Are Regional Trade Associations Stuck In The Past?

Promoting a nation or region as “ready for business” is a complex process. Governments all over the world spend millions on marketing and Public Relations exercises designed to encourage companies to locate operations, or partner with a local company, in their region. A particularly good example is the Business Process Outsourcing (BPO) industry because it has grown dramatically over the past 25 years and regional promotion agencies have played a key role in shaping the industry.

A good example is Nasscom in India. Founded in India in 1988 with a focus on Information Technology (IT) this trade association soon branched out to cover BPO and all IT-enabled services. Despite many critics saying that they have recently become too self-congratulatory it is fair to say that Nasscom research and marketing helped to drive the booming technology sector in India over the past couple of decades. The private companies are the organisations that actually conduct the trade, but many of them would not have received the attention and respect they deserved had Nasscom not been banging the drum for India at trade shows across the world.

In my years writing about the global technology and BPO industry I’ve met hundreds of people representing trade organisations and many of them are earnest, well-informed, and doing a great job, but I’ve also come across both people and organisations that are damaging their national brand through the way they conduct themselves. Without naming names, here are a few examples of conduct I have personally experienced:

  • Insults; a trade body leader insulted me and kicked me off their trade show stand when she heard that my last book was about outsourcing. Her assumption was that I was writing negatively about her industry, yet one look at Amazon would have shown her than maybe I could be writing more positively about her nation – that didn’t happen.
  • Sales focus masked by trade body status; A major trade body morphed from providing objective information on the IT and BPO industry into little more than a sales front. It appeared to still be independent and objective, but essentially the trade promotion officers were just sourcing deals for members and earning commission. Of course, the companies need to sell, but the sales team should clearly be identified and not masked by the veneer of an independent  trade association.
  • Generic; boring presentations that give no life or colour to the region – don’t forget that those of us who research BPO all the time have sat through hundreds of PowerPoints on why yours is the best country for investment. Every country has strengths and weaknesses – work with them. If you have a small population then don’t pretend you can scale up to 10% of the entire population working in a contact centre, talk about the specialist skills you have. Most trade associations find it hard to acknowledge what their region really can and cannot do.
  • All promises and no action; if a trade association makes promises to influencers – such as industry analysts – then follow through. I have written about investment in several locations, then have been contacted by the local trade association who suggested that they bring me over to meet companies. That’s great, but if you suggest conferences or visits then make it happen. I have one invite that’s almost two years old now – how does that make me feel about the way this nation organises investment? Take a guess.
  • Not paying; one national trade body hired me to research business investment opportunities in their region then I wasn’t paid for the research. Do you think I will ever recommend investing in this country ever again? I have talked to CEOs who were planning to invest in this country and my description of the trade body behaviour has discouraged them – that’s a real effect on their GDP from poor promotional behaviour.
  • Political appointments; trade bodies are often funded by government, or a mix of business subscriptions and government support, so it’s clear the government often has a view on how to promote their nation, but you need competent business-focused people in these bodies – people who can convince a CEO to invest. If you stuff the trade body with political appointees who are not up to the job then don’t be surprised when nobody invests a dime in your region.
  • Fighting other trade promotion bodies; trade bodies from one region of a nation often fight others from the same nation. This used to happen in India all the time until Nasscom got things more coordinated, but it is still happening in many other nations. Imagine a CEO thinking about a major investment that means thousands of jobs and one regional business leader is focused entirely on how bad another region of the country is for their company – that’s a fast track to losing investment in both regions.
  • Trade bodies fighting friends; sometimes one trade body will fight another one in the same country, perhaps for dominance of the events market or just because one trade body leader doesn’t like the way that experts and analysts are writing about research created by a different body. From the outside it looks disorganised and ridiculous. If trade bodies want to fight each other, or fight industry experts for being frank with their views then investment can go someplace where it is more appreciated – and it will.

The founder of Ryan Strategic Advisory, Peter Ryan, wrote about this problem earlier this week. Peter’s article was focused on the need for governments, trade bodies, advisors, consultants, and analysts to all be strategically aligned. If trade bodies and governments want to present the case for investment in a way that impresses potential investors then they need to send the same message. If different trade bodies or advisors are all squabbling with each other then it only sends a negative message about investment in that region.

The entire IT-enabled service sector is on the cusp of an enormous and exciting change. For many years, contact centre jobs have been seen as a useful way to boost employment, but they have rarely been seen as exciting jobs for the individual doing the work. This is all about to change. Emerging technologies such as Virtual Reality, Artificial Intelligence, Machine Learning, and Robotic Process Automation are all becoming integral to the management of the customer experience.

In addition to the need to use new technologies, the customer service process is blending with marketing and sales. All customer-facing interactions are becoming centrally coordinated leading to enormous changes in the career opportunities available to those who work in BPO organisations. Contact centres are creating career paths for data analysts and social media marketing specialists – they are no longer just warehouses full of people on the phone handling complaining customers.

Governments have often focused on the ability of trade promotion bodies to create jobs. They should still be involved in the broad job creation environment, through the use of policy to encourage investment in emerging technologies and services, but they must break away from the mindset that focuses on contact centres and thousands of agent jobs as the answer to unemployment. They can be responsible for investment that creates big data analysis centres or centres of excellence in artificial intelligence research. Regions with expertise in customer service should be able to develop new areas of excellence, such as social media marketing and social sales.

These are exciting times for anyone involved in planning CX strategy, but I fear that many regions who desperately need investment from companies planning interesting projects are being let down by trade associations stuck in the past and bickering with rivals or critics. It’s time to move on and accept that CX is the strategic core of companies of the future and we are right at the heart of driving this change.

Let me know what you think about the way that your own regional trade body is representing your region by leaving a comment here or tweet me on @markhillary.

Photo by Pe Wu licensed under Creative Commons.