New Manager

A question of identity

Updated on: Aug 07, 2011
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Customer-centricity, the core proposition of EXL, could pose a bit of an identity conundrum for the BPO major, but it thinks it is a good problem.

I thought I had walked into an EXL Service office building — so why is the floor all done up in British Gas trademark colours, with BG danglers hanging from the ceiling, and company posters, coffee mugs and even toys sporting the UK natural gas firm's colours? Even the software is theirs.

Another floor replicates the branding of a global insurance major, with the pillars painted in their distinctive colours. Some of the employees are sporting the jackets of the insurance firm.

Yet another floor wears the colours of travel insurance firm Traveler's.

I am in Centre 5, one of the delivery centres of business process outsourcing major EXL Service.

It's taken us a good 10-15 minutes to get past the data protection security and frisking drill. No camera phones, no data cards, no electronic equipment allowed. Every zip in the bag, every pocket is checked and corners prodded with a wooden stick to see if it yields any pen drives.

“Don't the employees here have a bit of an identity crisis about who they really work for?” I ask Sanjay Gupta, Global Head of Human Resources, EXL, which services companies across verticals, ranging from insurance, banking and financial services, utilities, travel, transportation and logistics.

Not only has the branding imagery of different companies on different floors led me to this question, but also Gupta's descriptions of customer-centricity as the core value of the company.

Such is the emphasis, he says, that every employee is expected to completely adapt to the work lexicon and culture of the customer he or she is servicing. And they are rarely rotated to another customer.

“We feel this identity crisis is not a bad problem to have,” he says with a grin.

As he explains, “Our promise to our employees when they join is that we will be making an insurance professional out of them or a banking professional or a travel professional.”

Having said that, he reassures me that there are enough EXL employer branding initiatives also happening.  

Ducks into swans

Much has been written about the changing face of India's BPO industry, which generates $14.1 billion in revenues (just the off-shoring businesses) and employs a veritable army of workers (8.32 lakh directly in BPO exports). The sector's evolution from plain vanilla voice to higher-value work, the rebirth of the BPO employee from a faceless young call centre worker to a respected, slightly older, skilled professional has also been a well-covered subject. And this evolution is evident as one takes a round of  EXL's corporate office and its delivery centres. 

But, to understand what makes EXL tick and hum, one has to first look at its rather turbulent history, although it is barely 12 years old.

 Like many other BPO ventures, it had an entrepreneurial start with Vikram Talwar (former Managing Partner of Ernst and Young) and Rohit Kapoor (formerly of Deutsche Bank) coming together in 1999 to set up the company they called EXL, deriving the name from ‘Excellent Service'.

The company took a good six months to land its first client — Indiana-based insurance and financial services firm Conseco — a big client, but one which was to bring them a set of big problems. For, in 2001, Conseco acquired EXL for $50 million and made it a captive. But, by 2002, Conseco went bankrupt.

That's when Talwar, Kapoor and a few other people from the senior management decided to buy back the company with venture capital support. In 2003, it started afresh as a third-party BPO — with no business, but 800 FTEs (full-time employees).

Customer-centricity, which a captive does not possess, became a major plank when EXL reinvented itself, and might have played a crucial role in the firm's success in its second coming, thinks Gupta.

Many also ascribe the turnaround to the firm's never-say-die leadership, who managed to make the core team stick on. As Gupta says, “Vikram Talwar is like the Pied Piper. Once he begins to play the pipes, you follow him.”

The trouble with dynamic leadership is what happens to a company when it moves on or out (there have been sell rumours around EXL despite stout denials from management to office staff.)

But, for the moment, EXL, which listed on the Nasdaq in 2006, seems to be sitting pretty, growing through a string of acquisitions as well as organically. It closed 2010 with revenues of $252.8 million and has just issued a revenue guidance figure of $358 million for 2011. Today, 17,400 employees work for the company, across 21 delivery centres, with every quarter seeing more numbers being added.

“We add 300-400 people every month,” says Shailendra Singh, Senior Assistant Vice-President, Marketing Communications, rather casually, pointing to a room where induction training is on for new hires.

The challenges of a 24/7 workplace 

EXL boasts all the trappings of a successful BPO office — large, well-lit  spaces; a gym; a cheerful cafeteria that doubles up as a town-hall setting; recreation rooms with pool and table tennis tables; entertainment zones; break-out spaces; a large medical room with three beds and full-time nurse; even a lending library.

As Rohit Puri, Senior Manager, Facilities, at Centre 5 in Noida takes us up and down the building, you realise how much like a hospitality venture the administration of a BPO building is. With the office functioning 24/7, maintenance has to be done discreetly; there is a humungous amount of catering to do, recreational activities and support services to be planned. Incidentally, Puri worked in the hospitality sector before joining EXL.

As he excitedly shows you the latest juice counters, the pastry shops, and the party zone on the terrace where family days are held, this certainly seems like an office that one would look forward to coming to every day. But then, given the high level of attrition that the BPO industry faces (35 per cent to 55 per cent), clearly this has to be done.  

The question is, is it still good enough to pull in the staff on holidays and through the nights, even if it upsets their Circadian rhythms? Though he argues against the Circadian Rhythm theory, and says that certain lifestyles are attuned to working at nights, Sanjay Gupta says that timings are now getting better. “Earlier, the US and UK firms we serviced had only system window availability during their work hours — now it is available to us 24/7. Secondly, they are more acceptable and comfortable about us working in a different time window and only insist on a one- or two-hour overlap — not a complete overlap,” he says.

But he admits that days such as Deepavali and Independence Day could get tricky. “Giving extra compensation on those days is not enough — building an emotional connect is necessary,” says Gupta.  So 100 per cent leadership attendance is sought on those days to set an example, and festivities are organised in office.

Back to the identity issue

 I am still mulling over the identity question as EXL has done a few acquisitions over the years — consulting and analytics firm Inductis, American Express' Global Travel Service Centre Operations, PDMA (developer of an insurance administration platform) and OPI (a finance and outsourcing service provider), among others. How do the new staff from these acquired entities integrate into EXL?

Amrita Cheema, Manager - HR, Transformation Business, who works at one of the Gurgaon centres and was part of the Inductis team, says that the leadership held a lot of town-hall sessions, kept communication flowing and open through lot of avenues.

Cheema feels the key differentiator — culture-wise — at EXL is the flexibility and space given to each team member and the constant connect sessions — whether through initiatives such as outbound trips or in-house exclusive coffee sessions.

Despite such initiatives though, EXL, which has figured among Nasscom's top 20 BPO employers, also — like most of its peers — faces a challenge keeping its employees, most of whom belong to the young and restless age group, from leaving. It's only a hundred of the 17,400 — like Sanjay Gupta — who proudly wear a golden tag to work.  That tag signifies 10-years-plus at EXL.

Published on September 23, 2011

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