Debt-IN provides debt-recovery services to a range of large and small businesses through its call centre operations. The organisation was founded and is managed by Mark Essey and has operations in Johannesburg and Durban. Debt-IN prides itself in being able to offer its clients a customised debt-recovery solution that yields enhanced recovery rates and net cost savings for its clients. Debt-IN’s relationship with Harambee as an employer is significant in that:
It is demonstrative of success in preparing and placing young disadvantaged work-seekers into higher-order white-collar jobs;
In particular it demonstrates that this success can be achieved in the highly competitive business process services (BPS) sector – identified as a key growth sector for the economy with high job creation potential;
It is an example of how the mismatch between demand (available job opportunities) and supply (available labour force) can be bridged;
As a medium-sized enterprise it illustrates how Harambee can ‘de-risk’ key elements of the hiring process and provide confidence in such decisions that are often disproportionately more significant for organisations of such a size.
Human capital challenges in the BPS sector
The BPS sector is characterised by a number of human capital challenges that include:
Behaviours - it can be difficult to find candidates with experience and the right behaviours with many contact centre managers reporting that many experienced agents bring with them bad habits or a poor attitude.
Poaching – competition in the industry is tough which drives up salaries resulting in contact centre agents ‘hopping’ from centre to centre chasing higher salaries.
Attrition - contact centre work is heavily monitored and targeted which creates a lot of pressure for agents. It can be difficult to find candidates with a positive attitude and the ability to bounce back from difficult calls and churn is high
Communication skills/customer experience - Contact centres can find it difficult to source candidates with strong communication skills and the ability to converse meaningfully with a customer. Often they cite accent as the issue but when this is unpacked it’s really about clarity and understanding – can the candidate understand, relate/connect and respond to the customer?
Timescales - Campaigns can happen overnight resulting in having to hire sometimes large numbers of candidates within a few days – often the behaviours/right match for the role is sacrificed to ‘get bodies on seats.’
The Harambee value proposition
Debt-IN’s relationship with Harambee began in 2014 and like the rest of the sector, Debt-IN was bedevilled by high staff turnover. Up until that point Debt-IN ran its own recruitment and selection process which although it comprised of both numeracy and comprehension assessments in addition to interviews, nevertheless allowed for some subjectivity in that “if you really liked the candidate you generally hired them.” Harambee’s value proposition of sourcing, screening, matching, and bridging candidates was immediately apparent to Essey in a number of different ways. Firstly because Essey as a business owner personally believes that youth employment is critically important for the stability and future of the country. And secondly because it made good business sense. The challenge up until that point for Debt-IN had been the screening process and post-interview vetting, and situations where “candidates may fare really well on the tests, but will they actually be at work?” The combination of a pre-screened candidate; matched to the requirements of the organisation; prepared, ready and capable to the do work required; coupled with Harambee’ guarantee of the candidate’s retention at the three month mark was compelling. “It was the social element tied together with the business element that was the sweet spot” as Essey describes it; with the three month provision taking “all the uncertainty (and most of the risk typically associated with the hiring process) out of the picture.” (Fortuitously at the same time of Essey’s decision to use Harambee one of the major banks to whom Debt-IN was pitching for work, had a range of human capital requirements of its suppliers relating to the screening and credit checks which the Harambee value proposition met.) He goes on to remark that he “had just been through an exercise with Kelly in terms of using them as a sourcing channel (although their candidates were not pre-qualified) and their placement fee was similar to Harambee’s but there was no kind of guarantee. With Harambee I’ve always felt that the odds are stacked far more in my favour in terms of recruiting someone who will stay.”
Hayley Spriggs, Harambee’s bridging manager for the BPS sector in Kwazulu-Natal, elaborates on what she feels is the additionality that Harambee brings:
“For the BPS sector I feel we are able to provide candidates with the right behaviours and attitude. We have seen this can have a positive impact on the culture of a contact centre, it also makes it easier for team leaders and managers to focus on ‘skill’ issues rather than ‘will’ issues. Candidates complete the Harambee bridges with a desire to build a career and understand the importance of their first year in a business through the ‘my work, my university’ ethos. I believe this helps with retention as candidates are less likely to job hop. I believe the Harambee bridging experience gives candidates a realistic insight and preview into the world of contact centres so candidates know what to expect in terms of the positive opportunities but also the challenges they may face.”
Harambee candidates progress in Debt-IN: Siyabonga Moloi promoted to Quality Assurance; Yonela Nombaba promoted to IT Desktop Support
Having a compelling value proposition alone isn’t sufficient; the delivery promise must be realised and we understand that this is best accomplished when Harambee and the management team within an employer partner to achieve results. On the one hand the day-to-day operational management team within an employer need to believe and see the value of using Harambee. In Debt-IN’s case whilst Essey was immediately sold on the value of Harambee, he notes that there was significant initial resistance from his management team – particularly as it was felt that Harambee was a pet project foisted on them that would impact on their performance bonuses. Fortunately this quickly changed as the management team came to realise that “a lot of the Harambee behaviour was very different to what we see generally.” There are a number of dimensions to this. Essey notes that the retention rate of Harambee candidates in Debt-IN is better than the industry norm; that the time-to-competence for Harambee candidates is a lot quicker; that Harambee candidates don’t arrive with ‘baggage’ from previous jobs that needs to be overcome; that performance is reflected in the collection numbers and Harambee candidates are not afraid to hold one another accountable for their performance; and that a number of Harambee candidates have been promoted to other positions. These benefits, he believes, cumulate to drive a positive change in the business:
“Suddenly the managers are starting to see that these (Harambee candidates) are the people they can depend on, suddenly managers started to see a culture change on the floor happen as we started to bring more Harambee’s in, suddenly we are getting to a tipping point and it starts happening… when your managers start seeing that, that’s when they really start buying into it.”
The road to Damascus moment for the operations management team was so profound that Essey relates how fairly recently they were insistent that all new hires had to come from Harambee. The second element to the success of the partnership is Harambee’s understanding of the organisation. Features that stand out for Essey are Harambee’s use of the Shadowmatch tool (which identifies the key behaviours of top performers in roles that Harambee candidates would fill) to find the best candidates suited to the Debt-IN environment, the bridging process in preparing candidates with the right behaviours and attitudes for work (“your Harambees seem to arrive here with that work ethic… your candidates will always greet me when I walk past even though they don’t know who I am”), and Harambee’s commitment to post-placement support with regular check-ups by the bridging manager with candidates and with operational management. In fact Spriggs believes that part of the reason for Debt-IN’s success with inclusive youth hiring can be attributed to the receptive and transparent working relationship she has with Debt-IN’s operational management team.
Essey feels that engaging Harambee’s talent service has probably generally helped the organisation to mature its HR processes, but there are two specific examples of how this receptiveness to change has played out. In the first the organisation has worked to try and create a link with the values and behaviours that are inculcated with candidates during Harambee’s bridging process by introducing a monthly attendance bonus that can be earned by staff for time-keeping and attendance at work. In the second after Harambee shared its research that illustrates how retention decreases proportionately to the amount of take-home pay spent on transport, this – together with a desire to promote later shifts – resulted in the introduction of a general transport subsidy and full coverage of transport costs for staff who are working at night.
The insight around transport continues to shape Essey’s thinking. Currently he is contemplating moving the Durban offices from Westville to the vicinity of the Durban CBD. By bucking the trend and not moving to the Umhlanga area where many of the other call centres are based, he believes he will save substantial monies both for the business (in terms of the transport subsidies paid out) and for candidates in moving closer to where they live. In an industry where he has seen employees move for as little as R300 or R400 this saving has the potential to be a game changer from a retention perspective. Transport costs however are not the only benefit he stands to reap from such a move. Spriggs confirms that the legacy of Apartheid and geo-spatial development has resulted in many businesses (demand) operating in northern Durban, whilst many people (supply) live in central or southern Durban. She says that there are in fact pools of candidates Harambee has sourced and assessed with a voice profile very favourable for call centre work, but who aren’t able to access that work because of their location. A move to a more central location would thus provide Essey with the ability to access and attract talent pools ideal for his business, but for whom he does not need to compete with other larger BPO players.
Retention is still a concern for Essey, but it remains remarkably good. Debt-IN’s overall attrition rate is 26% (i.e. retains 74% of Harambee hires) compared to an industry attrition rate of between 60 and 70%. 100% of hires made 3 months prior to April 2016 are still in Debt-IN’s employment, whilst 70% of hires made twenty-four months ago are still in Debt-IN’s employment. Feedback from candidate’s placed with Debt-IN is positive: “I love it here; managers are supportive and they encourage us to be the best of ourselves”; “it is an environment we all could wish for”; and – from one Harambee candidate who left Debt-IN: “Debt-IN was a very harmonic, challenging and yet inspiring place to be.” Some recent experiences of resignations for returns to study and one to return home to look after a relative confirm that there is still a journey in learning about what it takes to attract and hold a young person of limited social means in employment. What is unique about Debt-IN however, is the appetite to do so, and a willingness to partner with Harambee on that learning journey.
 One of the challenges Harambee has always held as central to addressing is ‘hiring the best person for the job, not the first person through the door.’ This it does through its valid and reputable assessment and matching methodologies.
For some employers, by agreement, Harambee takes full accountability for a candidate’s continued retention in a job into which he or she has been placed. The guarantee for Debt-IN in this regard was a partial payment of the placement fee upfront, with the majority being paid after the three month period.
Essey identifies two Harambee candidates as the top performers on specific collection campaigns they are working on.
The requirements of a growing and changing business however do require Debt-IN to invest in experienced hires.