New Delhi: Ganesh Lakshminarayanan wants his call centre agents to stay on the phone. So much so that the Dell International Services managing director is willing to cook for them.
During a recent management meeting in Chandigarh, Dell executives made pasta, eggs, chaat and south Indian food for members of the company’s “Platinum Club”, or employees who could have advanced to a manager or team leader spot but, instead, chose to stay on the call centre floor.
“We wanted to make sure the best people with the most efficient skill sets are taking care of our customers,” says Lakshminarayanan.
“We want them to believe this is the most important job in the company.”
Earlier, the usual path for an agent went something like this: three months of training, one year to get used to the job, three more months of taking calls, and then a promotion to a manager-level position. In a programme designed by Lakshminarayanan and launched six months ago, Dell is trying to rewrite that script.
Enjoying the perks: Platinum Club members at ChillZone, a break room provided exclusively to them, which has been fitted out with music and video games.
The company started giving its employees incentives, both monetary, such as a 15% pay hike, and symbolic, such as an exclusive break-room called a ChillZone outfitted with music and video games, and laptops or flat screen monitors for them to use at work, in order to extend agent tenure.
Around 1,000 of Dell’s 8,000 agents have chosen the Platinum Club route, many for the exclusive status it affords.
“I was always focused on customer-facing roles, so I thought it was a good idea,” says Harpreet Chhatwal, a Platinum Club member from Dell’s centre in Chandigarh who has been with the company for three years. “But they make you feel really special.”
“Here we have the chance to take our own decisions without looking over the shoulders to managers,” says Niranjan Setty, a Bangalore Platinum Club member who has been with Dell for five years. “That was not there before.”
To make the programme self-funding, the 15% pay hike comes from 15% higher targets for sales or call resolution, depending on which process agents handle. It’s been successful enough that Dell is introducing the club in its centres in Manila and El Salvador.
The move, industry observers say, is not all that unexpected from a company such as Dell which sells its products directly to customers rather than through other retailers like most of its competitors. That kind of direct contact, notes Vikram Tiwathia, chief information officer at the Confederation of Indian Industry, means that Dell has to focus more on the customer-facing aspect of its business. “If HCL or HP (Hewlett-Packard) were to do it,” he says, “it would be a bit different.”
And, other companies are using different ways to tackle internal movement, which HCL Technologies Ltd senior vice-president Anand Pillai described as a double-edged sword. “If you don’t promote them, they will leave and, on the other hand, they haven’t yet been productive in their old job, let alone new job.”
HCL, Pillai says, invests more on the hiring, training, and enhancing skills side to get employees up to speed quicker, rather than incentivizing people to stay in a role once they become good at it. “The best way to make a person redundant is to get him to do what he or she is good at doing, over a period of time.”
But Lakshminarayanan sees efforts such as the Platinum Club as a way to counter the large salary hikes and fluctuating exchange rate that companies face, which can no longer rely on low prices as their main advantage. “Most companies have figured out that the best way to compete is (with) quality of product,” he says. “Your products are your agents.”
And, in keeping agents interacting with customers and rewarding them to do so, Lakshminarayanan also hopes to change the way people think about the industry. “Career growth was, ‘get off the floor and stop talking to the customer,’” he says.
“If people follow this and try to build capability on the front line, it can change the perception of the BPO job.”