Forbes India 15th Anniversary Special

The call centre grows up

India's BPOs, which once performed mundane backoffice chores, are now undertaking sophisticated analytics tasks and keeping the industry's revenue metre ticking. Case in point: WNS Holdings

Harichandan Arakali
Published: Nov 29, 2017 07:09:51 AM IST
Updated: Nov 29, 2017 11:49:27 AM IST

The call centre grows upKeshav Murugesh, CEO, WNS Holdings

Keshav Murugesh, the CEO of Mumbai-based WNS Holdings Ltd, recalls a time when senior executives of large American corporations never once visited the BPOs (Business Process Outsourcing firms) to whom they offshored their back-office work—or, as BPO executives would quip, transferred their “mess for less”.

The first BPO jobs appeared in India in the early 1990s and covered tasks like resolving customer complaints on the phone, mostly for rich, global organisations.

But, by the late ’90s, the BPOs had become ambitious, attained international quality certifications, built larger call centres and undertook more complex business processes to be managed from India. They  even expanded operations with local centres close to their clients.

A case in point is WNS. In 2002, the company was by and large a call centre with the staff answering calls of their clients’ end-customers and providing basic services like helpdesk. Today, its employees are equipped to perform more sophisticated tasks like advising on a caller’s insurance policies.

This transformation has enabled India’s IT enabled Services (ITeS) sector, which includes BPOs, to stay afloat even as its twin, the IT sector, grapples with technological disruptions. The ITeS sector, which currently employs 1.2 million people in India, garnered revenues of $29.8 billion in FY17, a 1.7 times increase from five years ago, according to data from Nasscom, the trade body that represents the IT and ITeS sectors.

While voice calls will remain an important part of the business, the profile of the call centre agent has changed dramatically, says Murugesh. “Clients have been capturing their consumers’ transaction data [online purchases, Google searches and social media posts] for years. Now, with the shift in how end-consumers interact with businesses—toting smartphones, expecting speed, convenience and security—the time is ripe to tap that data,” he says.

Over time, BPOs have gained their clients’ trust, and their scale, complexity and depth of operations have increased. They are now in the game of Business Process Management (BPM), which requires far greater competence as it involves a systematic approach to making a client’s workflow more efficient.

Companies such as WNS today handle ‘end-to-end’ processes for some of the world’s biggest insurance companies, airlines and hotel chains, says Murugesh, 54. WNS’s clients include British insurance provider Aviva, Australian finance, insurance, and banking corporation Suncorp Group, and US-based medical device maker Zimmer Biomet. Its operations now span across 52 locations in 14 countries.

It also applies technologies like machine learning, Internet of Things (IoT) and predictive analysis to elevate the quality of customer service for their clients’ end-consumers. “Say a trucker transporting perishables in the Australian outback gets a busted radiator, he intimates the emergency team and a WNS call centre agent in Pune, with the requisite domain knowledge, resolves the insurance claim on urgent repair expenses within minutes,” says Murugesh.

This is possible because WNS has invested in both hiring and training staff to speak its clients’ “domain language”, Murugesh says. Among WNS’s nearly 20,000 staff are some 9,600 with accounting skills and 2,200 with varying proficiencies in data analytics, including chief medical officers and chief data scientists.

BPM companies have also invested in their own intellectual property. WNS has a proprietary automated ticketing management solution that is deployed when flights are delayed or cancelled. This helps service aviation clients like Virgin Atlantic.

India’s BPM industry accounts for 37 percent of the global sourcing market, and, by 2025, Nasscom projects that its revenues will increase to $50-55 billion. Between 60 and 70 percent of this will come from ‘digital streams’—BPM services that involve digital solutions-based work like intimating an airline passenger about lost baggage on her smartphone app. Fully geared up for the transition, BPMs have ensured they stay relevant to their clients.

(This story appears in the 08 December, 2017 issue of Forbes India. To visit our Archives, click here.)