‘Business process outsourcing can dramatically boost employment in SA’ – CCI SA’s Satish Varanasi

Written on 11/03/2020
Jarryd Neves

Satish Varanasi, chief commercial officer for CCI South Africa, says SA’s call centre industry is set for growth to tap global demand.

*This is a sponsored interview.

South Africa has the potential to build a business process outsourcing location to rival those in India and the Philippines. That’s according to Satish Varanasi, who was headhunted from a major Indian corporation to scale up call centre operator CCI South Africa. He has over 22 years of experience in the Business Process Outsourcing Industry and has experience of running large multi-million dollar businesses. The domestic industry employs about 250,000 to 300,000, says Varanasi, who notes that South Africa can grow this number dramatically in the next five years or so. South Africans ‘sound amazing’, everyone speaks English and this is a sector that is uplifting people from disadvantaged backgrounds into gainful employment, he notes. ‘You need the skills to convince, persuade, solve problems – and you have a job,’ he says. In this interview, Mr Varanasi shares the details of how to build a career in the sector – including as an entrepreneur looking for fresh business opportunities. CCI South Africa’s Chief Commercial Officer also explains how Covid-19 has changed the game for the business process outsourcing sector.

I’m Jackie Cameron for BizNews. With me is Satish Varanasi. He is the chief commercial officer for CCI South Africa, the largest contact centre in Africa. Welcome, Mr Varanasi.

Thank you, Jackie. It’s a pleasure to be on the show. Thanks for having me today.

Before we get started with the details of how the business process outsourcing industry is changing, could you just briefly sketch out what CCI does?

We are in the business of making sure that we help our customers. Our primary business is handling contact centres. Contact centres, as in voice, chat, email and social media. We handle transactions for customers around the world, from the UK, US, Australia – all the three geographies. We also support our customers in South Africa and Kenya. We pride ourselves in the kind of delivery we do for our clients, which we have for the last 13 years now.

You were actually headhunted from India to come and start this business in South Africa. Can you just tell us a bit about your experiences in building other businesses elsewhere in the world? 

I have spent about 22 years in all. I started with a sales job and I started to move into service and telecommunications more by accident than by design. That was in 1997. From then on, I stuck. I fell in love with the service industry. What I also discovered being in a part of the service industry – telecommunications companies – simply meant I always had new trends coming in. Earlier, it used to be every five years. Now, it’s every two years.

As I have done that and I slowly moved into the business process outsourcing industry, I also realised that my best passion – my biggest passion – is talking to people, leading people and spending time with people.

So technology and people – there is no other industry that offered me the best of both worlds. That’s how I ended up being in the BPO industry for all of these years. I’ve had some success with building very large BPO organisations in India. Starting from 2006, when I started with the company where I was heading up the India business unit. I started with the first contract and that first contract grew to eventually being 14,000 people, across about 12 or 14 different contracts and $100 MN PNL.

That’s where I realized that I had these passions to scale businesses, to build businesses and to do things which had not been done before and to take some risks.

That is where I went and joined the company Reliance Jio, for whom I set up the customers for those operations for a 100 million subscriber base to start with. That’s where I was headhunted into my current role in CCI South Africa. So I’d say that by background it set me up and my prior experience has set me up for the career that I pursue today. I’m very thankful, but at the same time very happy with the opportunities that have been provided to me by this industry.

We are in the business of making sure that we help our customers. Our primary business is handling contact centres.

So for people who want to emulate your success – young South Africans – what kind of courses should they be studying?

I’ve got a very varied background. I did science for my graduation. Then I went and did marketing. Then I started to work as a sales executive. Then I did training. So honestly, it’s not about what you study, but what you put to practice from what you study.

I would say that irrespective of what you’ve studied – and I’ve seen people who were engineers or graduates in science who are undergrads, some of them have never had a grad degree in this industry – all it needs is the basics of success. Hard work, commitment, resilience and a passion to learn.

If you have those four things, you can build a very successful career in this industry. But, yes, things have changed from when I started to now. So if you really want to be successful, then one must be comfortable with technology and what role technology is playing. If you’ve got the passion and the inquisitiveness to learn and feel excited about how technology can change lives, you’ll always find success in this industry.

Can you just tell us what exactly is business process outsourcing? 

Business process outsourcing, as an industry, is about – I’d say – 25, 26 years old. Traditionally, when people have sold their products and services to customers, companies started handling the queries from the customers directly in-house. As the industry grew, as banking came of age, as the internet started to happen and as technology came in, people found value in letting the experts handle these kinds of transactions because it is not really core to many organisations. What the BPO industry does today is handle queries from customers that come in via phone, chat, website, app, email and social media like Facebook, Twitter, etc. Anything that a customer wants to get done from a brand is handled by the BPO industry. 

How important is business processing for the South African economy? 

My view has always been – even when I first came into this country in 2013 – was the unique place that South Africa finds itself. This industry has got the least entry barriers. All it needs is somebody who’s confident, who could be a 12th pass and is able to converse or type out in English as a language, because that’s the largest market that’s available for business process outsourcing.

With the levels of unemployment in South Africa, this industry – I believe in the next 7-10 years – is going to change the face of the economy for this country. One only has to look as far as the Philippines or India to kind of understand what an industry like this can do to power and drive the economy forward.

Your company has about 8,500 employees and seems to be one of Africa’s success stories. Can you just tell us a bit about how that came about?

This company came about 12-13 years ago when the founders came in and wanted to kind of set up a sort of a sales process for one of their businesses in the UK. Before they came here, they went to India, and did not quite like what they achieved in India. They came to Durban, tried what they could do for their customers and their sales contracts and realised that this was really special. 

And there started the story. Because they were from the UK, we started servicing customers in the UK. We still have our first customer that we signed 15 years ago. As we started to grow in confidence, we started to do more work. We’re just first outbound. Then came a little bit of loyalty, retention, all of them outbound. Then when the service industry had a big boom, we started to get into the services market.

With the levels of unemployment in South Africa, this industry – I believe in the next 7-10 years – is going to change the face of the economy for this country.

We also then realised we could take this value proposition to Australia as a market. Now we also service the US, which is the world’s largest outsourcing market for companies like us. Along the journey, we also realised that if we are to operate in the local markets, it’s very important to have a local presence. So we have a very significant presence in South Africa and in Kenya. That’s how we’ve come about to become Africa’s largest contact centre. 

Do you have any indication of how much money this industry is generating for the economy or how many jobs it’s creating? 

At this point in time, this industry roughly generates about – if you put together all of the outsourcing jobs – this industry generates about 250,000 to 300,000 jobs. I believe if one was to look at the statistics, we are uniquely poised in South Africa to grow that number by seven or 10 times in the next five or seven years. That really is the potential.

What is standing in your way of growing that number? 

Now, if you really want us to only trace our own journey or trace the journey of where South Africa has been, when you go and talk to a client who is in the US, UK or Australia, they don’t even know if the industry is this big in South Africa. So it’s first marketing the country, which I think the government and BPESA – which is an industry body – have done a phenomenal job in the last four or five years.

 We are now on everybody’s radar to say this is a market we want to come to. So I think it’s just about the time it takes to market a country which has been done. We’ve got enough skill. We are now very well poised to take off. This pretty much is the inflection point for South Africa as a business process outsourcing destination. 

Could you just tell us a bit more about the opportunities in this field?

I’m specific to South Africa – that’s what I want to talk about. One of the reasons why I came to this country is because of what I saw in 2013 when I first came to South Africa. It was the unique opportunity and how skilled the people are. This is one of the only countries in the world where people do not need to be trained for understanding a customer from another geography.

The first reaction that we get from most of our clients is that they sound amazing. You come in and listen to the people and you come in and listen to the way they sound. It’s absolutely amazing. The very fact that everybody in this country speaks English is a big benefit. it’s not just spoken English, it’s even written English. People are so comfortable. So therefore, it puts this country in a very unique position. Our industry does not need for anybody to be a graduate in particular. You could be a 12th pass. You could come in and you can interview.

This is one of the only countries in the world where people do not need to be trained for understanding a customer from another geography.

If you’ve got the skills to be able to speak, to convince, to stay in a conversation and solve queries – you’ve got yourselves employment. I think in the current age when so many people are passing out of grads, finishing college and not having enough jobs – this industry can be a great stepping stone for careers for many people. The very fact that the number of people that are employed are going to maybe go up by three or five times in the next five or 10 years. 

We constantly in this industry – around the world and in South Africa – are looking for leaders from within. So you join as an agent who takes calls and you become a team leader and a manager. It has created careers. It has created my career. I cannot see the reason why it cannot create many careers in South Africa.

CCI South Africa works with organizations like the Rockefeller Foundation to help people move from underprivileged backgrounds into employment. Can you just tell us a bit more about that? 

CCI South Africa in the group – we’ve got another group company called CareerBox. And what CareerBox does is absolutely spectacular. Most of the people want to work, want to find employment, but just don’t know where to go. And don’t get enough opportunities. It’s all about creating opportunities. So people land in CareerBox – they’ve never worked before. Even if they’ve worked, they have not had a job for a long time.

So what we then do is, we provide them with a two weeks work readiness programme, where we get them ready to say this is how you’re going to get ready. We talk to them about the fundamentals of computers, about communication, about people all around the world, what they must do with their financial planning. You know, saving is important, how they should structure their lives, etc.

At the end of it, we offer them full employment. CareerBox offers people full employment to CCI and to other organisations as well. It is absolutely amazing to go and listen to some of these stories and see some of the stories – the difference that an opportunity makes. It’s not just for the person that is provided the employment, but for their families. These are really heartwarming stories and we at CCI are very, very proud of the partnerships we have – whether it is with the Mandela Legacy Foundation or the Rockefeller or the Intel partnerships that we have, which allow us to carry on some of this work.

I am excited and I get excited every time I go into a CareerBox batch. When our clients come visiting, this convinces them that we’ve got a great story in South Africa. In the times of Covid – when people can’t travel – we use technology to convey the amount of talent that’s available in South Africa.

How many people have been employed like this? 

Most of our people that work for us in CCI come through CareerBox. I would say 90% of the people in CCI come through CareerBox. So we have – out of 8,500 – about more than 90% of the people have come through CareerBox – and it is changing lives. We are very proud of that at CCI.

Many entrepreneurs criticize South Africa as having too much red tape for businesses. Are you experiencing that?

Not really, because the government is very helpful. There are some really attractive schemes that the government offers for business process outsourcing companies. It’s a very good, unique partnership. 

One of the things that really stood out was while the rest of the world – during the Covid pandemic – had extended lockdowns, we were able to work as an industry with the government and quickly try and restore all the people so that they can come back to either working in the offices or working from home.

I would say, out of all the BPO or the business process outsourcing destinations, South Africa has rebounded from the Covid pandemic the strongest. Research after research of various companies and organisations proves that. While there is criticism – I think overall for South Africa in some quarters – this industry and our industry is experiencing nothing but co-operation and encouragement from the government.

Just looking at the Covid-19 pandemic, how has that changed the shape of business for you?

The Covid pandemic has changed the nature of business for business processing organisations across the world in general. When you’re forced to shut down, it could be for two weeks or for three weeks, as many economies continue to struggle. People can’t come into work and the only option is to move jobs home. It’s not the easiest thing to move 8,500 people home.

While we did have a spectacular success of moving about 1,200-1,500 of our people home, but then it is about where do the customers go? Customers are home, so they’ve got greater opportunity to resolve some of the issues that they might have. It is almost impossible for organisations to deliver business in the traditional way, like everybody coming into work and doing what they need to do. So we’ve had to – as an industry and our client organisations – use technology to start taking out some of routine queries so customers can help themselves.

I would say, out of all the BPO or the business process outsourcing destinations, South Africa has rebounded from the Covid pandemic the strongest.

And then for all the queries where they do need assistance, then they need to get to somebody on the channel of their choice. So it has challenged companies to deploy work from home. It has also challenged companies to start using technology – to change the way service is delivered to customers. 

If I had to sit back a year from now and look at it, that would be the single largest learning. The single biggest learning is to say, how do we further use technology to innovate and drive business forward?

And how do we do that? What are your tips for business owners? I see that you worked at some of the biggest companies in India and you were headhunted from a big Indian company, Reliance Jio. You’ve got a Masters degree from the University of Poona. You also did an executive programme from INSEAD in France. So you’ve obviously got a lot of leadership expertise and tips there for other entrepreneurs. 

I’ve been in the industry for about 22-23 years and I’ve seen the emergence of technology. Technology has kind of changed our lives, not just for our industry but in our everyday life. We cannot imagine the fact that we can survive without a phone. 

I started in the telecommunications industries when the phones were as big as the landline phones. To think of the fact that we are now at 5G in technology.

The emergence of data has changed the way people behave, the way people understand things. Now we’ve got Google for an answer for everything today, and that has completely changed the dynamic. Some of my experience – I want to touch upon the experience before I came here at Reliance Jio in India. 

Very rarely in one’s career does one get an opportunity to participate in a start-up which is, completely green field and offers the opportunity to use technology to change the way business is set up.

My challenge in that organization was, ‘Okay. There is a traditional way the telecommunication companies offer services. Can you, as the leader of the customer services operations team, find ways and means for us to say, why do customers need to get in touch with any organisation that much? Can you prevent the customers from calling? If they don’t have to call, they are happier which will lead to greater satisfaction and better customer experience’. 

So just leveraging the technology, because the amount of data that today we generate in any organisation is extensive. The intelligence lies in using the data to try and understand whether the customer is calling for a billing issue, a network complaint, speed of the network, accessibility of the internet, for example. If one can take away all of those reasons for calling proactively – and this is where technology comes in. If you can take away the reason for customers to call, then it simply means that customers are going to get through for things that they cannot solve themselves.

In the last five or six years, what research has proven to us is that 91% of all the customers would like to find answers to their questions themselves and don’t want to get in touch with somebody. Because getting on the phone, talking to somebody and waiting for somebody is a hassle. Today we prefer everything at the click of a button. Even when the customers do need to call – and the first set of success that I had, along with the rest of the team back in Reliance, was we were able to make sure that the number of times the customer callers was the lowest, not just in India, but actually across the world.

The second thing was, when the customer does get in touch, sometimes it can be very tedious. Because what the customer doesn’t understand is what the agent in the contact centre is faced with. Many times, people have to look at one, two or maybe even five systems. So technology is – if one were to make it an ally – one of the things that I was able to do along with the team was to say, ‘It doesn’t matter how many systems need to be used. Can we present a simple front end to the agent?

Where with just one or two clicks they can find the answer. This is where technology partners that one uses – whether it is for data capturing, call routing or call monitoring – come in very handy. At Reliance, we were very blessed to work with the best in the world. Ultimately, what we then did was to set up a customer service organisation to start with, of about 6000 people – which when we started off, handled about 120 million subscribers.

The same 6,000 people today for that organisation handle about 345 million subscribers. And India being a large market. Such is the power of how technology can be used to redefine and redesign how companies and contact centre organisations and business process outsourcing organisations deliver service to the customer. 

You make it sound very easy scaling up with the limited number of people. But how did you actually do that? What’s your business philosophy? 

The business philosophy is that you’ve got to plan. I had the luxury of being able to plan before we went live for almost about two and a half years. So I joined at an early stage, had about two and a half years at my disposal before the commercial launch of the company had to happen. It was rock solid planning. But in order for any plan to be successful, you need to have a great team. Since it was completely greenfield, an opportunity to hire the best in the business. When you hire the best in the business, they bring the best of what they can offer.

Combining that with the vision of the organisation to create a blueprint. I always remember the fact that all creation happens twice – once in the mind and once in the reality. So the blueprint is the first most important thing and then working to the plan. Needless to say, it was countless hours of work, many frustrations. But when we were able to finally launch after we first brought in our first paying customers, it is very sweet to sit back and appreciate the hard work that everybody put in. My mantra is simple. Plan. Hire the right people, execute and just be relentless in the commitment to the objectives of what needs to be achieved.

Some people are very good at working remotely and others are not. When you work in a global business like this, you presumably need to liaise with people all over the world. How do you bring about team cohesion among your team members?

I’ve had to contend with this challenge even before the pandemic. When you work with different locations, you’re not necessarily able to see people every day. So what comes in handy is what now has become second nature to us, right? So we use Zoom. In the olden days, I’d use something called the Cisco telepresence, which is the video conference facilities. Again, technology plays a very large, important part. But technology can only bring people together. It cannot replace the touch and the warmth of what you would achieve in an in-person interaction. The only way to do that is to be conscious, to be respectful and to set the meetings up properly. 

I tend to use WhatsApp with my customers or with my colleagues. One of the things that a technology can do in your remote is it can make you write a lot of emails. I’ve somehow been successful at avoiding that, I depend on talking to people when we want to get something done.

So technology again helps, but it is about being alive to the fact people are remote and people are in different time zones. So it does mean, for example, if I had to talk to somebody from the USA or UK, I’ll have to be alive to the fact that it is a different time zone. So I think it’s just being respectful to each other – as we would be when we saw each other face to face – following the same principles. Even if you are remote working, I think we can achieve the same objectives.

South Africans will be very interested to hear that you see explosive growth in the sector over the next five to seven years. If you want to start your own business tapping into outsourcing or providing services to your company or growing, where do the opportunities lie? 

Traditionally, the way this industry is run is, you take a building or get a set of people together, offer people, try and get some customers and try to start doing sales or service.

If one had to get into this industry today, if you’re an entrepreneur, then one needs to plan for what the future’s going to look like. The future belongs to an intelligent BPO. What does that mean? It simply means, do we have a compelling offering? People form the backbone of any offering in our industry.

So, traditionally you would hire somebody who would only be on the phones. But increasingly what one needs to do is to say, if I’m going to hire people, they should be able to offer what is now referred to as an omni channel, which means the same agent – or we can call them super agents – should be able to get on the phone to talk to somebody, reply to an email and answer a chat. This simply means they need to be good at spoken and written skills. So getting the right people and the right leadership is absolutely critical. 

Then, to understand what our clients want addressed today. What do the clients want? They want to reduce the number of times the customer gets in touch – because it is a costly affair to run customer service – reduce the cost, increase customer satisfaction, because if you serve customers well, they’re going to talk well about the service they received and therefore, it helps get more customers. The best publicity is word of mouth. Then thirdly, the marketplace is competitive.

So people want to measure what the satisfaction score is or what is the net promoter score of x brand vs the competitor in the market. To be an entrepreneur is to understand the objectives the customer wants to achieve. Is it better sales, higher revenue, better retention, better net promoter scores? Then to start going about using the right technology platforms to understand when a customer calls in. 

Traditionally, what would happen in our industry is that you listen to the call and say, ‘This is where this person did well and this is where this person didn’t do well.’ What is happening with the emergence of technology is artificial intelligence. 100% of the calls are listened to in the background. It can pop out and say, ‘here are these 10 calls where we believe the customer wants to go to competition.’ 

Investing in technology platforms like that. Then, finally to be able to use all of this and go back to the customer and say, ‘here, I can offer you a value proposition.’ Sounds simple, but that’s pretty much is the only way forward for anybody that now wants to set up business in this industry.

You mentioned there’s job creation. But this sounds to me like bots are going to replace humans. Where will the human jobs be?

The human jobs, as we know, are traditionally going to change. It’s a common question that people think that bots are going to replace humans. I think bots will assist humans. Bots will assist humans. Simple things like if you’re using a prepaid phone. You don’t want to hear somebody telling you what the balance that you have on your phone is. All you want is to get onto a tool that will tell you what the balance is. So the simple queries are going to be done by the bots.

But the rise of the bots for our industry, means that more and more difficult conversations around things like selling – which cannot be done by a bot. Retaining a customer can never be done by a bot. Addressing a customer’s emotion when they are going through trouble cannot be done by a bot. So the bots are not going to replace, the bots are only going to help the humans in the industry to perform better.

Call centres seem to have replaced the front office of many businesses and often when you call a call centre, it can be quite a disappointing experience. The humans don’t do what you’d like them to do or it’s very frustrating because the bot can’t understand your accent or you press the wrong button? What’s happening in that space to improve the experience?

One of the one of the clear things is that the bots need to be trained. Bots are new. When bots need to be trained and they’re new, there are going to be hiccups when people start using these technologies. This is where the whole sector of machine learning and artificial intelligence is emerging about training the bots. 

If a company that had to start using the bots to replace the front office without providing a backup in the case that the bot cannot satisfy the customer’s query, is a definite sure recipe for disaster. There are some companies who do that well and there are some who don’t do so well. I think this is where business process outsourcing organisations like us come in and say, ‘what is the problem you’re trying to solve? Is that the cost that you’re trying to eliminate by trying to put bots in? Or is it the experience that you want to make better?’

So this is where the integrated offering of, ‘let us take over your front office and your back office and help you with solving the problems.’ That is where our industry in particular becomes critical. 

So the ability to work with technology and human beings is what our industry has now learned in the last five years. That’s why the offerings that we provide to our clients are beginning to change. So, yes, to your question, are there some disappointments? Yes, but imagine a life when we did not have this and in something like the Covid pandemic, we had to shut down offices and people couldn’t attend to business as usual. What would happen? So it is forcing a rethink. It is also forcing us to train the bots faster. 

So before we close off, what are your top 10 tips for somebody who wants to build a call centre then?

Top 10 tips? Identify the right location, the right market. You’ve got to be in the right place. Because at the end of the day, it’s all about people. When you’re in the right place, identify the right kind of people who want to tap into. 

If you’re in South Africa, you don’t have to travel far. You’re in the right place, because this country has the best English language capability, has the most neutral accent and the most amazing customer service attitude of people.

Once you have done that, then it’s not about just the building, but assembling the team. The right kind of people and the right kind of leaders. Then once you’ve identified that, it’s about going and acquiring the right kind of customers. Once you’ve got a customer, understand what the customer wants, because at the end of the day, all that matters is what the customer wants.

Once you’ve understood what the customer wants, then it’s about saying, ‘how am I going to use technology to train people better? How am I going to use technology to deliver services better? How am I going to use technology to understand why customers call?’ 

Then use the same information to go back to the client and say, ‘we started this year or this quarter with the following three objectives and we’ve been able to deliver these. It is all about fundamentals, Jackie.

It’s about fundamentals. Doing the right things and doing the fundamentals which are important for any business. They haven’t changed. Technology has only made the whole pace of change different. So it’s not 10 tips, but I just simply say focus, keep the customer at the centre, be in the right location, get the right people, use the right technology.

The technology and people that you hire will put the right processes together. If you put the customer at the centre you’re always going to be successful in the business.

  • Jackie Cameron is editor of BizNews. 

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