10 resource unit pricing drivers you must normalize to ensure a like-to-like comparison in benchmarking resource unit pricing
An interesting offshore/nearshore locations strategy dichotomy is emerging for today’s major third-party service providers and enterprise firms, as well as their GICs. On one hand, they are continuing to set up delivery centers in new and unexplored locations due to increasing competition, business continuity planning, and risk diversification. On the other hand, the pressure of new disruptive technologies, changing consumer demands, and need to maintain points of parity with competitors is pushing them to consolidate their footprint in the top 10 locations.
Growing Oligopoly of Offshore/Nearshore Locations Driven by the “Digital Winds of Change”
Top-10 offshore/nearshore locations include – India, Poland, Republic of Ireland, the Philippines, Costa Rica, Singapore, Romania, Malaysia, Mexico, and China
In the past few quarters, new center setups in the top-10 locations have jumped by ~10 percent, from 60 percent in 2015 to 70 percent in 2016. The key driver of this change has been availability of talent; only selective locations currently have the capability to support complex digital services. Thus, both external providers and GICs are leveraging these locations for digital services centers and setting up relevant centers of excellence. While several other non-top-10 locations are also investing in building digital talent, they are still not considered a viable option for digital delivery.
- The major gainers from this shift have been India, Poland, Singapore, the Republic of Ireland, Romania, and Costa Rica. Analytics and cloud are the leading digital services segments in these offshore locations, primarily core software-based analytics. Both types of providers are also building centers in these locations for mobility, social, IoT, and cyber security.
- The major losers from this shift towards digital have been China and Brazil, given providers’ caution around language constraints and political uncertainty, respectively.
Going Forward, Concentration and Diversification
While most firms are investing in the emerging technologies/digital space, they are still in the nascent stages of building capability. As they mature, they will start diversifying and distinctively leveraging different locations for supporting elements of digital, thus driving a uniform distribution amongst top-10 locations in the next three to six years.
Following are highlights of our research on the future of digital services delivery destinations:
- India and Singapore will be large scale offshore hubs. Analytics, cloud, and mobility will continue to hold strong, while other technologies, (e.g., IoT, cybersecurity, and blockchain,) will, ultimately, be broadly and deeply supported
- Nearshore locations such as Ireland, Poland, Mexico, and Costa Rica will support real-time innovation and product development, and provide multilingual service delivery for social media and mobility services
- Offshore locations such as Tel Aviv, Cairo, and the Baltic states are currently the ”dark horses” in the race towards the top-10, and will gain momentum in the future. Look for them to deliver regional content contextualization, especially for mobility and social and interactive segments. Some of them will deliver digital technology R&D as well.
To learn how locations activity spanned in 2016, please refer to Everest Group’s report titled Market Vista™: 2016 Year in Review: Global Services Industry Facing “Winds of Change.”
Recently, an official from the Trump administration accused Indian IT providers of abusing the H-1B visa process by “flooding” the lottery system with applications, giving them an unfair lottery draw advantage. The statement again spotlighted the issue of importing foreign IT services workers to the U.S., thereby limiting job opportunities for domestic candidates. It also underscored the huge extent of outsourcing being done by U.S. corporations, especially to offshore-heritage providers. What it didn’t discuss was other types of companies’ usage of the H-1B program to import skilled talent into the country.
Everest Group conducted a quick analysis on the Labor Condition Applications (LCAs) employers filed to obtain H-1B visas in the last few years. We classified the employers into several categories:
- Offshore-heritage service providers, such as Cognizant, Infosys, and TCS
- Multinational service providers, such as Accenture, Capgemini, and IBM
- Professional services firms, such as Deloitte, EY, and PwC
- Product companies, such as Apple, Cisco, and Oracle
- All other companies
- While the total number of certified positions increased at a CAGR of 11 percent between FY 2011 and FY 2016, offshore-heritage providers’ share has dropped significantly, from 74 percent in FY 2011 to 40 percent in FY 2016
- The biggest share grabbers are professional services firms, which are increasingly competing with traditional IT services players across deals. Their share in H1-B visas has increased from 7 percent in FY 2011 to 37 percent in FY 2016. On an absolute basis, that’s an almost ten-fold increase
- The top 25 employers contribute ~50 percent to the total positions certified, which implies that offshore-heritage providers have only a 20 percent share of the total positions certified for H-1B visas by the Department of Labor between FY 2011 and FY 2016.
(For the uninitiated, a certified LCA (ETA Form 9035), is a prerequisite to H-1B approval. The LCA must be certified by the Department of Labor (DOL) before the H-1B petition (Form I-129) is submitted to USCIS. The LCA contains basic wage and location information about the proposed H1B employment. Please note that a certified LCA does not guarantee H-1B visa approval, however, certified position trends are good indicators of H-1B visa usage. Also, note that the data below includes positions certified for new H-1B visa applications as well as renewal and transfer of H-1B visa.)
One of the Trump administration’s suggested reforms is to increase the minimum wage for H-1B visas from US$60,000 to US$130,000. But as this minimum wage recommendation is applicable to companies that are “H-1B dependent” – and most offshore-heritage providers fall into this category – the required increase in minimum wage, whatever it ultimately is, will likely affect offshore-heritage providers more than any other type of organization.
At the same time professional services firms have quietly increased their leverage of the visa-led model, offshore-heritage providers have been the unfortunate recipients of far greater scrutiny and negative limelight. In order to successfully compete, offshore-heritage providers have no choice other than to prepare now for the impact of visa policy changes. As the old saying goes, “better safe than sorry.”
On 25 April 2017, U.S. President Donald Trump moved one step closer to instituting new regulations for granting H-1B visas. At the same time, many IT service providers – especially those of Indian-heritage –moved one step closer to realizing their worst fears! The threat of visa reforms became real when President Trump ordered an inter-departmental review of the H-1B visa program, which would ensure formulation of regulations for hiring only the most skilled or the most highly-paid professionals and “would never replace American jobs.”
While it is universally acknowledged that a stricter visa regime will negatively impact most service providers’ onshore margins, particularly the offshore-centric providers that follow the “landed” resource model (i.e., a delivery model that hires resources from offshore centers to work in the U.S.,) it is important to examine the true nature of this impact. The exhibit below indicates the possible impact on onshore margins under various visa reform scenarios.
Scenario-based H1-B visa reform impact assessment on onshore (U.S.) margins
Even in a situation where the visa reforms do not translate into full-fledged regulation (the most ideal scenario for Indian-heritage service providers) we expect far greater scrutiny of H1-B visa applications, leading to fewer visa grants. Even in this scenario, we expect more onshore hiring by IT service providers to meet their talent requirements, leading to reduction of service provider margins by 2-4 percentage points.
The probability of the above happening has become more dubious, given recent developments, and it is highly likely that visas will be granted based on either skills/merit or minimum wage requirements of US$130,000. In either case, service providers will need to hire a much higher share of local resources. This further complicates the situation for Indian-heritage providers, as they have a smaller foothold in the U.S. talent market than do the global providers. Whether Indian-heritage or global, hiring landed resources at some/all levels of the delivery pyramid at the minimum salary levels of US$130,000 could drop service provider margins by as much as 14-16 percentage points, resulting in negative returns on onshore deals, at least in the short-term.
While none of the scenarios paint a rosy picture for service providers, the impending visa reforms may act as a catalyst for them to develop more automation solutions and front-end technology products and restructure their talent hiring and value proposition. Interestingly, while onshore resources will increase in U.S.-based contracts, the overall portfolio-level offshore ratios may also marginally increase with providers pushing the offshoring lever to protect their overall margins.
Everest Group has simulated the potential impact on onshore margins using key input variables around existing cost structures, rate cards, staffing pyramid, and onshore-offshore resource mix. Please see our viewpoint on the above topic: “Impact of Changes to H-1B Visa Program on Service Provider Margins” for more details.
Activity in the past few years has been concentrated in top-10 countries due to the availability of relevant talent to support complex areas or digital skills (e.g., SMAC, automation, IoT, blockchain, and cybersecurity)
The topic of productivity differences in contact center locations has always been of interest to enterprises, GICs, and service providers. In the last few months, there has been a significant increase in firms’ interest in leveraging an integrated global delivery model across offshore, nearshore, and onshore locations for their contact center needs. In addition, the looming prospect of higher barriers to offshoring/nearshoring is also shifting focus from a labor arbitrage model to one of productivity gains.
Against this backdrop, Everest Group conducted targeted research to assess relative differences in contact center productivity across locations, using agent efficiency as a proxy for productivity.
Our research uncovered an interesting finding: while there are location-specific variations, agent productivity does not consistently vary by location category (i.e., onshore versus offshore/nearshore). While agent productivity is influenced by multiple factors, only two – average call handling time and agent utilization – are largely location-dependent. Even after normalizing for other factors such as nature of business, work mix, and scale of operations, there is no evidence to suggest that productivity is higher in onshore locations than in offshore/nearshore locations.
Exhibit 1: Assessment framework for agent productivity in contact centers
The reason that productivity variations are not location specific is that both average call handling time and agent utilization are, in turn, impacted by drivers that largely do not vary consistently across location category. For example, both scheduling efficiency and training effectiveness are influenced more by center-specific policies and work environment than location category. Thus, it’s the interplay of these and multiple other drivers, which often negate and counterbalance each other, that are the key contributors to productivity variations, not the locations themselves.
Exhibit 2: Variation in location-dependent factors that impact agent productivity in contact centers
These findings have some important implications for firms:
- It is important to focus more on internal levers to improve productivity within individual contact center operations. Factors such as call volume, business cyclicality, skillset availability, and the firm’s overall policies and practices influence productivity more than location-dependent factors
- Furthermore, global work placement decisions need to incorporate multiple factors beyond productivity, including delivery cost , talent scalability, business/client preferences, and business/operating risks
- Finally, it is important to recognize that no single metric is sufficient to fully capture productivity. Rather, a holistic assessment that incorporates both efficiency and effectiveness (quality) and both agent and technology-enabled metrics is required
For a detailed analysis of this topic, please see our viewpoint entitled “Are There Productivity Differences across Contact Center Locations?”
Recently, corporate developments, such as management changes, corporate governance, and investor activism across Indian IT service providers, have bombarded the investor community. Many investors perceive the initiatives taken by these companies to be a watershed moment in their histories.
Furthermore, with next generation automation, digital services, artificial intelligence (AI), and other disruptors creating massive, requisite, and unavoidable change in the IT services industry, investors and service providers are in increasingly opposing schools of thought. However, many of the investment firms we work with struggle to correlate these developments with their investments and returns.
Given the scale of the IT industry and the pace of disruption happening in the entire ecosystem, it’s valuable to take a few minutes to dissect and analyze the situation.
Growth vs. profitability equation – digital arbitrage vs. labor arbitrage
For the past two decades, Indian IT service providers have reported a stellar net profit margin in the range of 18-25 percent. The business grew on the investments made in human resources. The players achieved impressive returns primarily due to their grip on labor arbitrage. The investor community embraced the stocks, and experienced significant returns. For instance, an investment of US$350 in one of the top Indian IT service providers in 1992 would have yielded US$377,643 in 2015!
The emerging IT services model – driven by digital disruptors – gives little emphasis to labor arbitrage or the providers’ earlier factory model, and instead focuses on innovation and value creation for enterprises that extends far beyond greater efficiency. Not many IT service providers have demonstrated a mindset aligned to these new requirements. They are still hesitant to loosen their noose on profitability, as they set investor expectations very high with their earlier business model.
What is bothering investors?
Investment firms we work with believe that most disruptive technologies will drive lower profitability for Indian IT service providers likely in the 8-15 percent net profit range. They also believe that technology disruption will not allow the same level of offshoring as before, and will further erode profitability.
As most of the Indian IT service providers have zero debt and own huge piles of cash, investors think they should receive distributions in the form of dividends. Their demand is stronger when they learn the providers are going to invest in low-margin digital businesses, as they believe they will not receive the optimal reward they are due.
Believing that the market is undervaluing their stocks, IT service providers are planning share buybacks, spinning them as a way to reward shareholders. However, they actually plan to reduce tax leakages caused by dividend distribution, as Indian tax law stipulates they pay a 15 percent Dividend Distribution Tax (DDT) on dividends paid. Additionally, the share buybacks help them increase their control over the company.
What is the reality?
Both these opposing schools of thought fail to think in the long term.
Investors looking for dividends aren’t acknowledging Berkshire Hathaway’s theory of dividends. If a business can deliver promising returns in the long-run, dividends act as a negative catalyst for growth. In an attempt to pacify their investors, most of whom are technology novices, most Indian IT service companies are relabeling their old offerings as “digital.” Instead of dividends, investors need to ask IT service providers’ leadership tough questions on how they plan to use their large cash piles relative to their IP, platforms, acquisition, talent development, and client relationship strategies. How do they plan to differentiate in this crowded market? When large-scale offshore development centers fail to provide the needed competitive advantage, what does their armory contain to create shareholder value?
The way in which IT service providers are surrendering to investor pressures gives the impression that they are not willing to utilize their cash for digital technology investments. This in turn reinforces the popular opinion that Indian IT service providers are not confident enough to tide over the current transition. That some of the providers are distributing cash instead of putting the money in beneficial investments is making some market observers uncomfortable.
Furthermore, if the providers are not planning to distribute cash, they must ensure that they use the money for useful investments rather than just share buybacks. This is a win-win situation, as the providers get a boost to their topline and ability to endure the current business transition, and shareholders get maximized wealth in the long term. Net-net, firms that invest wisely are going to withstand the changeover, while those that use their cash piles to temporarily shut out investors are likely to witness a tough time.
Are these companies capable of implementing the business model?
As the adage goes, easier said than done. Although service providers are vocal about re-skilling employees opening onshore centers focused on digital services, the viability of these initiatives are questionable. The majority of these companies have amateur design thinking capabilities, and their DNA is around supplying people, not innovation and strategic partnerships. Indeed, in our recently published report “Customer (Dis) Satisfaction: Why Are Enterprises Unhappy with the Service Providers,” enterprises only gave providers a score of five out of 10 on their strategic partnering abilities.
Only time will tell whether service providers made the right move in distributing cash or investing in low-margin businesses.
Just a month into 2017, the acceptability sentiment toward sending work offshore has changed. Companies are increasingly eager to explore ways to do work onshore which they would otherwise do offshore or is currently offshore. The question is how to do that without creating a negative cost impact.
A wide variety of factors are shifting the sentiment toward offshoring work, including …