The whole discussion surrounding Visa Reform, and how it could damage the outsourcing business, raised much bigger questions in my mind than clients simply having a few extra dollars-per-hour slapped onto an invoice. It has highlighted the failure of outsourcing to become truly global and deliver more for clients than offshore body-shopping services.
It's the over-reliance on the offshore that is holding back the whole industry from moving beyond the back office and into the front office, where providers can truly help clients with solving business problems and driving new growth, as opposed to merely making processes more cost-efficient and cheaper to run. The more a provider can present itself as a local partner, a business companion, an extension of its clients' enterprises, the more its clients will think about their provider as a business partner, as opposed to an "outsourced" service. Hence, if Visa Reform can be a catalyst for driving more local investment from Indian-centric providers, then it will eventually prove to be a blessing in disguise for an industry still struggling with its identity.
I am already seeing positive steps with most of the Indian-centric services firms developing onshore workforces, but we need to see it happen more publicly and more aggressively. I would advocate more acquisitions of onshore services firms from the Indian leaders to speed up the rate of progress... there are plenty of candidates out there. There also needs to be greater focus on developing management and marketing leadership outside of India. You just can't keep putting the same lipstick on the same pig!
One example of an Indian-centric provider which is setting the standard for many others to follow is up-and-coming BPO provider EXL, which has not only invested heavily in local delivery resources, but has also put significant resources into developing its corporate, sales and marketing leadership in the United States. With revenues at the $500m level, EXL has greater capable US marketing presence than most Indian-centric services firms several times its size. It is also becoming much more effective - just check out its new website.
When EXL first started hawking its services about a decade ago in New York City, its first sales recruit told me he was paid $40/day to knock out 150 cold calls daily, with the marketing support being a single poster he could mail to interested prospects. The firm relied heavily on executive networking and pure word-of mouth to grow its business. About two years ago, the firm's leadership clearly had an epiphany: it realized that most of its Indian-centric competitors were also pretty weak at marketing themselves and it could gain a significant jump in the market if it invested in some quality marketing resources.
Hiring Becky Dennis was one of the smartest steps the firm could have taken. Becky had earned her BPO marketing chops at ACS, during its golden years, and more recently WNS, before EXL's leadership realized it was time to unleash her potential and give her the CMO reins in 2011. What I like about EXL's leadership is they tend to be a pragmatic bunch, who can see beyond the spin and puffery when they do things - and Becky provides exactly that. She understands the business and is willing to get her hands dirty and execute. Where some people may talk a big game, Becky just figures out what's realistic and achievable and gets on with making it happen. There is too much talk (80%) and not enough substance (20%) in this industry today, and Becky is one of the 20% who has her foot on the pedal.
Becky proudly contacted me last month too show-off her hard work overseeing the launch of the new EXL website. I have to admit it's refreshing to visit a website that is more than a mere poster board of corporate info and corny, over-used and meaningless buzz words. It's actually relevant for buyers, analysts, consultants etc who want to learn more about the firm and the business services industries within which EXL operates - it's also easy to navigate to find what you want. So I asked Becky to show off her achievements and tell us a bit about what's she's been up to...
Phil Fersht, HfS Research: So Becky, tell me (in a nutshell) about EXL - what has evolved over the last 18 months? What's different today?
Becky Dennis, EXL Service: Where to begin, Phil ... The evolution started shy of two years ago when EXL, a business process solutions company, consciously decided to invest more in strategic marketing activities. Recruiting a highly seasoned marketing team was the first of many steps to help EXL build greater awareness in the marketplace. Our company has been a “best kept secret” for too long and we haven’t publicly articulated or celebrated all the ways we drive impact to our clients’ businesses.
So part of EXL’s marketing evolution is how we better articulate our value. We previously went to market in a way that was more internally focused on how we were organized. Today, we are more client-centric in our market approach. Too often, providers focus on the “me” rather than the “you.” If communications do not better inform our clients, they are not as valuable as they should be.
Now we are increasingly seen as a provider with a point of view. As a result, we are more often sought out as a speaker or expert through the media or different industry conferences. I attribute that to two things: 1) being more vocal about the thought leadership we have to offer; and 2), simply focusing on the channels that reach our clients through initiatives such as PR and targeted campaigns.
We’ve also changed our approach to the industry. While EXL has traditionally enjoyed deep relationships among the industry influencers, we lacked a formal approach as to how we conduct and strengthen these relationships. With a global program in place, we now have more meaningful opportunities to engage with influencers and their clients.
While we’ve bitten off quite a bit in the first 18 months, we’ve built tools such as campaign scorecards to ensure we are spending time on the right initiatives: ones that will drive impact for EXL and the clients we serve. Until we had a message that resonates with our clients, we put the development of content assets on the backburner. By building new assets that are high-impact, we are seeing a tremendous difference in the stats on our website. For example, last month we saw a 185% increase in web queries over this time last year because I believe visitors are finding the content to be more salient to their needs..
Phil: And the work you have done marketing and positioning the firm - what is driving this and what are the key messages you want clients and prospects to take away?
Becky: After 21 years in this industry, I’ve seen a lot of engagements, but I’m particularly impressed with some of the ways EXL helps clients … and in a tangible way. A few examples that continue to “wow” me are how EXL saved a client $1.5 BN in annual spend by identifying attrition root causes and developing a retention strategy. For another client, we increased their cash collection per hour by 66% by optimizing their collections process through the use of predictive dialers, better inventory management, and agent up-skilling. Many providers view their capabilities as silos. One of the ways EXL is able to achieve results like this is through integrating our people business of process management with technology and analyzing data and performance metrics. This makes a big difference to the buyer and generates far more value than just having a partner who reduces costs.
At the end of the day, I want clients to see EXL as a company that looks deeper to drive business impact through integrated solutions and industry knowledge. We solve a wide range of business challenges, including helping clients take products to market faster, building models to be compliant more quickly with new regulations, turning volumes of data into business opportunities or driving out costs while trying to grow.
Phil: You've clearly put a lot of work into the new website, what's so special about it in your view? What do you want people to take away from their visits?
Becky: What I like the most about our new website is that it’s quite different from those of our direct competitors. We’re going to market through three strategies: 1), as an advocate for our clients; 2), as an expert who can help our clients with their evolving needs; and 3), as a challenger who look deeper to solve complex problems.
By moving away from the typical website that contains volumes of capabilities, we took a challenger stance to simplify and basically ask “what can we do for you?” Our site is based on adding more and more content that easily answers the strategic questions that clients are asking, rather than forcing them to navigate across a complex site that satisfies our own needs.
Phil: And, finally, is brand really that important in BPO services today? Surely it's just a people business, right?
Becky: In my experience, as a company grows and matures, it undergoes a need to define and articulate its identity and promise to the market. I think the more diverse your client base and the wider the variety of services a company provides, it has a tendency to dilute the brand if the employee base is allowed to “spin” the company as they see fit individually. You tend not to have a true identity and fall victim to being a commodity.
A company like EXL—one that hires talent from our clients’ industries so we not only speak their lingo, but invest in building academies to ensure our employees truly understand their businesses, is not a commodity. It’s what the market is demanding as they face tougher competition as a result of economic turbulence. Now marks a time for EXL to enhance our image through a consistent means of identification that focuses more on the value we provide as a partner.
Sure, our clients cite attributes that are indicative of us being in a people business, such as the obvious passion for what we do to serve them, our knowledge of their industries, the seamless execution of our operations and a high level of senior engagement. But to advance to the next level of value, EXL is simplifying our means of going to market: a business process solutions company with advocates, experts and challengers who look deeper to provide business value.
Thanks for the opportunity to articulate this, Phil. You’re always looking at the provider community to challenge the status quo. That’s what EXL strives to do on behalf of our clients.
Phil: Well, it's refreshing to see a firm like EXL starting to shake things up... and thanks for sharing your success with our readers.