Patrick Casserly | The real story of BPO
Business process outsourcing (BPO). For most, it's a nebulous term. For others, they're referred to as "call centre sweatshops" that churn through their staff like hot knives do through butter. There are two realities to the BPO industry. The first description is accurate for some entities, but it is far removed from the reality of others.
What is BPO exactly?
For most of us, the vast majority of our interactions are via phone, email, WhatsApp, text messaging (SMS), and, unfortunately, in some cases, Twitter. Rarely, we venture down to our bank branch to cash or deposit our weekly cheques; these transactions are usually carried out electronically, and if there is a problem, we call our bank, our insurance company, our cable company, and whichever other company that takes care of our day-to-day needs. Only if it's broken or confusing do we ever call our service providers. I cannot think of a time when I've called JPS to thank them for their continued provision of electricity, or FLOW to say, 'thanks a lot, guys. My cable is working!' People call companies invariably to resolve an issue.
BPO is taking an activity conducted by a company and transferring it to a communications efficiency specialist entity. This means that when you call your bank, you're not actually calling your bank, but an entity well trained to resolve the issue that you might have. BPO has revolutionised call or email communications, specifically how we communicate, how we want to communicate, and how we most times communicate in business and our everyday lives.
For clarity, I'm not only referencing Jamaica, but the wider world. The BPO industry affords these companies the leverage to lower costs and improve efficiency and service through professional management of communications. Similarly, when a customer places a call to a large technology or insurance company in the US, it is usually to report a fault or to get clarification on an issue. Therefore, BPO is essentially a method for companies to focus on their core products, rather than to expend tremendous resources on answering calls, emails and texts regarding failure, in the long run, distracting the company from developing and managing products and future planning. A simple example is calling an airline company or hotel. There is a high probability that the call is answered in Montego Bay, and your flight is booked, confirmed, and a subsequent email sent wholly through this BPO company.
On the other side of the spectrum, there are outbound calling companies in the BPO sector focused on telemarketing, debt collection, and telesales. A call that very few of us want to receive, especially when you're at dinner having your leg of roast chicken with rice and peas, and there's some agent calling to tell you about a mechanical can opener. That's the bottom of the barrel, literally.
Charting BPO in Jamaica
Let's back up a bit, the true story is that the BPO sector found its first footings with then Prime Minister Edward Seaga in collaboration with AT&T. They spearheaded the creation of The Jamaica Digiport International Limited in the Montego Bay Freezone area. This collaboration installed a massive satellite dish and started to court companies to come to Jamaica, essentially focusing on the labour arbitrage. A labour arbitrage means that the wages in the outsourcing company are greater than the wages in Jamaica, concurrently. This was the heyday of the garment manufacturing industry, where, with 40,000 workers who were only taught to sew on a sleeve and another person, a sleeve to the torso, ultimately completing T-shirt: it was purely a wage arbitrage. It had its value, though, for its time, until other markets, such as China, opened with a larger gap in wage arbitrage and, suddenly, these jobs disappeared, for that ... and for some other reasons not of my concern.
For the most part, BPO was used for data-entry services, insurance companies, et al. Massive amounts of paper were shipped to Jamaica everyday on Air Jamaica at the time, and also American Airlines. Jamaican workers replaced workers on the international stage like Louisville, Kentucky and Hartford, Connecticut where wages were much higher. The BPO sector, at this time, centred primarily on insurance claim entry, credit rating entry into client systems, international courier, slip entry and essentially minimal opportunity for upward value chain for employees and companies.
I entered in the industry on July 7, 1997 to manage the data entry of insurance claims for one of the largest health insurance companies in the world. Little did I know that I was entering a hornet's nest. As I entered on my first day, everyone stopped typing - clad in a black suit with blue and red tie, my floor went from being a beehive of typing to total silence.
A COMMUNICATION PROBLEM
On entering my office, the maintenance lady presented me with two rolls of toilet paper. I was literally flummoxed, and I asked my assistant why I was being given toilet paper. The response was, if we put them in the bathrooms, the staff will steal them! I then walked out on to the production floor and started talking to the tallest person in the room, Michael, who had apparently been leading the labour stoppage. In conversing with him, I realised the problem was simple communication. Within a year or so, I overtook the entire operation. One of my first tasks was to close down the executive bathrooms and throw away the keys, as the staff bathrooms were, dare I say, like the black hole of Calcutta. I charged one of my managers to renovate it because the executive bathrooms would be decommissioned permanently.
The freezone was strange in many ways, but the efficiency and proper remuneration regrew from 600 to more than 1,000 employees by 1999. Then came 'The Change'. The introduction of liberalised telecommunications in 2000, with a satellite-dish latency of 650 milliseconds could not facilitate viable voice communication. In the industry, many refer to excessive latency as "talkover", that is, as you are talking, the other person is responding, but communication is so slow that half of the conversation is lost.
The introduction of MAYA1 fibre optic communications to the United States reduced latency from 650 milliseconds to 70 milliseconds, allowing for a call to appear natural. Consequently, in February 14, 2000, e-Services Group International embarked, along with others, on a course to bring voice services to Jamaica. That's when the call-centre industry began. At first pass, we were greeted with tumultuous laughter as prospective clients would tout, 'Irie! Irie!', or 'What a go on, mon?'
HITTING BPO GOLD
Eventually, prospective outsourcing companies realised that Jamaica was the third-largest English-speaking country in the Western Hemisphere, that is, as its first language ... and the race was on!
The large companies in North America started sending us requests for proposals. By 2003, we had almost 1,500 employees. The greatest impediment at the time to the industry was the cost of submarine T-1s, but through technological advancements, the industry was able to run multiple simultaneous calls across a single submarine T-1. For those who are wondering what a submarine T-1 is, it is a fiber optic connection between Jamaican-based companies and overseas clients, allowing us to run multiple simultaneous calls in order to improve efficiency. But let's think about it for a minute, Jamaica's tourism industry afforded BPO a leg up, because if the client entrusted Jamaica with hosting a special occasion, such as a wedding, anniversary, or a family reunion, there was one degree of separation from them and us.
Also, there is critically a cultural convergence between North America, the UK and Jamaica as they watched the same television programmes, like basketball games, television series, Scandal and CNN that affords an ease of communication. Invariably, an agent had at least one relative who resided in the US with millions of visitors teeming to come to Jamaica every year; and over the years, BPO did not seem as foreign as Mumbai or Manila. Indeed, oftentimes we had a difficulty getting the caller off the phone as they would ask questions about where to stay in Jamaica or how warm it was, considering that they were calling from Minneapolis, Minnesota; Chicago, Illinois or Omaha, Nebraska in the dead of winter.