- Call Center Operations
- Customer Experience
- Employee Relations
SUCCESSFUL SCALABILITY DURING A GLOBAL PANDEMIC
- Christa Heibel
- 13 July 2020
The recent COVID-19 pandemic has exposed many pitfalls and blind spots that businesses may not have otherwise been aware of. This includes safely and effectively scaling business operations to keep staff safe while also remaining profitable. Your business partners in a time like this are crucial in supporting your organization’s adaptation to the ever-changing business landscape. Fortunately, I’ve had the privilege of working closely with a BPO that has been making quite an impact while effectively scaling their services for their client, even through a global pandemic. Check out this impressive case study of Fair Trade Outsourcing.
In 2016, the client, Fair Trade Outsourcing (FTO) began working with a leading provider of online proctoring services to over 1,000 academic institutions. In the beginning, FTO provided live proctoring services for this client, but soon moved on to provide support to improve customer experience. Gradually, FTO supported the growth of their client by going from 6 proctors to 168 agents in two years and proctoring nearly 700,000 exams each year.
In early 2020 as the COVID-19 pandemic began to grip the United States, higher education institutions were forced to rely on remote teaching and learning. According to a recent poll in April 2020, 54% of academic institutions were using online or remote proctoring services, and another 23% were planning to use them. In this case, the client turned to FTO to help them scale their workforce to meet national demand during a difficult time globally.
However, this is not the first time that Fair Trade Outsourcing helped their client scale up their operations with little time to spare for hiring and training new agents. In the aftermath of Hurricane Maria, FTO’s client lost one of its service providers — a company in the Caribbean – and asked FTO to take on the workload of two companies.
During this natural disaster, FTO hired and trained the agents they needed, growing their size by 2.5 times. However, because the workload itself was doubled, all agents had to work additional hours. In fact, many spent their waking hours at work, going home only to sleep, shower, eat, and change clothes. They endured the grueling work hours and the exhausting workload until their colleagues in the Caribbean recovered from the damage wrought by the hurricane. This lasted a little more than 3 months during the fall peak season. It was exhausting but it was worth it after hearing words of gratitude from our folks in the Caribbean and the heartfelt appreciation from our managers in Alabama and California.
“Fair Trade Outsourcing took the initiative to protect our agents and keep our operations flowing smoothly at the time when Hurricane Maria took out a huge chunk of our facility in the Caribbean. Now, they did it again. This time, we are in a global crisis as a pandemic sweeps through many countries, putting people, and businesses at a huge risk.
Fair Trade Outsourcing made the right call in sheltering our agents in a safe and clean place, providing the resources and sustenance they need to keep them healthy and as free from worry and anxiety as possible. For that, we are grateful, and we look forward to strengthening our partnership further.”
Fair Trade Outsourcing (FTO) as a business process outsourcer, supported their client during a substantial increase in demand for their services due to COVID-19. FTO needed to scale their proctoring agents and ancillary staff to help manage the increase in workloads. With an upsurge in team members, each session can be launched more efficiently to ensure current proctors are less prone to mistakes while witnessing test-taking behavior.
In 2019, agents were live proctoring up to 55,000 exams per month. In 2020, FTO was proctoring both live and recorded sessions, reviewing up to 118,000 exams per month. Despite the increase in online test taking, FTO must provide a seamless experience for the students with little wait time to take an exam.
Fair Trade Outsourcing faced five major challenges when scaling up their labor force to support their client during the 2020 pandemic.
- The first hurdle they had to overcome was to transform their hiring process into a digital experience. Before the pandemic, hiring at FTO consists of face-to-face interviews and in-person tests. Because social distancing is strictly observed during the community quarantines imposed by the government, FTO had to shift their recruitment activities from an office setting to purely online and mobile.
- A second hurdle was to ensure everyone’s safety and well-being throughout a series of community quarantines of varying magnitude and scope. Notwithstanding the social distancing rules, everyone had to work around travel restrictions imposed by the government.
- The third challenge was to expand FTO’s operations when they had little time to build a new facility. While the building out of the Bacolod site was already under way in December 2019, FTO was only able to put up their Davao site during a nationwide quarantine, which placed restrictions on travel and face-to-face interaction. This forced “non-essential” businesses, including vendors that sell office furniture and equipment, to stop operations.
- The fourth obstacle was to provide secure and stable access to the contractual agents’ workbench which meant designing a new software relatively quickly. Before they were hired, contractual agents were asked to take a speed test of their internet connection. Only those with at least 10mbps broadband connection were qualified. That was to ensure they would be able to stream videos throughout the day as well as providing a secure environment.
Security is assured through an ID verification process, which screens agents who were authorized to review recorded sessions. Meanwhile, agents involved in live proctoring sessions had to work at the office for data security compliance.
- Lastly, the fifth obstacle that FTO had to overcome was to build the new agents’ capacities in days rather than weeks. Training for the client at FTO normally took 7 days to complete, but because the quarantine has restricted face-to-face interaction and the time-to-deliver had to be sooner, the agents’ training had to be stripped down to its essentials. To compensate, FTO screened all hires and chose those with high scores in English Proficiency, Customer Service, and Computer Skills.
After the closure of campuses globally meant that while universities could teach online, they were not prepared with a secure online testing solution. This pushed the demand up for remote proctoring services. Thus, FTO’s client sought to meet this demand with the help of its Philippine vendors. FTO was one of two Philippine vendors that formed the backbone, but the Manila facility that’s owned by another BPO firm had to reduce their workforce drastically due to the neglect of their remote work infrastructure following the imposition of an extreme community quarantine which resulted a nearly 90% absenteeism rate for a week. It took the Manila facility about 30 days to resolve the issue. After nearly four years of serving their client with a small team, FTO has learned to navigate through murky waters (as evident by their strategic response in the aftermath of Hurricane Maria) and thus, they were able to respond quickly in the midst of a global crisis.
Before the pandemic, FTO had already begun the digital transformation of its recruitment process. The client’s request to train new agents in under 3 weeks may have been unexpected, but it was not impossible. The hiring process starts with an online portal that ensures a semi-automated pre-employment process. Jobseekers are told to answer the pre-qualification questions and to take the preliminary exams, namely English proficiency, customer service, and basic computer skills. The whole process requires little to no intervention from the HR team. All interviews were done over the phone in accordance with social distancing guidelines. For the HR team, going digital proved to be a key factor in meeting their hiring requirements during a quarantine.
However, the social distancing rules made it difficult for FTO to resume normal operations wherein agents were seated two or three feet apart. Under the new rules, they had to be at least 6 feet apart. With the rise in number of employees, this is impossible. Therefore, FTO implemented a work-from-home arrangement for non-essential personnel as well as for agents whose job is to review exam sessions. Reviewers can safely watch recorded sessions at home. Agents who watch test takers during live proctoring sessions are required to work at the facility.
To keep them safe during a quarantine, these agents were boarded at a nearby hotel. Meals were provided for them and access to laundry services as well as private transportation throughout the duration of the quarantine. At least three vans were secured for the FTO employees and daily schedules of these vans and their routes were sent to everyone. These vans picked up employees from their homes to bring them to work and then pick them up at work to bring them home safely. Some agents live in municipalities 15 to 20 kilometers away from the office. Without the vans, these employees would have been forced to ride a cab to and from work, which would have cost them 700 to 800 pesos (equivalent to 30-35 USD) each day. Masks were mandatory and alcohol/hand sanitizers were provided.
FTO’s role was to carry the load that’s usually divided between two Philippine vendors. At that time, FTO only had the Iloilo City facility in operation. The Bacolod facility was still being renovated. Yet, they managed to double the work volume in 2 months.
FTO attributes its success to its unique labor outsourcing model of the same name. This worked in their favor as they moved quickly to fill the demand and concurrently establish a functional workforce in two other cities in the Philippines, namely Bacolod City and Davao City. The process of putting up a new facility in Bacolod only took 17 days — an accomplishment that other BPO companies may be hard-pressed to replicate.
In Davao City, the process took around 21 days because a community quarantine was in full swing. Fortunately, one of our employees from their defunct facility in General Santos was in Davao City at that time. He enthusiastically carried the responsibility of putting up a new center and recruited people he knew would fit the job requirements as well as the company culture.
FTO was able to acquire a portion of the facilities of a small BPO company in Davao and took over its operations. The place was ready for occupancy; FTO only needed to source talent as soon as possible for their client. As soon as the agreement was signed, job ads were posted on social media and interviews were done over the phone. Job applicants were screened through the FTO job portal.
Thankfully because FTO chooses commercial spaces that have room for expansion and build in the “ROFR” Right of First Refusal into their clause, they had room to expand in their existing locations. However, FTO soon filled out their three facilities in the Philippines and the client still wanted more. The company quickly implemented a work arrangement for contractual agents. It was a collaborative effort among different departments that required continuous communication between the company and the client. Because FTO already had an effective labor force system in place, they were able to smoothly transition from an office-based set up to a contractual work-from-home arrangement on a large scale.
Agent Workbench & Capabilities
Before they were hired, contractual agents were asked to take a speed test of their internet connection. Only those with at least 10mbps up/down broadband connection were qualified. That was to ensure they would be able to stream videos throughout the day. Security is assured through an ID verification process, which screens agents who were authorized to review recorded sessions.
FTO knows these new agents must be fast learners. To help them along, the company stripped down the training program for new proctors. They had to learn how to navigate through the proctoring dashboard and operate the controls from picking up a session and launching it for the test taker to reviewing each session and reporting their observations. They also learned what the dos and don’ts are of proctoring, how to spot signs that the exam might be compromised, and how to report a student’s suspicious behavior.
In terms of technological capabilities, FTO has a clearer grasp of what needs to be done in this situation. The company understands that to ensure team cohesion and strong performance, it must divide its workforce to smaller, more manageable clusters while synchronizing its operations in different time zones. All these combined turned Fair Trade Outsourcing into a formidable service provider with the expertise and tools to accomplish what needs to be done.
From 2016 to 2018, agents were proctoring around 31,515 exams in a month. In 2019, the number rose to 54,506 exams. In 2020, FTO was able to pick the numbers up quickly despite the severe workforce reduction it went through in January. During the peak months of March to May in 2020, FTO proctors were able to process nearly 65,000 exams on average per month. Contrary to expectations, their numbers did not wane in June. Instead, the team was proctoring 45% more exams, which totaled to 118,440 sessions.
Throughout its partnership with a leading proctoring service provider, FTO has experienced seasonal fluctuations in performance. Live proctoring sessions tend to peak from March to May and then from October to December. Every year, the number of agents rise and decline depending on the season, which means after December ends, FTO has to let seasonal proctors go. Therefore, by January next year, the number of exams that the team can proctor may drop to a fraction of the previous month’s total number of sessions completed.
Those results are best measured by absenteeism and attrition rates. In 2019, FTO has recorded a monthly attrition rate of 2.4% and absenteeism rate of 1.9%. Despite the imposition of quarantine restrictions, particularly the stay-at-home directive that forces companies to transition their employees from office-based to home-based work arrangements, FTO was able to maintain those ridiculously low rates, as seen in this table. FTO computed the average monthly rates for attrition and absenteeism, got 1.9% and 2.2% respectively, which shows they have been successful in keeping a standard rate of 2%, more or less.
Fair Trade Outsourcing is focused on helping their agents see progress in their lives. This focus on agents and their household leads to a higher level of work ownership, which promotes transparency and accountability among its managers. A moral approach to corporate leadership and an orientation towards fighting poverty rounds out the pillars on which the Fair Trade Outsourcing model stands on. With the Agent Bill of Rights serving as protection for employee rights and welfare, it is no surprise that the way FTO has been managing its operations has created superior results for its clients such as low absenteeism, high productivity, and consistently exceeding client-established goals and expectations.
Fair Trade Outsourcing has set a new standard for successful scalability, even during a global pandemic. Imagine how their business model would impact an expansion project during standard operations. They have exceeded their client’s expectations in increasing the number of live proctoring sessions they can perform and continue to impress their large client base with their innovative labor force model, high-performing agents, and unquestionable agent quality.
CH Consulting Group provides unparalleled expertise in the Contact Center and Customer Experience (CX) verticals. We have a nationwide team of industry veterans that can assist you to achieve exponential growth, manage change, and generate profit. For a comprehensive CX assessment and strategic plan customized for your unique business needs, connect with us here today.