In CS/CX lingo, the term “agent” often refers to call center agents, which immediately brings to mind the ghastly image of cramped sweatshop-style office environments with people hooked up to phones working insane shifts at ungodly hours.
With the world increasingly connected by technology, it has become easy to overlook the human element that forms part of the customer experience (CX) and customer support (CS) industry. As a result, companies have adopted terminology that often inadvertently dehumanizes the dedicated individuals working tirelessly behind the scenes.
At Boldr, we don’t have agents. We have team members. While we do have real people handling phone support for a number of our Clients, we choose to call these individuals, well, Team Members. We go beyond traditional customer support and build teams tailored to our Clients’ unique needs. These range from Data Engineers, CX professionals, Architects, and, my favorite, AI Pilots driving Robots.
When asked, ‘What do you do?‘, I like telling people that I help people build global teams, not call centers. While prone to doing things differently at Boldr, it made me curious why companies continue with this traditional naming convention.
I believe that shifting this language, from Agents to Team Members is a small but important step to creating highly integrated teams. Based on my 10 years of building global teams, I can tell you that if you want to create a high-performing team with a beautiful culture and high retention, shift your mindset from ‘outsourced Full Time Equivalent (FTEs’) to ‘my team members in Manila’.
Agiere to agentis to agent to team member
With its origins in Medieval Latin, the root etymological definition of the word “agent” refers to someone or something that is either doing something specific or producing an effect, which sort of makes one think about a calculator spitting out the answer to a difficult calculation.
The term “agent” has been a longstanding fixture in the CX/CS industry, and is even more ubiquitous in modern outsourcing terminology. According to Zendesk and Freshdesk, “agent” means an individual who acts as an empowered representative of a company or client. As noble as the intent might be, it still doesn’t feel that dissimilar from call center agents, personnel, staff, employees, or FTEs. And none of those resonates with our view of fellow Boldranians.
While it seems harmless on the surface, I believe words hold inherent power. The label “agent” carries a transactional connotation – a person acting on behalf of someone else. It lacks the depth and nuance of the roles these professionals play in creating heartwarming customer experiences, building brand loyalty, and working closely with our Clients. We always say, our Team Members work as an extension of your local team, not, our agents work as an extension of your local agents. Do start-ups or large organizations consider their in-house team members ‘agents’?
Derogatory naming conventions arrive so subtly that we seldom address them at the onset. Before long, they are accepted and glossarized as the norm. For example, we don’t have “seats” in Boldr. I remember when we started, Dana, then our Accounting Lead and now our Global Controller, scolded me for using the term “seats” when talking about how many humans we employ. She was right. It was (and still may be) the generally accepted way of describing the number of team members a business process outsourcing company employs, but it was demeaning and dehumanizing — and does not represent how we want to communicate at Boldr. Again, words matter.
Why we have team members at Boldr
The industry we form part of, whether unconsciously or consciously, tends to remove any reminder that we’re dealing with humans, beating hearts working for companies around the world. From the start, my team and I were deliberate in the value we would place on every individual. They were all team members and they were highly valued. We want everyone to feel the worth we place in them. I’m convinced that an agent operates on its own, and so is removed from the rest of the body. Whereas a team member feels like an integral part of the operation, a vital cog in the machine, and, ultimately, an extension of our client’s in-house teams.
We felt that dehumanizing individuals through terminology was a surefire way to erode the empathetic essence of our work environment and corrode the positive company culture we strove to cultivate. By dismissing the profound impact of language, we would risk undermining the connection, commitment, and shared purpose that fueled our collaborative efforts.
By adopting the term “team member”, we’ve fostered a culture that values each individual’s contribution as an integral part of the whole. Our team members don’t just see themselves as outsourced customer support representatives; they see themselves as crucial members of a unified team working towards shared goals. This shift in mindset sparks a sense of ownership, responsibility, and pride in their work.
Our decision to use “team member” also has a ripple effect on how our professionals engage with clients. The term reinforces the idea that they are not just service providers but collaborators. This has profound implications for client relationships, as our team members invest more deeply in understanding and aligning with our clients’ values and objectives.
Eric Carpio, our Director of Country Operations in the Philippines, has experienced the growth of the BPO sector in the Philippines firsthand. “I have worked for large BPO companies over the years. So big, in fact, that you couldn’t help feeling like ‘just another employee’ or a number,” explains Eric. “So, when we consciously changed from agent to team member, there was a culture shift in the people. Team members could say, I’m not just a number. Boldr sees me as a person. And would we still be the same way if we were five times bigger than we are now? I believe so. It was a good time to do this early on. If we made the shift to call our people team members when we are 10,000 people strong, it would be too late. Agent is already stuck. And we did it at a time when we were still fairly young as a company. And our culture is richer for it.”
Empathy within the team
With our expanding footprint in Canada, Mexico, South Africa, and the Philippines, we are excited to see how the industry has grown in these regions over the last couple of years. Nearly 15% of the global outsourcing market outsources services to Philippines-based outsourcing providers. According to IBPAP, the industry employed nearly 1.44 million Filipinos in 2020, and approximately 1.5 million Filipino freelancers working for offshore Companies.
The BPO sector in South Africa employed around 250,000 people in 2020 primarily through offshore outsourcing companies that serve clients in the UK, US, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand. The Department of Trade, Industry and Competition (DTIC) recently set a target to double that amount to 500,000 people by 2030.
By February 2021, there were around 175,000 people employed by BPO companies in Mexico. As a prime nearshoring solution with a growing IT talent pool and favorable timezone for US clients, Mexico’s outsourcing industry is set to grow exponentially in the coming years.
That’s a lot of agents — and it leaves me with a bunch of questions. How valued will someone feel when they are one agent among millions of other agents in the outsourcing industry? How could they possibly aspire to be anything other than an agent? I struggle to envision the growth journey of an agent. However, a team member’s growth journey is a map filled with many possibilities.
We love our team members and we have allowed empathy to help us with how we treat the people in our organization and the words we choose to use. Boldr exists to help people grow and connect. We help clients build their global teams and we know that a foundational element to the success of these partnerships is that our TEAM MEMBERS are integrated and feel like an extension of their teams.
We honor the history and context of the term, and we are cognizant of the fact that we engage with partners and peers who talk fondly of their agents or representatives, but we want to be more deliberate in facilitating this narrative change, especially since it has become so ingrained in our company culture.
The present and future of global outsourcing relationships call for an intentional shift in industry terminology. Having common words to use offers us the language we need to connect and have deep, meaningful conversations, which is imperative for personal growth, as well as that of the business or the communities we serve.