It may be for life, but will there be innovation, as TCS inks the mother of all insurance BPO deals

For better or for worse, for richer, for poorer, until many missed SLAs do us part.

Imagine committing to someone for 15 years?  Most marriages are long-divorced by that stage, companies rise and fall, entire countries are created, invaded and may even go bankrupt…

So how about standardizing life assurance and pension policies for said period, which is exactly what TCS’ insurance services delivery subsidiary, Diligenta, has become wedded to in a 15-year, $2.2bn, 1900 employee marital partnership with the UK’s Friends Life. This represents the largest life and pensions BPO engagement by a considerable margin, eclipsing the $1.1bn Prudential contract awarded to Capita in 2007.

At HfS, we believe this move from TCS signals a sea-change in the industry with regards to the growth strategies and ambitions of the leading BPO providers.  Simply put, they are no longer keen to acquire each other, and see much more value ingesting large clients with domain and technology value. Taking on new clients, even at low-margins, is simply less risky from an investment perspective, and the value from developing on-shore domain capability and delivery platforms far outweighs absorbing all the unwanted mess you get when you take out competitors.

The BPO Holy Grail is no longer all about scale – it’s also about removing as many manual elements from processes as possible

We’ve been rambling on a lot about Business Platforms of late, and we see this engagement as a genuine move by a provider to develop one that dominates the UK insurance sector.  So let’s keep this simple – the other day I made an electronic payment to one of our suppliers.  Once the payment was completed, I had generously opted to pay the $25 transaction fee at my end for sending an “international payment” (even though it was all made in US dollars).  Still wallowing in the pleasant thoughts about what a nice generous person I was, the next day I received a phone call from said supplier complaining that he had been subjected to a $35 fee from his bank for receiving the payment.  ”Dude, we’re in the wrong business”, was the conversation that ensued.

Essentially, retail banks are making obscene sums of money from business process transactions that actually entail virtually no human interaction. In this example, both our banks had developed sophisticated Cloud-based transaction systems, and the only human labor costs they were incurring (associated with electronic payments) involved offshore support services to take the odd tech support call, if we couldn’t figure out how to use their online service.

It’s the same with insurance, where the vast majority of processes are standard, high in frequency, completely administrative and commidotizable.  Applying for a policy can also be completely automated, based on the applicant’s details (i.e. age, location, previous claims history, desired coverage etc), and so can the claims process, where only occasional human intervention may be required – i.e. making a complex adjudication, occasional routine audits, taking a customer support call etc.

The kernel of this issue is that once the BPO provider has developed a Business Platform that removes much of manual process requirements and can be Cloud-based (i.e. no on-premise software or hardware), their insurance clients can focus their competitive differentiation investments on more subtle nuances – and in many cases it’s purely down to who can deliver their services at the lowest cost, with the most attractive service benefits and the smartest advertising strategy. Essentially, the more automated the process can become, with the least amount of associated labor and IT infrastructure costs, the more competitive the BPO provider can be with its pricing, and the more competitive the insurance client can become, having more resources to focus on better marketing and service differentiation.

So, without further ado, let’s discuss the ins and outs of this strategy:

Positives of the engagement

Absorbing operations from services clients is a lot less expensive and (often) less messy that acquiring other providers.  Taking on expensive back office operations is nothing new to TCS, as many recall their $500m punt on Citigroup’s Indian captive just as the last financial crisis was exploding. Clearly, TCS sees more long-term value in absorbing industry-specific scale and capability, than simply acquiring other service providers outright.  For example, another play could have been acquiring EXL service, the much-courted, but expensively-valued, service provider with good capability and reputation for servicing insurance companies globally.  However, that strategy would have involved either a billion-dollar outlay or a lot of stock changing hands.  The Friends Life deal brings to TCS a lot more onshore delivery capability, does not require anything near the initial financial outlay, and given them a predictable path for the future in terms blowing Capita out of the UK insurance sector.  At worst, the deal will be neutral to mildy-profitable over the next few years, and doesn’t create a huge hole in TCS’s cash-laden warchest, which it may choose to open if we do hit another recession and some bargain acquisitions appear.

Growing delivery scale in low-cost onshore locations is critical for future BPO development.  Unlike the Citi deal three years ago, acquiring additional scale in India is much less attractive today.  For starters, most of the providers have what they need in India, or can quickly develop it (or acquire for much cheaper prices these days) if they need it.  Adding sizable staff numbers in low cost regions in the UK, such as Peterborough, is comparable with those costs in areas such as Bangalore these days.  Moreover, for industries such as insurance with customer-contact requirements, the advantages of up-selling customers and creating competitive edge through quality onshore customer service provision is high.

On-shore investment is politically more important than ever in today’s economy.  As we discussed at length recently, the political focus on job creation is reaching intense levels, and could exacerbate very quickly if a further recession occurs.  The Indian providers, in particular, are under constant scrutiny regarding their investment activity and immigration strategies.  Entering into agreements like this is a major positive for the perception of the outsourcing industry and creates a strong argument for helping clients such as Friends Life be competitive.  Moreover, as the leading providers chase more industry-focused engagements that require real domain skills that are tied to both local regulations and process flows, the need for localized delivery is becoming pivotal in the global sourcing delivery mix.

Developing common processes and a business platform will give TCS more teeth as a global insurance BPO provider.   Most service providers have struggled to make effective investments in technology platforms that underpin their service delivery, and those that have invested have struggled to develop them effectively in such a way that they can actually sell their platforms multiple times. And by the way, the last point is crucial for the success of this deal – the jury is still out on how much standardization and scale TCS can drive out of this.

Potential to break the linkage between headcount and revenue growth, and the willingness to absorb lower initial margins (or even lose money) to do so. Several of the leading BPO providers, in addition to TCS, are eager to make platform-based BPO services a large proportion of their businesses over time (this has varied between 10 and 33% of future revenues, depending on provider).  This suggests that providers are increasingly worried about the longer-term supply-side constraints in India, namely wage appreciation, quality of staff,  constant attrition etc. The more that processes can be automated and standardized, the easier it is to train and develop staff, effect uniform process improvements and globalize process flows.

The IT services growth rate is slowing down and this is one way for the likes of TCS to add significant revenue to their bottomline. With the Rupee depreciating, TCS will have higher profitability from the rest of its business, such as BPO services, and this loss can easily be masked. Moreover, the Tata group at large has made successful turnarounds on Jaguar/Landrover and therefore there is a willingness and confidence to make substantial long-term bets, such as this Friend Life engagement.

Challenges with this deal

TCS could find themselves constrained to the UK market.  TCS is going to find it challenging to scale these UK-specific investments to insurance sectors in Continental Europe, the US and Asia.  Life assurance and pension processes and regulatory issues for UK clients are different from those in other countries, so the current resources acquired in this engagement are likely to be confined to future UK-centric insurance business TCS hopes to win.

This is the largest migration of insurance policies onto a single system ever untertaken in the L&P industry.  To be able to migrate 8 million policies onto the TCS BaNCS platform is likely to take 2 to 3 years, which will pose a major challenge in a niche market with only one major competitor, Capita. Essentially, any serious migration issues would quickly make this deal unprofitable for TCS, however, it hopes this new engagement can be as successful as its recent migration of the 3.2 million Phoenix Group policies onto BaNCS.

Platforms are only going to work effectively with transactional high volume standardized processes with very little variation is outputs. While there is a rush in the BPO business for many processes to be “productized” on platform offerings, these are only going to be effective with processes that can be easily automated and require minimal contextual input and customization. While the opportunity to develop platforms to service insurance firms is clear, HfS is concerned too many service providers are already getting carried away with the Business Platform approach, as it’s only going to work with certain industrial and horizontal processes. Hence, the winning BPOs are those which develop competences for both context-based and standardized service provision. We already run the risk  of some providers starting to sound like software companies…

From a stock perspective, many Wall St analysts are lukewarm with these platform initiatives.  Several investors worry that these investments are going to dilute margins in the near-term and this will impact valuation in the public markets. However, this is because many only care about short-term impacts and do not take the longer view that it takes some short-term pain to achieve long-term benefits. Moreover, too many investors have been blinded by the high-margin profitability of many ITO deals and simply do not understand the different dymanics and nuances that go into a more complex BPO engagement.

The Diligenta proposition does not use wholesale offshoring. This poses a great challenge (and opportunity) for TCS to drive efficiencies through automation and process transformation to make money from the engagement. With such a large base of UK employees, it will have to contend with local UK labor laws and regulations, in addition to a tense political environment with regards to job creation.  The Indian offshoring mentality of yesteryear of throwing cheap labor at a problem will never work in this scenario.  TCS has no choice but to make this work – and if it can, it will become one of the first leading Indian providers to truly break out of the low-cost wage arbitrage delivery model.

The Bottom Line: TCS makes the boldest move yet of the Indian providers and forces itself to change the FTE game

There’s been so much talk about this move away from the FTE-based model of cheaper bodies to do the same work, but we’ve not seen much of it in practice.  However, this deal is different.  As much as people like to sneer at the lower margin expectations, the sheer scale of onshore labor investment and the unproven financial model for business platform utility in the L&P business, TCS is forcing itself to make this transformative engagement work.  Quite simply, there is little room for error, and there is little patience in the TCS boardroom for unprofitable business.  However, TCS has proven to be the most profitable of the Indian giants, and with the ITO model losing steam, it has to look at new business areas to hit the $10bn revenue goal.  If it’s ever going to take a risk, now is the time, and this is the right kind of deal that will challenge the firm to embrace new forms of productivity growth. Investing in Friends Life should prove to be a major step forward in evolving their BPO offerings – and surely a much smarter and more cost-effective way to acquire scale, domain depth and extend their BaNCS platform.

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