Shafi Aboobaker – Inception of Asiatel Outsourcing
Shafi Aboobaker shares with Derek his own journey and story in the outsourcing industry.
Shafi is group MD, CEO and founder of Asia Telecom Holdings, a Licensed Telecom Service Provider with Corporate Headquarters in Hong Kong and operations in Singapore and Taiwan.
- Deregulation of the telecom industry in Hong Kong opened competition within the industry. This prompted Asiatel to relocate their cost structure and considered the Philippines, and Indonesia for their outsourcing operations to serve their growing customer base including a good number of Filipino and Indonesian customers.
- According to Shafi, Asiatel put up outsourcing centers in Jakarta and Manila. These centers made a lot of sense not only for the cost savings but along with savings they got language and technical skills.
- They thought that the outsourcing center in the Philippines will just be a satellite office but over the years, after its inception in 2006, it became an operational center. They found excellent technical skills to support a primary NOC, and the right location to grow.
- Today there are about 150 seats in two shifts in Asiatel outsourcing operations center in Ortigas, Philippines. According to Shafi, they found fabulous talent and skills in the country that can cater not only to their Filipino customers but as well as international customers. These talents serve with their hearts.
- Initially, the customer centers primarily served the needs of Asiatel consumers. They gradually offer outsourcing services to other companies in the globe, who might also benefit from outsourcing services like creative design, NOC support for telecom companies, and other business process and support services.
- Outsourcing operations may be a strategic option for companies facing deregulation to protect the cost structure and to keep up with a competition.
- Initially test the waters to find the right location for a successful outsourcing operation.
- Outsourcing may be a strategic option to efficiently serve a growing customer base, in multiple locations.
Hi, and welcome to another episode of the Outsource Accelerator Podcast. My name is Derek Gallimore, and this is Episode No. 191. So today, I am joined by Shafi Aboobaker of Asiatel Outsourcing. Shafi is actually the group MD, CEO and founder of Asia Telecom Holdings, which we’ll learn all about in this episode and his journey. But effectively Asiatel Outsourcing is an outsourcing service provider here in the Philippines, which again after hearing the progression of Shafi’s own journey and story that would bring that all into context. So, a really good chat with Shafi and I’m sure you will learn a lot.
If you want to get in touch with Shafi or Asiatel Outsourcing generally, then go to our show notes which is at ooutsourceaccelerator.com/191. Enjoy!
Hi, and welcome back everybody. Today, I am joined by Shafi Aboobaker of Asiatel Outsourcing which is a subsidiary I believed of Asia Telecom Holdings. Hi, Shafi, how are you?
Shafi: I’m well, thanks, yourself?
Derek: Absolutely. Brilliant, brilliant. It’s nice to have you on board. Shafi I have got you on the podcast because you had an interesting organization, which has been in outsourcing space for a long, long, time. One of the early entrants and certainly from this groups in shared services for your own organization such great. You have your own on the core. I supposed, initially we are going to dig into the origins of your Asia Telecom Holdings, but initially would you like to just introduce yourself and I supposed how you came to start with…
Shafi: Thank you very much for having me with you. Just to give you a brief background we started in the telecommunications field in ’97 when the services were delicensed in Hongkong and it was open to competition. And over the years we built up good customer base, diversified, and we felt that as we grow, we needed to relocate our cost structure and we looked at the Philippines for our outsourcing operations. It gave us a very good cost structure but a very efficient work force with two language skills, Tagalog and English. Twelve years ago, we set up this center in Ortigas in the Philippine with the aim of putting our own customers. And as we grow into a telecom company, we added more space in the Philippines. Today we have about 150 seats at the center and we do two shifts here.
Derek: Right. It’s an interesting story. You’ve mentioned to me previously that Asiatel Holdings started in Hongkong in ’97 as a result of the deregulation of the communications there and it’s interesting because outsourcing hadn’t really begun that stage but it was really, I supposed, the democratization of the telecommunications and as it became cheaper that actually enabled for the first time ever suddenly start outsourcing services to really begin so it’s around that time that telecommunications became cheaper and more affordable to do things internationally. So, your original company was a telecom, well, what was it a telecommunications company in Hongkong?
Shafi: Yes. We were what we call international air service based operators. So, we offered international long distance dialing services and value added services such as Internet faxing, etcetera, which was quite new at that time. Quite unique, I would say.
Derek: Yeah. So, the cutting edge technology, those stuff. And then you said was that about 12 years ago that you had obviously a lot of customer service needs. Your home markets where Hong Kong, is that right? And maybe Singapore. You had customer service needs though. So, you came over to the Philippines to fulfill those?
Shafi: Yeah, actually we grew so we started in Hong Kong but then we got licensed in Singapore and then after that we got licensed in Taiwan. And over the years, the customer base grew in from the consumer side into many ethnicities, ethnic communities. So, we had a good number of Indonesian customers and Filipino customers and having a center in Manila and in Jakarta, in Surabaya where we had our Indonesian center made a lot of sense because there we did a lot of cost savings, but we got the language skills along with it. And then the technical skills. So, one part of our telecommunication business, we expanded into what we would say wholesale carrier traffic exchange, which means that major carriers were exchanging traffic with us and to support that we put our whole NOC, a back office NOC, and then it became our primary NOC in the Philippines where there is excellent technical skills to support such enterprises and such work.
Derek: So, you were actually kind of running the show from the Philippines because people think a lot of outsourcing is about offloading the very basic functions, but you found after a number of years, that actually, you could run very complex operations from the Philippines.
Shafi: Yeah, but we still are based, we’re still based in Hong Kong and I’m still myself based in Hong Kong. But you can consider that this satellite office, which we thought would be satellite office, also becomes an operational center on its own and can run very efficiently as an outsource center even if you don’t need to move your whole operations too.
Derek: Yes, absolutely. So, when did you start outsourcing to the Philippines? You started the company in ’97. When did you start the outsourcing?
Shafi: Twelve years ago, so I would say in 2006 roughly, in there.
Derek: Right, right. Okay. And so, what is the progression, so you then went into the sort of higher operational functions quite soon after or was it a couple of years after?
Shafi: No, so over the years, we gradually added more and more of the services here and we consolidated in terms of our own requirement initially. And then, as we found that this was quite an efficient operation to share with people who have similar views on outsourcing, we then offered it to companies who wanted a very friendly and what we would say, efficient atmosphere to be able to handle the work intelligently without having to be a full time all the time.
Derek: So that’s quite common how we see a lot of BPO starting, especially with sort of entrepreneurial foundations, is that the shared services or outsourcing is established initially to scratch your own edge and then you expand the services and open them externally. When did you start offering your outsourcing services externally then?
Shafi: We feel the market a few years back. I would say three years back, we started looking into it. But I would say last 15 months we are putting more what we call efforts into the outsourcing. We are looking to add more seats and add more capacity here. But also, we are focusing more on really what we call unique services. Like creative design outsourcing, NOC support, specifically targeted at specific industries like the telecom industry, like the SMS industries. So, we have…
Derek: What is NOC? I don’t know that term.
Shafi: Network Operation Center.
Derek: Ah! I see.
Shafi: So, the whole, like every Telco will have their own Network Operating Center. So, Telco like us, we have NOC in Hong Kong and we have NOC in the Philippines now. So, the Hong Kong is just started with 15 manpower. Now it’s only four and Philippines has become thirty.
Derek: Yes, right, right.
Shafi: It gives a good scale to grow with. But what’s really interesting you should know is the talent. The talent here is fabulous.
Derek: Yeah. Yeah. And how does, because typically, I suppose, consumer is in what you’d say the West. So, I’m kind of anglicized English speaking, US and UK and Europe. How do you find the outsourcing fits in and gels with Asia genre? Because obviously, there’s quite significant cultural differences. There’s language barriers or is everything now but coming just standardized towards the English kind of norm?
Shafi: I think it’s getting more and more standardized and with the industry now quite mature over the years they have adapted to the needs of these markets. So, Australia will have a certain different needs. US and Canada will have a different need but basic ability to serve is common.
Derek: And they really do have that skill based on the Filipinos, they have great communication skills, great cognitive skills and…
Shafi: Absolutely. Absolutely.
Derek: And so, can you remember, can you remember back to when you were first exploring outsourcing? What was the initial trigger you needed Customer service, you need a lot of kind of man hours to cover the NOC requirements, what made you explore the Philippines? And then also what were your first impressions when you did look at the services on offer?
Shafi: So firstly, it was quite a unique for us to move out. It was like I had to convince my Tech Managers, everyone, that yes, we should give it a chance because as you know, it’s a new adventure for us at that time.
Derek: And that was a long time ago. Outsourcing is a big thing now.
Shafi: It’s not really popular at that time. We wanted to have more manpower to support our growth, but we still wanted to consider that they have the skills as well as it was cost-effective. So that is one of the reasons we looked at Philippines, English was a language, which was well spoken here, and we had some Filipino customer based, so we could serve them together as well as we wanted technical skills, which we found here, there was plenty around with a reasonable cost and those three factors made us move here. But it was a very, what we call walking into the blind move. So, we took a small step here and we felt very comfortable after the first six months and we said, “yeah, now I think we are in the right location to grow”.
Derek: Yeah. And this is what I tell a lot of people. There’s a lot of uncertainty that outsourcing isn’t there yet, and especially people sitting in the US or UK because it’s such a long way away. They see that it’s a developing country. They might see a bit of political instability and there’s all of these sort of uncertainties and fear factors that just stopped people from starting. And maybe as you did it, it’s a good idea just to basically test the waters, test something and kind of get comfortable with it for three to six months and then review things.
Shafi: Yes. Actually, now that we are offering outsourcing to the companies, having been through the state ourselves, we have the feel what the client would need. And one of our objectives here has been to train our team and members to ensure that the client feels at home, they feel like they belong. They and the team feel that this is their office, this is the operation. It’s not an outsource place. So, it becomes like they don’t know the difference. We want to create that atmosphere. And then when Brian comes here, he’s comfortable. They are the ones we’ve had so far. They always say that we didn’t realize it would be like this.
Derek: Right. And then you’ve got a stellar corporate background in telecoms, in commerce generally. And then in your shared services, the kind of businesses in your blood. How is it different outsourcing for your own needs and figuring out your own business problems as opposed to then taking on outsourcing clients and coaching them through that journey? Is it same scene or is it quite different?
Shafi: It’s different like I’d say that because when it’s yours, you set your own standards and you monitor it through your own views and standards. But when you’re doing it for others, you have to adapt and make your team adapt to their requirements and that is quite challenging but also very rewarding once you achieved that.
Derek: Why is it challenging? Because the managing expectations, the managing outputs in relation to kind of expected deliverables, where do you see the output?
Shafi: The challenges is to get the team to adapt to the change. I think that is the biggest challenge because when you’re doing it in-house, a lot of it what we call is a comfortable level of performance. When you’re doing outsourcing at the beginning, the team gets nervous, they get a little bit into unfamiliar territory and then the clients, the nature of the client, the person who was handling it on the other side, adapting to their psychology, their needs. It’s a training process. It’s not something unsurmountable, but each client has a different requirement and a different chemistry. Let’s put it that way, which needs to be adapted and that’s where the strength of an outsourcing company is best seen.
Derek: And again, this is where I tell people that they’re not just buying an activity or a seat with the person in it. They’re actually buying into all of your own commercial experience, your own 12-years-experience of running shared services and kind of efficient operations and processes. There’s a huge amount of expertise that people actually buy into when they’re in operation.
Shafi: I agree with you. There is an attrition, high rate of attrition in call centers. But I tell you, we started with 12 people. Out of the twelve, eight are still with us and four have migrated overseas.
Shafi: So, the ability to keep people in that frame, in this environment requires that you make them feel comfortable, you make them feel that they belong and then they serve not only you, but whoever you bring, they serve with their hearts, and I think the Philippines has that capability.
Derek: Yeah, absolutely. And they can be quite a sensitive workforce, aren’t they? So, you do need to make sure that there’s a good culture there. There’s a kind of mission that everyone buys into.
Shafi: Yeah, absolutely. And I think every genuine businesses which outsource, they will always be looking at the ability of the people who serve them. How you manage them, what is their behavior, what is their integrity etcetera, and that’s where we are very particular in our office here to create that feeling of belonging and secondly, the integrity of the operation. Maintaining the integrity.
Derek: Yes. Absolutely. And how do you find finding your human resource? Are you, you have a recruitment process in place? You have all of the screening because I mean, that’s the job in itself, isn’t it?
Shafi: Yes. Yes. We have a full team here. I think Andy who handles the operational and business development at the center here will give you more information on how we do the HR and screening of the members, but it’s quite an intensive process and very selective.
Derek: Absolutely. It’s fantastic. So, thank you so much for your time. Anyway, we actually, I want to get Andy back, he’s the vice president for Asia Teleservices to actually specifically discuss more about your operations. So, we will do that. Thank you so much for your time Shafi. If anybody wants to get in touch with you or learn anymore about Asiatel Outsourcing, how can they do that?
Shafi: They can reach us through our website. We have our website, which is asiateloutsourcing.com.
Shafi: And they will be able get quite a bit of information from there. At the same time, they will be able to reach us, and we can take it forward from there.
Derek: That’s fantastic! We will have all those contact details in the show notes. Thank you so much Shafi.
Shafi: Derek my pleasure and thank you once again.
Derek: Absolutely. That was Shafi Aboobaker, the MD and CEO of Asia Telephone Holdings. If you want to get in touch with Shafi or want to know more about Asiatel Outsourcing specifically then go to our show notes for all of the contact details that is at outsourceaccelerator.com/191.
And as always, if you want to get in touch with us, or ask us about anything then just drop us an email to [email protected]
See you next time.