Marking 30 years of Karl Brough
Since joining Sitel Group in 1990 as a night supervisor, Karl Bourgh has risen through the ranks to the role of General Manager UK &I. We sat down with him to learn more about the secret of his success, his proudest moments and where he sees the industry going over the next 30 years
Over the past 30 years, the Business Process Outsourcing industry has changed beyond recognition. It’s evolved from direct marketing to focusing on customer experience (CX) it’s moved from a single voice channel to a genuine omnichannel service incorporating everything from online chat to social media. Artificial intelligence is being applied to help agents deliver on customer expectations, while speech and text analytics are giving organisations the power to measure everything from customer intent to the likelihood they’re about to churn, or become brand ambassadors.
However, throughout all that time, there has been one constant: Karl Brough. Karl joined Sitel UK and Ireland in 1990 as a night supervisor and over the past 30 years has steadily risen through the ranks to his current position as General Manager UK&I , with responsibility for over 10,000people.
“Though I’ve seized every professional opportunity that has come my way since my first day on the job, I think I was lucky to join Sitel,” says Karl. “I had family commitments and here was a company that even back in 1990 offered its people the flexibility to align their working hours with their family lives.”
However, when we talk about someone being lucky, unless it’s a lottery win, the reality is that luck is simply another way of saying that when an opportunity was presented, the person had the capabilities and was sufficiently prepared in order to benefit from it.
In the case of Karl, that ‘luck’ was growing up around self-made parents who ran their own business. “When people ask me about heroes or people I admire, my parents are top of the list. They gave me the entrepreneurial gene and demonstrated how to apply it,” he remembers. Karl grew up working in the family business, learning how to negotiate, how to balance hard and soft skills and of course getting a holistic view of what it takes to make a venture a success.
Likewise he holds David Hunter, the manager of the Arden Hotel in Stratford in high esteem. Until recently the concept of customer experience, was exclusive to the travel and hospitality industry – as Karl points out, it’s a vertical that literally sells CX. Working under Hunter’s tutelage Karl got a crash course in the importance of meeting and exceeding customer expectations. “They were great days and gave me a genuine understanding of customer service and the importance of trying to predict a customer’s needs and meet them before he or she has said anything.”
What he learned in these formative years has been the bedrock of his approach to management. “I believe I’ve instilled an entrepreneurial mindset within the teams I’m responsible for. They know the best way to approach their work is to constantly ask themselves ‘What can I do to change things? What little thing could make the biggest difference?’ Then it’s my job to give my people the latitude to explore these ideas. It creates a culture of innovation and, over the last 30 years, watching how our industry has changed, innovation is crucial to future success.”
Also critical to continued success is identifying and preparing new people to follow in his footsteps. Nevertheless, it’s a surprise when one considers how much Sitel has evolved and expanded since 1990 that Karl points to careers he has helped to shape as his greatest achievement since joining the company.
“It’s about looking beyond a person to see the potential and then making sure that potential is nourished,” he explains.
Part of this nourishment is obviously showing himself as an example of upward mobility, the fact that it is possible to start at the bottom and progress to the top. But it’s also about giving people access to the same things that he had in order to reach his current role. “I can’t overemphasize the importance of mentorship alongside providing access to training and professional development. At Sitel we are focused on creating the best employee experience. I want my people to be happy to come to work and give their best. This is why forging strong relationships with fellow employees is so important. And I love it when I’m in a meeting with managers or department heads and look around the table and see people who started their Sitel life as agents. When I see that, I know I’ve done my job.”
And nowhere has this investment in people been more important than over the past 12 months. “What a year! But what an achievement,” says Karl of how COVID-19 has disrupted the world. “It’s in times like these that you see if your management style and the culture we cultivate makes a positive difference. And I’m so proud of how everyone came together and worked as one seamless team this year. We kept everyone safe, we transitioned 7000 people to remote working, we maintained client service levels and we actually grew the business I’m immensely proud of our response to the pandemic.”
So what of the future? Where will we be in the next 30 years? Karl points to the fact that the Natural Language Processing and Machine Learning that underlie chatbots will soon reach human levels of understanding and vocabulary and that AI is poised to make predictive customer analysis and delivering to an audience of one a reality for any organization serious about customer experience.
“What won’t change is the need to focus on the employee experience,” says Karl “All of these innovations are there to serve our people’s needs, to make them better at their jobs turn them into the super agents of the future. No matter how this industry evolves, technology will never be able to make a human, emotional connection and the ability to make those sorts of connections is only going to rise in value and importance as digitalization continues.”
As for Karl, he intends to mark his 30th anniversary with a glass of Côte Roti, catch a Liverpool or Newcastle match with his sons and, if he can make enough time, maybe watch Saving Private Ryan or The Man who would be King.
But however he chooses to mark this milestone, there’s every chance that however the industry changes in the years to come, Karl Brough will still be a constant.