Your Culture is Your Brand

How Yaburi melons may hold the key to better support for content moderators.

Social media platforms continue to disrupt traditional media, product advertising, peer-to-peer communication, and even political communication and discourse. But to maintain its promise, social media and other digital content require consistent monitoring and moderation – a function that’s grown into a multi-billion dollar industry in itself. Indeed, content moderation is no longer solely for social media giants. In today’s digital, mobile-first era, all brands must have a monitored online presence in order to compete in the marketplace while ensuring the safety of their customers.

With the very recent acquisition of Germany-based Competence Call Center (January 31, 2020), TELUS International – the global arm of parent company TELUS Corporation, a leading Canadian telco – has become a marquis player in the content moderation space.

For more than 11 years, TELUS International President and CEO, Jeff Puritt, has confidently guided the company on an impressive growth trajectory, engineering a half-dozen acquisitions to build the company’s global footprint across Latin America, Europe, and Asia. And with its most recent acquisition finalised, the customer experience (CX) innovator’s path toward a potential IPO in the next 12-24 months just got much clearer.

But as it has for much of the past decade, Jeff’s preferred topic of conversation remains corporate culture. He sees culture and winning the war for talent as the source of TELUS International’s sustained competitive advantage, and the key to achieving his ambitions for the company, particularly as it becomes a key player in the content moderation space.

We recently took the opportunity to sit down with Jeff for an interesting discussion about how corporate culture and content moderation impact each other.

Jeff lends a hand repairing elementary school desks at a recent TELUS
Days of Giving volunteer event in Manila.

Congratulations on the acquisition of Competence Call Center (CCC) – what are your expectations for the year ahead?

Our team is poised to leverage the expanded capabilities of the combined companies to further elevate our globally admired CX delivery and amplify our momentum providing the digitally-enabled, high touch customer experiences, the demand for which continues to grow. TELUS International now employs some 50,000 highly engaged and inspired team members worldwide, and we’ve gained a significant volume of talent and experience in high-demand German language support, and in the high-growth area of content moderation.

We’ve long prided ourselves on providing multilingual support, and with this acquisition, we are able to offer our customer experience, digital transformation, content moderation, IT lifecycle, advisory and digital consulting, risk management and back-office solutions in over 50 languages from more than 50 delivery centres in 20 countries across North and Central America, Europe and Asia.
We anticipate continued double-digit YoY growth and I could not be more excited about the opportunity to further proliferate our world-class solutions to an even broader customer base!

What else can you tell us about the acquisition?

I’m proud that my team has completed a number of successful mergers and acquisitions (M&A) over the years. But at a purchase price of approximately US$1 billion, this is our most sizable transaction to date and will position TELUS International among the largest business services providers globally.

CCC is just over two decades old and is headquartered in Berlin with a footprint across 11 countries in Europe, employing more than 8,500 team members. It’s an excellent match for TELUS International from both a strategic and cultural standpoint. As with all of our past acquisitions, we believe a cultural affinity is the single most important factor in determining the success of M&A partnerships.

Like us, the leadership team at CCC is committed to community giving and volunteerism. In fact, we plan to broaden our community giving activities in order to contribute to creating even more healthy, thriving, and sustainable local economies and communities where our new team members live, work and raise their families.

Why is content moderation such an attractive space for TELUS International to expand its delivery capabilities?

From my perspective, content moderation is one of the new front lines in the world of customer experience, especially given that today’s brands must have an established online presence across various channels in order to effectively compete in the global marketplace. In this regard, digital platforms are growing exponentially.

Consumers are creating ever-increasing amounts of content across social media channels, and this user-generated material – including content of a questionable or unconscionable nature – adds increasing complexity to the review process as the pressure to identify and quickly react to volatile content continues to intensify.

Brands need to get their social and digital content right, deploying smart and emotionally intelligent talent and around-the-clock monitoring to ensure a safe and responsive experience for their customers. And that’s for good reason. Consumers continue to conduct a massive amount of brand and product research through community forums and on social media sites. It’s clear that they value the reviews and content they find there. In fact, it’s been shown that the majority of customers actually value strangers’ reviews of a product or service as much as those of their friends. Furthermore, negative digital social interactions can achieve real virality online, greatly impacting a brand’s reputation.

A caring culture means focusing on who sits in the seat by customising
benefits, perks and development opportunities to the individual.

And this dynamic is equally true for not just large and small businesses alike, but also for the public sector as municipal, provincial, state and federal agencies similarly seek to leverage the benefits of online solutions to better and more cost-effectively serve their citizenry.

Moreover, the valuable work carried out by our exceptionally dedicated and capable ‘digital-first responders’ complements our efforts to empower customers to stay safe in a digital world through TELUS Wise and our #EndBullying initiative. Additionally, content moderation services will bundle well with the cybersecurity, privacy and managed information technology solutions that we provide to businesses, governments and non-profit companies. From a purely business perspective, the content moderation space already accounts for about US$2 billion, and that number is expected to more than double by 2021 according to Everest Group. In so many ways – this is a dynamic and exciting place to be!

Why is culture so important to you? What impact do you think it has on your business?

For me, culture is and always has been the most important factor in our success. You often hear people saying that we are in a ‘war’ for talent, and I think that’s true, especially today as the market flexes its muscles on digital CX that will increasingly require specific technical skills and knowledge. I often say to my leadership team that I believe the competition for talent is fiercer than it is for customers. And to win, you have to create and continuously nurture a caring culture – the kind you can authentically feel at all levels of an organisation.

Although many may talk about having a great company culture to external stakeholders, what’s really on the inside? Are they ‘walking’ the talk, or are their values just words on a plaque? Are they truly providing the care and attention required to nurture the happiness and development of the individuals sitting in their seats every day?

I liken this difference in culture to the difference between a Yaburi melon – named for the city in Japan where they are cultivated – and the average supermarket cantaloupe. From the outside, these fruits look identical. So then why did a pair of these specially-grown Japanese melons sell for over $45,000 at
auction last year versus the few dollars you pay as part of your weekly grocery shopping? Why is one exponentially more valuable than the other? The answer lies in the way they have been grown – with constant individual care and attention that in turn produces a unique and unparalleled sweetness.It’s the same concept with a company’s culture. I believe the most successful employers foster an authentic employee-centric culture from the inside out that provides robust health and wellness programs that meet employees’ specific needs, next-gen technology that supports and empowers them, and ongoing customised professional and personal development and training. If you treat team members with care and compassion, they will be healthy, engaged and inspired to stay with you to build long-term careers, which culminates in a company’s ability to consistently provide the highest quality customer experiences.

That’s an interesting analogy. Can you explain what culture has to do with content moderation?

In one word – everything. As you know from the myriad of articles on the topic, content moderation is not easy and can be emotionally taxing on the digital-first responders who choose to take on this extremely meaningful work.

Think about it – if one content moderator can remove one unsettling image from view, they are likely saving millions of others from ever having to have that experience. If as a company you choose to undertake this type of work, it is your foremost responsibility to ensure that your team members
have the necessary care and support to maintain their physical health and mental well-being while doing it.

At TELUS International, we believe that our caring culture, which aims to nurture the whole individual, will continue to ensure the overall health of our team members while also supporting their ability to be extremely effective in their roles.

TELUS International University provides team members with onsite classes to earn a bachelor’s degree while working full-time.

You mentioned your company’s caring culture.  How is this brought to life to improve content moderators’ experiences in the workplace? 

We believe that a happy and productive workplace cannot exist without having an efficient wellness framework in place. At TELUSInternational, our people are our strength and the key to our success.
Their wellbeing isn’t merely a ‘clause in the contract’ but something taken very seriously, and we seek to provide our team members with proper care, thoughtful management and aspirational career development.

Each of our centres of excellence has been designed with our team members’ overall health in mind.
We offer themed quiet rooms, activity centres, extra-curricular activities, access to a gym, on-site
higher education classes, libraries, and health clinics. Amenities such as these offer our employees the opportunity to relax, spend time with friends, and recharge during breaks, lunch and before/after working hours.

While we already have a robust wellness program in place for all employees, we believe content moderation work requires an especially robust resilience framework that is tailored to supporting and protecting our team members engaged in this work. Our view is that a holistic approach is required, and the entire employee journey needs to be thought through deeply and refined for this purpose.

We believe a fitness analogy is apposite when considering the building and maintenance of high resilience levels. Much as a periodic visit to a gym will have limited impact on long-term levels of physical fitness, we believe resilience-building must form part of the operational rigour so that it is embedded in the team members’ day to day work routine.

We offer our content moderators a session with psychologists or counsellors in either one-on-one or group sessions on a weekly, monthly, or quarterly basis, so they can comprehensively discuss their experiences. We also provide resilience workshops and receive regular visits from wellness and resilience experts who share their stories and expertise.

While it is essential to provide a range of support and to operationalise wellness and resilience-building activities in a content moderation operation, it is also important to empower agents to take control of their own wellbeing. We look to achieve this by encouraging content moderators to put in place a Personal Safety Plan which will be an additional support to everything offered in the workplace. Each team member is free to develop a plan that suits their specific needs
and interests, and can include stress reduction techniques and immediate coping mechanisms that help them respond to cases of traumatic exposure such as exercise, talking to a friend or going for a walk in order to ‘switch off’.

In the world of AI, why is it still important to have human content moderators? For argument’s sake, couldn’t the job be done by bots?

Absolutely not! As AI continues to grow in sophistication, a more synergistic relationship between humans and technology will emerge. While AI is valuable in screening a large and growing percentage of online content – flagging content for human review to improve efficiency and synthesising data to improve pre-moderation performance accuracy that ultimately assists human moderators by reducing the potential harmful psychological effects – there are definite limitations to its capabilities.

Where AI is lacking, is its ability to understand context, analyse video and other complex content and interpret community standards, which all require human judgement. Indeed, contextual understanding remains an irreplaceable aspect of content moderation. Recognized as a leading competitor in the global content moderation solutions market, TELUS International is innovating client-specific solutions by enabling the combined power of technology and empathy-driven human moderators to seamlessly analyze and respond to a breadth of information being shared, both positive and negative, across digital platforms.

In the digital era, humans have never been as important to content moderation – and customer service delivery as a whole – as they are today.

As you’ve noted, culture can include aspects such as perks, benefits and workplace design, but it’s also about ‘fit’. How do you gauge a potential employee’s fit, and support your team to hire the right people to retain and grow TELUS International’s culture, especially as it relates to content moderators?

When it comes to recruiting and onboarding content moderators, we use a number of best practices, including advanced psychometric testing to identify suitable candidates. It might be surprising to you, but the number one trait we look for in candidates is the ability to accept help. Research has shown – and it’s been our experience – that resilience comes from positivity, a learning orientation, a growth mindset, as well as a focus on building relationships that help create an effective social support network. After all, that’s the network they’ll need to rely on when it’s time to ask for help.

Combined with our parent company, TELUS, we have volunteered 1.3 million days of service to local Communities, completed more than 7,000 community projects, and donated over US$530 million to community organisations all over the globe since 2000.

We also train managers to identify the signs and symptoms of secondary trauma in their team members, and we set realistic expectations for them. If challenging circumstances arise, managers ensure that the team member’s needs are addressed, and if necessary, they are moved to other content types for a period of time. Culture is so important – it’s the secret sauce that makes people want to stick around a company to build a career. Who wants to work somewhere that makes them stressed or feel burnt out? I know I don’t, and I believe the same is true for all of our team members.

In your eyes, what are some key aspects to developing and fostering a great culture?

In my experience, the philosophy and practice is very simple. You can surround people with all sorts of expensive gadgets, but a true focus on who is sitting in the seat is what’s most important.

The customer experience will never exceed the employee experience. If your employee experience enables team members to relax and unwind, to find inspiration at work, to give back to their local communities, to take care of their families and loved ones, then you’ve done your job. At TELUS International, we call our frontline agents ‘heroes,’ and we really try to make them feel that way, too.

As a follow-up question, what do you consider the top benefits of a great culture?

The benefits are absolutely huge. And we’ve done our best to quantify them. Every year, we measure our team member engagement, and in 2019, we achieved a score of 85% globally, which is considered to be “world-class” by third-party provider Kincentric. That’s all well and good, but the true testament is reflected in our attrition rates, which remain more than 50% lower than our competition in the regions where we operate.

Particularly in our industry, where employee turnover tends to be significant, ongoing high levels of attrition can become incredibly expensive. And the cost to employee proficiency and experience can be even higher than traditional measures like recruiting and training. That’s why we do everything in our power to recruit, retain, and engage great people who share our values. To us, the alternative – disengaged workers that can damage the reputation of the brand they were hired to serve – is unthinkable.

It comes down to this: We hire great people, treat them well, give them opportunities to grow personally and professionally, and we simultaneously invest in their communities where they live and raise families. In return, our team members have consistently rewarded us with their loyalty and engagement as they grow their careers with us. It’s a simple but extremely powerful equation that we call the Culture Value Chain.

You mentioned investing in the communities where you operate; how do you approach corporate social responsibility and why is it important to your culture?

Giving back has been a fundamental part of our culture and a manifestation of our values from day one. TELUS Days of Giving are our annual volunteer events where thousands of our employees participate in large-scale efforts to improve their local communities. Often in the span of a single day, we are able to build entire schools, community centres and homes to make a positive difference in the lives of the children and families who live there.

Combined with our parent company, TELUS, we have volunteered 1.3 million days of service to local Communities, completed more than 7,000 community projects, and donated over US$530 million to community organisations all over the globe since 2000. That includes the annual funding we donate through our five global community boards located in Bulgaria, El Salvador, Guatemala, the Philippines and Romania along with a dozen more in Canada.

Our goal is to help end cycles of poverty by contributing to the creation of a middle class in many parts of the world. And, at the same time, our passionate team members have the opportunity to contribute to something much bigger than themselves. It’s incredibly inspiring for me to attend and participate in the great majority of these events around the world and to work shoulder-to-shoulder with so many of my colleagues as well as many of our clients who also attend. You should join us sometime!

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