BPO with a Purpose: A Candid Conversation with Hui Wu-Curtis

Hui Wu-Curtis is a CX enthusiast and strategist who specializes in all aspects of contact centers. She has over 25-years of experience in leadership across multiple industries including hospitality, utility, financial services, telecommunications and healthcare. Hui is currently the COO and Co-Founder of SupportU, a BPO company focused on providing employment opportunities to underserved and untapped populations. Her prior roles include being CEO of World Connection, General Manager-Customer Operations & Strategy for APS, Arizona’s largest utility company, and Sr. Director, Global Customer Care Strategy for Choice Hotels with responsibility for all contact center sales and support divisions under shared services for 6,500+ hotels in 35 countries.

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Welcome to the pod, Hui. Do I have your permission to record this call for quality assurance?

Yeah, absolutely.

Great. Thanks for joining us. Can you give our listeners some insight into your background? Where you started and how you got to where you are today?

Well, first thank you for having me on the podcast. I would say nobody ever really purposely go into the contact center industry. It started a while back when I had a part-time job in college working at a call center. I’m going to date myself a little bit, but when we used to have alphanumeric pagers, people used to call in for messaging.

I think I lasted about five months where I never saw my supervisor, never really knew who was working there and so I wasn’t too sure what that environment was. I just got the heck out of there. I had the opportunity a couple years later to go back into a call center, but this time as a supervisor. I thought it was intriguing to see how you support and manage people who always had to be on the phones? I decided to give it a try.

Ever since that time, I’ve always been in various call centers and in different capacities. I slowly moved up and had more and more responsibilities. Got really involved and really honed in on my trade learning as much as I could. Networking with other industry experts, leaders, colleagues, to absorb whatever I can. Along the way, I soon had people looking for me for different opportunities. I continued to move up that corporate ladder and ended up having the opportunity to run a couple of companies. This is what brought me here today.

It’s funny how where we start often in our careers is not where we end up, or we take a break from where we started and then life brings us back around. That’s always an interesting journey. I love hearing about people’s beginnings and where they ended up.

You co-founded a very unique organization that is so different than other BPO organizations out there. Can you tell our listeners a little more about what inspired you to start SupportU?

For years, I’ve always been on the brand or the client-side. Most recently, probably in the last three years, I made a transition over to the outsourcing/BPO side. I thought there was always opportunities for me to move into leadership roles and stuff and especially in call centers, you meet hundreds, if not thousands of people along all the way. What was the most satisfying piece of my job really was working and developing and mentoring people along the way. As I maneuvered around office politics on different environments and different industries, I realized that there were definite struggles for myself being a female minority in places that were relatively dominant with white men.

I’ve had opportunities to really help other people learn and maneuver around those situations, and really just gain more confidence in themselves. I think that put a bug in me in terms of trying to figure out what are ways that can we impact people or provide opportunities to people on a much bigger scale for minorities or women or single parents, or people in the military or LGBTQ. How do we provide those people with opportunities to really thrive in a work environment? More importantly, especially what comes to mind the news with all the strife in terms of social causes and racism and stuff, it brings me back to the point of being able to create a company that offers people with significant differences and nuances a safe place to do their jobs, and to really thrive because they don’t necessarily fit in that corporate Monday through Friday, 8:00 to 5:00 mold.

Me and my business partner, we had an opportunity to come together and create a company that we felt really should inspire and be mission based, which is a little different than the other BPOs. We’re really concentrating on the ability to provide employment opportunities to people that have very diverse backgrounds.

You touched on this just now as you answered that question, but maybe circling back, where do you think the gaps are in the BPO industry? What makes a BPO stand out and ultimately successfully deliver great CX?

I call BPO many industries like the CS sameness. There’s not much that differentiates us from other players that are comparable to our size. What I feel the BPO industry is it’s a very prescribed business. The operational model really focuses on sustainability, growth, and scalability. How do we standardize best practices? Along the way, when you’re dealing with hundreds and thousands of people worldwide, you want that consistency, but in the meantime, you lose a lot of sense of the personality of the company. I think there is a gap between the BPO industry in terms of anybody can provide service to a client. Those are becoming table stakes. What else can you do that’s going to bring more value to the clients? We’re still trying to maneuver and figure that out. I think for a BPO to really stand out, not to only be successful, you have to be genuine. You have to be transparent and it’s okay to have a personality.

I think those traits kind help us build trustworthy connections, not only with our clients, but with our people.

If you take care of your people and give them what they need, and really have them at the center of everything that you do, they in turn will easily deliver that great customer experience.

People say that, people put in great development programs. People put in great succession planning and stuff, but very few people really follow through with it. It doesn’t resonate across the entire organization, just bits and pieces of it. I see a lot of things that are really disjointed. I think if we can figure out how to best align those pieces together, that really focuses on what’s most important. I think you keep it simple. The most important things are employees that make things happen.

I love that idea. We talked about this on a previous conversation we had about putting your people first and how that can impact your organization as a whole. We talked about talent there for a minute. I wanted to ask you, is there a set formula for finding the right talent in your organization, but maybe more specifically the agent side? What are the competencies you look for in an employee? How do you think your approach differs from that of the rest of the industry?

I don’t know how much it differs, but I think when you look at many organizations, companies are very prescribed. They have set of qualifications, they have job requirements, and stuff. They’re looking for people who fit that mold, but we’ve moved away from that model and really looked at just things from a competency-based model.

We identify people’s behavioral attributes, as well as their skills and knowledge. If you look at core competencies that a person needs to be successful in a job, if it’s position-specific, you look at the work style, you look at the personality qualities. Are they resourceful? Are they flexible? Are they creative?

It depends on what those core competencies are within that specific position. That’s going to make them successful. Call centers are very prescribed. They have a very specific order to things. A person that’s creative most likely isn’t going to be the very successful in those types of environments. It’s about finding the people the right skill sets, the right competencies, but in the best fit within your organization.

Then, the other piece is from an organizational perspective, you’re looking for qualities and attributes and characters that characterizes success across your entire organization. If you look at people that come from large organizations that are bureaucratic, and they like to be autonomous as a worker, as a leader, most likely those people aren’t going to be successful or highly successful in a smaller entrepreneurial type of company, where really all decisions are made by consensus. We really look at temperament and in conjunction with skills and knowledge of employees.

I like that idea of you matching the people to the organization and that’s where the sweet spot is. Quickly, turning a corner here. We want to turn towards talking more specifically about CX technology.

What do you wish more people understood about contact center processes, best practices, and the technology used specifically by the agent?

I would say being in operations with CAPTA sites where I’ve owned and operated my own contact centers, and then now on the BPO side, representing different brands for their particular call centers, I would say that with contact center processes, the things that we focus on most is standardizing things for scalability.

You want to gain some best practices across the board, but I think you lose sight of really of the broader picture because not every organization does things perfectly well. You’re going to have people that come work for you that come at different life cycle stages within their own organization.

Call center processes for me is people need to understand that those are dynamic and that just as much as market changes, just as your customer base changes, so do your processes. In order to make sure that you keep up with what’s most relevant and what makes sense for that particular timeframe. Technology is always near and dear to me and I think not just with BPO, but really any business where there always seems to be a bit of a gap between IT and then the operations, and then the leadership. When you think about what you’re trying to solve many times, and I’ve seen this in many organizations, where they bring in a great solution because the latest and the brightest thing out there.

They think that this will really going to help the customers, but they lose sight of the people. Particularly, the agents on the front end who are going to be using these tools. You think about how many millions of interactions they handle a week, a day, a year. You have to make sure those folks who service your customers have the right tools in place, and those tools blend in well and complimentary to your business processes. Otherwise, it’s going to be a very splinter customer journey, and delivering CX is going to be harder.

Not because the people can’t do it, they can do it, because there’s not good alignment with policies, or there’s not good alignment with how the process works. There’s a huge complexity on processes, best practices, and technology. I think people lose sight of the collaboration that’s needed between IT and operations, and the front lines.

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That’s something that I think we talk a lot about on this podcast is it’s so important that the leadership or people who are making decisions in IT specifically go into the trenches and see how their agents are using technology. What workarounds they’re making up to get around, perhaps glitches that technology is creating for them. That’s something that I think is so important. I’m so glad you mentioned it.

Moving into some fun stuff, what are resources that you regularly use as references to stay on top of industry trends and news? This could be podcasts, publications, or even individuals that you enjoy watching their posts on LinkedIn, or you subscribe to their blogs?

There’s so much information out there. I think the key thing is you have to inherently be a lifelong learner. There’s not a beginning and an endpoint in terms of what you learn and what you do for your trade, and your career. I would say, a few of them in general, because I like academia so Harvard Business Review is a great source that I often look into. I like to see what’s been studied. I like to see what’s significant. I like to seek another body of work. Then, something that’s a little lighter that really encompasses a broader stroke of industries and leadership, and small businesses is ink.com looking at their magazines across the board.

Just reading things will give me a lot of ideas or really going to fundamentally change the way I think about things. I think blogs are always important. I love hearing from people. One of our friends, Peter Ryan, he’s fantastic at really advocating for the outsourcing industry, and that man’s all over the world. It’s great to get his perspective.

I worked with Nearshore Americas because I’ve always been a huge advocate for nearshore work as well. They post a lot of different blogs on what does that mean? What does it do? What’s up and coming? Then of course on LinkedIn, there are so many phenomenal articles floating out there and you just get bits and pieces, and it’s overwhelming but I think it’s always good to make sure that you keep the pulse on what’s happening within your specific industry within the call center space, but there’s so many things progressing from a technology perspective in terms of customer experience and in the call center space. Then, I think finally it’s obviously pre-pandemic conferences were important, I look at the speaker topics to see if something that I can take bits and pieces back to my own organization. I know people always shy away from the marketplace because they don’t want to be drowning in vendors. I look forward to the marketplaces because it really helps you learn more about what’s the latest technology out there. How far things have come and then what’s next. What’s next on the horizon. It’ll help you strategize what needs to be next in terms of your own evolution, in terms of your own technology, or roadmap for the future.

I love that you mentioned publications that mentioned nearshore and even offshore trends, and new places. That’s one of the things that I like to follow. Like you had said, our mutual friend, Peter Ryan, is so good at showing the world the new place where we’ve got some great talent, that maybe the world, or even U.S.-based companies aren’t looking at. I always get excited to see what the next emerging country for even a specific industry contact center is going to be put out by Peter and by other individuals as well. Glad you mentioned that.

This brings me to my last question. Can you tell me about some of the nonprofit organizations you are involved in? I know you’re involved in some really great ones and the ones that inspire you in your professional life, but also in your personal life?

I think from a professional perspective, we’re working with some fantastic organizations. Of course, I start my backyard in Phoenix where I reside and one of the organizations is Friendly House where this organization is 100 years old. They provide education and human services to people in need.

They provide childhood education, daycare, adult education, workforce development, they have immigration services, emergency services, family, and youth services such drug prevention or college readiness, or really community health screenings. They’re an organization that really has a ton of complimentary programs that will really help our employees as we hire them in.

Let’s take a single parent. Well, they may have issues getting to work or they may have issues in terms of affording daycare. Friendly House is a great program that has really cost-effective solutions to kind of help people out because at the end of the day, not everybody came from a certain background or not everybody has the financial means to really be successful in life.

Life is a struggle. I think organizations like the Friendly House along with SupportU, we’re really forming a partnership in terms of what’s going to help these people be successful in the transition? Then, from that transition, even moving in terms of developing a greater skillset for them to continue to advance within a career.

The other organization, Arouet, we’re just starting out, but they have a phenomenal program where they help women inmates prepare for reentry. They have programs when they’re within the prison, they have programs when they are released. They help these women really gain meaningful employment, receive financial resources.

What more importantly help build a solid foundation for their lives because it’s scary when you’ve been institutionalized. Now, you come out and now you have a certain stigma and a label about you where women lose a lot of confidence in terms of how that’s going to perceive in the workforce.

Working with Arouet and their organization, I look forward to really proving out our particular model and saying what does it take in terms of support, and programs that’s going to help these women really get back on their feet, and feel they are deserving of more because of a mistake that they made prior in their lifetime.

On a more personal level, I’m involved with ACEL, Asian Corporate and Entrepreneurial Leaders. I just think being an Asian-American and in the corporate world, ACEL does a great job in terms of leadership development, providing mentoring for career advancements, and doing a lot of community work specifically for Asian-Americans. Again, there may be stereotypes or stigmas, and so how do I help the next generation of leaders maneuver us through their careers, their communities, and in their environments to continue to be successful, but really make a meaningful mark in their early careers.

I think finally the last one is we have five kids, we have three sons and two daughters. My two daughters are adopted. After a few years, we realized we’re really good at making boys. I wanted to guarantee myself a couple of daughters. We adopted both girls from China, and my daughter, Audrey, we adopted her a year and a half. She’s now 16. We most recently adopted our daughter, Emma at three and a half, and she’s now eight.

Both girls are special needs. I think it’s incredible at how much they’ve added to the richness of our family. Involving ourselves with the adoption community and just bringing awareness in terms of what does it mean to adopt special needs? It’s not what you might think.

Basically, any baby that’s not born perfect like a cleft palate or they’ve broken a bone, but it has been since repaired now they’re labeled special needs. Just bringing awareness of that into the adoption community has been really important for my husband and I.

Hui, thank you for being so candid about those answers. I really appreciate you telling us all about, I think, being involved in some of that charitable work and some of those nonprofits is so amazing. Then, also thank you for delving into your family life is so inspiring as well.

That brings us to the end of our podcast today. Thank you so much for your time. I can’t wait to get this podcast out to the world as I think it was so impactful. I look forward to speaking to you soon.

My pleasure. Thank you.

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