The Agile Contact Centre Podcast Episode 16
Blaine Slater | Bringing to life the brand and customer experience in outsourced contact centres
Arnie and Sean from the Agile Contact Centre spoke to TSA’s Group Executive – New Business, Blaine Slater. Blaine shines a light on managing the brand and customer experience in outsourced contact centres. He also shares his leadership journey, from being ‘on the phones’ to the Executive team.
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Sean: Hello, friends, in this episode, we welcome Blaine Slater, the head of growth, at TSA.
TSA is one of Australia’s leading outsource providers to contact centres. They have a unique focus on customer value that is not often associated with this industry. And we talk about the recent shakeup it is undergoing particularly offshore as companies reassess their strategies in light of COVID, cost pressure and most importantly, the customer experience.
We cover their approach to continuously improving the CX of their clients and how they do that by aligning in their teams, not just to their purpose, vision and values, but to their clients to bring the brand experience to life. How his team has led through COVID, the use of technology in the recruitment process and the opportunities around attracting talent now the concept of a central hub is being reimagined, how they’ve changed their incentive structures to help break down silos and get alignment around priorities at the executive level.
And finally, his own leadership journey, overcoming imposter syndrome and the lessons he’s learned in beating cancer. We really enjoy Blane’s honest and genuine approach to leadership, and he was very generous in what he shared. We hope you enjoy it, too.
Sean: Okay, we’re live. Welcome to the podcast. Hello, Arnie.
Arnie: Hey Sean. Good to be back. Good to be back here again.
Sean: Good to have you. Good to have you doing it over Zoom again seems to be working quite well for us, which is good. And a big welcome to our special guest today. We have Blaine Slater joining us from TSA. How are you?
Blaine: I’m good, thanks. Thanks for having me. Very exciting.
Sean: Yeah, it is very exciting. I’ve been excited to have you on the podcast for a while. You’re a different type of guest. I suppose you’re a supplier (if I put it in those terms) to the industry. I know you’re more than that. Yeah, It’s really interesting. We normally have participants, I suppose, in the industry, which you are one, but you also supply to the industry. So really interesting to get into your story and what TSA does. And I suppose that’s a really good place to start. TSA may not be familiar to some people who are listening. So what do you spend the first little bit here just to talk about TSA and your role there, and we’ll get into the detail after that.
Blaine: Yeah, sure. Well, look, I think I like to think of us as the brand behind the brand. So the fact that we’ve not been well known is probably credit to the stellar job that operational teams do representing our clients.
From a TSA perspective, we were founded in Western Australia 23 years ago. The two founding owners still retain the shareholding within the business. And it’s kind of interesting. I spend most of my time on the roads, on the eastern states. Or I did until recently because it’s kind of unique. We’ve got this head office here in Western Australia. We were really founded around Telstra, predominantly in supplying services. We started as a door to door sales channel for Telstra. And over the last 23 years, that relationship has evolved from more of a supplier relationship to a partnership where we support them across all different facets of the business, from consumer to small business, enterprise and government—the whole gamut, really.
We got to a point about, say, six years ago where we had all this really large scale business, sort of a 50, 100 people and the organisation. And we thought, you know, there’s got to be a lot of the lessons and capabilities that we have that are transferable into other industry verticals. And that started a journey of diversification of our business because we knew that we weren’t just a telco supplier. There was an opportunity for us to partner in the same way with industries and other businesses. But one of the things that was important to us was that we wouldn’t compromise on the quality of the service delivery and we had to find businesses that we could partner with, that we could add strategic value.
And, you know, as I look at how the world is playing out, now with COVID, that’s been a really bold choice that we’ve made that’s paid off really well, because not only have we been there and our business partners time of need, we’ve also then had them reward that loyalty that we’ve paid them with, supporting us as a business through that. So, you know, we started, as I said, and door-to-door sales as a field kind of business. We evolved into contact centre outsourcing. But what we saw in the industry and in the market was there weren’t that many people that really wanted to talk about outsourcing contact centres. It wasn’t, you know, a really hot topic that seemed to be perceived as having a lot of risks. And certainly, businesses were focused on having a lot more control, a lot more engagement with that contact centre. And so from our perspective, we had to look at how do we add value. And so we’ve been really focused on how we can look at a business and help them solve business issues, whether that be through people, whether that be through process or technology. And that’s where our businesses today, it’s probably much more rounded around customer experience and services of that nature.
Arnie: There’s a lot there to digest.
Arnie: Blaine and I mean, I think one of the routes we want to take is obviously about your history. But I think because we’ve talked about the industry and I’m sure anyone who is listening to this, especially in the contact centre industry, are thinking outsourcing like you said before, doesn’t have the best perception. No one wants to be telling the market, hey, we’ve got an outsourced contact centre. And I want to get underneath that a little bit because it’s not as black and white as, oh, outsourcing bad and, you know, in-house is all good. I think it’s just more about the challenges of if you have an outsource contact centre. It means that you won’t have that connection with the, you know, the actual business itself. Are the people going to deliver the right experience? Do they care enough about these customers? Because it almost it’s always perceived as if those customers aren’t their customers. So why would they really care? So how you talked about being there, but, you know, it’s been around for 23 years. You don’t compromise on customer experience. So how do you combat that challenge of not being part of the organisation? But you talk about being the brand behind the brand. So, yeah.
Arnie: How do you – sorry, that’s a lot of questions. Basically, what I want to ask is how do you still deliver a really great customer experience?
Blaine: So I think yeah, I think if I look at outsourcing exists in every business and every part of an organisation, you know, you don’t keep the accounting and tax component within a business. You’d outsource that to someone who’s suitably skilled. I think what makes Contact centre a little bit more of a challenge is that it’s this perception of that one on one contact with a customer and that has an element of trust, do you trust the business provider, that you have to have that conversation to understand your organisation and talk as passionately about your businesses as you would internally. And so that’s the first barrier that we have to overcome when we’re engaging any new client that’s maybe first generation is that they can actually trust us as an organisation to hold those values true. One of the things we do as part of any engagement is we look at the values of a business. Then we compare them to our values and, you know, typically there’s alignment because most values of organisations are very similar, they may be skewed slightly towards a particular area, but in most instances, there’s enough of comparison there to be able to say, look, we get it.
We understand what’s important. But we’re experts in the contact centre and so where I’ve seen businesses over the years probably struggle is that there’s a lot of capability that you need to have within a contact centre. And there’s a lot of businesses that are competing for that capability, things like workforce planning, things like quality assurance. And so we spend all of our time just focused on those problems and solving those problems as they relate to the contact centre. And we feel that because we’ve got this broader industry exposure as well, we can take from different industries and different learnings from businesses that we partner with and continue to build and evolve on top of that. So that’s the real value from my perspective and why you would do it. But the way in which we sort of overcome the risk is through having a model where we’d allow businesses to pilot and we have to, as an organisation, be prepared to put our money where our mouth is, put up a score and not a story and actually demonstrate that. So we try and find an area of the business or an opportunity within an organisation where those were perceived risk and start there.
Every single one of our partners and we partner with market leaders and basically every sector in Australia now, all of that has been built on the basis of us starting small and then growing from that baseline. And so the idea that we could do a really good job in one area and then, you know, customers will consume more and more of our services is as basically within the DNA of our approach.
Arnie: I love that model of, you know, starting small and then building on that. And I definitely agree, I think there’s the capability around workforce planning, quality assurance, you know, for yourselves. I think that those skills aren’t easy to source and they’re not something that you just sort of grow in-house. A lot of times you have to bring that from somewhere. So in that sense, I can understand outsourcing. Probably one of the things that we talk about a lot on this show is like failure demand or customer demand, which is, you know, the types of calls that our customers or customers don’t want to have to make. And that relies on a system where people on the phones can understand what the problem is, why customers are calling and try and provide that feedback back to the whole organisation to say, hey, our customer is calling about this, we can handle the best we can. But ultimately, it’s the organisation that needs to change its processes, its systems and technologies. That feedback loop probably has a different complexion or different complexity when we’re using a third-party provider like TSA. Do you have channels around that? Like how do you deal with that when when you get feedback from customers about their processes in an organisation?
Blaine: That’s a really great question because the perception is that if we have a team of people and we bill an hourly rate, what incentive do we have to look at opportunities to improve the process, to reduce handle time to make it more effective? And again, that just comes back to us as a business and the culture that we have. I met with someone in robotics who said, yeah, we don’t partner with outsourcers because you just don’t want to reduce effort and I said well, you’re just partnering with the wrong outsourcers, to be perfectly blunt, because from our perspective, we see it as a duty to do that. We want to actually go into a business partnership with a client to say we are going to reduce effort. We are going to look for opportunities to improve the customer experience. But if we do and we do provide the cost-benefit, a productivity benefit, we also want to have the opportunity to talk about how you’re going to reinvest that and to see growth opportunities or customer improvement opportunities. And, you know, there are simple, practical ways that that can be implemented. So from a commercial perspective, all of the arrangements that we have with a client have an element of KPI’s that we have to deliver swiftly to demonstrate that in a contractual and commercial way. But even then, the chances of a relationship being sustainable if you have to keep pulling the contracts out to say “no, no. You told me you’d improve efficiency this year,” You have to, as a business, just have a culture of curiosity.
It has to be instilled in our values. And we have to encourage all of our staff to look for those opportunities. And the way that we frame it is: our goal as an organisation is to be an extension of our business partners. So, you know, they come into our office, it feels like their operation and they can connect, they can be a part of it. And in most instances, clients actually actively sit within our contact centre and participate in ensuring that we deliver the branded experience. So it is a challenge and certainly one that I get often if a business hasn’t been exposed to that. But typically the way that I’d look at it now is there’s bad outsourcing experiences, and there’s good outsourcing experiences. It doesn’t mean all outsourcing is bad.
The other thing as well is, I think people typically if you haven’t been exposed to it when your business operations assume that outsourcing means offshore. And certainly, from my perspective, that hasn’t been necessarily TSA’s journey. We do have an offshore capability, it is in the Philippines, and we have that because we are very focused on voice and contact centre delivery as opposed to back office. But certainly, the bulk of our operations and we’ve got 3000 people within our organisation. Two-thirds of them are based here in Australia and Perth, Adelaide, Brisbane and Melbourne. And so it’s not necessarily just about looking at ways to take contact centre operations offshore to provide some labour arbitrage. There’s still value in looking at business partners here who may have particular expertise that you can tap into.
Sean: I do want to go down and explore with you how you’ve you and the team have managed through, you know, the challenges with COVID, particularly there, having that offshore component. Because I know those offshore centres have had a lot of challenges themselves. But just on something you mentioned before, that that challenge of it’s always a challenge for an organisation to connect its people to its own purpose. How do you how do you manage? You touched on it with getting some of your clients to come and spend time in the contact centre. But what do you do to help your employees connect to the brands that you support so that they’re just as invested in the outcomes as what they would be for TSA?
Blaine: Yes. So it’s a really great question, and it starts from the first engagement that we have. We want to have as many of our people in the business experience what life is like for business partners. So we do spend a lot of time within their operations, depending on the type of business that they have. We may go into their stores. We may go and experience the service delivery that they have for their clients. Being that we’re Australian owned and have big operations here, in every situation the clients that we represent, we actually are most of the time their customers as well. So we understand the customer experience that they deliver. So we try and get as much as possible. That awareness and that understanding of exactly what the status quo is and where we think the opportunities for us to contribute are. But it does depend on the business partnership as well because some businesses are just looking to remove a challenge from the organisation, and it may be seasonal variability that becomes really difficult for them to manage. And so that’s something that gets possession with us, and we take that pain away. And when we’ve seen that happen in certain business partnerships, we’ve actually seen the employee NPS of our clients go up because they’ve taken that tough seasonality out of the operations and other things, like one of the ones that my background is in outbound sales. And so I look at typical contact centre operations and see that it’s mostly inbound. And then you have a small outbound team that sits on the side.
It’s difficult to staff because it’s hard work. You know, no one wants to be making calls and trying to sell to customers when they could just take inbound calls. And so we’ve got a really large component of our operations on outbound, which makes us quite unique. So we have the opposite when we have an inbound program that comes in, we have loads of people who are quite prepared to move over to that because it’s perceived as being something that’s less intense to work on. So I think what we’re looking at there is we can take the business issues away and then if we can augment that with understanding what they want to achieve from that and then delivering to those expectations, we’ve found that we’ve got long-tenured partnerships off the back of that. Still, certainly, it is a challenge, and we have to work with clients constantly in terms of alignment and making sure that we’ve got that right. But to be perfectly honest, whether it’s an external contact centre partner or internal, The same things have to occur because you’ve got management or, you know, a strategic part of the business that says this is the brand experience we want to portray. And even if you had your own internal contact centre, then you’d still have to do the same things to ensure that the people delivering that were live up to those expectations.
Sean: Yeah, that’s so true. So what you took us through now, I’m really curious to see how you guys have managed through COVID, and everyone’s been impacted. So yeah. What’s been the experience for TSA both here and overseas.
Blaine: Yeah. Look, I think it’s been definitely one of the most challenging periods of my life in this industry. You know, we’ve seen innovation and, you know, technical deployments occurred in days that would have taken months to have scoped out before. And I think that’s well documented, that every business has just been amazed by how quickly they’ve been able to pivot from a TSA perspective. We’ve been very fortunate that we had made steps within our business to ensure that we could work from home. And so all that we had to do once the outbreak had occurred was just to enact those plans. And certainly what surprised me was that in some instances we were actually the you know, we picked up the slack for where clients were still trying to come to terms with how they could get their technical deployment underway.
The Philippines has been an interesting one because it’s a lot less predictable in terms of how the local government is going to make sense of some of the things that have occurred. But we’ve got a phenomenal team up there who’s been sensational and adapting to that. But one of the things that we’ve done to support that team in the Philippines ensures that we’ve got Australian leadership. So one, because that’s good from our customer engagement perspective to really instil within the local team up there what it means to be an Australian customer. But that’s really paid dividends now because we’ve got someone up there that understands our business that’s worked in head office or one of our locations here for 10 years. And they’ve been sensational making sure that the operations have been as stable as possible. But, you know, the biggest challenge there was how do you send people to work from home when they don’t have, you know, the ADSL connections or the connectivity and hence why we’ve been fortunate that we’ve got such a scaled operation here locally. We were able to offer services from Australia to support that and spin up teams, and you know, one of the clients that we have, we actually ramped to 500 staff in a couple of weeks to support increased coal volume and then ramped it back down once that had passed. So you’re talking about scales and ramps that we would never have thought we would need to do. But certainly the critical component to that, given the fact that we couldn’t actually get people access and our sites, was that we had digitised our recruitment process. So we actually have a fully remote recruitment process from start to finish, which has enabled us to be able to be operational regardless of whether people get access to our site.
Sean: Wow, that’s really cool. I’m really keen to explore that part. I know that is something that a lot of leaders that I’ve been talking to have grappled with the recruiting, onboarding, training process. You can’t have people in a classroom, in a building, for five hours a day or longer for weeks. What can you share about how you manage that with your guys?
Blaine: So we had to evaluate just because of how we dispersed we are across Australia. We wanted to have more coverage and more awareness of what the process looks like. And so we’ve used a lot of technology to do that. We also partner in that space, or we use a range of different technology partners to ensure that we’ve got the most cutting edge technology and to make sure that the onboarding experience and the interview experience for candidates is really strong. One of the things I’m really passionate about as we made the change to do video interviewing over face to face, and at first, that was quite confronting because you’re putting the onus on the individual to actually do that as opposed to booking them an appointment and have them come in. But what we’ve found is that’s been really transformational for us because, well, twofold. One, if the individual actually goes and does the interview and takes it seriously and dresses appropriately and goes to a quiet place to conduct the interview, it does tell you something about that candidate and whether or not they are the type of person that you’d like to have within the organisation. But then it also helped us with there was always this debate between operations and recruitment, have recruitment got the candidate wrong, or has operations not taken that candidate and, helped them fulfil their potential.
So, now through the process, we can actually look at it and say, well, here’s the video interview. This is the reason why this recruiter has scored this candidate high. And we are they’ve met all of the values of our business or the particular profile of the rule. And then that’s shared with the operational leader. And at that point, they can both look at this candidate, and we can agree that that person should go through the process.
For example, I love soccer. So if someone came in to interview with me and talks about that, then I’d have this bias towards them and say, what a fantastic person, get them into the organisation. But really, it removes all of that bias because everybody’s interview process is exactly the same. So you’re judging the candidate based on the questions that are presented to them. So the way that it works practically is they log into the portal, and they’re served up a question, and that might be something about them personally, it might be about their skills, and they have the opportunity to record the response. If they’re not happy with the response, they can change it. But we get all the analytics about whether they’ve changed it multiple times, how they’ve come across. And it’s really also to the best we can recreate and what it’s like to be on the phones because you’re going to get questions thrown at you.
You’ve got to have customers put you under pressure. So it’s the best example of how we can recreate that and see how people respond before we’ve given them training. So, you know, if it was a role that had a high degree of empathy, then we can see how passionately people talk about aspects of some of the questions. But certainly, it’s been one of the coolest innovations I’ve seen. But we had a client who’d come in and said, yeah, we do a video interviewing as well, but not enough candidates do it. So we turn that off, and we’d say, well, we actually do the opposite. If a candidate is not prepared to do the first step in the process, then we won’t push them any further through. So I think there is a leap of faith because, you know, in particular when you’re hiring 20 people and you need to get candidates through the process. But we won’t compromise on that. So if they don’t do the video interview, they don’t go through the process, we won’t chase them, because that’s the first step in assessing whether or not someone really wants to work for us. And what type of individual they are.
Sean: That’s really interesting. So that interview is just it’s not another physical person asking questions. It’s literally just you answer this question, and away you go. That’s really interesting, to remove some of the bias of where you might take that question next, depending on the answer that you get.
Blaine: And then when we had to ramp to 500 people, the biggest question for us was going to be how much time is it going to take a recruiters to interview all these candidates? But by making the interview process digital and giving all of the candidates a set amount of time to respond, we were able to know exactly how long it was going to take for us to assess all these candidates, because an interview didn’t become how long you and I have a conversation. It became 15 minutes because that’s the time we allocated for that individual to respond. So we had a huge productivity gain there as well.
Sean: It’s made me think about asynchronous communication is something that has really a big advantage of this, with remote working. It’s almost like asynchronous recruitment as well, which is really cool. Are there any other innovations that you’ve seen that your teams have taken in this process beyond that interview process with how they onboard and train people?
Blaine: Yeah, I think Zoom and (Microsoft) Teams have been a game-changer because it enables us to have training with people remotely. In fact, we’ve even leveraged the technology even when we’ve been onsite because we need to have the separation within the training room. So your twenty seat training room that you used to, you know, showcase is now no longer suitable because everybody’s so close together. So certainly, from that perspective, we’ve seen a lot of value. But we’ve always thought about this idea of hyper-localised delivery. Imagine if you could speak to not only an Australian based individual, but they lived in your local community. So we were already down this path of, well, what would that look like and how could we have staff and regional areas talking to regional customers? And so a lot of that thinking and the bold calls we made to make that real just basically enabled us to enact our strategy, around COVID, because it happened immediately. And so, yeah, from a training perspective, we leveraged Zoom. And certainly, that’s been really effective. To get the best out of that, we do have to set some rules around making sure people are actually engaged in the content.
We have a learning management system, which we’ve got through Cornerstone as well, which is really helping us with ensuring that all of our staff are competent and we can do micro assessments before they log in to calls. We can do field training deployment through the system. The cool thing about Cornerstone is it’s designed around Netflix-style user experience. So you can go on and select the learning journey you want or TSA can go to a candidate saying, “this is all the modules that you need to complete.’ And the system does that. Now, things like that are absolutely critical because of the demographic of people that we have. But certainly, Netflix, in general, has just set a new standard of experience that brands have to live up to. But even at TSA, like if we put something that’s subpar towards our staff, they’re not going to engage with it because the expectation is it has the same user experience as what they used to when they transact with other businesses.
Sean: Has anyone been doing any binge learning?
Blaine: So the first part of it was about how do we push content out to ensure, one, that we meet any compliance expectations. Secondly, that we’re there to support our staff members, and the next phase of development of that platform is to say, well, how are our staff using it? Because I used to be a believer that we had a responsibility as an organisation to make sure that we brought all of the talents through the business. And I think that comes from my own personal experience. I started on the phones, and so I thought, you know, it’s the company’s job to keep providing me with learning opportunities. But more and more I’m interested in who is proactively doing that, which people with our business take the time to actually, you know, increase their capability. And the platform, the LMS platform enables us to look out when people use how effective they are. And then we can also then overlay the results pre and post them actually doing that, learning too to say, has that actually made an impact? And all of that data that’s flowing through the business, now Just helps us to refine and improve the capability and then the offering that we give to our clients.
Arnie: I’m a big fan of. Yeah. What you’re talking about, like pooling information. Like that’s when people really are going to be motivated to learn, isn’t it? When we think about anything, we’re learning a new skill. When we want to learn new skills, we’re the ones that are really trying to pour that information and find where we’re going to get that. So. So I love that concept of pulling information as I talk to people’s needs for mastery. Right. With the work that they’re doing, everyone is trying to find mastery in their work. So if you can create an environment where people can get that, I think that that goes a long way to the engagement that we see with their people. I’m interested in hearing about how you’ve had to do some remote contact centre setups.
Has that been something that you’ve explored much at TSA now as a result of COVID or where are you sitting with that at the moment?
Blaine: From a technical perspective, that was something we could, we could switch on all of the systems that we have could either be deployed through the cloud or through VPN. So technically, we had the capability to do that, and we’ve always had a remote workforce within our business. Just the scale of our organisation has meant that we’ve hired people that have been located in remote communities. And in fact, we’ve got a business partnership where we’ve got 80 sales staff in regional Australia. And so we’ve always had the need to connect them back to the business. One of the things we’re assessing at the moment is, is work from home for our services here to stay? Or is it just situational? And so the performance that we’ve got and the trust that we’ve put into our staff is showing that it’s actually increased performance. We’ve lowered unplanned absences, the turnover of staff has declined, and productivity’s been maintained. So those three metrics alone are looking at all, you know, music to our ears. But the challenge is how much of that is just because of the circumstances and how much of that is related to the flexibility that you’re giving your staff and the trust that you’re giving your staff. So we’re not quite sure whether it’s here to stay. But certainly, we have a concept called a hub and spoke model, which is we’ll always have our sites around Australia so that we can keep people connected to the business, but we may utilise that in a different manner. We are you may only have to come in once or twice a fortnight to be connected, to be able to engage with the business. But then you go home, and you have that flexibility. But as opening up new things like different talent pools and different ways for us to do service delivery, so we’re embracing it, and we certainly hope that it’s here to stay because it gives us the ability to offer a really good employee value proposition to people coming into our business. But certainly whether or not the uplift and performance as is going to stay, that still has to be confirmed.
Arnie: Take the red pill, Blaine. Take it. Or is it the blue pill? I can remember which whichever the right one is. But we talked a bit about this in one of our podcasts. I can’t remember which one Sean, but you know, this concept of extending trust like you were talking about and how, you know, people rise to that, to that ownership. When you extend trust and that trust should be reciprocated. It’s something that people want to reciprocate, not necessarily have this environment of I need to earn your trust to people. People want to give it away. So that it’s an interesting conundrum. I’m sure, for TSA to work through. But, you know, where we probably stand with that. There’s just so much benefits. And I love the fact that you have a remote-remote region workforce because that’s brilliant like that creates new opportunities for people who probably would never have got it—living out in those regions. So I really love hearing that.
Sean: I just have one other quick question just on what you spoke about there. So and this is another big challenge. You talked about productivity. The technology enablement for remote working is almost like a hygiene factor; now, everyone was able to do it. It was, of course, a lot of heartache and blood, sweat and tears to begin with but people have overcome it. The big challenge now is the cultural piece. Are you guys doing anything that you can share that you know is different to how you would have built those connected and engaged teams before that, you know, you were working as remote as you are now?
Blaine: Yeah. I don’t know if I’d say we’re doing anything different, but we’re certainly communicating through a different medium now. We’ve always said that a really big culture of sharing. And so, you know, allowing people to do showcases, thinking about how we stay connected with the business has always been what’s made us successful? If I look at what’s been more topical recently? I think the main change has been communicate early and communicate often. But that’s certainly been the message that we heard loud and clear from our senior management team. And so we’ve opted on the side of oversharing with all of our senior leaders because, you know, there’s obviously sensitivity, you know, with regards to some of the things that we do. But when we talk about trust, that’s certainly been a big step change for our organisation. We’ve really trusted our senior leadership team, and then they’ve responded phenomenally well to that. All kind of came from a piece of work that we did as an executive at TSA around the five dysfunctions of a team, book by Patrick Lencioni; certainly that broke down a lot of barriers for us as a business because we had, you know, typical things happening within our business around not having a shared and aligned incentive model at the top of the business. And then you saw how through that book that had these flow-on impacts right there through the different layers of the organisation. But the biggest lesson within that was understanding what you’re first team is, because naturally, you go to your direct reports and you that you see that as your first team.
But really for me and my role, my first teams, my executive peers, and once I understood that and we actually worked through solving problems together, our business has transformed significantly. And then that’s flowed right down through the organisation. So when we started to talk about things like trust that many started over overcommunicate, some of the things that were occurring and really communicating early. We’ve seen that returned in spades. And so we’ve gone from an environment where we kind of manage the business top-down to know again a lot more engagement and ideas and concepts and direction from all aspects of the business, which is great. But the biggest lesson for me, as I expected, that we’d implement something like that and then the next day everybody would be on board. It takes time. And so there’s got to be some patience to make sure that happens. You can’t lose the faith. You’ve got to stick with it. But certainly, looking back over the last nine months of us going through that process, it’s been one of the most critical things for any leaders that listen to this podcast. If you’re in a new role, that you’ve got a new team, that five dysfunctions of a team book is absolutely a must-read to help you set your agenda and engage your team.
Sean: That’s brilliant. I’m glad you shared that because that’s something that we do talk about with enabling teams to self organise. And I think that’s a key concept that as a leader, you need to be comfortable with. Empowering the people that do the work, to own the work means you sort of getting out of their way to a degree, not being involved in the directing and the organising of the work, which a lot of leaders grow up playing that role. And I think if you can realise that your first team is the team that’s going to help create the right environment for the people doing the work, get out of their way, let them self organise. Yeah, it’s quite liberating, but it’s my personal experience. Well, it takes some time to unlearn some of those behaviours.
Blaine: You can see how it plays out because there was definitely an uncomfortable moment. Where you know, most businesses probably always like to say, okay, this is your role. And so I’m going to incentivise you just on delivering that outcome. But then when you play there, and you look at all the decisions that flow on from that, it’s not that that someone was a bad person or they were particularly motivated by self-interest. It was just that they were trying to do the best job around what they were incentivised to do. But by blowing that up and saying, well, actually everybody’s on the same incentive model, it’s changed every decision that we would make. And In the book it says, you know, people used to kind of defend their team. So I’ve got five resources, and I’m going to do what I need. But no one ever considered whether one of my five resources would be better deployed in another part of the organisation. And by having that alignment, that’s changed our culture because we’ve always been phenomenal in terms of relationship and everybody gets on. It’s been a fantastic business to be a part of. But we’ve completely transformed since we’ve got that alignment. And I can only see the business just growing and growing and growing now, because it’s so powerful, you know. And as soon as we get that through the different layers of the business, I think it’s just going to keep that momentum going.
Sean: I had such a great example of that. I won’t name any names or anything, but it was in this organisation where they had a process of prioritisation initiatives from the rest of the business. And someone from one of the teams had this idea, which just didn’t have a really great value to the business, but was really great for their own team. And they just kept trying to push this idea through. And, you know, as it was we were getting into as we interrogated it, we realised eventually he ultimately he was pushing it because it was to help him with his bonus at the end of the year versus not actually helping the rest of the business. And he admitted to that. And that was just. Unfortunately, the system of the work not so much that this person, like you said, Blaine, is that person wasn’t a bad person. It’s just they’re just a smart person. They’re actually just very smart.
Blaine: That’s what’s so clever about this book, because they don’t just give you leadership advice from him to you, it’s drafted as a fable. So you actually look at how this fake executive team, or leadership team, all engage and you can absolutely relate to one of the personalities within that group. And it is absolutely humiliating and for you, that you’re sitting there going, oh, my God, that person’s me. And I look at all the things that they are doing that are not aligned. But what’s amazing about it, is if you force yourself into that difficult engagement, that difficult conversation. And again, maybe if I share that about our executive team, there’s been things where there’s been really difficult decisions that we’ve needed alignment on. The thing that I loved the most about the people I work with as that we forced yourself into those difficult conversations. And it’s painful. And, you know, there’s going to be disagreements and non-alignment. But we implemented this system called Fist to five. And so the idea is that if you have a, you know, a concept, you either all fist it, and that means you’re in violent agreement.
But if you are anything above a three, then you can say I’m not 100 per cent on board here, but you have to give a really strong strategic rationale for why not. And then that opens the debate up again. So, you know, we were looking at what we call our TSA Ways, which are essentially our values and leadership principles in the business. And we thought we had alignment on it. And one of the Exec’s said, I’m a three and here’s why. And that was the catalyst to change it completely and a whole different direction. So, you know, some of those things have really helped us as an organisation. But you’ve got to face into the pain. You can’t avoid it. And so that’s again, where the alignment’s good is you’re facing into it as a group. You’re not on your own. It’s not my job is new business, that doesn’t mean that I have to go and find new clients. It means the business has to go and work together collaboratively to grow the organisation. And that’s really empowering to know that you’ve got all those other team members, your first team, they’ve got your back as well.
Sean: It’s a great, simple technique to get alignment. That’s brilliant. I love that.
Arnie: Having the language is so important as it is able to work through those things because we just don’t grow up with that kind of language. You know, to be able to disagree in a calm and rational strategic manner. So that’s really cool.
Blaine: It was really difficult, it’s simple, but it was really uncomfortable because, you know, at the very beginning, you’re like, you know, the conversation. Everybody seems aligned. I’m not sure I’m aligned, I’ll just fist this as well like it’s fine. But then the more comfortable you got with it, you’re like that. I’m definitely not on board. I need more conversation. This is what my key issues are. And when you see that the outcome that you get from that is far superior. You actually start to really encourage a lot more of that debate and constructive discussion. But again, this is one of those ones where you got to persevere with it because the real value in it doesn’t come the first time that you actually try and implement that. It comes from practice and engagement and repetition.
Sean: Yeah, that psychological safety does take a while to build. No matter what the tool is or the language, you have to be prepared to stay the course.
Arnie: On that piece around leadership. You’ve been at TSA for how many years was now?
Blaine: This is my fifteenth year.
Arnie: So 15 years, you started on the phones as you shared a bit earlier, and you’ve, I guess, risen through the ranks, said at TSA to where you are today. Why don’t you share a little bit about your leadership journey? What does that look like for you?
Blaine: Yeah, I’d love to. I actually got asked, well I did a bit of a workshop with our frontline recruiters last week, and one of them said, “Blaine, I’ve got a question for you. What is your legacy?” And I was like, oh, I don’t know. I’m only 34. I’m not sure I’m really worried about my legacy yet. But it was interesting that the perception was that if you are in a senior leadership role, that you had all this figured out. And so, you know, that was one of the interesting things for me, is that coming up through the ranks at TSA, I haven’t got it all figured out and I don’t think anyone does. And certainly what I feel that I do for this organisation is provide a bit of realism, because I listen to all your other podcasts and some really inspirational and exciting people that you talk to, and I feel like I’m not as polished, I feel a little bit rough around the edges. And it took me a bit of time to realise that that’s actually what my value is. It’s not that I have to be like anybody else. That’s where my value sits. And so it all comes through the journey. And so that you just mentioned there.
I started in outbound sales and what that made me was a really good conversationalist. So, you know, I was speaking to 50 to 100 people a day having conversations with them, being Scottish. Most of it was about a long lost uncle, or a grandfather was very little to do with sales. To be honest but what actually enabled me to understand was, if you could connect with people, you could be successful. And so that that was kind of the catalyst for me around building my first set of leadership principles and the teams that I’ve managed and the people that I’ve worked with has been about having a more personal relationship with them, to understand them, what motivates them as individuals as opposed to really setting an agenda and managing them to that. The other thing I learned from doing outbound sales is you have to have conversations, but you can’t see the other person. And so it is amazing. You’ve got to use all your other senses. You’ve got to listen, and you’ve got to see how people react to things that you say and then now that I’m in a role where I have a lot of face to face contact with people. That’s like I’ve got a whole superpower. Now, because I can now play off your reactions, I can see what I’ve said that hasn’t really hit the mark. And so that was really good from the perspective that I would have called thousands and thousands of people without being able to see whether or not they were rolling their eyes or they had really resonated with what I’ve said. But that set me in a really strong position now where I’ve got all of these extra things that I can assess. But again, you know, as a business, we’ve been really strong on recruiting from within and for the first 15 years of our existence, that was really the story. You wouldn’t have found anybody that we’d hired externally. It was all about just growing them and providing people with opportunities. But what we’ve found is we need to retain that, but then also augmented with going out and finding the best talent we can get in Australia and certainly having that ambition and really facing into to that and certainly going out and trying to find that talent has been a really critical step change for us. And so I feel like we’ve got the right balance within our organisation of tenured people who can say, you know, we’ve been here, we’ve been rewarded for, you know, the loyalty that we’ve given the business and, you know, that what we’ve produced. But then we’re bringing in this amazing talent. And what we’re finding is it’s just this nice balance of everybody pushing each other to improve. And certainly, at the moment, that’s a really good organisation to be a part of.
Sean: That’s really cool. I’m really interested in that legacy piece is an interesting one, and maybe at the end, we can circle back around that bit. Have there been any over your leadership, you know, that your journey with TSA and, you know, when you became a leader, have you had any really pivotal moments for you that have really shaped your approach to leadership?
Blaine: Yeah, look, and this is probably more of a personal thing, but it does relate to work as well. Last year I got diagnosed with cancer, and I had to get six months chemotherapy, which meant I’d lose all my hair. And, you know, this is a podcast you can’t see. I was very important to me.
Arnie: You’ve got a very good head of hair on you, and that’s for sure!
Blaine: But the reason why I tell this story is the one, don’t sweat the small stuff, because when you get into a circumstance like that, you really realise what’s important. But I had this great conversation with one of my colleagues when I was telling her that I would be off work. And she said, listen, you can’t go through that on your own. We’ll all shave our heads in solidarity. And so what was amazing was we turned this really difficult personal experience into something amazing. We raised fifty thousand dollars for Ronald McDonald House. Our entire executive team shaved their heads. And not only that. So that’s kind of the nice part. And that was the connection that we had. But the message that sent to every single person in our business about the fact that we support one another and we always cover one another, and we’ll be there for one another was really powerful when, you know, I was off for six months. The business never missed a beat. All of my peers, you know, supported me through that personally and from our professional perspective. And it’s just this really good example of us as a business and our culture. But, you know, it’s kind of from my own experience, quite overwhelming as well, because, you know, it takes a long time for an organisation to have a culture that’s so supportive like that. But that’s something that we have as a business, which is really good. So where that kind of leads me to your question about leadership principles. When I was off, my eyes, my ears, everything was aching. So I just used to sit in bed for hours just thinking constantly. And certainly it’s amazing how your brain works when you’re in that position because you think, you know, I practice a bit of meditation here and there. And you sit for five minutes, and you feel better if you force yourself to sit in a room for an hour and think of nothing it is amazing where your mind goes. But I couldn’t have felt more love and more involved in this business in terms of how people responded to what happened. But even then, insecurity still creeps into your mind about what if they don’t need you when I come back and what they find out that I wasn’t, you know, contributing as much as I felt I was. And it really was from my perspective, is important as a leader is to try and quiet that voice of doubt like I was in a situation where I couldn’t have had a more direct response around how people felt about me and the value I brought. And I still had this little niggling insecurity in the back of my mind. And it was really interesting to kind of think about that. And why does that occur? Because I knew that that wasn’t the case, but it was just there. So from a leadership perspective, I think you need to really focus on, you know, I think in your last podcast be the best version of yourself. I completely agree with that. Just face into who you are and certainly, you know, go off at opportunities and work with people that really value you as an individual and that will set you up for success.
Sean: I don’t think there’s a leader out there that doesn’t feel that imposter syndrome at some point, you know, even if you’re not a leader. I suppose any role that you’re in where you’re trying to be the best you can be, that imposter syndrome. And it’s it it is incredibly hard to overcome because we’re I naturally quite, you know, driven people who all want to do our best. What advice would you give to leaders who are grappling with that?
Blaine: Knowledge is one thing, and I think probably being comfortable, being vulnerable. You know, I get asked that question by a staff member. What do you think your legacy has years gone by I’d have thought I better have a good answer for this because he’s asked me that question. But in reality, I don’t know, because I just hope that what I’m doing now, I’ll look back on in 10 years time and I’ll be proud of the decisions that I made. And that’s really the response to that question, in my view. But I think it’s more about you do have to be open to learning. You do have to be. Seeking advice and seeking feedback from people that you respect and being curious about that, but being vulnerable and being honest and open about the areas that you’re not necessarily strong in. And then deciding and whether or not that’s worth the time investment to improve. Is it really going to make a difference to you and where you want to take your career? Because I think from that perspective and one of my colleagues, Matt, says you have to be comfortable with ambiguity. So you have to be in an environment where you haven’t got it all figured out. But you’re trying to make calculated decisions all the time about where you should invest your time and who you should seek that advice from. And I read another book come by Ray Dalio, called Principles, and he basically has catalogued every single decision he’s ever made for his investment company. And when I read the book, I was saying to my wife, “he’s basically just giving me all of his life lessons in a book,” and, you know, I would have said having moved here as an adult, that I haven’t got the network and I don’t know people, and I’d make that excuse for why I couldn’t actually learn or grow. But in reality, you know, you’ve got all these amazingly talented people that have documented what made them successful. Just pick up a book. Read it. See whether it resonates with you. And then adopt some of the principles within it. But that’s certainly been my advice for any leaders I’ve had as read and seek out, you know, people that are going to give you good advice.
Sean: Yeah, that’s incredible advice. I think that the vulnerability definitely comes through from you. And I think that, yes, the more leaders that realise that they can’t solve everything themselves and they’re actually maybe that’s the answer. No one actually expects that you can. But what I suppose they do want is for you to help them try and connect the dots, or connect to other people who can help you do that. So, yeah, that’s unreal.
Blaine: That’s the other thing as well. And I mention this a lot at work, and it’s certainly something that people have a laugh about, but it needs to be fun. I don’t know if that’s just me personally or that’s everyone, but it needs to be something that you actually enjoy if you don’t enjoy it. It’s going to come through in the results, the performance or whatever, you know, the output you’ve got to give. But certainly, for me, I love what I do. I love the role that I’ve got, all of the people that I work with. It’s fun. That’s enjoyable. And so then my goal within this business as a leader is to try and ensure that I can give as many people that back as well to find out what it is they like about their job and provide them with opportunities to work hard and to enjoy what they do.
Sean: That’s brilliant.
Arnie: That’s spot on. I was wondering, so we talked about legacy. We talked about the future. If there’s any time where the future is so unknown, now is probably the time. But I’m still going to pose the question in any way. Where do you see, you know, you work really firmly in the industry. Obviously, as a player, as Sean has mentioned before. But, yeah, I guess you get the opportunity of working with a lot of different brands in different companies and how and what they’re looking at in terms of customer experience and customer service. Where do you sort of see the future taking in? You know, especially now, like, I guess whilst there is unknown with COVID, what’s known as everyone is innovating and everyone is moving to digital tools and really taking advantage of that. Now it’s almost like a new age. So, yeah. Where do you see the industry heading towards now?
Blaine: Yes. So it’s a really great question. What I’ve been an observer of is how the contact centre has changed in terms of the perception within businesses. And I go back to, say, six years ago and go into contact centre events, and it was really about cost, centre, how do I reduce my costs? How do I boost productivity? And so the technology was around automated dialers and can you take cost out. And what that meant was that the business cases were quite straightforward because it’s like implement the system, take this cost out of your business, it’s going to cost you less than what you save. So, therefore, it was approved. But then the way I’ve seen it is as NPS became more critical, everybody then realised that the contact centre was probably the best place and best source of information for the heartbeat of the customer and how they feel about an organisation. So the balance between cost and customer experience kind of became a little bit more level. And so there was more discussion and to be around that. Now, it’s firmly around digitisation, and the debates become what is it right for humans to manage and what should be allowed to be automated? And I don’t think that there’s necessarily been a perfect formula. I think every business is going to have a different tension on either side of that. But certainly, what I’m seeing from the conversations that I have is the challenge that that contact centre leaders have is how do they demonstrate an ROI? How do you go forward with a business case that says we’re going to digitise this part of a process or this part of the contact centre? But then there’s so many other pieces that contribute towards whether or not that actually had an impact. So the ROI has become a lot more difficult to just put straight to that one change. So my sense is that the businesses that have been really successful in this environment have done two things. One, they’ve partnered with people who have implemented solutions before, whether it be consultants or industry experts. And I think that is really important to do. You need to find trusted advisers that can help you demonstrate the effectiveness of some of these ideas and concepts you might have. And secondly, is to start small because, you know, even looking at some of the presentations from one of the last events I went to, even the big four banks are calling out some of the smallest innovations as having the biggest impact. And so there’s still lots of low hanging fruit. So don’t be fooled into the big marketing juggernaut of all the technology vendors that say that you’re not cutting edge. You need to buy our system, and you need to consume all of our services. Sure, there are great applications, and they do make a difference to businesses. But I’d start small and build from that platform and get some wins and get some momentum. A great example of that’s the stuff that Tim Buzza has done around workforce management. It’s such a small piece of a big contact centre delivery. But yet he’s actually made a huge impact. And when he started to talk about unpacking the deference that made for an employee and taking the stress out of asking for time off, you know, that’s a really small, impactful innovation that has a big impact.
Arnie: Very appreciative of the reference to previous episodes Blaine, so you’ve definitely earned brownie points for that. For all the fans listening. Head to episode, I think it’s two, or episode three.
Sean: It might be episode four, actually.
Arnie: Do we do that many episodes before that?
Blaine: See, I’m in sales, I can’t help myself, but always be selling.
Arnie: You’ve endeared yourself to us for sure.
Sean: You Absolutely have. Love it.
Sean: Well, on that note, we might just do a quick round-up and see, Blaine, is there anything else you want to cover before we call stumps on this one?
Blaine: Look, I think we’ve kind of covered a lot of things, but, you know, putting myself in the shoes of people who might listen to this podcast. I think that the work that you guys do in providing that visibility of how different businesses operate and certainly sharing some of the experience is going to be critical. And so anybody who listens to this podcast will no doubt get some value from it. I’d encourage anybody to reach out to myself or any professionals on a knowledge-sharing basis because I think that the Australian Contact centre community will be greatly enhanced with people collaborating together. And that’s what I really love about what you guys do, is that you’re enabling that to occur. So I think the more like-minded professionals that consolidate those thinking is only going to benefit Australian consumers, of which we all are as well. And certainly, yeah, look, I’m really excited about what the future holds because there still is a lot of opportunity out there. And certainly, yeah, I just wish everybody the best and whatever journey they’re on and their contact centre management career.
Sean: Very cool. Arnie, any last thoughts from you?
Arnie: I guess for me, you know, when I, when I, I.
Arnie: Obviously, when we came into this conversation, it was about the outsourcing industry. I still find that really interesting how you provide that customer experience and your approach towards it, especially you’re finding like even the language you use about partnering with organisations and being aligned on values rather than just, you know, just metrics itself. And this concept of staying small either I think is really, really good. So, yeah, like I said, at the Agile Contact Centre for us as a brand, I think it’s worth saying that, you know, I don’t think we’d lean on one way of you must outsource, or you must not outsource. I think at the end the day it just comes down to, you know, are we creating better customer experience? Are we having more engaged people or more humanistic organisations where people can really thrive in those experiences? And so I think that’s you know, that’s our ultimate what it’s about. And it sounds like you’re really kicking goals in that industry at the moment, Blaine, and what you guys are doing in your organisation. So I guess keep it up is my last thing. Well, good work.
Sean: Thanks, Arnie. And yeah. Thanks so much, Blaine. Appreciate your openness with us today. Yeah. There’s stuff you shared around leadership for me was the real highlight. So thank you so much for sharing that. And I don’t know if I’ve mentioned it before, but actually hail from I originally I grew up over there, so I’ve still got family back there. So hopefully one day I’ll get to fly back and visit them, and I have to come in and say hello.
Blaine: I think the door’s still firmly shut at the moment, hopefully, you will be able to come back. It’s beautiful over here, and it’s kind of like a bit of a secret within our business. It’s beautiful over here, and it’s kind of like a bit of a secret within our business. We don’t want too many people to know how amazing Perth is. So we put up with you over to the eastern states.
Sean: Well, this might be when WA secedes from the rest of the country, the right to do it for about 100 years. So this could be it.
Blaine: Well, hopefully, they’ve got better luck than Scotland had when they tried to do it in the UK
Sean: Well, on that note, we’ll wrap up. Thanks so much for your time.
Blaine: No problem. Thank you for having me.