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How TDCX is building a people-centric business

Every digital tool deployed by the Singapore-based services firm is aimed at augmenting the performance and experience of its employees, says TDCX’s group CIO, Byron Fernandez

Founded in 1995 to provide outsourcing services to diverse industries, Singapore-headquartered TDCX offers a range of services spanning customer experience management and content moderation to technology support and fraud detection.

It counts some of the world’s largest companies as clients, managing customer interactions and troubleshooting technology issues on their behalf. Despite the largely digital nature of its business, TDCX, which debuted on the New York Stock Exchange in October 2021, remains a highly people-centric organisation in the way it leverages technology.

In an interview with Computer Weekly, Kuala Lumpur-based Byron Fernandez, group CIO of TDCX, talks up the company’s approach in ensuring its technology investments enhance employee experience, as well as the cyber security challenges in its human capital intensive business.

Can you tell us more about TDCX’s work in managing customer experience and content moderation for organisations?

Fernandez: When we talk about customer experience, it’s very different from inbound service and outbound sales, which is how most people think about customer experience. What we do is, we run the full customer experience for a particular product or service for our clients.

One good example is an advertising platform used by some of the largest social media companies in the world. These companies do not just ask us to do customer service. Instead, it would be more about managing service inquiries, sorting out complaints and problems their customers may have, identifying why their customers are contacting them and the sorts of interactions they should be investing in.

We also do the same for technical support, which could be for mobile and internet-of-things (IoT) products made by some of the biggest brands in the world. All of these companies are instantly recognisable names.

As you rightly mentioned, we do content moderation for social media clients. It’s a particularly tough piece of business because it requires people to do the job which can be extremely demanding. What you are exposed to in this line of work can be potentially damaging, so how can we mitigate against these things? What support can we provide to our employees?

Beyond that, we also do safety-type work. So, imagine a platform where you could, for example, book a stay in another country. Typically, there would be a panic button that you could hit to get help from people who will answer you within four seconds. Those people are us. Very often, it involves dealing with local authorities and taking care of someone’s physical safety, so it can also be very demanding.

There is also the more traditional business, like inside sales and managing social media interactions for very large fast-moving consumer goods [FMCG] brands, which are a huge target for social media attack campaigns. Some of the things we do to safeguard these brands are social media listening and responding to some of these campaigns through social media as well. Overall, it’s very human-intensive business that requires a human touch.

The key differentiator between TDCX and our competitors is that our business is built, developed and engineered around our people. So, every single tool that we build is to enhance the human experience
Byron Fernandez, TDCX

Could you talk about the technologies to support all that work and your overall digital transformation strategy?

Fernandez: One of the first things we did as early as 2014 was to build out a platform for us to be able to interview people. While we could buy something off the shelf or do interviews on Google Meet, those really only addressed a tiny part of what we needed to manage in these interview sessions.

So, consider this. Some 52% of the people we hire are in Kuala Lumpur, and a very large percentage of our people in Bangkok, Singapore, even in Europe, are from outside the country. This was one of our key differentiators and really allowed us to evolve and get stronger, during the pandemic.

We started using things like Vieple for interviews, but there were limitations. For example, we were not able to gather data and see what kinds of profiles fit the bill for the different kinds of hiring we were doing for clients.

As an example, we have an appliance manufacturer that makes mobile phones as well as home products like vacuum cleaners and air-conditioners. In this case, you might think it’s alright to hire people who worked in an electrical store, but not so much, because the interactions we handle don’t only cover sales.

We also cover troubleshooting, so we need to have technical people with an engineering or IT background. You will never know that until you’ve gone through the process of matching the profiles you’ve hired against the profiles who are successful now. We couldn’t do that with off-the-shelf tools, which is why we created our own platform.

The platform has also allowed us to take away the element of multiple interviews. In our business, over 70% of our expenditure is direct payroll. It’s people’s salaries, which tells you that our business is extremely human-intensive. Now, in such a situation, the candidate’s experience of being hired into TDCX becomes pivotal.

In some of the best tech companies in the world, you get interviewed by five to seven different people. That’s a horrible experience. For me, as a candidate, I wouldn’t want to be interviewed by that many people, so why would I do that to those I want to hire?

Our platform lets us weigh in on a candidate’s responses, which are recorded and fed into a system. Multiple people can then review the responses and form an opinion on whether a candidate is good or not. The outputs of that – whether someone passes, fails or gets hired – then flows into SAP SuccessFactors. And so, we’re taking away the multiple interview experience and delivering something superior, which is going to help us win the talent war.

Being a manpower-intensive business, what sorts of technologies are being considered to alleviate some of the work that employees are taking on?

Fernandez: The key differentiator between TDCX and our competitors is that our business is built, developed and engineered around our people. So, every single tool that we build is to enhance the human experience. Let me give you an example. When we first started, we were selling banking and financial products through the phone for our clients, so we were essentially a telemarketing company.

Even then, what we were pioneering and doing differently from our competitors was using predictive dialling platforms. We used the best predictive dialler in the world at the time, because we didn’t want our agents to sit down and key in a phone number. We didn’t want people holding phones, so we invested in professional headsets for them.

Also, people had to juggle multiple tools, including a softphone and a CRM [customer relationship management] platform that contains customer information. They have to somehow put all of that together before making the call, and then think of how they are going to pitch to the customer. That’s a really rubbish experience.

We took away all of that and built a screen of our own that would pop up all the customer information you need and make the call for you in the background. You’d see who you’re talking to, you know what they’ve got, and you know what’s best to sell to them.

And when you’re about to close the sale, we have a technology that serves up compliance statements which the customer could just tick “yes” and you close the call. We try to make things easier for people and keeping that focus has delivered on the value of TDCX. Every digital tool we provide is with one aim in mind – to augment human performance and improve human experience.

As a CIO, could you talk about some of the priorities on your mind right now?

Fernandez: The role of the CIO has become incredibly difficult during and post-pandemic. People want to work from home and from the office. Think about the amount of equipment you need. If someone’s going to work from home regularly, they are going have to transform from a desktop to a mobile device like a laptop. But you can’t hunch over a 14-inch screen all day – you’re going to get neck problems and carpel tunnel syndrome over time.

I can tell you, with certainty and great worry, that every day we're discovering new vulnerabilities in established products we’ve been using for years on a daily basis
Byron Fernandez, TDCX

So, it means you’ve got to provide larger monitors, nice seats, ergonomic mouse and full-size keyboards for workers with laptops. And when they come back to the office, they’ve got to have that whole desktop experience as well. Think of the amount of equipment we’ve got to procure. Add to that the fact that with what is going on in the world between Ukraine, China and the US, supply chain disruptions and chip shortages are making it harder to buy equipment. And yet we need more equipment than we’ve ever needed in the past.

I’m giving you just one small dimension of the problem, which is logistical. Think of the other things. How do you secure the work-from-home environment? Who is to say that it is safe?

So, we certify the workspaces our employees use at home and allow them to work only from those locations. But still, someone who is proficient in IT and within physical range of your home can compromise your network if your routers are not set up properly. Of course, you would have to be a marked target, but the point is, it can happen.

For CIOs like me, I think what is front and centre now is cyber security, making sure that the home environment is indeed safe. We have had to pivot – our security certifications that we have in the office environment are meaningless when people are working from home.

How do we change that? What technologies can we use to do end-point penetration testing at home? We’ve had to look at those things and figure out how to navigate them, and that’s been an incredible challenge.

The IT team also had to evolve and become customer experience people, and that’s tough because IT people don’t like talking to people. We prefer computers any day, but we have to educate users and tell them how important it is to try not to work from Starbucks or paste a sticky note on their computer with a login ID and password, which you’d be surprised a lot of people do until you tell them not to.

We have had to transform as well and become very much service-oriented and very much education-oriented to be able to teach our population of users what to do on a day-to-day basis.

You mentioned the potential challenges of securing home networks. What is being done to address that? Are you mandating that employees can perhaps only use mobile broadband dongles, for example, which is likely to be more secure than home Wi-Fi networks?

Fernandez: A lot of people say you put a mobile dongle in place, and you’ll be OK. No, you’re not. Voice connections require very low latency. And let’s be real, how many homes are well covered with 4G and 5G networks? Not every country in Asia is like Singapore, and Malaysia to a smaller extent. And when you require large geographic coverage in a country, you’re going to get blind spots, and you’re going to get a lot of people in those blind spots.

So, thinking that a dongle will solve that problem is short-sighted. That’s why we’ve had to find ways to make it work even when you’re using home Wi-Fi. What are some of the things you can do? First, don’t use Wi-Fi – get a physical LAN cable, plug it into your router, and 90% of your Wi-Fi security challenges will disappear.

Number two, use things like virtual desktops, which are incredibly safe. If you don’t have that option, use a VPN [virtual private network], multi-factor authentication, either with a physical token like a YubiKey or an authentication app in addition to a password. These things can make the home environment incredibly robust. And when you’ve got fibre connections in the home, suddenly you don’t worry about latency any more.

We have checklists that certify your home environment, which covers all of those things. We even cover things like your physical conditions – do you have air-conditioning where you’re working? Is the room enclosed? Are other people going to be in the room with you, because you’re looking at sensitive information? All these are validated through video walkthroughs with our employees before certifying those workspaces. We also have a software that we’ve created to make sure that you’re not doing the wrong things, like having people around the room with you.

It seems that you have doubled up as a CISO [chief information security officer] as well.

Fernandez: Well, I’m the guy who basically nags all the CISOs which every site has. Our security operations centre is based in Kuala Lumpur, largely because I like to keep them close. And what we do is we ensure that all the security officers and individual sites comply with the guidance and advice that comes from our central team.

I can tell you, with certainty and great worry, that every day we are discovering new vulnerabilities in established products we’ve been using for years on a daily basis. I have a full-time team that just looks for these vulnerabilities and ensures that any vulnerabilities discovered in the wild are immediately patched on our own systems.

Besides that, we also do regular penetration testing, as well as making sure that people keep their honeypots secure and that their DMZs [demilitarised zones] are all in place, among other things to make sure the organisation stays safe.

What is in the pipeline from a technology perspective?

Fernandez: There’s so much we are working on. We’ve already built technology that allows us to leverage the mobile devices of our end-users, clients and customers. We can listen through the devices, see through them, annotate and take pictures, to help people troubleshoot IoT products, for example.

We are also putting in place a lot of emotional and artificial intelligence in the systems we build. Imagine going through an interview and a system plots your face map to tell when you’re smiling or frowning, or if you’re quizzical or unhappy.

That could guide some of the way we do things to make the experience more pleasant for people. It could even help us see which of our employees are struggling. There is a lot of focus on employee health and wellness. We are talking about the Great Resignation now because many people feel that their companies are detached from them. And so, we’re looking at platforms that offer digital wellbeing and health to see how people are doing.

There are also augmented performance tools that we’re building. I talked a bit about our hiring. I talked a bit about our video capability. But there is so much more that we’re building in that space, including home security and tracking people’s available bandwidth at home. A lot of that is being refined now, paving the way for the future, so we remain an organisation that is flexible and built around the people who work for us.

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