents. “While the exhortations from such systems are often things like ‘allow the customer to finish his thought before you respond,’ the actual goal is to constantly remind the agents that they are dealing with living, breathing human beings. These tools are really there to overcome empathy fatigue.” Jacobs believes such tools are not meant to somehow create the seeds of empathy from scratch, but instead ‘reactivate’ a sense of compassion.
In addition to the emotional aspects in question, a more practical consideration is that levels of unemployment are shockingly high in certain sectors of the South African population. Women in particular face a daunting job environment, with unemployment rising over 30% for working-age women.
For many true believers in the South Africa offshore model, these are just the early days of a multi-year expansion that will ultimately put far more pressure on the Nearshore market than has previously been expected. Alinur, who also has BPO partner relationships in Colombia and Mexico (with Teleperformance and Advantage Communications, respectively), points out that the cost of sending work to South Africa is “on par” with Guyana, but overall it is generally less expensive than the rest of the Nearshore market. When compared to the Philippines, he sees South Africa as being a better value.
Notably, the performance of South Africa during the initial stages of the pandemic was poor. “South Africa was not prepared for work-from-home. Most people don’t have high speed Internet,” he said. “They end up using 5G which is not stable and as a result, we had a lot of issues.”
Ironically, however it was the agile response of CCI Global in managing resources in the months that followed the first wave of the crisis, that helped open Alinur’s eyes to the flexibility that comes with managing teams, partners and geographies remotely. He points to the new operations in Kenya as a great example. “We had the entire Kenya operation up and running in three weeks. All the agents were hired and trained virtually, every single one of them,” he said. “The results have been superb… just great level of guest satisfaction.”
There is widespread belief that South Africa, with the help of its highly-engaged trade promotion vehicle BPESA, is a rising star globally because of a series of crucial decisions that were made over the years to put the BPO sector on the right footing.
Still, Ryan questions how serious a threat South Africa is to the BPO business in the Americas. “The threat is there but I am not certain that it will be as pronounced as some think. For one, South Africa does not have the Spanish skills that drive a lot of interest in the Nearshore by US buyers, nor does it have any French, which is crucial for Canada,” he notes. “Equally, I think that many buyers see South Africa as a good alternative to other far-flung locations like the Philippines and India.”