Julian Birkinshaw captures the fascinating tale of how entrepreneur PV Kannan took “the boring concept of customer service” and changed the concept of the call centre.
It’s a classic example of what entrepreneurs routinely do. Take traditions and shake them up. Convert the routine into something special. Redefine a simple business term and thereby revolutionise an entire industry. PV Kannan knows how to do these things.
In the late 1980s PV Kannan joined Tata Consulting in his native India. His timing was perfect. “Offshoring hadn’t really been invented at that time,” he recalls. “Our work was basically maintenance work. Then it exploded. Between 1988 and 1990 the company grew from 500 to 3,000 people. People were asking us for new applications. When I left, there were over 4,000 people.”
In 1991 Kannan, a chartered accountant, set himself up as an independent programmer and consulted for Oracle and others. He relocated to the United States and observed the rise of the new economy at first hand. “In the mid-1990s I was struck by the rate of innovation on the web. Sitting in a loft in Princeton, New Jersey, I felt that I had to do something, otherwise my grandchildren would be disappointed in me. The trouble was I couldn’t find anything new. We had to think five years down the line.
“That was when I began looking at the boring concept of customer service. We figured that if commerce shifted to the Internet, the nature of customer service would have to change. We developed lots of systems around customer service and came up with a platform, with the Internet as the starting place for customers. And the opportunity here is huge: even today, we still don’t understand how people really interact with the Internet.”
In 1997 Symantec signed up as Kannan’s first customer for technical support. In 1999 Kannan sold the company, Business Evolution, to a competitor, Kana Software, who had shrewdly gone public – “The name is similar so people tend to think I invented it,” Kannan laughs.