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South Africa is approaching the end of four weeks in lockdown during a time when the Coronavirus has shaken the world’s health organisations and financial systems to the core as well as altered the face of the global BPO sector. Here Brandon Aitken, Chief Commercial Officer for Webhelp South Africa, reflects on the groundbreaking level of industry collaboration that has occurred, which may be unique to South Africa.
As the impact of COVID-19 began to hit home, BPO leaders quickly realized that swift and decisive action was urgently needed to prevent devastating ramifications for the sector, a critical pillar of job creation for our country. This industry creates tens of thousands of jobs and contributes billions to the nation’s economy. In fact, over 50,000 young South Africans work in BPO for international clients, with significantly more supporting the domestic market.
We knew that the impact from COVID-19 was inevitable, but that protecting our people and minimising the loss of business and jobs was absolutely critical. As the stakes were high, our actions would be fundamental to both the future of the industry, and the economy.
Unique industry collaboration
At Webhelp, we were incredibly heartened to see the willingness with which key players, including competitors and their stakeholders swiftly came together to address and resolve the challenges faced – to make sure that the industry comes out of this crisis in the strongest position possible, safeguarding the people at the heart of the sector, and their jobs.
This unique collaboration has not just been limited to BPO providers and industry bodies such as Business Process Enabling South Africa (BPESA), the Cape Town and Western Cape tourism and investment agency (WESGRO) and the national trade association for the hospitality industry (FEDHASA). There has also been strong and active support for the sector from all areas of Government, including the Presidency, national, local and provincial authorities and law enforcement.
Some of the industry problems that we are trying to solve together include trying to activate home working in the Western Cape, for nearly 8000 young people providing non-essential services. This would add to the nearly 3000 people delivering essential services already for international and domestic clients.
Keeping our people safe and responding to change
One of the first tests we faced was how to deal with the frequency of the changes the regulations issued and how to best interpret these for our sector considering the levels of ambiguity, not least of which was the accurate qualification of essential services.
However, the most urgent piece of work was undoubtedly to protect our people on site, by stringently adhering to all the government guidelines. Followed by the logistical challenges in the transportation and connection of IT assets as we enabled our non-essential people to work safely from home.
Inevitably, there have been a variety of challenges raised toward the industry which have impaired how quickly we have been able to sustain our delivery of essential services and attracted some negative press. ,We do however realise that the intentions have been to hold us to account collectively, something that we appreciate and have responded to.
South Africa First approach
The problems we have faced are not unique to our industry; but I believe that the collaborative effort has been a unique differentiating factor that we should be proud of. We must recognise the significant contribution that BPESA has made in bringing us together, under a “South Africa First” approach. They have worked tirelessly to make connections, inform decisions and safeguard both job sustainability and our people.
They have aided stakeholder collaboration across the private and public sectors in several key areas: gaining clarity on the interpretations of directives, and subsequent revisions, obtaining support from law enforcement to allow the free movement of our essential services workers and facilitating the supply of essential goods to maintain compliance to protocol, including facemasks and sanitizer. Finally, the BPESA teams have driven collaboration with enabling services, such as data provision for home workers and with the FEDHASA to help create a temporary home working environment for teams providing essential services.
The pace at which BPESA mobilised to support and generate engagement was pivotal in creating a unified effort aligned to policy and government directives, and the whole industry owes them a huge debt of thanks.
Building integrity and trust
Some other positives can be drawn from these unusual circumstances. BPO business leaders have made themselves available, at all times, to act as a mutual sounding board on the fast moving issues as they have arisen. The openness, collaboration and accountability shown has helped to establish industry integrity, as has the introduction of a comprehensive self-certification process.
Suppliers that have embraced flexibility have seen new opportunities arising with clients that are heavily reliant on other traditional BPO regions and which have experienced a loss of supply during this crisis. Working together, our prompt response has created enhanced trust in BPO in South Africa through our ability to offset some of that disruption.
The swift and stable rise in homeworking bodes well for the future of this operating model for our sector, and early indications are that it is working well.
Looking ahead to the future
However, as a sector we must continue be alert to the pace of change, in order to maintain this positive momentum. We must avoid complacency at all costs and look carefully at the wider issues affecting both our communities and the industry.
There are many potential ramifications if the lockdown extends past the end of April. Further disruption to the national workforce could create new social, economic and community tipping points and our industry must continue to be conscientious in creating timely and relevant support to put our people first in these areas.
On a personal level, I am extremely proud of our own people who, where possible, have kept providing exceptional service to our clients and their customers. Their resilience has proved that home working works; paving a way for the future. In particular, those who continue to provide essential services, both from home and from our offices deserve exceptional admiration as those services continue to run at a relentless pace.
We thank all of the stakeholders and industry peers who have worked so tirelessly with us to help BPO in South Africa to continue to thrive. Most of all, we thank our people for staying positive and representing South Africa so well during this time.
One thing is certain, sadly, this crisis is far from over, and the way we continue to approach these future challenges together, will set the pattern for industry growth and resilience into 2021 and beyond.
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