The CLE is home to a great variety of tech firms, from software companies to web companies to IT services businesses, and even some hybrid companies that cross all those lines. Recently, I spent some time with Vantage Agora, an IT company located in Mentor. The company first became a member years ago, and recently re-joined NEOSA in 2011. Sudhir Achar, CEO, and Mike Fieseler, VP, shared some of the inside story of the company.
NEOSA: So, give us a little background on the business – – core products, markets served, when were you founded, and so forth.
Vantage Agora: Vantage Agora was founded in 2004. We’re a Minority Business Enterprise (MBE) based in Mentor. We have two solution areas that we offer coast-to-coast. Back Office Operations and IT.
Our back office operations generally focus on non-customer facing activities that distract people from performing their primary job responsibilities. Rough Notes (an Insurance industry trade publication) published results of a study showing that insurance agents and underwriters spend less than 25% of their time on customer facing activities. Most of the other time is spent doing required mundane activities and paperwork. Freeing up even a third of that time can double the time they spend with clients and potentials. We perform tasks for them such as rating, quoting, endorsements, renewals, claims processing, commissions reconciliation, and issuing policies. We use industry certified people working on our client’s systems. Their only job is to perform those tasks so the work is completed faster, with higher quality, and at less cost. We do similar work in other industries.
Our IT work is development of application and web products primarily using .NET or open source / LAMP and mobile platforms. We also provide SEO and SEM services. Lately, we’ve had more clients ask us to perform testing for them. This includes assessing and performing automated and manual testing across a variety of the most popular tracking tools such as the IBM Rational product and HP’s Quality Center. Some of this has been full time work and some project based.
With our background in back-office and operations in general, we’ve developed several patent pending IT platforms that will help improve the operations of our customers. The goal of these platforms (both mobile and otherwise) is to enable companies to ‘control their businesses’ from providing executive visibility to on-boarding and activities requiring regulatory compliance. As an offshoot of the operational excellence and ‘control your business’ we have designed a digital signage solution that can be disbursed over a wide geographic area and remotely monitored and managed via the internet.
NEOSA: You’ve got a small local staff, what’s your total headcount and where are they located?
Vantage Agora:Vantage Agora has over 100 people. We opened a second delivery center this year in Bangalore, India to support representatives in Ohio, California, Texas, and New Jersey.
One of the unique things we’ve done with our organization is to have our overseas delivery centers managed by a US citizen, a gentleman with over 20 years experience working in the US for Fortune 500 companies. He understands the demands and culture of US organizations and has put in place an environment to address this with our overseas resources. Part of this includes providing our clients with dashboards that give them 24 hour access to the status of their projects.
NEOSA: We’ve seen a lot of ebb and flow to company’s leveraging overseas talent. What trends are you seeing in the off-shoring area?
Vantage Agora: Offshore outsourcing started with IT processes. This was due to a couple factors; depth of IT skills available in the US and cost. As companies became comfortable with the idea of outsourcing, they began looking at other tasks to outsource. The most popular became call center and administrative tasks, such as accounting, bookkeeping and billing.
IT is still quite popular for outsourrcing. We are seeing this transition to more of a skills requirement as the cost for performing these services offshore has increased. We have also had companies ask us if we can house and manage their existing / captive overseas staff.
General back office services continue to be an area of outsourcing interest. These are generally lower paying positions in the US and many times do not require post high school education. Many executives we talk to agree that these are perpetual training jobs: you hire someone, train them, and then they leave for greener pastures and you start the process over again and again. When you find someone who is good, you want to move them into another position, but can’t because it is unlikely you can find an adequate replacement. That’s where Vantage Agora comes in. We provide trained, many times industry certified, individuals who focus on the task at hand. A portion of their compensation plan is based on quality, both their’ s and the team. We are growing, so they have a career path. Very seldom are we replacing US based individuals, instead, we are the replacement for attrition.
One area of interest that we’ve seen recently has been companies looking for alternatives to outsourcing to China. We have had two new customers this quarter due to a desire for them to move either their entire outsourcing or a portion of their outsourcing to another country.
Another area that we see changing over time will be geographic centers of excellence: areas that excel as a provider of a particular service or industry solution. As an example, we have all called a support desk where we reached an agent with a thick accent or broken English we could not understand (I loved those commercials about Peggy). Many companies have moved those centers to native English speaking areas or rural America. Ohio is quite popular for that service.
The key to successful outsourcing is to identify what you are not particularly good at, or tasks that are not a focus of your business. Then make sure the tasks you plan to outsource are adequately defined and don’t get locked into a contract that penalizes you if the provider doesn’t deliver. I would also stress checking references and looking at the investment a company has put into their delivery model such as industry certifications, Six Sigma processes, and validations like SSAE 16 audits.
We have created several white papers about this to help people with their decision.
NEOSA: Can you share a couple of short success stories?
Vantage Agora: Just last week, we had a local client in our office who was quite excited about the work we are doing for him. He had maxed out delivery capabilities with the infrastructure he had in place and asked how Vantage Agora could help. One of his frustrations was that he was continually hiring staff that would leave about the time they attained a level of proficiency.
We determined the support tasks that he and his producers (those with responsibility for growing his business) were performing and that they were comfortable have an assistant do for them. They covered expectations with our people and taught us how to perform the tasks using their systems.
We started work for them about 90 days ago. Their sales were up last month something like 20% compared to 2011 – substantially more than any other month this year. They attribute it to their producers having more time to spend on selling because we do the mundane work for them. They also commented that the quality of the work we are doing for them is much better than have seen before.
We have another local client who had an urgent project due to their customer, but not enough staff or the right skills in-house to complete it in a timely manner. We were able to help them by adding development staff and local project management working 2 shifts (US and India) which resulted in reducing the delivery timeframe by 25%. We’ve since expanded the tasks we are delivering to them to include IT back office operations such as testing of new product versions and releases and performing product configuration activities once they’ve sold a product. We’re completing this work faster and at a lower cost than their traditional delivery model.
Come to think of it, there is another offering that has had some significance the last couple of weeks. We call it Flexi-staff. This had its’ roots in the insurance industry. Insurance companies have a need to perform claims. The number of people required to do this is minimal through most of the year, but when a catastrophe like Hurricane Sandy hits, they may need ten times as many people overnight to process claims. In this case, we train people with the skills to perform those tasks who we can put on a project immediately. You can think about it as a retainer program for those skills. In this case, we run several mock disasters each year to keep people’s skills fresh. Much easier for a company than either overstaffing throughout the year or trying to do a sudden hire and train activity or re-deploying internally and getting behind on other activities.
NEOSA: How are your clients embracing mobile technologies? What are you doing to help them?
Vantage Agora: Mobile is all over the map. Everyone want to embrace it for both internal and customer facing applications. We have skills with Android and IOS but also work with clients to optimize web applications to mobile devices.
Vantage Agora patented a platform last year that we call Agent which targets delivery of information and data to the frontline people within an organization. The premise is to provide the information an individual needs on a daily basis in a form suited to the small real estate of a smartphone. The focus is on a visual presentation rather than a tabular format, yet with the ability to drill down into the details. This is something we learned while developing dashboards for our clients, basically, a picture is worth a thousand rows and columns.
Most of our clients have come to the conclusion that they know their market and customers and should concentrate their efforts on designing solutions targeted to that audience. They can architect and manage the project while Vantage Agora provides the resources for development and delivery.
NEOSA: Okay, bonus question: OSU is off to a great start so far, but can they go undefeated?
Vantage Agora: I wouldn’t bet against it. They sure look strong or at least figure out how to get it done. Urban Meyer seems to have put the program back on track and the Michigan game should be fun to watch: two of the most exciting players in college football leading their teams in one of the most exciting rivalries in sports.