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Teleperformance in turmoil. The company and its employees are used to it

Publié le 08 mars 2024 à 15:43 par Magazine En-Contact
Teleperformance in turmoil. The company and its employees are used to it

The confessions of alumni who worked in Teleperformance's historic headquarters, rue Firmin-Gillot in Paris, have been compiled in a fascinating new book. From 1994 to 2010, France was the heart of the company. Now, it is an Indian executive based in the USA and specialising in process automation, who will take over from Daniel Julien in two years' time : Bhupender Singh.


I was twenty-four and I knew nothing. Still, they gave me the keys.

The life of a manager, an employee or a stock market share at Teleperformance can be turbulent, as we have seen over the last few days, and as you will discover in a fascinating book: J'ai tant appris rue Firmin-Gillot.

The share price of the world's number 1 BPO and outsourced customer experience provider has been slaughtered on the financial markets in recent days. Down 14%, and down further 27% in the same week. Thirty years ago, this was life on the telephone platforms of Wanadoo and Harley-Davidson in Paris, as Sébastien Zins recounts. Sébastien Zins, now an executive at Salesforce, gives a fascinating account in the book. "I was twenty-four years old and knew nothing about it. But I was given the keys.

"Handling the first calls I received in customer service at Wanadoo was something unique. I was 24, there was everything to do from a technical point of view and I knew nothing about it". When he joined Teleperformance in 1997, Sébastien Zins joined the 1st Customer Service Centre in France. Growing from 35 to 600 people in 18 months was a great learning experience, not to mention a few other memorable adventures. He is now VP at Salesforce, Head of Marketing Cloud.

Sébastien Zins © Edouard Jacquinet

1 September 1997, Wanadoo receives its first customer service call. Place de Catalogne...
I was 24 and had hardly any professional experience, apart from a short spell in a telematics company after a technical IT training course. Xavier Blanchot was in charge of recruiting the team that was going to set up and run the first Customer Care centre in France, for Wanadoo.

Christophe Allard, who made the final recruitment decision, asked me to start on 1 August, but I told a pious lie: that I was going on a trip with my future wife. In reality, I was going to Mexico with some friends. The consultancy firm was willing to be complicit in this little lie and here I was, IT Manager of this site, taking hotline calls for France's leading ISP. I was 24 years old, I didn't know anything about it, but I remember the first call I received because, obviously, those first connection kits weren't working too well; it was a great moment, firstly because of the growth the site was experiencing and because there was everything to do and I had total responsibility for the technical side. In September 1997, there were 100,000 subscribers, 500,000 in December and a million a few months later. We started with 35 tele-actors, and a year and a half later there were 600!

At the same time, as it was the first centre of its kind in France and within Teleperformance, I showed it around to all the subsidiary managers who came to France for the international seminars that Daniel Julien was organising at the Hôtel Lutetia. As I was fluent in English, I was put in charge of these visits.

What was your job at the time and why were you recruited and given this fairly strategic assignment?
I was in charge of and responsible for everything technical: ACD, badges, telecoms links, IT. I was backed up by the ACD Manager in Belgium, but at the very beginning, to tell the truth, I had to discover everything. The genius of TP at the time was precisely that it dared to take on young, often well-trained, students in the huge employment pool that is Paris and give them these responsibilities, knowing that when the going got tough, we'd manage any fires that arose. We worked all the time, and I often went to the site on Saturdays or Sundays; in any case, it was all I had to do! You have to understand that the Teleperformance of the time - and this site in particular - were a veritable talent incubator, as we would say now, where Christophe Allard and his teams put young people in situations, entrusting them with the keys to almost everything and coming to put out the fires when they arose.

Did that happen often?
Yes, but we had some talented firefighters. Because the skills in this business didn't lie with the client, but with us. At the time, the company drew up a book of recommendations and formalised processes after each operation, assignment, new business undertaken or completed. All these documents were then given to the clients. You also have to bear in mind that Christophe and the other members of the team have very precise experience and vision of what needs to be done and know how to deliver it, sometimes in a very assertive way. I remember a crisis meeting, with a client and his entire team, during which, after the client's marketing department had explained the problems, he spoke up and said: "No, we're not going to do what was proposed; we're going to do it this way, that way, and that's why and what's going to happen. And nobody batted an eyelid, because Christophe was right. He was someone who could be frightening, with a killer look in his eyes at times, but this super-demanding attitude was combined with super-skill. Tough but fair.

We had 'sold' to FTI (France Telecom Interactive) the idea that we would pass 9100 certification, a rather crazy promise: in 1998, the ISO 9000 standard was an industrial standard, which had not yet borrowed anything from services. We worked like crazy and then came the certification audit, a key moment, the culmination of weeks of work. I remember it was during the France-Italy quarter-final. I said to Brigitte Daubry, "Are you sure you need me? because I wanted to see the match like everyone else. She told me that my presence was essential, so I brought my television. Everything went well, but we didn't see any of the game. When it was all over, it was the end of the match, extra time. We tried to contact Christophe to tell him that everything had gone well. His assistant replied: "He can't be bothered: he's watching the match!

But less than two years after his arrival at TP, the young technical manager, who has experienced in less than eighteen months what other managers can take ten years to discover or experience, is already bored:

We'd grown a lot, but things were going well, we were managing, and boredom was creeping in. As soon as I told Christophe that, he said: "You stay put, I'll come back to you. And that's how I ended up at head office, where a Teleperformance International team was being set up to manage group projects. There I worked closely with Christophe and Daniel Julien (founder and chairman) on all sorts of projects. I can still see Daniel coming into the office, all excited, spinning like a propeller. One of our foreign subsidiaries was using Noble Systems outbound call software and was so pleased with it that we were thinking of buying the company. "What are you doing next week?" asks Daniel. "Well, er... "Well, you're off to Salt Lake City" So there I was, off to visit our US subsidiary to find out what we were doing with this tool, writing a memo and, on the way back, stopping off in Atlanta to meet Jim Noble, the founder. We're talking about a purchase worth several tens of millions of dollars. "I remember his face and the surprise I saw in it when he opened the door and found himself face to face with a young guy of 25, in jeans, perhaps with holes in them.  Of course, I wasn't the one who was going to make the final decision on this purchase, but he knew that my opinion and synthesis would be key elements. But the visitor he met that day was not at all what he had in mind.

Opposite the Teleperformance headquarters, rue Firmin-Gillot, in the mid 1990's

Later, in 1999, I had the opportunity to work on another project that left a lasting impression on me: the opening of the 1st call centre in North Africa, in Tunisia. Christophe announced this to us one morning. And here I was, in charge of the technical set-up of the site, in a former car garage, not at all designed or adapted for a call centre, and above all, faced with a major difficulty: the transport of voice. There was no voice over IP at the time. And the government was very wary of opening up specialised LS to us, which was absolutely necessary. I was negotiating with France Telecom in France, but in Tunisia things weren't going well. Jacques Berrebi had to intervene, and we had to make a visit to the highest level of government, with all the pomp and ceremony to break the deadlock. That too was TP: the opportunity to create and discover new technical challenges, far from home, with one thing in common: it has to work! Every time, we come up with new solutions that can then be used by others elsewhere. At the time, there were no false ceilings or raised access floors in this garage in Tunisia...

Addicted to the adrenalin of all these new and stimulating projects, young Sébastien would later come up against a stubborn obstacle that reflected the way the Group was organised at the time.
At the time, I was in charge of non-operational projects involving subsidiaries in which the Group only owned 51% at the time. When something had to be changed, or investment made in a tool or in more radical projects, the local boss - who had often set up the company before it was bought out - would inevitably look at me with a look that meant he wasn't even dreaming, my boy. I had no power to impose any decisions. And I think this coincided with a period of crisis in the group's values. The company, which for a time had been the only one in its market to deliver certain services and to have expertise in certain areas, found itself with real competition and players who started to talk in a different way, to different people in companies. It went on to solve this problem, but this was combined with my desire to discover other environments. I thought, for example, that analytics, the use of data gathered during conversations, could be the next frontier to cross.

Was the gamble of taking young people and throwing them in the deep end a real strategy, and have you used it again in companies where you've worked?
At the time, it was a real corporate culture, which was perhaps not without financial considerations: young people are inevitably cheaper than more experienced profiles; but it was also accompanied by another reality. At the head office, real professionals were there and had anticipated that there would be, at one time or another, problems, major breakdowns or difficulties. And then, as I mentioned earlier, Christophe or others would arrive, look at the problem and decide on the best way to solve it. We had the feeling that nothing could happen to us, even if we were well aware of what was at stake. During that period, I experienced many moments, many joys and was confronted with so many fascinating subjects, but above all, I learnt that technology as such is useless if it's not at the service of the business. At Salesforce, where I now work, we don't actually sell yellow-blue or green software: managers don't care what colour your tool is: they want and expect you to help them solve their problems, to match your tools and solutions to their challenges.

You worked and collaborated with Brigitte Daubry, who went on to set up the quality unit at Teleperformance International, but were there other women in the company at the time?
Quite a few, and for those I had the opportunity to work with: Gwenaelle Roussel, Sandrine Knesellen, later Sophie de Menthon or Brigitte Daubry; there was a very strong feminisation of management perhaps and, without being phallocrat, perhaps because in the late 90s, the telephone professions were associated with female voices and many talented women flocked to the profession and made a career of it.  These and other women were essential to the company's success. At the start of the company, there were young people and women. Later, as international acquisitions were made, the group was to be enhanced by more experienced profiles.

At the age of twenty-four, as Sébastien points out, "you put yourself in risk situations, you accept them or you seek them out because you've just come out of school, you're eager to learn, to discover and you have nothing else to do but learn. But what I experienced at Place de Catalogne and Rue Firmin Gillot was unique for three other reasons: the hyper-growth that the company was experiencing and the sector in which it was operating created unique, demanding opportunities, consisting of phases of acceleration where things were pushing so hard that not everything could be planned or controlled. But the support was there, and was quickly deployed, with a unique alchemy of high expectations and trust. Finally, I was lucky enough to work in close proximity to the founding team, to feel the excitement that would build up when Daniel had an idea, when he was running around the room like a Tasmanian tiger; or to smell a cigar. You knew then that Jacques Berrebi was there.

Later, BPO became in part a business where it was a question of lining up people behind computers who didn't cost too much; but at the time when I discovered this business, the skills and know-how associated with it were to be found in just one place: at Teleperformance. And we were allowed to discover and enrich it. It was unique, as was the company at the end of the 2000s.

In fact, I've often wondered why the consultancy that advised France Telecom made that recommendation and took such a risk. "We knew it was going to be complicated, but at the time Teleperformance was the only company in its sector capable of scaling up and accompanying this growth.

As we say goodbye to Sébastien, we think of those companies that know and dare to give young people the opportunity to test their talents and grow; of a certain line from Corneille: "I am young, it is true, but to a well-born soul, value does not await the number of years.

A graduate of the University of Paris 12 Créteil with a Master's degree in IT and Multimedia, Sébastien Zins joined Teleperformance in 1997, after a short 1st professional experience.
He then moved on to various technology and software companies, including Touchbase and Nice Systems. He now holds a management position at Salesforce.
They worked with Sébastien Zins at the time : Bertrand Derasey, Patrick Dubreil, Brigitte Daubry, Xavier Blanchot.


Portraits et confidences d’Alumni de Teleperformance
In French
Order the book here

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