The Big Interview: Les Torrance of Sykes

Sykes is possibly the biggest company you’ve never heard of. The Nasdaq-listed organisation, which has its European headquarters in Edinburgh, turned over $1.6 billion in 2018. The business process outsourcer employs around 50,000 people worldwide – more than 1,000 of these in Scotland – and its 70 contact centres serve multinationals such as Sonos, Sony PlayStation, HSBC and Motorola.

Although Les Torrance works for an American multinational, he insists the company has retained its family feel. Picture: Greg Macvean

Part of the reason for the group’s low-key existence, says Edinburgh-based Les Torrance, senior director at the group’s UK arm, is that the firm often views itself as an extension of the brands it represents. “When we employ people to support the client, we really immerse them into the brand so they feel that they’re an extension of the client,” he says. “In Edinburgh, particularly, we say we’re kind of the hidden diamond.

“What you’ve got to remember is that we represent a lot of high-end clients and confidentiality is huge for them. We represent their brand. So whilst most people may not have heard of Sykes, when you look at it, if you’re walking down the high street you’ll see many of our clients’ logos all over the place.”

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The European HQ began as a traditional call centre 23 years ago, but has now become what Torrance refers to as a digital marketing and customer service outsourcing provider. “Customer service is the new marketing,” he explains, as Sykes interacts with customers along various channels on behalf of its premium brands, blurring the lines between helpdesk and promoter. Revolutionary technology has redesigned – and continues to shape – the customer service sector, crossing the boundary from passive problem solving to proactive service improvement and even promotion. Torrance terms this journey the “intelligent customer experience”.

“We’re handling a lot of transactions across different platforms and channels right up to social media,” he says. “Typically a contact centre has been a magnet for people’s problems. People don’t call you to say how fantastic the product is; they phone up because they’ve got a problem.

“And we’ve moved that along so that using our technology and the data that we get, we’re a rich source of insight for our clients. That helps us to take our clients to the next level of what we look at as the intelligent customer experience.”

Torrance, who is entering his 20th year with Sykes, found the customer service industry relatively stagnant two decades ago, but the advent of the fourth industrial revolution has powered developments which continue to transform the sector. Ever-evolving technology has led to a host of automated and machine learning capabilities, including self-service videos, robots and co-bots, or “collaborative robots”, which are tools which “sit on your desktop and reference similar situations from the past to suggest the most likely solution in the current case”.

He cites a typical example of intelligent service: if a customer has an issue, their first port of call will probably be an online search engine. If they can’t “self-serve” to resolve the problem, they will then get in touch with the contact centre. Sykes’ model now is aimed at learning where and why the customer “fell down”, information which the firm then feeds into the resolution cycle to improve the self-service capabilities and enable a customer to resolve the issue in the future.

“We want to understand what they’ve done before they come into us,” says Torrance. “How much effort have they made and where did they run into difficulties? That’s essential for us to help and to constantly improve.”

Sykes has made several strategic acquisitions in recent years to drive its digitalisation agenda, including last year’s buy-out of London-based intelligent automation and robotic process start-up Symphony for £52 million. The group also acquired US digital marketing, sales and data science firm Clearlink for a reported $207m in 2016.

Torrance says: “If we drive self-serve, if we drive automation, it is not going to take over the human element because this is going to support the customer experience where it makes sense and then pass over to a human where that makes sense. It makes it a more seamless journey for the customer.

“It seems almost counter-intuitive because this drives down the number of direct contacts. But looking longer-term, if we don’t do this then somebody else will. We’ve got to get in there first and be a pioneer in that area.”

The digitalisation agenda, and a further acquisition, has also allowed the group to invest in flexible working processes. After controlled trials in the US and Canada, Sykes has spent the past two years rolling out its remote working practices in the UK and Europe.

This allows the group to expand its recruitment demographic and has been particularly effective in terms of hiring, and holding on to, multilingual staff, who may move around more, says Torrance. It also broadens the firm’s candidate pool away from the big cities, leading to collaborations with the likes of Highlands and Islands Enterprise to provide opportunities in rural areas.

Sykes employs around 100 staff at its fulfilment centre in Galashiels and a further 900 at its Edinburgh base, which conducts customer support operations in more than 25 different languages. “It’s a fantastic model and it’s difficult to replicate. There’s very few cities where you get that mix of people. The cosmopolitan population within Edinburgh, coupled with the high education that you get from the working population, gives us a great location that meets our needs and we see that continuing.”

Torrance’s affection for the city was also a driver in his decision to join Sykes as an account manager in the Nineties. After working in the air freight sector for 16 years, a friend and former colleague who had moved to the outsourcer contacted Torrance to say the firm was seeking staff with proven client relationship skills.

“The industry was very immature and it was definitely a growing area,” he recalls. “There was a lot of demand for outsourcing, however we didn’t have the necessary experience at management level. People were probably getting over-promoted so they were looking to put someone in who had that bit more experience on the relationship side.”

Faced with the need to relocate in order to progress in his role, Torrance made the jump to Sykes. Now he is responsible for the business’s UK and Hungarian operations, overseeing a financial reconciliation team, the logistics centre at Galashiels and the Scottish capital’s contact centre.

Staff numbers in Scotland rocketed last year from around 700 to more than 1,000, but Torrance maintains that the firm has retained its “family feel”. Established by John Sykes in 1977 and headquartered in Florida, the group is now led by the founder’s son, Charles “Chuck” Sykes, who was voted into the chief executive role in 2004. Torrance attributes part of its sustained growth to the group’s desire to create lasting relationships with clients.

“We really look to form a long-term partnership with a client,” he says. “They rely on us and as a result of that the tenure of our clients, especially for this type of industry, is very long. The average is around eight years, but there are clients in Edinburgh that have been with the firm for 20 years.”

He points to the company’s focus on understanding requirements and expectations, which can change over time. The company’s “wise” expansion strategies have also paid off, he says, with acquisition and developments adding more strings to its bow.

“Our typical business process outsourcing competitors seem to be making acquisitions based on existing capabilities, rather than in new areas.” Torrance cites the shrewd move into finance reconciliation, allowing the firm to handle multi-currency payments and offer customs care, along with the logistics venture which enables Sykes to offer e-commerce sales and shipment services.

“We need to be flexible and agile to be able to change and take the business through the good times and the bad. That can mean anything from implementing new channels or new platforms, developing new technologies or even location strategies,” he says.

This approach allows the Edinburgh site to have more than 30 different clients on the books, with one account served by 200 people and another by a single staff member.

“That one seat today might by 50 in a year’s time. They may grow, they may not, and we’re comfortable with that.

“I do believe that because we have great agility and we’re able to adapt, that’s what will drive us. It may be that no-one’s heard of us but we’ve been here for 23 years, we’ll be here for another 23 years. That’s the plan.”