Mike Dershowitz
Dec 28, 2018 · 8 min read

“You’re an idiot.” JP’s supervisor said to him, reviewing his error. “I’m going to issue you a sanction for this — you should have known better. We have to hit our stats, and this mistake will hurt us in the quality SLA (Service Level Agreement) that we need to hit.” JP was just 20 years old, and four weeks prior, he just started his first job in a BPO company.

JP never thought of himself as an idiot. He knew himself to be an intelligent guy. He got high marks in school, graduated well in both high school and college, and worked hard at whatever he did. Who was this guy to call him an idiot? What basis did he have for saying so?

What JP would realize many years later is that this supervisor was merely passing on what his manager had done to him, both when the supervisor was an Agent, and now, as the manager was expecting the supervisors to hit both productivity and quality stats.

“Didn’t the supervisor realize that, even though I’m smart, it does take a little bit of time to learn something new?” JP thought to himself. He knew that whatever mistakes he was making today, he would undoubtedly be able to fix, and never repeat, with a little bit of help and coaching from those that had done it before him. Alas, this work environment didn’t really function that way.

JP was finding it hard to come to work. He was shocked about how much people yelled at each other here. He didn’t find that very professional. Managers yelled at supervisors, who yelled at Agents, and Agents yelled at each other. Friends told him this was just the way it was here.

JP was late one day, because of the rain, and he was yelled at and issued a sanction. Yesterday, he really wondered if he should come back, but just starting out, he wanted to do his best.

So when JP made a mistake again, even though he had learned from his previous mistake, just a few days later, this time on a different issue than before, the supervisor was furious and issued him yet another sanction. Now JP had four sanctions, and he knew what was coming.

Most BPO companies live and die by stats. Like all things in business, there’s an economic reason for this. Contracts between major BPO suppliers and Clients are very specific about the level of productivity, definition, and level of quality, and other performance metrics that are demanded. Performance under required productivity and quality SLAs have negative economic consequences written into the contract.

Naturally, SLAs and stats are what management makes the majority of their focus. They have to because the company can lose real money if they don’t. Further, most major BPO suppliers live on such tight margins that missing or hitting stats can mean the difference between profit and loss.

Unfortunately, this relentless drive for stats and profitability subsumes not just the activity that occurs within the BPO service center, but it also ends up being the de facto culture of the company, since that’s all anyone focuses on. This reality is what gives rise to the cruel behavior that can take over a service center.

And that’s what JP experienced. In this case, shit definitely rolls down hill. Very senior management in the countries from which work is sourced laid down the stats and profitability targets, and how the work and behavior of Agents should play out in order to achieve those targets.

Senior managers expect mid-level managers to make it happen. Mid-level managers then push on junior managers who then push on the individual Agents. It’s quite predictable and quite logical. But, that doesn’t make it right.

The tragedy of JP’s experience is that his first service center was never forgiving enough in those early days to realize that they had someone who, with just a bit more patience, would be a great asset to the company.

Despite the yelling that he experienced at his next center, JP was able to achieve his stats reliably. JP stayed at his next job, another big BPO company with a lousy work environment, for six years, rising to the position of QA manager responsible for two large centers with 20 people reporting to him.

He rose to this position despite being poorly treated. However, in his role of QA manager, he issued many, many sanctions that eventually resulted in many Agents losing their tenuous grip on their jobs. It’s a job he didn’t particularly enjoy doing.

So, when he heard about a new BPO company that put caring for the Agents first, did “coachings” instead of “sanctions,” he was curious enough to apply.

Both JP and his wife decided to apply to this new company that put Agents first. When he first applied to RTS, the only position available was as an Agent. We didn’t yet have a QA department. Coming to a forgiving work environment, where there was trust, was important enough to JP that he took a significant pay cut to do it.

Of course, this paid off. Almost three years later, JP is now running the QA and Compliance department, and one of the leaders of the company, making more than he did at the larger center.

When I first proposed ABOR #9: “You should be working with friends,” people thought I was a little bit crazy. I guess they thought I was crazy for two reasons.

First, if they came from a larger BPO, any BPO work environment they had ever been in felt “friendly” to them. In fact, the environments were quite hostile, really.

Second, most of those environments had no trust between colleagues, and especially between managers and Agents. Process ruled everything, and stats were the bible that everyone lived by. If it wasn’t part of the process or it wasn’t in the stats, it didn’t happen. There was no humanity at all in these workplaces.

As an entrepreneur, I have the good fortune of being able to choose what I do for a living (assuming it makes money). When I choose, I often say “look, if we’re not having fun, it’s not worth it.” If I feel that way, why shouldn’t my agents?

Of course, you can’t have fun at work if you don’t trust the people you work with. Furthermore, how are you supposed to go the extra mile for clients, or create innovations, if the people around you are very quick to not just point out your failure, but also to sanction you for that failure, possibly leading to your termination?

Answer: you won’t have fun if you’re just one mistake away from termination. When you’re in that job, what you’re doing instead is just biding time, doing the minimum you need to to keep that job and that paycheck.

That’s why performance at most BPO companies is mainly focused on reaching the contract agreed minimum metrics (stats). Companies, Agents and Clients are getting the least possible for the dollar they’re spending. Doesn’t that sound like fun?

In other companies in the BPO industry, it’s not just the behavior, but the language itself in regards to QA that is much more aggressive. Agents are given “sanctions” when they make “mistakes.”

Let’s be clear people: a “sanction” is what the United Nations uses to send Iran or Russia a message when they need strong discouragement not to build nuclear weapons or invade Crimea. I mean, really?

The fact that “sanction” specifically has a negative economic meaning for the victim may actually make sense in that context. Sanctions are okay to use to try to bring to heel Iran or Russia by creating negative economic consequences.

Even though Agents in BPO industry could face negative economic consequences if they lose their job when they make mistakes — but what kind of work environment does that create?

What a horrible word to use with Agents that are:

1) at the base of the economic pyramid and always on the verge of economic calamity, and

2) just trying to learn their job like JP was — just four weeks into it.

Of course, it’s not. But the question is, what is the benefit if you change your environment?

At RTS, we’ve proven that there is a better way. The first thing to do is simply to trust people. I know, I know. This sounds silly or “stupid” like JP’s manager thought, but the reality is quite different, possibly proving that trust and creating a “friendly” environment is the smartest business strategy to emerge in the BPO industry in the last ten years.

At RTS, if you make a mistake, you don’t get sanctioned — you get “coached.” Your manager or QA analyst works with you to see what you did wrong, and to help you understand why it may have happened, and then makes suggestions as to how to not repeat it.

The fact that we evaluate all QA along those two words — “why” and “suggestions” are critically important and a huge difference from the way other BPO companies do QA and deal with mistakes.

And this extends to the idea that:

1) Agents will have more fun at work if they’re working with their friends (we hope that you trust your friends, at least somewhat), and

2) They’ll perform better if they know that there are no immediate economic consequences for making mistakes (i.e., the environment is more forgiving).

Like all rights in the ABOR, this one too has a positive business impact.

First and foremost, RTS doesn’t employ recruiters. Yup, you heard me right, we don’t need them. Our HR department simply sends emails to existing agents, and posts on our Facebook page that we’re hiring. Then, Agents refer their friends, and we assess the walk-ins.

Other BPOs have to employ recruiting kiosks at the malls and tarpaulins hanging on outside their buildings, and they put up advertisements around town. We don’t need ’em. We just let people know we’re hiring. Today, over 50% of all employees were referred by other employees. Think that’s scalable?

Second, our Agents take a level of work ownership that hasn’t been broadly seen in the BPO industry in years and is rarely seen today. How does this translate to financial results?

Well, in addition to needing less redundancy and less training (as I’ve written about before, here), our agents produce more work per hour and make less errors than other BPOs where we’re multi-sourced for a client (and that’s only where we can prove it because we have the competitor data).

For RTS, this means that we have a much lower cost than other BPOs, and in general (though as a private company, we don’t publish our financial results), we have higher operating margins than other BPOs. But these positive financial results are not just for RTS: our clients generally see prices that are 10 to 15 percent lower than competitors (where the competitor is providing similar productivity and quality).

So, when employees have their friends with them at work, creates a “friendly” work environment which, in turn, builds trust, lowers recruiting costs, and in general, makes RTS a great place to work at. I wouldn’t have it any other way. Why? Because it’s so much fun!

Agent Bill of Rights

A primer on the Agent Bill of Rights, written and developed by fair trade entrepreneur and social economist, Mike Dershowitz, in collaboration with the Rethink Staffing team.

Mike Dershowitz

Written by

Mike is the CEO of Rethink Fair Trade Outsourcing, a company that makes use of free markets for good and not evil. Visit www.rethinkstaffing.com for more info.

Agent Bill of Rights

A primer on the Agent Bill of Rights, written and developed by fair trade entrepreneur and social economist, Mike Dershowitz, in collaboration with the Rethink Staffing team.

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