|Rediff India Abroad Home | All the sections|
Here's how to chart a great career in BPO
Archana Rai and Pankaj Anup Toppo, Outlook Money | July 05, 2006
Who wouldn't be impressed with the career graph of Pallab Roy? How many 25-year-olds can boast of receiving 10 promotions in a five-year career? What makes this Bangalore-based programme manager's achievements exceptional is that it has happened in the BPO industry, where on an average, 40 to 45 out of every 100 employees quit jobs every year.
While factors like odd timings and stressful work are a major cause of employee attrition despite high entry-level salaries -- often Rs 2 lakh (Rs 200,000) per annum or more -- the image of BPO jobs being a short-term career option has only reinforced this phenomenon.
Ironically, the 'fun at work' image that attracted most of the current 416,000 BPO employees, has also become the culprit in causing high employee attrition.
But all this is changing. Thanks to pressures on billing rates that are impacting revenues and the emergence of other BPO destination countries, high attrition rates are proving to be too costly for employers. They are making all-out efforts to provide long-term growth opportunities to their employees.
The pay-offs of a long-term BPO career are quite attractive: the entry level salaries can almost triple at Rs 5.6-5.9 lakh (Rs 560,000-590,000) per annum with 5-6 years experience at the senior levels. That's not all. Job definitions are equally challenging. You could be leading a large team like Pallab, who now heads a 500-person team.
Revolving door phenomenon
For about six years now, BPO jobs have proved to be irresistible for fresh college graduates. A basic degree and good communication skills can land a Rs 2 lakh a year job, besides perquisites that range from home-to-workplace transport, snazzy cafeterias and even 'Chief Fun Officers' to enliven the workplace atmosphere. But once in, people realise that BPO jobs are not all about just having fun.
The dark, other side
Employees, especially those in call centres, have to deal with the monotony of long shifts. Interacting with irate customers and the stress of being on call for more than eight hours a day often leads to burn-outs. Says Smitie Misra, GM-HR, Interglobe Technologies, a travel technology firm: "Over a period of time work gets to be monotonous, as there is limited exposure to domain knowledge." Many experts call this the revolving door phenomenon.
The times they are a- changin'
Employee attrition in the middle level, however, is half compared to the entry level. In companies with a track record of more than five years, entry-level employees are increasingly witnessing demonstrable gains raked in by their seniors. Much of it can be attributed to efforts made by companies to create career growth opportunities.
Examples of two leading BPO outfits illustrate the point. Says S Nagarajan, founder and COO, 24/7 Customer, "We have professionals in the 23-27 age group, managing profit centres from Rs 1 crore (Rs 10 million) to Rs 30 crore (Rs 300 million), something unheard of in other industries."
The story is similar at Progeon. Says Vijay Menon, vice president, marketing, Progeon: "At Progeon, with over 500 processes and a 177 per cent growth rate since inception we offer employees enormous opportunities for growth."
Much of the burgeoning career opportunities in the BPO industry will also emerge from the industry's transition to higher value-added activities such as feature rich and non-voice transactions such as invoice processing, besides company and equity research. Equally exciting opportunities will be generated by knowledge process outsourcing (KPO).
Here, professionally skilled employees would be expected to handle back-end transactions ranging from data analytics to legal process outsourcing, hi-tech discrete manufacturing, healthcare, retail, energy, utilities and resource planning for global corporations. Says Madhusudan Rajagopalan, director, India operations, Aranca, a Mumbai-based KPO: "The rate of attrition in the KPO industry is as low as 10 per cent." Consider the career path of Anthony Alex, a KPO employee.
Alex quit his job as a partner in a prestigious Mumbai-based law firm to join the legal outsourcing firm, Pangea3, in early 2006. Says Alex: "At a law firm, the consultation provided is limited to India-related transactions. However, at Pangea3, the number of Fortune 500 clients signing on for services on a global basis, is astounding. I cannot imagine a larger and more challenging career opportunity."
Says Karthikeyan Selvaraj, Head-HR, HP BPO India: "We employ MBAs, CAs and PhDs. They are with us to pursue a career with HP, not just for a job." Increasingly, BPO jobs are no longer remaining a fad. It is time that employees developed a clear-cut strategy to get in and get ahead in the rapidly expanding world of outsourced business. We present a gameplan for doing it.
Building a long-term BPO career
Set medium-term goals. Spend a minimum of 3-4 years in a BPO outfit to gain in-depth knowledge of functions and operations. Anything less just turns you into a rolling stone that gathers no moss. This is particularly true now as BPOs are focussing on innovative people policies to stem attrition.
Says Perry Madan, partner, Elixir Web Solutions, a recruitment process outsourcing company: "One of the initiatives BPOs are taking today is to focus on promoting people from within the ranks, ensuring a faster career growth for an employee who stays compared to the one who quits." Pallab Roy's career is a case in point.
Roy joined 24/7 Customer on a campus placement after a graduate course in environmental science. His sole aim: earn some money to fund his MBA studies in Australia, from where he had bagged admission offers from three different colleges. However, once on the job, Roy realised that the scope of learning offered in areas ranging from financial services to telecom within voice-based transaction processing itself was enormous.
Less than a year after joining 24/7, Roy was heading a team of 15 and handling calls from the US. Soon he moved on to a UK-outbound programme and within 18 months had graduated to becoming a manager handling a Canadian outbound programme as well. Now, after five years on the job, Roy handles a team of 500 professionals focussed on financial services, insurance and telecom in three different geographies -- the United States, the United Kingdom, and Canada.
Says Pallab: "I realised that I had gained proficiency within the voice-based transaction space and decided to stay in it while I gained knowledge of different verticals." Along the way, he revived his plan of further education, opting for a distance-learning MBA in lieu of the Australian programme he had forsaken to build a career.
Now with 24/7 moving into knowledge processing, Pallab feels with his domain knowledge skills, he has unlimited growth options ahead of him.
"Never before in a workplace have organisations been more accommodating towards employees as in the BPO industry," says 31 year old Sangeeta Malhotra, general manager-BPO Operations, Artech Infosystems. As a BPO employee, you have a range of training options, funding and support to acquire higher educational degrees, and sabbatical leave offered both to augment skills as well as to acquire new ones.
Training programmes range from customer engagement modules devised to help managers communicate more effectively with global customers to those that increase the level of inter-personal skills and build a high level of cultural sensitivity essential for success in the BPO environment.
Says Progeon's Menon: "In a role-based organisation, employees know what their current skills are and can clearly see what additional competencies are required for a higher role." Therefore, the optimum way to acquire those extra skills is through a combination of training, certification and internal job rotation -- this has now become a part of the culture in a BPO set-up.
Says Elixir's Madan: "It is up to the employee to actively volunteer for training and certification programmes."
Be a self-starter who can push yourself ahead, as organisations are clearly more than willing to meet you half-way in a journey to enhance career opportunities. Malhotra made use of flexible work hours and employer support to acquire an MBA as well as industry-standard green belt certification while still on the job. The results are apparent. In a career spanning 12 years, she has risen from an associate earning Rs 3,500 per month to a general manager with a compensation package of Rs 16 lakh (Rs 1.6 million) per annum plus perks.
Track your career path
Typically, BPOs attract basic graduates and then train them in processes that further career growth. Rather than formal degrees, in BPOs the speed with which you assimilate new information and implement learning in an on-the-job the situation is crucial to your career growth.
Take the case of Bharat Balan, 31, who began as an associate in a Chennai-based insurance BPO after a commerce degree. Moving to Bangalore in the year 2000, Balan picked up a job at 24/7 focussing on building competencies in operations, training and quality management.
"The company was in a growth phase and it was easy for me to build cross-functional skills by opting for internal job rotation." It was a move that paid off. When he moved to another BPO outfit for 18 months, Balan was headhunted back by his former employers who were enthused by his ability to take on new challenges.
Given the high level of attrition and the constant search for talent, companies tend to maintain a dialogue with ex-employees -- constantly monitoring their progress and luring them back with jobs that leverage newer skill sets they may have developed.
Says Dan Sandhu, chairman, Vertex India, a UK-headquartered voice BPO: "People relationships matter. We realise that employees who move out for personal growth are attractive hires for a higher position in due course of time."
This is exactly what transpired when Balan returned to 24/7 as head of recruitment in 2004. "I was keen on a leadership role in a function I had never attempted before. It was possible to do so because I had demonstrated cross-functional ability in the past."
Growing within the realm of opportunities is a clear way to forge ahead. In 11 years, Balan has grown from an associate to being the country head for recruitment. "With a commerce degree, this level of growth would not have been possible in any other industry," he says.
Heightened mobility and cross-functional movement within the BPO world is also a function of active employee performance review and mentoring. Such reviews are conducted every six months, sometimes even every quarter, job roles are re-assigned and fresh training programmes ordered for the ones in the fast track.
Says Piyush Mehta, senior VP-HR, Genpact: "Approximately 25 per cent of employees are promoted every year." This is possible due to the exponential growth in the BPO sector, with businesses growing at an average of 100 per cent annually. Tracking your career growth along with that of your company clearly pays.
Develop specialist skills. Till now a generalists' domain, outsourcing is fast emerging as a sector where specialist skills are in high demand. Says Aranca's Rajagopalan: "As the work in KPOs is a lot more complex than in a BPO, people in this sector are much more ambitious."
Recruitment here is competency-based and business model driven -- MBA Finance, CA or CFA, lawyers, researchers and analysts for value-added functions.
Companies also focus on developing leadership skills as they transit to a KPO environment. At HP BPO, the LEAP programme or the leadership advancement programme creates a pipeline for future leaders by identifying talent in the existing workforce and grooming them for future, based on performance tracking and potential mapping processes. As a KPO tends to be a specialist skill-driven organisation, such outfits offer employees two clear streams of growth: technical and managerial leadership path.
Says Pangea3's co-founder Sanjay Kamlani, "Employees are given the freedom to choose their path in either the technical or leadership roles where they have to mentor junior people."
Hone your soft skills
It's not just managerial and operational skills that you need to hone. Soft skills including people management, communication, cultural sensitivity and a high level of discipline to regulate one's internal bio-clock are vital too. Use the facilities employers provide to hone your soft skills.
Map performance metrices
You need to start doing this early in your career. Typically, Key Result Areas (KRAs) for each employee are laid out annually and monitored on a monthly basis. The variable pay component is based on monthly monitoring and higher variable pay can mean higher increments. In addition, in knowledge-driven sectors, stock options plans exist from day one for every employee as do a host of options such as performance-based bonus.
At Pangea3, there is a system of deferred bonus -- cash rewards are invested on behalf of the employee. At the end of four years, star performers receive the consolidated amount plus the interest earned. This helps retain employees too. At Bangalore-based Progeon, employees enjoy discounts on a range of services. They can buy branded goods at discounts, get employee-referral bonus and easy-paced financial assistance policies.
Looking ahead, banking on a BPO career is likely to be handsomely rewarding. Lucrative pay would continue to be among the key features of a BPO career. According to the Offshore and Nearshore ITO/BPO Salary Report, 2006, authored by NeoIT, a California-headquartered IT/ITES consultancy firm, salaries will post a compounded annual growth rate of 8 per cent, with the median salary of a BPO professional in India expected to touch $11,879 (Rs 5.9 lakh) by year 2010, up from the present $8,485 (Rs 4.2 lakh). When you add the variable pay that is often as much as 30 per cent of the salary, we are talking big bucks here.
Clearly, a BPO career looks like a great long-term bet.
Dangling the carrot
The emergence of new service lines in the outsourcing segment including insurance underwriting, telemedicine, consultancy is definitely expected to buoy up demand for talent in the BPO industry that currently employs over 416,000 Indians.
By 2010, the IT and BPO sectors alone are expected to employ over 2 million people. To stem the tide of attrition, employers are going all out to woo employees. Some of the popular incentives being offered:
Inputs from Tanvi Varma