Probe Group has been expanding its business presence since being acquired by Five V Capital in early 2018. At the time, Probe acquired Salmat’s Contact business, a broad-based CX operation which helped Probe expand their presence in Australia, New Zealand and the Philippines. Looking out for further opportunities, in December last year Probe Group acquired Australia-based and Philippines-focused Beepo and quickly followed this with an acquisition in January this year of the Philippines outsourcing agency MicroSourcing, a counterpart to Beepo which greatly expanded Probe’s Philippines offering. These acquisitions helped Probe extend their service offering from CX into Shared Services and Knowledge Services.
This is a brilliant move as Stellar is one of the most successful contact centre outsourcing providers in Australia. With successive growth for 22 years and having a strong footprint in both the public and private sectors, the acquisition will give Probe Group entry into some large accounts. Additionally, Probe will gain a large pool of well-trained agents in Australia and other locations across the globe.
The merger comes at an interesting time when we are seeing several organisations re-evaluate their outsourcing strategy. There is also an active interest in enhancing CX through AI/automation. Both the Probe Group and Stellar understand the Australian market and consumer sentiments and the merger is expected to drive better customer outcomes in the Australia market.
Prior to COVID-19, Probe Group employed 8,500 agents. With this acquisition, they will have 12,600 agents and an expected turnover of USD 420 million. That is not only impressive but will help Probe offer a variety of services including both onshore and offshore, to take on their rivals.
Rise of Onshore Activity will see New Shifts in CX Delivery Models
The COVID-19 pandemic has brought about several changes to the outsourcing sector. The disruption caused by services in many key offshore markets led to organisations re-evaluating their contact centre outsourcing strategy and some have started moving contact centre jobs back to Australia. Westpac is the latest organisation to announce that they are moving 1,000 jobs back to Australia. They have stated that while they expect productivity benefits over time, there is clearly a cost to adding 1,000 roles – likely an uplift of around $45 million per annum in its costs by the end of 2021.
The cost element is bound to creep in over time and contact centres will ask outsourcing providers to help drive costs down. Options would include moving some services offshore, while the critical remain onshore. Striking that balance to manage costs will be important and so will be the ability to offer various options for customers. Additionally, we can expect to see an increased demand for self-service technologies. Many organisations are in the midst of re-evaluating the use of AI and automation technologies not only as a way to drive great CX but as a way to also reduce costs (Figure 1).
Contact centres are starting to realise that to modernise their contact centre, the ability to lead with machine learning and AI technologies are critical. It will drive the deployment of natural language understanding (NLU) and conversational AI, sentiment analysis, transcription capabilities – and ultimately provide intelligence about the call even prior to the call being fielded. However, it is worth noting that whilst automation is on the rise, the role of the agent is not going away anytime soon and will grow in importance. We will see the rise of the “super-agent’’ and the agent’s role will evolve over time and AI/automation will generate rich insights to help aid the agent and the contact centre team to better predict customer behaviour and patterns.
The Next Generation of Outsourcing Providers must Drive Innovation for their Customers
Companies today are not outsourcing just to save labour costs. While cost remains an important angle, it will not often be the main driver for outsourcing in the future. The next generation of outsourcing providers will have to build rich solution capabilities, customer journey maps and help customers understand how to align all channels. This involves working with many different technology providers to build the right capabilities for their client organisations. Organisations are keen to modernise their contact centre operations to achieve excellence in CX. Outsourcing providers must have the capability to deliver that innovation.
Ecosystm research finds that 63% of organisations that outsource their contact centre functions are challenged with finding the right partner that can drive innovations (Figure 2).
Contact centre outsourcing providers have a role to play in some of the following areas:
The ability to adapt to change and take on risks together with the client
Ensuring that all forms of security and governance measures are in place. This includes considering factors such as data security, data handling, and security features enabled across devices, applications, and the network. This is especially true for Government and Financial services contracts. Additionally, with some organisations preferring the work from a home model, there are security issues that must be addressed for the scenario.
Helping the move from a traditional contact centre to a contact centre that delivers the highest levels of CX for its customers. Applying technologies such as AI and machine learning, NLU, biometrics, speech analytics, customer journey analytics and robotic process automation (RPA) will be key to modernisation.
Being able to build a business continuity plan (BCP) for their customers in the event of another crisis.
Probe Group started off as a business specialising in outsourcing services in the credit and collections segment. Their customers in 2016 ranged from organisations across Financial Services, Utilities, and Federal and State Government. At that time, Probe employed about 300 people and their turnover was about USD 25 million. They did not rest on their laurels and realised that organic growth combined with strategic acquisitions would give them a foothold across various geographies and add new capabilities to their portfolio. With the rise in onshore activity, they will now be in a strong position to offer their customers various services and models of engagement to help drive CX excellence. The acquisition of Stellar will help Probe Group propel to greater heights and we see a new CX outsourcing giant being born.
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In Asia Pacific, the multi-cloud theme is being promoted heavily among integration providers with solutions that can plug into multiple clouds with virtual machine usage. Enterprises value enabled automated orchestration between cloud platforms. There will be a continued need for integrated tools across public and private clouds. This includes advanced analytics and AI as important aspects of an IT infrastructural investment.
Your choice of vendor for AI & Automation
In my opinion, AWS has the broadest AI service capabilities in the Asia Pacific cloud/ AI space, when compared to Microsoft, Google, and IBM. AWS provides users with pre-trained AI services for computer vision, language, recommendations, and forecasting to build, train, and deploy machine learning models at scale.
The Ecosystm VendorScope (Figure 1) rates the leading AI & Automation vendors in Asia Pacific based solely on quantifiable feedback from those who actually procure technology. It becomes clear from the responses that many organisations still start their AI journey through Automation.
Most organisations understand the importance of leveraging AI to gain competitive advantage. But they do not necessarily know where to start. The secret is that AI is about intelligent process automation, and the firms who understand this are not the ones automating tasks. The use of RPA with vendors such as Antworks, WorkFusion, Arago and Automation Anywhere, leverages automated reasoning using knowledge-based problem-solving engines. These vendors add RPA to AI, not the other way around.
And domain-specific service providers have been creating the synergies for enterprises to link intelligent automation software and industry knowledge to create the necessary end-to-end workflows. An innate understanding of the specific business process is key to leveraging intelligent automation.
Focusing on developing a modern data supply chain process, with actionable analytics insights built into the infrastructure, can aid the development of self-service business intelligence capabilities along with visual data discovery solutions.
Cloud enablement solutions generate maximum business value by enabling IT with scalability and flexibility. This can reduce maintenance and security costs. A focus on cloud intelligence and scalability allows IT departments to concentrate more on innovative solutions, insights and systems that drive significant business growth. Now is the time, and speed is of the essence.
Ecosystm Vendorscope: AI & Automation
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5/5 (2) I’m really excited to launch our AI and Automation VendorScope! This new tool can help technology buyers understand which vendors are offering an exceptional customer experience, which ones have momentum and which are executing and delivering on their promised capabilities. The positioning of vendors in Ecosystm VendorScopes is independent of analyst bias or opinion or vendor influence – customers directly rate their suppliers in our ongoing market benchmarks and assessments.
The Evolution of the AI Market
The AI market has evolved significantly over the past few years. It has gone from a niche, poorly understood technology, to a mainstream one. Projects have moved from large, complex, moonshot-style “change the world” initiatives to small, focused capabilities that look to deliver value quickly. And they have moved from primarily internally focused projects to delivering value to customers and partners. Even the current pandemic is changing the lens of AI projects as 38% of the companies we benchmarked in Asia Pacific in the Ecosystm Business Pulse Study, are recalibrating their AI models for the significant change in trading conditions and customer circumstances.
Automation has changed too – from a heavily fragmented market with many specific – and often very simple tools – to comprehensive suites of automation capabilities. We are also beginning to see the use of machine learning within the automation platforms as this market matures and chases after the bigger automation opportunities where processes are not only simplified but removed through intelligent automation.
Cloud Platform Providers Continue to Lead
But what has changed little over the years is the dominance of the big cloud providers as the AI leaders. Azure, IBM and AWS continue to dominate customer mentions and intentions. And it is in customer mentions that the frontrunners in the VendorScope – Microsoft and IBM – set themselves apart. Not only are they important players today – but existing customersAND non-customers plan to use their services over the next 12-24 months. This gives them the market momentum over the other players. Even AWS and Google – the other two public cloud giants – who also have strong AI offerings – didn’t see the same proportions of customers and prospects planning to use their AI platforms and tools.
While Microsoft and IBM may have stolen the lead for now, they cannot expect the challengers to sit still. In the last few weeks alone we have seen several major launches of AI capabilities from some providers. And the Automation vendors are looking to new products and partnerships to take them forward.
Without the market momentum, Microsoft and IBM would still stand above the rest of the pack – just not as dramatically! Both companies are not just offering the AI building blocks, but also offer smart applications and services – this is possibly what sets them apart in an era where more and more customers want their applications to be smart out-of-the-box (or out-of-the-cloud). The appetite for long, expensive AI projects is waning – fast time to value will win deals today.
The biggest change in AI over the next few years will hopefully be more buyers demanding that their applications are smart out-of-the-box/cloud. AI and Automation shouldn’t be expensive add-ons – they should form the core of smart applications – applications that work for the business and for the customer. Applications that will deliver the next generation of employee and customer experiences.
Ecosystm Vendorscope: AI & Automation
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A survey conducted by United Overseas Bank (UOB) in November 2019 illustrates that SMEs in Singapore are focusing on boosting productivity as they grapple with macro-economic and socio-political uncertainties this year. The UOB survey included 615 local SMEs with a revenue of less than S$100 million. Nearly half of the SMEs surveyed have a positive outlook for their business in 2020, while nearly a third are not so optimistic about it.
While cost reduction and new streams of revenue generation are top business priorities, more than half of the SMEs polled, mentioned increasing productivity as their top priority. Technology adoption has often been linked to an increase in productivity. SMEs in Singapore appear to be on the right track as currently 65% use digital solutions, mostly geared towards accounting, HR and customer relationship management. Digitalisation involves a widespread adoption of cloud and automation solutions. If we look at the key drivers of cloud adoption across all global organisations (Figure 2), we find that optimisation and productivity are key incentives.
Interestingly, the UOB survey also finds that more than half of SMEs in Singapore have sustainability goals. Resource optimisation and energy efficiency will also see higher adoption of technology in the future.
Government Initiatives Empowering SMEs
Government agencies and industry bodies have always been proactive in empowering SMEs with technological knowledge. There are various programs and initiatives to promote digitalisation, which have made Singapore SMEs competitive at a global level.
The Infocomm Media Development Authority (IMDA) is helping Singapore SMEs to scale and improve their digital capabilities, expand their network and go global through collaboration with multinational companies (MNCs). The SMEs Go Digital program launched in 2017, has seen an estimated 4,000 SMEs adopting pre-approved digital solutions.
Several organisations in Singapore – such as A*Star and Enterprise Singapore – have targeted programs for the SME community. One of the key challenges for SMEs that impacts their ability to invest in technology is a lack of internal IT skills. Initiatives such as the Technology Adoption Programme (TAP) recognise this and bring in multiple industry and technology stakeholders to translate new technologies into Ready-to-Go (RTG) solutions, aimed at SMEs.
Apart from technology, access to financing is a key factor that determines the success of an SME and remains a key focus of Singapore’s banking and financial sector. The digital wholesale licenses are also aimed at SME financing, especially targeting those that are unable to procure funds from traditional sources.
Technologies Enabling Digitalisation in Singapore SMEs
As mentioned earlier, cloud is the key enabler of digitalisation, giving organisations the ability to access solutions anywhere and anytime. Ecosystm research shows that 80% of SMEs in Singapore use an IaaS solution, while more than 75% use a SaaS solution.
There are programs that boost cloud adoption in Singapore SMEs as well. As an example, SMECEN, developed by the Association of Small & Medium Enterprises (ASME), and supported by Enterprise Singapore, Accounting and Corporate Regulatory Authority (ACRA) and Inland Revenue Authority of Singapore (IRAS) is a SaaS solution with accounting, HR and compliance modules – integration with other business tools is on the cards.
Digitalisation will eventually involve investments in Automation and AI. For Singapore, AI is a key technology as it continues to focus on IoT, smart buildings, smart electricity, autonomous electric vehicles and other smart city solutions. The Government is working to open up access to data and AI tools so everyone can experiment. It especially wants to encourage SMEs to adopt AI and work on government use cases.
Singapore SMEs are ramping up their AI investments, especially in IoT sensor analytics (27%), machine learning (21%) and robotic process automation (16%), according to the Ecosystm AI study. Their key short-term drivers are insights into the competition and enhanced internal process monitoring. However, in the longer term, they are looking at cost reduction and better profit margins.
According to an OCBC survey in 2018, which polled 200 such companies, two-thirds of SMEs in Singapore are likely to go cashless by 2023. It is estimated that over 75% of Fintech transactions in Singapore are digital payments and it receives over a quarter of Fintech funding. Government initiatives such as FAST and SGQR, have opened up digital payment options for consumer use as well as for SMEs.
However, the UOB survey notes some concerns that SMEs have over digital payments adoption, including customer/supplier acceptance and security. This is an encouraging sign, which indicates that SMEs are not just adopting technology because of the hype – but are evaluating the pros and cons of tech adoption before embarking on a digitalisation project.
By creating a free account on the Ecosystm platform SMEs can benchmark their tech priorities and investments against their country, industry and global peers.