South Africa is winning. Its success as an offshore destination continues to receive international attention and accolades, with an incredible growth trajectory over the last 5 years and increasing demand forecasted ahead.

Foreign direct investment is coming to South Africa because of the strength of the overall value proposition: a large labour pool to service global English speakers, a narrowing cost differential with low-cost locations like India, high affinity factors like time zone alignment to the UK, and a robust enabling environment that includes first world infrastructure and strong telecommunications.

Yet, the questions investors are asking with increased urgency are: What about skills development? Can the labour pool grow to meet demand?

In theory the answer is “absolutely yes” – South Africa produces approximately 400,000 English speaking graduates each year, not far behind the Philippines with an annual pool of 500,000 graduates. The South African accent is described as neutral with a strong capability to service global English speakers, and buyers of outsourced services see the potential of South Africans to connect culturally and authentically with customers around the world.

But the skills constraints are real. South Africa must avoid some of the mistakes of the past, particularly in India 10-15 years ago, when investors did not have the resources they needed to deliver when required.

The good news is that there are solutions: government and business have partnered on programmes and incentives to support growth of BPO. Given the opportunity this sector provides for entry-level employment, it is a win-win for investors looking to grow the labour pool and government looking to grow the economy with youth jobs.

The following case study describes one approach to unlocking a new pool of talent through “impact sourcing”– the proposition that high-potential young people who are locked out of the economy can be trained up to succeed in entry-level jobs and also provide the benefit of employment to their families and communities.

 

Coracall: A Growth Story

Coracall opened its doors in August 2012 in Durban’s Umhlanga district. From a small beginning, Coracall has now grown to over 350 FTE and focuses primarily on sales campaigns to the UK and Australian markets. As Coracall’s business grew, it quickly became apparent that client demands required a new approach to skills development and recruitment.

Coracall historically recruited its call centre agents using traditional methods and quickly saw the “washing machine effect” of the same pool of agents hopping from one call centre to the next, and increasing the wage bill with each hop. The pool wasn’t growing fast enough and there weren’t easy solutions to quickly bring in new entrants.

In March 2013, Coracall was introduced to the Harambee Youth Employment Accelerator at an event sponsored by industry body BPeSA (Business Process enabling South Africa). Harambee is a youth employment accelerator that recruits candidates where existing corporate recruitment networks do not reach, assesses their competencies to match them to the jobs where they are most likely to succeed, and exposes them to a high quality, tailored and cost-effective bridging programme that directly addresses the needs identified by employers.

The Harambee model had already proved very successful in Johannesburg and Cape Town, and was looking for partnerships to launch in Durban. And that is how the Coracall-Harambee journey began.

Two years later, we have built a proven model that sources young people who struggle to access the labour market and bridges them successfully into sales agents who serve international customers with high retention and performance.

Here are the top three lessons we have learned about driving growth and skills development for business process outsourcing in South Africa:

Lesson #1: Innovative Work-Readiness can deliver high performance

Coracall and Harambee launched a “learning lab” to experiment and innovate aroundwhat it takes to “work-ready” first timers with no prior work experience to succeed as sales agents. Over six months, both management teams worked tirelessly to customize Harambee’s 8-week work readiness bridging programme to meet the needs of Coracall’s business. We collected data, measured our experiments, and engaged regularly to make improvements on both sides.

This included many innovations, some of which came as a result of failure!

First, we learned that bridging for sales takes a combination of skills and resilience. We created a sales module that included an introduction to sales, objection handling, sales theory and practical sales activities with ability to earn a commission by “practicing” the selling of lamps and bottles. We also worked together to customise computer systems that enabled candidates to role play using actual call centre software. For many young people, they don’t believe they can sell until they start and succeed.

Second, we saw the gap in digital skills around PC usage. While all young people have and use a mobile phone, contact centres require proficiency on computers and keyboards. This can be a barrier to employment for young South Africans who come from households with limited computers or no internet access. The Harambee programme focuses heavily on improving PC usage and the multi-tasking skills required to navigate complex contact centre systems. We have demonstrated that a young person’s typing speed, navigation skills and proficiency with computers can be bridged quickly.

Third, we focused heavily on voice and communication modules. In addition to high proficiency in IT skills and the ability to multi-task, performance in this sector requires advanced proficiency of the English language to converse with international clients around complex products. Young people may have strong customer skills – including building rapport and empathy – but need to also improve their English fluency and proficiency. South Africa has 11 official languages and the need for this communication work is critical, especially if a young person has been schooled in another mother tongue.

Finally, we innovated around deep immersion into both the Coracall and UK culture, including live dialling days that gave candidates confidence to deliver on their first call. This focused as much on the need to build resilience and grit as much as it did on the technical skills needed for the job.

And the results speak for themselves. A sample of Harambee candidates compared to agents sourced through other channels with more experience shows that power of the work-readiness bridge. Harambee candidates meet or beat performance metrics on productivity and talk time, and meet expectations on compliance and quality. We have seen retention improve to over 90% with the obvious cost benefits to the business.

Lesson #2: Accessing a new labour pool requires rigorous sourcing and matching

Coracall could see the of the work-readiness bridge. But this 8-week intervention would only succeed if the right candidates were selected from the beginning.

Harambee invests in selecting the right candidates to match the right jobs at large scale, very efficiently. Harambee has sourced and assessed over 100,000 young people in the last 3 years using a scientifically rigorous matching process that contains both a psychometric evaluation and an interview process aligned with the best ethical testing practices, overseen by qualified psychologists.

The written assessments include a learning potential test that measures fluid intelligence, numeracy and literacy tests, and a matching tool called Shadowmatch which assesses an individual’s habits (behaviors) and canmatch themto the critical behaviors of top performers in a specific job, in a specific company and/or a specific employer environment.

For contact centre placements, candidates are also given an additional conversational language and hearing screening test.They also sit for face-to-face interviews conducted by clinical psychologists to assess for additional risk factors. Speech and hearing therapists further screen for speech and language issues at the interview phase.

Following this assessment battery, candidates for international voice are further assessed by certified speech therapists that conduct a “Telephonic Assessment” specific to assess voice suitability for an international market.

In the absence of an established industry standard, Harambee has innovated to create this tool and uses it to measure the communicative competencies of candidates for roles that require voice suitability. We have learned from the market that employers require the following from their entry-level agents where there is a voice interaction:

  • A globally understandable or neutral accent when speaking English (i.e., without the influences of the mother tongue)
  • An ability to speak a high level of English (complex syntactic structures and an extensive vocabulary both expressively and comprehensively as well as an ability to use language in cognitive reasoning activities) coupled with auditory processing and good listening skills
  • High levels of interactive skills including the ability to convey empathy, establish rapport and problem solve, diffuse conflict and repair conversational break down

Based on this analysis, Harambee’s Telephonic Assessment measures the following competencies:

  • Voice skills – suitability of vocal quality and projection as well as, significantly, the energy or resonance that is conveyed in the voice during this assessment.
  • Speech skills – suitability of accents, clarity of speech, rate of speech and use of the elements of English prosody.
  • Language skills – level of English proficiency, the ability to comprehend complex questions, to use complex sentence structures, and to provide detail in a logical and relevant way using appropriate semantics and correct syntax.
  • Interactive skills – the ability to establish a connection with the listener and develop rapport, listening skills, the ability to convey a professional and friendly tone, and the ability to problem solve and convey empathy though a customer service role play.

This process assesses the core competencies that employers evaluate when interviewingcandidates using their standard recruitment processes and also indicates their suitability for aspecific role. Harambee’s understanding of the internationalcontact centre sector requirements in terms of the communicative competencies of agents has grown significantly withexperience.

Research using a sample size of1200 telephonic assessments revealed that while the English-speaking pool is large, only about 15% of Harambee candidates have a voice score suitable for the international market without additional bridging. This represents an opportunity for investment in building a new pipeline that can meet the needs of industry growth and keep South Africa’s value proposition strong for foreign investment.

Lesson #3: A new labour pool can be built for South Africa BPO

Two years of partnership has led to a successful and proven model for Coracall and Harambee Youth Employment Accelerator, which has now placed over 10,000 young people into jobs with over 100 employers. It has taken leadership and hard work. Not everything went as planned and oftentimes failure was the mother of innovation to create new solutions.

This journey has demonstrated that there is a large, untapped pool of South Africans who can deliver for the BPO industry. They sometimes stand outside of traditional recruitment pipelines because of their lack of access to networks, the social and geographic legacy of apartheid, or because transport costs from townships to jobs can be prohibitively high. Yet, with proper investment, they havethe potential and capabilities to drive growth for the industry and create a new pipeline of talent that can perform and progress.