Wayfair, the Boston-based online furniture purveyor that generated over US$2.25 billion in revenue in 2015, confirmed last week with Nearshore Americas that the company is relying on a BPO provider in Georgetown, Guyana to support the company’s fast growing back-office operations.
“Our team in Guyana handles merchandising and back-office type work for the company. We have been very pleased with our team in Guyana. The country offers a strong talent pool of well-educated, native English speakers who are very familiar with American culture,” said Dave Raymond, Vice President, Merchandising Operations at Wayfair, in a prepared statement after Nearshore Americas reached Wayfair to request details of the sourcing relationship. (Nearshore has been aware of the activity since its inception in the spring of 2015).
The revelation has several layers of importance for Nearshore industry watchers, as well as to those who have quickly dismissed smaller countries – Guyana’s population is well under one million citizens – as undersized and ill-equipped to service big-league US clients. Not only are those observers wrong, but it is increasingly clear that digitally-driven organizations such as Wayfair will continue to seek out partners in locations that are nimble, can quickly get aligned with clients because of cultural compatibility, and possess citizens willing to commit to BPO as a career instead of a stepping-stone to “something better.” This trend of course means smaller countries, particularly in the English-speaking Caribbean, are in a better position to score more lucrative, digital opportunities if they equip themselves to chase after that business.
In the case of Wayfair, the company is partnering with Emerge BPO, founded by Adrian Collins, who previously was co-founder of Clear Connect. Collins was born in Guyana and was educated largely in the United States, before returning to the South American country in 2007 to open his nearshore businesses. Prior to returning, Collins spent eight years with Office Depot, including in the role of Senior Director of Operations and Strategic Partnerships. “I have probably done every job there is to do at a call center,” said Collins, in an interview today from his office in Georgetown. “At Office Depot I was a buyer. That experience helped me see things at the level of the buyer, and better understand what their pain points are.”
Emerge employs more than 400 employees, the bulk of whom are based in Guyana. The company also employs at-home workers in the U.S. and Canada. Neither Collins or Wayfair would disclose the number of employees working on the Wayfair operations.
It comes as a surprise that a billion-dollar publicly traded company would select a country like Guyana, which is seldom on the final short list of most new nearshore BPO customers.
Quick test: Next time you’re at a dinner party, poll the well-educated among you on the specific location of Guyana and see what you find. Our bet is very few will get it right, and for those who do, the chances are high that what will be evoked is the name “Jim Jones” and the Jonestown massacre, occurring over 40 years ago.
Wayfair took a more intrepid approach to navigating into the Nearshore than most buyers, creating its own review team to seek out freely available white paper studies and other reliable sources to probe Guyana. Qualfon, it should be mentioned, has long understood the strength of the country, having set up its contact center operations there over ten years ago. In early 2015, Qualfon opened a new campus north of Georgetown, employing over 2,000 agents.
The term ‘back-office’ is widely recognized as a function that has little strategic importance to sponsoring companies. Low-level work allows the customer to quickly transfer work from one place to another, as if someone is relocating a server or office furniture. The language is callous for a reason: There is little appetite in the corporate world for facing the often cold-hearted reality of committing to one country one day and calling it quits the next. This ‘no strings attached’ approach frequently means that buyers are loathe to talk about what country flavor they’re indulging in any given month.
For that reason, we applaud Wayfair for doing the right thing, however irrelevant it may seem to many in the larger BPO industry. Speaking about the country brings dignity to the people doing the toiling for the client. It also of course boosts recognition of the country so other buyers remain a bit less clueless about far-flung destinations like Guyana.
What’s also noteworthy is Wayfair’s praise of its Guyana team. Instead of dismissively suggesting back-office as a low-skill function that can be done “anywhere”, we are seeing Wayfair stand up for its people – even if they are not officially Wayfair employees.
Companies like Wayfair are emblematic of a new-breed of U.S. corporation – in a way similar to the standard-bearer position companies like Sears, GM, and AT&T held generations ago. Amazon, Google, Uber, and Lyft (we could go on) are in the vanguard of emerging companies who are each in their own way relying on Nearshore third-party IT and BPO partners to support their businesses. How willing are any of these firms to stand up and speak proudly about the back-office, customer service, IT, or finance individuals working diligently for them – even if they are not ‘badged’ employees?
The Real Cost
Too often we hear that companies cannot reveal the true nature of their sourcing activities, often fearing backlash from politicians, unions, their own employees, or other sources. The lack of disclosure does have a cost of course: Tens of millions of Americans are completely unaware of the interwoven nature and context of running a global company, where time zones, skills sets, languages, cultural adeptness, and costs contribute to a complicated set of factors that are constantly re-calibrated so end-consumers can continue to get better, faster service delivered with bolder and bigger cheeriness.
Meanwhile, take a look at Emerge’s webpage and you will see lots of smiling female employees. What you probably don’t know is that according to the World Bank, the unemployment rate for female youths in Guyana is 32%. For male youths, it’s 20% (youths are defined as able to work and aged between 15 and 24). Jobs bring not just income, but crucially needed stability for a country ranked third poorest in South America. Per capita income is US$3,700 a year per household. “Back office” is a lifeline that buys sneakers for sports and chicken for home-made curry served on Georgetown dinner tables.
Wayfair CEO and founder Niraj Shah sounds like someone who values openness. “When we started this company, one thing we decided early on was that we were never going to have offices. The culture here is about transparency, access to information, open collaboration,” he said in a 2012 interview with The New York Times.
Wayfair counts nearly 7 million active customers and a workforce surpassing 5,000 employees, including a large number of graduates from Boston area colleges. The opportunities for those twenty-somethings in a city like Boston are enormous. But think for just a second how many decent employers with air-conditioned offices are hiring in Georgetown, Guyana?
Then think again about all those well-worn justifications so many offshore/nearshore customers use to maintain their “no strings attached” walls of silence. How’s that working for you folks?