Q&A: Ankur Mithal
Ankur Mithal has spent over two decades in the worlds of finance and, latterly, BPO, and recently authored Some Method, Some Madness: Managing BPO in India, a ground-breaking attempt to “capture the essence of managing the diverse and ever-changing domain of the BPO business”. We spoke with Ankur about the story behind his book and some of its key findings, as well as getting his take on some of the trends defining the BPO space now and going forwards…
Outsource: Ankur, what prompted you to write Some Method, Some Madness?
Ankur Mithal: I started working life as a banker and joined BPO in a mid-career move. Each business has its own nuances and rhythm which one can understand only after getting involved in the nitty-gritty. At the start, I struggled with various aspects of the BPO business. I looked around for case studies and literature, but only found books on technology related to the business which was helpful, but not adequate. That was probably when the absence of literature on the subject struck me.
Thereafter, once I got an understanding of the business and started forming opinions on decisions, I found that many times there were other people who had contrary views. And mostly with good reason. Each one of us had a certain perspective and a view based on that. An appreciation of each other’s perspective would have created greater alignment and smoother decision-making. This, I thought, could be achieved through creation of a body of knowledge which could be used as a reference point for various situations.
I also found that people promoted to the first and second lines of management struggle to come to terms with their changed responsibilities. They have no idea about the larger business and often lean towards one of too hands-on or too hands-off extremes. Their job is limited to “extracting” work from their teams and not enabling the business to run better. Here again, for people interested in a career in BPO, a book capturing the nuances of the different aspects of the business could be useful, is how I looked at it.
The “last straw” was the request from a colleague, that I have started the book with, on suggestions on running a new business he was being given responsibility for.
O: How similar is the finished work to your original vision when you started putting it together?
AM: The scope of the book is fairly close to what I had in mind when I started writing it, but some of the details have changed. Like, I knew that I wanted to put in a lot of illustrations to explain concepts. However, I did not know that I would build one case study that will be examined from various angles in different chapters. Similarly, adding a glossary of terms peculiar to BPO, with a slightly ironical twist, including ones used “unofficially”, was an afterthought.
O: You’ve defined three main target readerships for your book: operational leaders; client-side leadership; and the “foot-soldiers”, if you like, who actually carry out BPO work. How difficult was it, when writing the book, to do so in a way which left you confident you were satisfying the needs of all those constituencies – and do you feel that particular aspects are perhaps more appropriate to specific constituencies than others?
AM: Though the reasons for writing the book varied from my own struggle in BPO, to senior leaders looking for help, to young managers struggling after promotion, this book has not been written to “cater to” any particular segment. It has been written as a book on how the BPO business is run and should be run. Not having a target segment as the driving force, I believe, has helped in keeping the book honest to its purpose.
Once written, when I try to identify the segments who this book might make sense to, these three constituencies suggest themselves. And, within the three, the “foot soldiers” being the one to whom it might bring the greatest benefit.
As I have said in the introduction, in the overall context, this book is most appropriate for “young managers” in the business, who are probably at the second or third line of people management, and are at a point where they can no longer justify their existence by merely being busy doing tasks or activities, and have to contribute to the business through their insight, knowledge, control, ideas, etc. To them this book will give an understanding of different aspects which they can leverage for business benefit. Of course, smart agents and first line managers may also find it useful as a foundation for future growth.
For client-side leadership the value lies in being able to understand how the business actually functions, with its limitations and opportunities, without being limited to the rose-tinted-glass view permitted by their delivery partner or gleaned through infrequent interaction with people lower down the food-chain.
O: You examine a great many different aspects of the BPO business: which parts of the industry do you think are working most successfully, and where is there most room for improvement? For example, you go into detail about some of the causes of employee dissatisfaction – and this is obviously a big issue considering the very high rates of attrition in India in particular…
AM: Considering the increasingly large contribution it has made to the GDP, it can be nobody’s case that it is not a successful business. Also, having an enlightened body like NASSCOM as a guiding light has helped.
The industry has done a fantastic job in opening up vast populations to white-collar employment opportunities. They have done an even better job of training and skilling these large populations to handle these jobs. What it has done so successfully in the big cities in the last fifteen years, is now being replicated in the hinterland.
In some areas, as an industry, I think we have permitted fragmented constituents, like mal-intentioned employees, to take advantage of our insularity. I see no reason why multiple companies in the industry need to pay money to an agency to verify antecedents of an individual as he changes jobs from one to the other to yet another. Sharing of information would have saved money for the industry. This did not happen even though NASSCOM tried to promote it.
I feel hunger for volume growth and desperation to fill empty seats has prompted suppliers to make unrealistic bids for business. Their attempts at cutting corners in order to not lose money has given the industry a bad name.
And, of course, all of us need to grow up with regard to handling our key resource: people. We need to set the right expectations and need to ensure that we deliver on them. We need to provide breathing-space to an individual within the boundaries of a delivery framework. While townhalls and open-door policies are good, they are only periodic events. We need to “do the right thing” by our employees every second. The right coaching and sensitisation of first- and second-level managers needs to be done for this to happen.
O: You offer some very solid advice on what needs to be done to create workable BPO contracts. Do you think the average contract in BPO is fit for purpose – and if not, what are we paying all the lawyers for?
AM: I think the purpose of a contract should be to protect the downside in the event of the other party’s malicious intent. Over the years, I think BPO contracts have become more and more pedantic. While all businesses want more and want to pay less for that more, many times it is not possible. Like the example I have used in the book, between price, quality and efficiency, you can choose any two. The third then becomes the lever through which you deliver on the chosen two. You cannot have all three. By asking for all three together you run the risk of killing the goose that lays golden eggs.
A BPO contract tends to be more aspirational than operational. A business should be clear on a few of the issues which are dear to them and ensure that they are clearly articulated and there is a deterrence mechanism built in. It is pointless to have a contract that specifies a thousand things but penalisation is either not clearly specified or remains a decision in the hands of one party. Having a penal mechanism, which is implemented, to back-up the set of desirables, will also deter parties from entering into frivolous contracts.
Currently, since clients seem to have an upper hand in contract negotiations, client-side leadership has a big role to play in ensuring that contracts are meaningful.
O: In your chapter ‘Ensuring Quality’ you write that “Quality has had limited success in implementing ‘real change’. This is perhaps one reason why they have had to struggle with issues relating to acceptability.” Damning words: what can you advise the Quality teams to do to remedy this situation?
AM: In a people-dependent industry, subject to vagaries of difference in performance between individuals, Quality can play an important unifying role for performance as well as being the eyes and ears of management on the ground.
In many cases, unfortunately, I have seen the Quality function adopt a “tick the box” role rather than that of a constructive change-leader. They are more concerned with justifying their existence by having done enough checks rather than worrying about whether those checks were done in the right places. This is despite drawing the best people from the business.
The Six Sigma improvement methodology has been done to death. Projects are launched to improve mundane, everyday things, instead of focussing on “material”, big-ticket items. Even hiring advertisements put out by organisations seem to focus on wanting a person with a red, blue, yellow Six Sigma certificate rather than a person who understands the business and is eager to create value.
The two most difficult to achieve goals in BPO have been “improving customer experience” and “reducing attrition”. On both, either because of lack of a concerted effort or inadequate organisational sponsorship, results have been mixed – and, more damagingly, have slipped as soon as the eye was taken off the ball.
Management needs to share some of the responsibility for ensuring Quality is able to play a meaningful role. It should be clear on what it expects from the Quality function and define its place in the organisation structure suitably.
O: You’ve managed to create a detailed and comprehensive work which may well become required reading for future students of this space: but in such a rapidly evolving business, for how long do you think Some Method, Some Madness in its current incarnation will remain relevant day-to-day? And would you consider subsequent editions, or even a future sequel?
AM: You are absolutely right. Business in general and BPO in particular is evolving rapidly. The rupee has depreciated 20 per cent in the last 18 months against the dollar. BPO has become BPM (Business Process Management). A traditionally voice-heavy industry is now offering a more varied platter of offerings. Technology continues to change. Hence, there will always be a need to keep information current and relevant.
Having said that, the basics of the business will not change. A book cannot be looked upon as a cheat-sheet that you look up when a decision needs to be made and its suggestions used in their entirety. It needs to be looked upon as a document that provides conceptual understanding that can be applied in different situations. For example, the book might have used the example of an inbound contact centre to bring out the relative importance of financial levers, which concept is equally applicable to a back-office operation. The only adjustment that needs to be made is replacing the data-points used in the example, with data-points the business feels are more representative of their business. To that extent, this book will always be relevant as it provides conceptual understanding.
I would like to build on this book and go into greater depth on different aspects of BPO. Perhaps ‘BPO Quality’. Perhaps ‘People Management in BPO’.
O: You’ve been in the business a long time, of course. What have been the most significant changes you’ve seen during your career – and did you see them as significant when you first noticed those trends?
AM: In the last ten years, in the context of export BPO, from a time when international clients were willing to lap up anything offered in the name of BPO, since the savings were substantial, the pendulum swung to the other extreme where they were able to demand almost anything and get away with it because of vendors desperate for volume and needing to fill empty seats. The industry now seems to be maturing with a better understanding on both sides of the trade-off between cost and quality and looking beyond the vanilla benefit of labour arbitrage.
From a stop-gap job ten years back, BPO has clearly established itself as an industry where one can make a thriving career. This despite entry-level BPO jobs no longer paying substantially more than entry-level jobs in other industries. That is another sign of industry maturity. Now even MBA students are taking up entry-level jobs in BPO because they see a career which is not subject to a rollercoaster ride dependent on the economy.
Then, of course, the move away from voice, which was always a need and desire. However, the volumes available in voice were not available in any other variants, leading to the composition always being skewed towards voice. Now, however, with greater confidence in the ability of providers to handle business, the composition of the business is irrevocably moving towards a more balanced distribution.
O: Who – or what – do you consider to be the biggest influences upon you professionally over the course of your career, and why?
AM: I have been fortunate to have worked in some extremely successful organisations with some extremely smart people, above, alongside and below, both in banking and in BPO. It is probably counter-intuitive, but I have been greatly influenced by the youngsters I have worked with, again both in banking and in BPO. In BPO, even though some of them may have joined because they had doors shut in other places they wanted to go to, their desire to succeed and make a difference has always shone through. Their faith in your direction also places you in a position of extreme responsibility that no amount of boxes on an organisation chart can give you. I believe that in order to be successful, a young workforce will be a key enabler for any business – of course, with the right skilling and guidance. The BPO industry will do well to ensure that it stays relevant as a desirable place of work for youngsters.
O: What’s next for you?
I am putting together a curriculum that I am hoping will become the basis for BPO education. Not only will it be useful for youngsters working and aspiring to work in the industry, it might also enable the industry to have access to a workforce that is serious about a career in BPO.
The hinterland is the next logical place for the industry to grow and is an interesting place at this time to be. I am advising Simply Grameen, currently a small company, that is one of the leaders in the pack that is trying to make a difference in the BPO space, through utilisation of opportunities presented by the hinterland.
Putting this book together has also kindled a latent interest in writing for me. I have already written and published another book, What Happens in Office, Stays in Office, a satirical account of life inside corporations. There are more stories inside me that will be told.