BPO 2008: The Year Ahead
The sub-prime mortgage crisis and the weakening of the US Dollar have rendered several rude shocks to the outsourcing industry in 2007. Indian companies were especially hit as the Rupee appreciated by 10.9 in the last 12 months (14.2 in the last 15 months) against the US Dollar. Investors, analysts and the media have been speculating about the impact of margin pressures, risk of business loss in the US, further Rupee appreciation coupled with domestic inflation, etc. This will continue through 2008, as we watch the US slowdown play out - much depends on the extent of the slowdown (will it become a full-blown recession?).
Interestingly, despite worries on the margin front, outsourcing growth expectations stand tall. In our interaction with vendors across the outsourcing spectrum (IT, BPO and KPO), optimism is the prevailing mood, especially as concerns top-line growth. As a result, companies are gearing up to face the year with aggressive plans coupled with some innovative strategies to fight margin pressures. Either way, 2008 promises to provide plenty of action for the outsourcing industry. Our analysts have put together a list of key trends that we believe will make an impact in 2008.
1. Shake-up likely as smaller un-differentiated BPOs will be badly hit
Smaller BPOs with low-end, commoditized services are worst affected by margin pressures, and the worst is far from over. These players will find it difficult to raise prices, and will be unable to pay enough to retain the best talent. Small Indian vendors will be forced to innovate with a focus on "differentiating" their services. In 2008, we believe that this will become critical not just for sustaining competitiveness but also for the very survival of smaller vendors. The vendors that succeed in differentiating their offerings and thereby climb higher up the value chain, will see new growth or exit options open up via better access to funding and M&A activity by larger players. The others, who are unable to get out of the low-price, low-cost game, will start fading away from the competitive landscape.
2. Rigorous cost cutting by vendors inevitable in 2008
The larger companies may hedge forex exposures in the near term, but cannot disregard the threat of lower competitiveness in the long run. Large global vendors and focused, niche providers may be able to raise billing rates, but this will not compensate for the entire exchange loss, and will need a parallel productivity increase to prevent margins from weakening further.
Cost rationalization will be inevitable in 2008 for Indian vendors - whether small or large! The most obvious impact will be on wage hikes and executive perks. Recruitment too is expected to slow down marginally until mid-2008, as vendors push up utilization rates aggressively. But we expect recruitment to pick up again in the latter half of the year as the slack gets wrung out. The impact on attrition rates will also be interesting to see, as large premiums on poaching may no longer be affordable.
Apart from the obvious cost heads, companies will also look to optimize various administrative or marketing costs. Traditionally, the weak Rupee has meant that margins were never threatened for Indian IT and BPO service providers. This has led to considerable slack, in areas like transport costs, procurement, travel, telecom, etc. In the past, management attention was focused only on growth, but now, the quality of growth will matter more.
3. Smaller cities will shine brighter
The cost and talent pressures will drive vendors to smaller cities at a faster rate. Especially so or new centers of large companies already present in India. With improving attention to education across India and State governments recognizing the potential of the outsourcing sector, companies are finding themselves almost spoilt for fresh location choices. Proximity/connectivity to larger cities a