Alorica CEO Andy Lee: Americans are no longer striving for the basics, which means their focus is less on survival and more on desire.”

Employees here in the US are sometimes unhappy as a by-product of their environment. We live in a great country where we have more freedom than pretty much anywhere else in the world, and life is generally better for the average American than it is for people in other parts of the world where they […]

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Employees here in the US are sometimes unhappy as a by-product of their environment. We live in a great country where we have more freedom than pretty much anywhere else in the world, and life is generally better for the average American than it is for people in other parts of the world where they experience war, famine, persecution and other atrocities regularly. And what comes with this privilege is the need for more. Americans are no longer striving for the basics, which means their focus is less on survival and more on desire. The world is different now and so are Americans’ expectations.

I had the pleasure of interviewing Andy Lee, Alorica Chairman and Chief Executive Officer. For his entire career, Andy has been guided by a single, simple principle: make the customer experience better. Fueled by entrepreneurial passion and talent, Andy built one of the first cloud-based ‘software-as-a-service’ customer contact management applications. This platform ultimately yielded the formation of Alorica in 1999, which today is one of the largest Business Process Outsourcing (BPO) providers in the world. Staying true to his roots, Andy’s belief in developing and utilizing technology to improve the customer experience has resulted in Alorica being lauded as one of the most innovative and forward-thinking companies in the industry. Alorica is the recipient of numerous awards and accolades, including the Deloitte Technology Fast 50 Award, placement on Software Magazine’s annual list of the 500 largest software and service suppliers, and multiple CRM Excellence Awards from Customer Interaction Solutions Magazine. Andy was a recipient of the 2010 Ernst & Young Entrepreneur of the Year Award in the Financial and Business Services category. Andy has served as an executive at Advanced Membrane Technology, CTX Data Services and Gateway. He holds a Bachelor’s degree in Business Finance from the University of Southern California.

Thank you so much for joining us Andy. Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?

The irony is that I never thought I’d end up in the “people” business. I started off in the software business, having developed one of the first cloud-based customer relationship management (CRM) applications. It was in the 90’s when the Internet really took off, but was still mainly consumer based. I saw the power of the Internet very differently — I knew it was going to change enterprise applications forever. And it may not sound like much to anyone else, but to me, changing the way we design applications equated to brands transforming how they run their business.

It inspired me to build a CRM software company that not only had a layer of real-time applications, but also the data and analytics to effectively run and grow a brand. The concept was simple — create the software so you’d have all the data, then take that invaluable data to gather analytics/insights, which in turn would allow you to know your customers better, improve your products accordingly and ultimately deliver the best customer experience. But then as my clients got to see the software and the power behind the data and analytics, they wanted help running their operations too. That led to the birth of Alorica 20 years ago — a people company delivering customer service — and I never looked back.

Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company?

One of the first projects we worked on in the 90’s was email response…and this was almost 20 years ago before Artificial Intelligence (AI) really was a thing! I remember a company said they’d pay us $1 for each customer email response. So I sat down next to one of our customer service reps. to see how many emails we could respond to in an hour. What I found was that the majority of the emails were regarding the same few topics and questions. I then worked with our engineer to build essentially what is “AI” today. In one week, we developed an app that allowed agents to automatically respond without having to write out the replies by having pre-populated answers. We went from 1 email in 10 minutes to 1 in 60 seconds and made $20 million off of that account. It’s crazy to think that the idea of AI back in 1999 — even before it was a fully baked concept — is still so relevant in today’s marketplace.

Are you working on any exciting projects now? How do you think that will help people?

We continue to focus on tech-enabled agents — people who are enhanced through technology. At the end of the day, what I’ve come to realize after 20 years is that our initial objective to improve our agents so that they can deliver better customer experiences is still the key theme. It’s what we call “speed-to-proficiency” at Alorica — how to bring more information to agents using tech and AI so that they can assist customers more accurately, consistently and quickly. And it’s not about getting “robots” to replace our workforce. It’s about empowering our people to make lives better, one interaction at a time through tools like technology and automation. Because that’s what customer service is really about — solving people’s problems, answering their questions and making lives better as customers interact with brands everyday in their personal lives. I truly believe that we’re helping people every time we connect with them, and if we can do it even faster, better and smarter — then everyone wins — our clients, their customers and our employees who are making a difference.

According to this study cited in Forbes, more than half of the US workforce is unhappy. Why do you think that number is so high?

Employees here in the US are sometimes unhappy as a by-product of their environment. We live in a great country where we have more freedom than pretty much anywhere else in the world, and life is generally better for the average American than it is for people in other parts of the world where they experience war, famine, persecution and other atrocities regularly. And what comes with this privilege is the need for more. Americans are no longer striving for the basics, which means their focus is less on survival and more on desire. The world is different now and so are Americans’ expectations.

What people are looking for in a job now is beyond pay and title. They want to feel inspired, understood, accepted and fulfilled, which there is nothing wrong with wanting these things. The challenge is that sometimes these feelings can distract one from being laser focused on doing the job well and achieving happiness as a result of it, especially if one feels like the tasks are sometimes repetitive. It takes away one’s respect for the job, and that sense of apprenticeship — in which one is continuously learning — is now lost.

In addition to this mindset, technology and convenience have made instant gratification the norm, which leads to constant dissatisfaction. The need for speed has reduced our ability to respect the amount of time and effort it takes to master a craft. People have started to look for shortcuts instead and have become less curious. And when employees become less curious and more distracted by competing desires, they also become unhappy. By no means am I saying that this is the case with the entire workforce today, but simply my opinion on what may be a contributing factor.

Based on your experience or research, how do you think an unhappy workforce will impact a) company productivity b) company profitability c) and employee health and wellbeing?

An unhappy workforce has a direct impact on company productivity, profitability and employee health and wellbeing. When employees are unhappy and they do not buy into the goals and objectives of the company, they won’t succeed and neither can your company. However, the best companies don’t focus on making their employees happy, but rather on ensuring that their people feel engaged. And if you can’t get your employees to buy into who you are and what you do, the chances that you’ll be able to get your customers to do that is highly unlikely. Because positive results and employee commitment can occur in other ways, such as through rewards and recognition.

Happiness is important, but the success of a company’s culture does not have to be measured by its employees’ level of happiness. Ideally, you want both happiness and engagement, but the reality is what you’re looking for is engagement and alignment. If you can accomplish these things AND have employees feel happy in the process, that is the right way to do it and exactly what we strive to do at Alorica.

Can you share 5 things that managers and executives should be doing to improve their company work culture? Can you give a personal story or example for each?

Pick up the phone and call someone within the organization. Things get lost in translation. What an employee experiences, feels and perceives is best communicated when you pick up the phone or spend time with someone in person listening and understanding what they have to say. One time we experienced an unusually high attendance issue at one of our sites and no one could tell me why. So I talked to some of our agents and several of them told me that they had changed the bus routes so the time to get to work had doubled for many of the agents. We then worked with the city council to get those routes changed back and our attendance issues improved dramatically.

Celebrate the small things and have fun doing it. I never knew how much of a difference celebrating birthdays, work anniversaries and holidays along with hosting contests and other fun activities made in increasing employee satisfaction until I started visiting our sites. I saw the way they’d decorate their offices for these occasions, dress up, prepare food for potlucks and fundraisers and work together for these events. I’d see firsthand how it would bring them closer, get them excited to come to work and ultimately motivate them to work harder. It’s all about connection and celebrating the milestones in people’s lives goes a long way in making people feel the company they work for is a family that cares.

Figure out a way to remember your people. Yes, this means know their names, how they want to be communicated to and what they’re interested in. It was challenging for me to go to our 130 sites and try to remember names and faces out of 100,000 employees, especially when they all recognized me as the CEO. But then we started celebrating employees with pins to put on their lanyards. These pins were to recognize their milestones, years of service at Alorica and their interests (if they were in any groups, such as our Culture Committees or MLBA local Chapters). It became a great conversation starter for me, other leaders and colleagues to connect with team members at a deeper level.

Empower your people with the right tools or give them a forum to create the tools they need. Ask them what they need and let them help come up with the solutions. Sometimes companies get stuck in doing things a certain way because that’s how they’ve always been done. It’s important to take a step back and ask the people what works and what doesn’t work, then recalibrate accordingly. We are in the process of transformation to make better processes and experiences for everyone. As we go through this process we are seeing inputs from every stakeholder in Alorica — from the first-time applicant, to the employee going through training, to the experts in their respective fields.

Everyone, literally everyone, has a story and something to teach you. So listen. I remember meeting an agent at one of our sites who had gone through fighting through a life-threatening illness and expressed just pure joy at being able to perform at her job. She relished every call she took even though the customer may have been disgruntled. This taught me the pure joy of living and being grateful for the simplest things in life.

It’s very nice to suggest ideas, but it seems like we have to “change the culture regarding work culture”. What can we do as a society to make a broader change in the US workforce’s work culture?

Over time, I believe people started to have unrealistic expectations of the companies they work for. It’s right to expect the company you work for to be a fair and safe environment, where ethics and values play an important role, and it’s important to always do the right thing. But beyond that, companies exist to serve clients, employees and shareholders.

As a society, I think it’s crucial that we teach people a deeper sense of individualized accountability in which each of us are responsible for ourselves and our commitments. This shift in mindset would impact the US workforce’s work culture significantly. Take a look at kids these days, who are growing up in a more structured environment where sometimes there is less room for them to think on their own — schedules, activities and even fun are all planned out for them. We need to allow more room for freedom, exploration and ownership, and it starts with people’s time. Give people the time, tools and opportunities to learn, which can’t happen without people trying. This type of critical thinking is the foundation of progress and can ultimately lead to a change in work culture.

How would you describe your leadership or management style? Can you give us a few examples?

My leadership/management style is…constantly evolving. I half-jokingly admit that up until now I was a benevolent dictator. When a company is young without a lot of resources, you don’t need a lot of opinions and you have line of sight to everything. I knew how I wanted the company to run and I told my team how to execute on it.

Now that we have hundreds and thousands of people within our organization as well as different constituents around the world, it’s important to bring people together to get a variety of perspectives. In that way, the complexity of the lens we view the world from has changed. It’s like we’re looking into a kaleidoscope. As our world has changed, the way we lead should follow. A single solution can no longer solve everything — you have to hear more voices to come up with a solution that represents your overall customer and employee base. Just like the US is a melting pot, our global company is the same. I strive to maintain a leadership team that is sensitive and thoughtful to the needs of many — an inclusive management focus that stands for its diverse people (gender, age, ethnicities, roles, etc.). I can no longer understand everything alone so instead, I’m learning more today as a leader than ever before and our decisions are reflecting the things that I’m learning.

None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?

I’m most grateful for Joyce Lee, my wife and Chief Culture Officer at Alorica, who has helped me (and the company) get to where it is. Joyce and I were friends since high school and have been married for 20 years so she’s actually seen me grow up and has been by my side at my best, worst and craziest moments. Joyce also has the remarkable ability to lead by influence without judgment or criticism. She listens, absorbs and inspires people to do great things. That’s why she’s the heart, soul and ‘culture’ behind Alorica. Best of all, she’s taught me to NEVER.GIVE.UP. In high school, I asked her out countless times. She’d reject me every time, probably because she wasn’t interested in a committed relationship at the age of 16, but I always knew I’d marry her. So I kept trying and eventually my persistence prevailed. This was an important life lesson that has carried into my career.

How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world?

Success can be the result of one’s talents and efforts. It’s also a privilege and an opportunity to do more for others. My success, and that of Alorica, have allowed us to make lives better through the work that we do, and not just for our customers, but also our teams. We’ve created jobs for more than 100,000 people around the world. For many, Alorica is their first job — their first impression of the real world. For others, we’ve seen them start as front-line customer service agents and move all the way up to operational site directors and even executives. We’ve created an environment where people can learn and develop skills. And it’s been great to see people become successful, from all different levels and geographies. I hear big and small success stories all the time, and it’s crazy to think our people have helped well-known, global brands achieve greatness, bring goodness to the world and change the way they do business with their customers.

Beyond employment, we’ve also been able to positively impact communities and people in need around the world through the non-profit Making Lives Better with Alorica (MLBA). Since we started MLBA 3 years ago, we’ve raised more than $3.5 million dollars, given out more than 6,500 grants to people in crisis situations and started nearly 90 chapters in 5 countries. And the goodness we’ve been able to bring to the world through MLBA doesn’t just come in the form of funds, donations and volunteer activities. What’s remarkable about MLBA is that it’s empowered and inspired local employees to band together and lead the charge to help their colleagues and communities in need.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

Something I tell my teams pretty often is “Get comfortable with the uncomfortable.” Everything evolves and changes. Everything. This industry isn’t what it was 20 years ago. Our customers aren’t who they were 20 years ago. I’m not who I was 20 years ago. Change is inevitable, and most often times, change is uncomfortable. But we need to learn to adapt and align ourselves with the changes in the industry and in life, especially given the fast-paced environment we live in where technological advances can change an industry overnight.

You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger.

I’d like to start a movement of paying it forward through knowledge sharing. As people succeed, they should also be willing to give and guide those who are interested in doing the same, especially the next generation. The truth is, the power of knowledge is with the youth because young people are inherently the most curious. Their greatest asset is what they don’t know. When they start working at a company, their brains have not yet been conditioned to buy into the “why not’s” — why things can’t be done. So who are the most qualified to challenge the status quo? The next generation workforce. I wanted to be an entrepreneur for that reason…because I was passionate about figuring out a way to make the “why yes” possible. I remember those older and more experienced than me always told me why things couldn’t happen, but didn’t know the intricate details of how things worked. And that’s precisely why the youth is our future; they believe in the “yes” and not burdened by the history of the “why not’s”. We have to condition and re-train the “why not’s” to become “why yes” by having the next generation of young people influence them and show them how. The only way to get there is by identifying the young people who are determined, passionate, inspired, wicked smart and grounded in reality, then sharing our knowledge and experience with them.

Thank you for joining us!

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