Restoring the human touch in a digital world

Agorae's focus on velocity, agility and visibility keeps it relevant to digital economy clients.

AS we get used to talking to chatbots and letting algorithms inform processes and decisions, some may think the days of customer service representatives and marketing consultants are numbered.

But in situations where our requests are highly complex, or a target market is harder to identify and appeal to, chatbots and algorithms fall frustratingly short. Even in the digital age, we still turn to real humans for solutions to tough problems.

Agorae, the top-ranked winner in the Enterprise 50 Awards 2019 and the holding entity for the Teledirect group of companies, has benefited from CEO Laurent Junique's foresight in recognising this need early enough to pivot the group's focus and ride the new digital economy wave.

In 2012, he began expanding Teledirect's business of traditional telephone-based customer care and direct marketing into a suite of solutions for traditional companies looking to digitalise, and native digital clients demanding quality customer care and new digital economy services.

"Our digital native clients' relationship with their clients is purely digital. There is no human interface," said Mr Junique. "So the moment someone needs to interact with the brands, we believe that customer experience becomes far more important than for, say, a company where you encounter people who greet you and take care of you when you go into an aircraft or check in at a counter.

"We spend a lot of time on the Internet, and the only time we're going to interact with a human with these brands is when they interact with us. That becomes hyper-important to them. As a result, they're ready to invest in high-quality customer care, which we hope to deliver."

Today, digital companies like social media networks, home sharing networks and online streaming companies make up 80 per cent of Teledirect's client base. It specialises in services that are hard to automate - from customer care to content moderation, digital advertising and the development of new analytical tools.

The shift to focus on the digital economy has been so drastic that Mr Junique feels the Teledirect brand no longer represents the business accurately. The group rebranded on Nov 25 from Teledirect to TDCX, with the acronym representing the "transformative digital customer experience" it provides for clients.

THE CASE FOR OUTSOURCING

Outsourcing customer care was not the norm back in 1995 when Mr Junique founded Teledirect. He laments that the "first-mover advantage" is more of a disadvantage when one has to do all the work of convincing clients, only to have competitors swoop in with hardly a "thank you" once the groundwork is laid.

"I was faced with the disadvantage of trying to educate the market about outsourcing. I think the philosophy here was that the more people report to me, the bigger I am, and the more important I am. So it was very hard for me to convince them."

Today, Teledirect benefits not only from the change in attitude towards outsourcing, but also from the way that companies in the new digital economy operate and expand.

"Our clients grow very, very fast," Mr Junique said. "They realise that they won't have time to set up their own infrastructure, hire people, train them and manage them. Or they don't know how their business is going to grow. It could grow very fast, or grow slow, there could be changes and so on.

"We work for online streaming companies - there's a lot of things going on in the movie streaming business. For them, it's convenient to outsource because they don't know where that's going to go, who's going to take the lead, who's gonna lose market share. That could affect their capacity planning and so on. So that's what we do for them."

Because these companies expand quickly into multiple markets, Teledirect is racing not just to keep pace but to stay one step ahead. It currently offers services in 23 languages and employs 8,000 staff in eight countries, and more than half of its revenue is from overseas business, but Mr Junique says it needs to go global even faster.

"Our clients are very large, global brands and they're very connected. So when they like you in one country and they are expanding in another, they will say 'Are you there?' And if we're not, then we're missing out."

PEOPLE AT THE CENTRE

The nature of Teledirect's business makes hiring and expanding rapidly a challenge, as the group has to constantly find high-quality personnel for work that cannot be easily automated.

Teledirect's solution is to digitalise and automate the selection process as much as possible. Candidates submit video interviews that assessors can review remotely, complete personality profiling and aptitude tests that gauge their work attitudes and certain abilities like language fluency, and undergo situational tests that assess their on-the-job skills and give them a sense of what the job entails.

After candidates are hired, the company continues to adjust and refine the selection tools, using data from performance evaluations. For instance, an employee who scored low on a dependability predictor at the start may prove to be very dependable once hired, prompting a relook at the way certain criteria are used in the hiring assessments.

Other efforts to sustain a healthy workforce boil down to simple human interaction: new employees undergo an induction programme and the first day is specifically geared toward helping them make a friend right at the start.

"We believe that if you make a friend at work on the first day, there's a much higher chance that you will stay longer with us," Mr Junique explained.

KEYS TO FURTHER GROWTH

Aside from investing in its workforce - which includes providing quality workspaces and striving to foster a culture of trust and teamwork - Teledirect aims to create value in ways that will attract more high-growth companies as clients and help the group grow. Mr Junique summarised Teledirect's key value-adds as velocity, agility and visibility.

"New economy clients want to see speed. We accelerate things for them, because they need it done fast, and now. So we have to have the firepower to drive business and not make mistakes along the way," he said.

The need for agility comes as such companies change their strategies often, and may have requests for customised solutions that a larger organisation may not accede to. As Mr Junique puts it: "If you go to a luxury good company, you get the same pair of shoes as everybody outside. We will make that special pair of shoes for you, and customise it."

And, as for visibility, Teledirect is constantly working on tools that let clients easily access data on their advertising and marketing, such as through a smartphone app that provides instant reports.

"Clients are looking for visibility, analytics data. 'We're launching a new product, what is the feedback?' The moment you put some advertisement in (the newspapers) and you have people reacting with social media posts, you want to analyse the sentiment on the Internet . . . So visibility is an area we invest in, providing dashboards, online tools and other more detailed analytical elements."

These and globalisation will be the main focus for the group in the next few years, as Teledirect aims to keep up with the rapid growth of the digital economy. The Enterprise 50 recognition will help in that journey, Mr Junique added.

"It's quite heartening to win an award like this after so many years in Singapore," he said.

"It's a very trusted award, and that trust is the value that we want to communicate to our clients, because in outsourcing and letting other people handle your customers, the element of trust is massive. So this helps to build even more trust in TDCX."