Comdata Group strategies and prospects in the face of an evolving market driven by digital technology.
Customer Experience is considered to be one of the decisive factors for modern business, which faces a complex challenge resulting from the many interaction channels available. In this interview with Massimo Canturi, Chairman of the Comdata Group, we explore how this business is now operating in the market and the strategy it is pursuing in the digital transformation era.
Let's start by introducing the Comdata Group, its history and development over the years as a multinational reality, and its current organisation...
Based in Milan, the Comdata Group can be defined as an innovative global service provider, a leader in the areas of Customer Interaction and Process Management (CIPM), which has been helping companies maximise the value of their respective customers since 1987. The business remained fundamentally Italian until 2015 when The Carlyle Group, one of the largest Global Alternative Asset Management companies, became a majority shareholder. As a consequence, it experienced significant international expansion, particularly through acquisitions. These are integral parts of our business and we need them to strengthen our presence in countries where we want to cover new vertical markets, not just telecommunications but also e-commerce or device management, or to complement our offer with new niche services. The plan is essentially to create a global platform with which we can serve international customers in a sector that is growing steadily every year but which, in order to be capitalised, requires operators to have an ample capacity to supply. In particular, the global BPO market is estimated to be worth between 60 and 70 billion dollars a year out of a total market of 300 billion. The outsourcing market is growing at an annual rate of 6%, driven in particular by the shift from in-house to outsourced work of 0.5-1%, i.e. from 1.5% over 3 years.
What are the main transactions carried out by Comdata?
Over the last 3 years, we have acquired other CRM-BPO service suppliers, including Win in Turkey, Digitex and Overtop Group in Spain/Latin America, and B2S and CCA in France, the last of these representing an extremely mature market. Furthermore, more internal transactions have taken place, for example, in Italy, on Wind-Tre call centres, and in Spain on CATsa, a subsidiary of Telefónica focused on customer care. We have therefore become a world leader in BPO Customer Management, positioning ourselves among the top three players on the European market, with 50,000 employees in 22 countries, and a Group turnover close to one billion euros, essentially tripling it over the last three years. In summary, we currently supply a complete range of services - BPO, CRM and digital, customer experience and consultancy in the field of process re-engineering - to over 670 customers, including some of the biggest names in the telecommunications, energy, banking, industry, retail and e-commerce sectors. We are also developing an international presence to serve the needs of global players who want to achieve a consistent customer experience, while also enhancing our local organisations to serve excellent local companies in a flexible way and with tailor-made solutions. In 2018, we launched the Comdata Digital division, which includes skill centres that are essential for the development and supply of advanced digital outsourcing services and technology-based change programs. This is all guided by an international team inherited from the acquisitions but also hired directly to add value and bring skills and professionalism into our organisation. These include our CFO, Ulrike Beckler, and Ronen Melnik, who heads Comdata Digital.
How does Italy fit into this strategy?
When we talk about a growing market, we should say first of all that we have a much wider offer than a traditional outsourcing operator. This allows us to expand our ability to develop business. Italy is a testing ground for different services that go beyond CRM, venturing heavily into sectors that have not yet relied on this type of outsourcing, such as banking, which is currently considering a change of direction in back office activities. With a DNA focused on the ability to manage processes, we then define the market in which we operate as a CIPM and use the experience we have gained in Italy abroad.
Describe the scenario you are operating in, particularly as regards contact and call centre services and related processes, the evolution you have witnessed over the years, and the challenges this sector is now creating for operators in this field?
Customers are the most valuable assets of any company, so achieving excellence in managing interactions with them is a key element for most of them. The digital era is offering new ways to interact and manage relationships, as well as the processes associated with them. However, it also adds complexity and increases the stakes because each interaction has to be carried out correctly. That's because customers are interacting more, are more aware, and have more tools available to them, as well as the strength needed to express more clearly how satisfied or frustrated they are.
Relying on external partners, therefore, allows new technologies to be adopted more quickly, achieving process excellence, developing a better and more cost-effective customer front line while maintaining high quality. I believe that the right partner should therefore be able to build a bridge between theory and reality, considering that experience also means intelligence, being able to guide change and shape the vision of companies, supporting them in achieving the right objectives and new horizons.
What do you consider to be your distinctive characteristics compared to other operators in terms of your services and offer in general, and how do you develop and implement them?
I would start by saying that today companies need to reinvent their business to adapt to the digital age and face the fact that customers now interact directly with brands and expect more from the customer experience. Customer management has therefore become a strategic priority, representing an important lever for differentiation and value creation. Our services, which range from the outsourcing of customer interactions and processes to customer experience consulting, are totally focused on a single goal, which is to help companies maximise the value of their customers, creating an intelligent combination of people, processes and technology.
Because of this, we see ourselves as a different kind of partner to others, as “makers” who think and do, performing both activities with passion. In this respect we have developed an innovative approach that positions us at the forefront of CIPM, with systems that combine people, processes and technologies, and which is based on 4 integrated offers that can be summarised as follows. It all starts with multichannel front-office outsourcing that covers the whole customer life cycle, therefore pre-sales, sales, loyalty and post-sales, including end-to-end outsourcing of back office activities performed by customers and advice on customer experience and process optimisation, as well as digital services and technological support. With reference to issues like process automation, CRM, BPM, robotics, digital channels, analysis systems and artificial intelligence.
From a technological point of view, what are the digital trends you consider to be most important today for operating effectively both internally and externally, through the services you offer, with your customers and their customers with whom you interact?
I should say first of all that technologies are destined to transform the way companies interact with customers and reshape the BPO Management sector. As a result, companies need to reinvent their business to adapt to the digital age and face the fact that customers now interact directly with brands and expect more from the customer experience. There are several technological clusters that currently support our services. The first is multichannel interaction capacity and platforms. We have a proprietary platform called C-contact and a contact centre system called C-phone. The second cluster is automated conversation bots, providing quicker answers to simple questions, also using natural language. Again, we have proprietary solutions for this as well as relying on third party ones. The same applies to the third area, which is the robotics used to automate the activities of agents, and in some cases replace them completely. Finally, we have advanced analysis systems using speech-to-text technologies and other tools.
In general, a single technology cannot modify the customer experience by itself, a fruitful combination of all of them is required, artificial intelligence being one of the most important. Combining process automation and people can undoubtedly guarantee the best interactions, but technology alone is not enough so, in addition to our software and integration activities, we have also invested decisively in process engineering and change management in order to support the implementation and effective use of these new tools.
Let’s take a more detailed look at Artificial Intelligence...
A great deal of emphasis is currently placed on digitalisation and artificial intelligence, and the combination of these two elements suggests a decline in the need for human interaction in the future. In actual fact, even though technology is developing exponentially, it is generating opportunities that far outweigh the potential reduction in transactions managed by humans. There are several reasons for this. The first is that technologies are shifting interactions from the physical to the virtual and remote world, as is happening, for example, in e-commerce and the replacement of physical stores, with an increase in the need for interaction with multiple players, whether automatic, semi-automatic or human. At the same time, the interactions themselves are becoming more complex and spread across several channels, requiring operators to manage them according to an advanced service logic. Particularly ones who are already outsourcing native. Furthermore, today the mix of human ability and technology is creating the so-called augmented agents, i.e. agents who have the skills to interact with automatic elements such as bots and algorithms that allow them to be more effective and create conditions for a more sophisticated CX, which is an important means of differentiation. All without forgetting the importance of fast adoption, which we ourselves support.
What about multi-channel technology?
It fits into a scenario which has seen a shift in interaction from the telephone to all available channels, and where one of the most important issues is to manage it effectively, making it a positive experience for customers, avoiding the need for them to start from the beginning every time they switch to another channel. This is known as an omnichannel approach, developing a continuum of experience. We tend to use technology not only for sales but also to support the service. As a result, some companies are beginning to ask us to provide end-to-end management of their clients, sharing objectives, participating in marketing and supply systems. Predictive analysis is of great value in this respect, using big data and associated algorithms to predict behaviour, making the difference in the conception and use of services.
How are you organised in terms of digital strategy and operation, and what do you do to find the right mix between automation and people?
Our strategy considers the fact that most of the efforts and investments made by companies to manage customer processes have been devoted to front office management. The efficiency and smooth running of back office processes have a structured and sustainable impact on customer satisfaction and cost control.
Transforming the management of back office activities and improving integration with front office activities therefore provides, both in B2C and B2B, an excellent but often underused means to improve customer satisfaction and increase the efficiency of activities as well as earnings. In the world of industry, many years of work have been done to optimise production processes by applying efficient and tested methods. The approach to customer relations, however, has been more 'artisan', with each business devising its own way of managing these activities. There is an optimal way to do this, which is to follow the Lean Six Sigma methodology. Created in the world of industry to guarantee uniform production output, it increases customer satisfaction, improves standardisation capacity and therefore the quality of production processes, reconciling consumer expectations with corporate objectives.
Within Comdata Digital we therefore have a Centre of Expertise dedicated to process re-engineering that includes engineers with wide-ranging skills in statistical analysis, as well as consultants with a deep operational knowledge of customer relations.
It is a combination of skills that helps create a concrete methodological vision designed specifically to cover end-to-end customer processes, including front and back offices, with the main goal of improving the customer experience and optimising costs. Our role is therefore to intervene in all the related management processes, helping to reduce operating costs as much as possible, avoiding negative repercussions on the customer experience or indeed improving it. Often companies that come to us to receive advice have already identified where they need to make progress and which process therefore needs to be redesigned after years in which, often, it has remained substantially unchanged. We also identify opportunities to generate value during each interaction, especially through up-selling and/or cross-selling.
Can you explain in more detail how you operate?
To begin with, we analyse large amounts of data relating to that particular process that need to be redesigned. We talk about ERP, CRM and everything that deals with the ‘customer’s voice’. Based on these analyses, the Lean Six Sigma methodology allows waste and opportunities to be identified in the processes examined. We then work with our customer’s operational teams to identify the phases of the process to be improved. We look at operations that can be digitised in order to optimise the front or back-office agent’s work, thus improving overall quality. And that isn't all. We can also recommend the use of robotics or artificial intelligence to optimise operations and create business value. Our core business is ultimately to offer outsourcing services that include people, technologies and tools to manage our customers' operations with optimised processes. Customers looking for global support to fully optimise and outsource their activities. And who turn to us not only to get a one-off management service for their front and back office, but because we take care of all their operations, thanks to our ability to develop the best strategy to manage the customer experience. This is all thanks to the skills we have on Lean Six Sigma and our deep knowledge of customer activities in most business sectors globally. Finally, companies that choose us see collaboration with us increasingly as part of a contract to share the value actually created, which is a very important element of our strategy.
To conclude, what are the skills you are working on (and developing) to tackle the issue of digital transformation?
To offer advanced digital outsourcing and technology-based change programmes, we are developing three streams of core competencies, at Group level and particularly in the Comdata Digital division. The first looks at technological systems and projects, i.e. a software house that develops and implements tools to improve operations and customer experience. The second relates to CX consulting, therefore, how to improve customer journeys and enhance their experiences. Finally, we have operational engineering, which means optimising performance through process re-engineering, the use of advanced tools and analysis, and the dissemination of Six Sigma programmes. At the same time, by leveraging technology, we invest constantly in training our employees to provide the best possible solutions.