Africa Rising
July 9, 2018

From discord we can find harmony

BPO Harmony
BPO stakeholders and trade associations should embrace a ‘get-up-and-go, focus-forward’ mindset that has the true interests of their countries at heart.

I have been watching (and reading), with great interest, the blog posts of my respected colleagues and global analysts Peter Ryan, Mark Hillary and Jens Butler this past week (if you haven’t read them I would highly recommend that you do). They pull no punches with regards to the need for trade associations and stakeholders to work in harmony to develop and grow robust and dynamic BPO industries within their respective countries.

Harmony. That’s an interesting word that conjures up a whole manner of inferences such as agreement, accord, synchronization and coordination. It’s clear that a harmonious BPO industry attracts solid offshore BPO foreign direct investment. It’s also clear that it translates into sustainable job creation, skills development and training for where it matters most – young, up and coming contact centre agents that form the bulwark of the BPO industry.

 

A pat on the back

In alluding to the above I can’t help thinking of South Africa. We have witnessed the country rise from being an offshore nonentity to becoming a BPO powerhouse, now ranked second in the world according to the 2018 Front Office BPO Omnibus survey by Ryan Strategic Advisory. We have seen, firsthand, the country spearhead fantastic initiatives such as impact sourcing and the Digital Jobs Africa initiative that led to the establishment of the Global Impact Sourcing Coalition (GISC). And we have watched, with great interest, as South Africa birthed and pioneered the global ISO 18295 contact centre standards.

Recently, South Africa launched its new BPO value proposition that emphasizes the country’s large availability of good quality English speaking talent, with high empathy, cultural affinity and niche domain skills. The proposition espouses the fact that the country offers a first world infrastructure and enabling environment with evolving capabilities for next-generational service delivery for digital contact centres.

 

A rude awakening

However, as Peter Ryan stated in his post, Stakeholders must be aligned to win offshore BPO investment, “success in luring outsourcers to a city, region or country is not a simple cost play. Successful parties in the sector work in tandem, making sure that objectives are clearly defined and that strategy implementation is seamless. Those locations that work toward this alignment will be the ones to watch in 2018 and beyond.”

Peter went on to make a clear and definitive statement: “Simply put, any location that seeks to win more front-office BPO business cannot allow discord or strife among stakeholders when developing its value proposition.”

His comments were echoed by a long-time veteran and respected industry guru, Rod Jones, who posted this note in response to Peter’s blog: “That is an extremely powerful raft of sound advice, Peter. Thank you for highlighting some of the fundamentals of BPO sector development. As you quite rightly point out, misalignment of stakeholder agendas plays havoc with hard-won sector development strategies and threatens to shake investor confidence.”

I subsequently read Mark Hillary’s intriguing and insightful article that asked the question: Are regional trade associations stuck in the past? Mark indicated that he has met hundreds of people representing trade organisations and many of them are earnest, well-informed, and doing a great job. “But I’ve also come across both people and organisations that are damaging their national brand through the way they conduct themselves.”

He went on to say, “If trade bodies want to fight each other, or fight industry experts for being frank with their views then investment can go someplace where it is more appreciated – and it will.”

 

An outlook from the past

The above blog posts and comments on social channels made me reflect back to 2015 when Knowledge Executive published a qualitative market intelligence report covering the South African BPO industry. At the time, the industry was plagued by regional fragmentation and infighting with different industry bodies, brands and agencies promoting provincial objectives as opposed to national interests. In the chapter headed “South Africa’s BPO Competition and Value Proposition” we made this statement: “It remains important, however, for the country (South Africa) to think, plan and speak with a unified industry voice, and clear provincial quality propositions, in order to clearly articulate the national value proposition and to move forward with a common vision.”

“This needs to emanate from both industry and government together for the sake of healthy and sustainable growth. More enterprises and offshore buyers are interested in moving higher-value functions to outsourced service providers. South Africa can remain a global BPO player in this context. In order to achieve this, South Africa needs to define areas of BPO services in which it can compete, determine which functions are likely to be procured from global markets, and work as one industry building on ‘Brand South Africa’.”

 

A vision back to the future

Fast forward to 2018 and much has changed with regards to the growth and development of BPO South Africa and the country’s offshore value proposition. As Jens Butler mentioned in his post, “There is a common goal which revolves around the need to create employment opportunities by raising the awareness of the capabilities the country has to offer. Industry players are aligned when it comes to projecting these skillsets, offerings and reasons to buy and are deeply involved when it comes to driving the broader brand that is the South African BPO industry.”

Jens went on to say that, “once you visit the place, you will understand what South Africa has to offer. It is not just about those core selection criteria and tick-boxes. It is the unquantifiable factors such as the empathy and awareness of the agents, the customer and quality focus, the drive that exists, the energy of the place – there is a special sauce.”

Over the last year, the industry body, BPESA, has unified regional chapters and appointed a multi-skilled, globally astute board that is focused on promoting job creation in the local BPO industry through the promotion of foreign direct investment, networking/industry growth and skills development.

It was reassuring to see a LinkedIn post from the BPESA interim CEO, Andy Searle, in response to Mark Hillary’s blog. “Mark, we really do appreciate the insights that you and our other analyst/writer/influence friends share. Hard hitting but real. I’m sure many nations have their challenges with trade associations stuck in the past. Hopefully, BPESA with the support of our members, partners and friends at home and abroad will continue to be successful in adapting our association to cater for today’s requirements and tomorrow’s opportunities. Keep writing. We keep learning.”

Andy’s comments certainly echoed a growing sentiment in the industry and it comes in the wake of some unfortunate industry discord, despite a national coordinated effort to promote harmony in the industry. When viewing all these statements one has to to ask: Can we ever have true harmony in a diverse, multi-industry-player, BPO market such as South Africa? Or is this an unattainable, ‘utopian’ reality?

I don’t have a crystal ball answer to this, but one can say this: If industry bodies such as BPESA continue to focus on – and I quote from Andy – “tomorrow’s opportunities” while also being prepared to “keep learning”, they will galvanize and inspire genuine players in the industry to join them and focus forward, think strategically, and build on South Africa’s (new and revised) BPO value proposition and vision. Industry at large can, and should, sidestep and disregard the naysayers, the inharmonious non-collaborators and agendas with self-serving interests. By adopting a ‘get-up-and-go-forward’ attitude the industry will attract like-minded professionals that have the interests of the agents, clients and investors they serve, and the customers and country they care for, at heart.

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