In this episode we travel back to India and chat to industry innovator PS Reddy, Executive Vice President and Global Chief Technology Officer of BPO firm Startek. During the session, PSR tells of his passion for running and how that has helped him take on the challenges presented to his organisation by the ongoing pandemic.
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In conversation with . . . is a series of podcasts from Verint featuring chats and discussions with leading figures from the contact centre, CX and customer engagement industry across the Asia Pacific region.
Martin Riddle: Hello and welcome to In Conversation With, a series of podcasts from Verint featuring chats and discussions with leading figures from the contact center, CX, and customer engagement industry in the Asia Pacific region. During this series, we want to find out what customer service organizations are doing during these challenging times and try and discover what it is that drives the leaders in this space and what makes them sick. My name is Martin Riddle and as well as being your host for this series, I am also Verint’s vice president of marketing for the region.
First episode of the Verint podcast, we’re back to the great country of India. Tragically, this wonderful nation is suffering terribly from the ravages of COVID pandemic which, after a prolonged period, is really taking its toll on individuals, families, communities, and companies alike. With such a large population, the battle to overcome the situation is hugely challenging. Yet, through this darkness, there are glimmers of light and hope as innovation, ingenuity, and resilience strive to combine and find the pathway forward.
Our guest today is a senior executive at one of India’s top BPOs and hopefully, he won’t mind me saying, a seasoned veteran of the industry. As such, I’m sure he’s seen many developments and disruptions to the business landscape over the years, none more so than right now in the middle of this pandemic. From Startek, it is my pleasure to welcome to the Verint podcast their executive vice president and global chief technology officer, Mr. PS Reddy. PSR, welcome. Namaste, sir.
PS Reddy: Mr. Martin, thank you very much for hosting me. I’m happy to be part of this station and thankful to Verint. Really happy to be here.
Martin: It’s great to have you on board, sir. I understand that you have a passion for running and this is perhaps related to a flattering nickname of ever-ready. Before my recent knee replacement operation, I too used to enjoy an early morning jog as I thought it really helped clear my mind and set me up for the day ahead. I’m wondering, what do you think about during your runs, particularly in these troubled times?
PS: I love to run and I did almost 10 to 15 marathons across the globe. I run almost minimum 10 kilometers every day, minimum. Now, I just finished today around 12 kilometers running in the morning. I really enjoy running. That’s where I stress out completely because otherwise, number of calls, what we’re attending now, work from home, it’s difficult to digest all that. Running is our only medicine for that.
Martin: Now, initially, India looked to have escaped the worse of the coronavirus situation but now, it’s severely impacted with many regions still in lockdown and the virus still spreading rampantly, unfortunately. When did you and Startek become aware that the pandemic was going to have an impact on the delivery of your services?
PS: Martin, see, we operate around 13 countries and around 40,000 plus employees. This is the first time I think across the globe, fighting for the unknown enemy and as a common enemy for everyone. Otherwise, all of us came for the different reasons, but this is the first time in the globe, this war is completely different. This is an unknown enemy and a common enemy and when we got to know about this problem was on March 16th this year. Our first lockdown happened in one of our operating countries like Philippines. As you know, Philippines is a very difficult country to manage work from home also and as an organization, we were not ready at all for work from home.
Majority of our business is people-based business so we never encouraged people to be working from home. Then we thought we need to start having this work from home immediately. That’s when we started. On March 16th, first, we realized that lockdown is going to start across the globe.
Martin: 746 locations, 13 countries, 40,000 employees at the emergence of the pandemic must’ve been very disruptive for the organization. How did you overcome this disruption? Perhaps, we need to start off, what were the technical challenges you faced first of all?
PS: Martin, as I likely mentioned, technical challenges, our infrastructure was not at all ready for work from home across the globe. My management told me we need to start work from home or we need to have some kind of BCP plan. Then we said, “See, we are not ready.” Our management was completely– Including all of our board members and everyone thought that this company is not going anywhere. Then as an IT, completely, their shape took that challenge and we said we can create a new organization, something called Work from Home. I think March 22nd, we started this work from home setup and we are the first one to use.
Microsoft came forward to us saying that, “Let us use our cloud virtual desktop infrastructure. We’ll give free of cost for some time.” Microsoft came forward first and we started implementing Microsoft virtual desktop. We had lot of challenges, work from home when we started, but as a team, we are able to overcome all the challenges and made around 60% of the employees work from home immediately. This was not at all expected as an organization, especially from our management.
Martin: It’s great that our friends at Microsoft were able to step in and help you out. As for the actual customer engagement side of the business, I’m wondering, any particular technologies that really helped you ramp up that Work From Home initiative?
PS: Yes, definitely because we support as you must have seen our website, our business is basically BFSA, e-commerce, and healthcare. The security is a prime criteria for us to start anything work from home. It was very difficult to convince the client, but thankful for all our partners and also all our clients that really helped us to start this work from home immediately and ramp up work from home very immediately, and thankful to all the partners, especially Verint, Avaya, Microsoft.
All these people weren’t really– Instead of we going and asking saying that we need some help, they came forward and started offering us, saying that, “We are giving this. Please go ahead and utilize it. We’ll discuss cost and everything later. You please start utilizing this for now for your immediate requirements.” That was the culture from all our partners really helped to set up this work from home and ramp up for our 60% of our employed force is tremendous. Thankful to all our partners and all our clients for approving this.
Martin: During the podcast, we found this other organizations and once they’ve managed to overcome the initial technical challenges in transition, one of the things that’s caused them a lot of problems has actually been the staff engagement. When all the staff are together in a contact center on the same floor, in adjoining cubicles, it’s somewhat easier to maintain that level of motivation, that level of engagement, that level of mentoring and tuition, but when staff working disparately from home, that there’s a whole new series of challenges. How did you find that from a Startek perspective?
PS: Martin, I think we were the first company, I can proudly say we implemented something called e-physical security. I addressed it in two ways. One is that e-physical security, what we implemented and majority of our clients also in the industry, they’re calling Startek as a vendor of the industry. Some of the technologies, what we implemented, especially, for example, our BFSA healthcare domain, when they’re in office, it is a complete lockdown for them. They don’t even allow paper, pen, or mobile phone from our agents when they’re entering into that operational area. They don’t allow anything.
When it comes to Work From Home, we have a very limited expertise to overcome how we can restrict this mobile phone, paper, pen, and all that. We implemented some artificial intelligence and we implemented some application which we developed immediately called Work Anywhere, we called wAnywhere. How it helps is when isn’t easy sitting at home, it is a complete physical security. The minute he gets any device closer to the system, it will send the alert to me. If he’s trying to take a picture, it will send the alert to me and also, there’ll be a ink mark on the screen saying which user is clicking that.
Even if he clicks the picture from six feet away from the system, there is a ink mark on the phone. If he’s trying to put that in a social media, I can see from where that photograph is generated, so that kind of security. Also, if he’s feeling drowsiness or sleepy, I’ll get an alert saying that, “This guy is falling into sleep. Please call him,” or if he’s trying to put some audio recording device under the table and trying to get client credit card information or personal information, the way he pronounces two times, “Can you please repeat credit card information or TIA information?” the minute he repeats two times, I’ll get an alert saying that, “Something is going on here, please take care of it.”
That kind of technology is what we used. In terms of the collaboration, what you just asked how we are going to engage all the employees, we also implemented, one is gamification and one more is a collaboration tool which we developed in-house. We called it NexChat. We developed one collaboration tool. It is almost like Teams or Zoom, but Teams and Zoom, we don’t have any restrictions in terms of the security restrictions. The tool, what we developed is a completely web-based tool where team leader can only chat to the agent and agent can chat only with the team leader. They can’t unshared with the other colleagues.
At the same time, you can make a call to only team leader, team leader can call all his 20 members’ team. He can also do a conference call, he can also do screen sharing. He can also do a file-sharing if required only with the agent. Agent to agent can’t do it. All that kind of restrictions have been implemented. Even a team leader, when team leader send any document to the team is in, he can’t forward, he can’t copy-paste, he can’t download that, he can only read it. That kind of restrictions we enabled is a completely collaboration tools that will help to collaborate with our agents.
Also, collaborate in terms of the training and instant help if anything is required for that particular agent when he’s handling the call. All that information can be shared with the agent. We implemented all this during COVID times. I can call it is pre-COVID, PC, DC, AC. We are still in DC, that is our during COVID times. We are still in COVID times.
Martin: Let’s hope the AC isn’t too far away. I think the points you made there perfectly highlights some of the things I mentioned in the introduction around innovation, ingenuity, and resilience. It’s great that you’re looking after your staff. I’m wondering how the staff are actually feeding themselves. I think sometimes, we get used to that employee collaboration or being able to talk to each other at lunch and share social stories. I’m wondering how your guys are actually going working from home. Do you think they’re still missing that social interaction or have you got any innovations in that space?
PS: That work in progress, but there is some work is already gone through, but still work in progress. I don’t think so. It will be as good as the way it will be in office. Whatever innovations I can do, I don’t think so I can match that kind of environment.
Martin: I think it’s a challenge that faces us all. Staff set themselves, you position as a provider of new-age customer experience solutions. What do you think that means? What does that entail in the midst of a pandemic? What is a new age customer experience? What are customers looking for now?
PS: This is the only organization during COVID. We are transforming complete organization in terms of the digital, in terms of the automation, in terms of the EAMLR, in terms of automating so many things. For example, we are dealing with where and now. How can we optimize our quality system? This is the only organization now thinking of transforming the entire infrastructure and the processes. As of now, our quality is– Any contact center or a BPO, there is not fully automated in terms of the quality. We are working with Verint for the quality automation project.
Martin: That’s why I was actually got one of my questions here on my notes is where do you see the role of automation? You’ve jumped a little bit, thank you. The automated quality is a great initiative. We wish you luck with that. Do you see automation taking more and more of a role as the whole industry of customer engagement moves forward and develops?
PS: Definitely, yes. During this COVID times, we also got three RP orders from some of our clients. This also just started when COVID started, our discussion with our client started these RP automation discussions during the month of April. We got that orders in the month of August. During COVID times, our clients also helping us towards digitalization. This is a complete RPA and AI.
Martin: You talk right in the middle of the pandemic, I think you said BC, DC, and AC. Unfortunately, it looks as though we are still very much DC. You mentioned March earlier on. That makes my calculations seven months of you trying to maintain this very high level of standard and service that you’ve built your reputation upon. I’m wondering, are there any lessons you’ve learned along the way? Do you think there’s been a change in expectations on both your clients and also the end consumers?
PS: Yes, definitely. Majority of the end customer are expecting that it should be completely– As you know, now it is a millennials, they don’t want everything on the fly. They don’t want a world kind of IVRs, they don’t want follow any of those things. Everything they want on their fingertips, they use all kinds of devices, and they want a seamless experience across the devices. All this, we are working through.
We also, as a company, as I mentioned earlier, also now, I’m stressing that because we are completely transforming our organization. What I meant by that is our complete why solutions, like we use Avaya. We are completely migrating our Avaya solution and we’re also implementing Cloud RADIUS across the globe. We are the first organization going around 25,000 Cloud RADIUS with multiple cloud service providers.
We are also transforming our employee engagement because we have multiple HRMS systems so we are going now implementing in the process now. We are implementing global, single HRMS application across the globe. We’re also implementing a single ERP system across the globe. This early admission, all this started during COVID. We are happy to inform everyone that transforming the organization during COVID times.
Martin: Now, transformation projects in my experience often come with lots of lessons learned. In fact, those lessons often drive a lot of the transformational features. I’m wondering, is there anything that you would have done differently in the last seven months without hindsight you’re now taking into that transformation process?
PS: Definitely because some of the projects which we handled during this COVID times, I can probably say, one of the project in South Africa. All our IT team were isolated because of the COVID. We had one critical project which is data center migration from one colocation facility to on-prem. This was planned in the month of December. We need to migrate that to on-prem. We promised that to all our clients. We didn’t have any option to go ahead with that. None of our local support in South Africa were available to help me that we were able to seamless migration from colocation to on-prem this data center. This is a great learning for us.
Also, in your own country in Australia, we migrated for one of our healthcare client. We were using earlier Oracle CRM, now we migrated everything to Dynamics CRM. During this COVID times, it was seamless migration and everything remotely managed from India.
Martin: Wow. That’s a lot of achievements. Very impressive. What do you think we’ve looked back? Let’s start looking forward, what do you think the immediate future looks like?
PS: Immediate future is some of the automations, definitely. One is a quality function automation which we are working with you guys with Verint. We are also talking about omni-channel implemented for majority of our clients. Also, RPS that is a way forward and automation is a way forward. We are completely changing our organization outlook from normal contact center to a digital contact center.
Martin: In the introduction, I hopefully didn’t offend you when I introduced you as a seasoned veteran that’s probably seen many developments and many challenges across the course of your career. I’m wondering what the last few months have meant for you personally as a leader.
PS: Yes, definitely. This period is a very challenging period as personally for me, even for the organization because I was very new into this organization. I was just four months old. I’m not new to the organization, I worked in this organization for nine months, but I left iGEN for six years again. I was just three months old when this pandemic started. Majority of my employees and it was also leaving the organization because of the merger base between these two companies started happening, and so many people left. It was a really, really challenging as an IT team.
Managing everything remotely and ensuring that this is completely seamless transformation. From brick-and-mortar to completely work from home environment with lot of innovations happened, with a lot of automations happened, this is a great learning period as an IT in this world, in this industry. I don’t think any IT guy will get this kind of experience in their lifetime what we got in last six months. The amount of experience, what we got, how to handle the situations, how to handle the innovations, how to change the organization. This is a great learning, I can say. If you can ask our president of the company, he can tell you more than what I did.
Martin: We’ll save that one for another podcast. It’s great to get your perspective at a professional level. I’m wondering now, at a personal level, obviously, during your successful career, you build a certain way that you approach your work and I’m guessing you’ve needed to change and adapt that at a personal level, the way you interact with your family. I’m guessing many things have changed. What does it meant for you at a personal level?
PS: Personal level, first two months, there was no personal life except that I was at home in front of the family and having breakfast, lunch in front of the family, that’s it. Almost 22 hours, I was on the call. My team was doing a great job across the globe, but I was just helping them and giving motivation to them, saying that, “I’m there with you guys.” Whichever the reason, if you take from Australia to South Africa, Argentina, you take because we work 24/7. The time zones, what I support, it’s not 24/7, for me at least based on the time of India for me. Every time is a working time.
I was almost working 22 hours per day, first 2 months. It was a great learning to deal with how different religions or different cultures work in this kind of stressful life. For example, how the Argentina guy reacts to the problem, how South African guy reacts to the problem, how Australian guy reacts to the problem. It is completely different and great learning.
Martin: Did you learn anything particular or did you discover anything about yourself that you weren’t perhaps aware of before, perhaps untold levels of patience or perhaps, a little bit more time to consider things?
PS: No, I learned a lot from this team because the way different religion or different cultures or different region people reacts, how I need to be cool down myself this kind of situations. These people taught me a lot of lessons, especially how we can handle different cultures and the way they react for the problem. If you ask me, Argentina guy, when we told him after Philippines, our next region was lockdown was Argentina and Peru. I told him what to do, work from home. Within 48 hours, he told me 90% of the workforce is working from home.
I just empowered him saying that, “This is the direction we are going. This is a way that we are going to do work from home. Please go ahead, implement, and exhibit it.” Within 48 hours, he sent a message saying that we are almost 90 plus percentage working from home already.
Martin: We know that you’re a runner. Let’s see if we can find a little bit more about you as a person. I’m wondering if there is a particular tune or a style of music that keeps you sane, or perhaps is your favorite running track. Any piece of music you listen to on a regular basis?
PS: I am so sorry, Martin. I am very poor in music. I don’t know anything about music. What I know is only IT, and the second is politics.
Martin: Well, we’ve talked a lot about IT, maybe keep politics for another podcast. Maybe you must keep yourself entertained somehow. Do you read a book or you watch a film or enjoy a TV show?
PS: Frankly speaking, I don’t like all that. Sorry to say that. I only love and like it and passionate about doing social work. We do have some NGOs. Whenever I get time, always spend for that. My next dream is to serve for the people and become a minister.
Martin: Okay, that’s good to hear. Maybe you can waste a bit of IT into this one and I’m looking at them, a material object or a favorite gadget, a piece of technology that you just can’t be without at the moment.
PS: That is my iPhone.
Martin: That’s a good answer, straightforward answer. Mr. PS Reddy, executive vice president and global chief technology officer at StarTek, I really enjoyed chatting with you today on the Verint Podcast. Thank you so much for joining us. I wish you, your family and your colleagues all the very best for a safe and happy future. Thank you, sir.
PS: Thank you. Thank you very much, Martin, having me here. It was great chatting with you. All the best.