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UST Global Redefining Customer Relationship
Jaya Smitha Menon
Tuesday, September 30, 2008
The ex-CIO of Novell and a well-known open source evangelist Debra Anderson is excited about what she does these days. She works as a strategic advisor at one of the client locations of UST Global, a California-based IT services firm. Debra not only looks at the delivery schedule and manages the projects but also interacts with the CIO of this client, a Fortune 500 retailer, to understand their business problems and help them innovate by advising them with technology solutions. Debra brings her rich experience and expertise, which help the client improve their business in a competitive environment. This also helps UST Global connect to the customer at a higher level and build a long-term relationship.

“Business success isn’t about having better technology; it’s about using technology better. That means making sure that you truly understand your client’s business problem and help them to grow,” says Sajan Pillai, CEO of UST Global. Hence, at UST the approach is always client-centric. This is very clear from the fact that the company has built a strong senior level team to focus only on customers which includes Robert Dutile, former GM, Technology of Reebok, Marsha Blakeslee, former Vice President and Chief Technology Officer of a large retail firm, and Paul Madarasz, former President of AIG technology.

UST Global provides a gamut of services which extends from Enterprise Application Services (CRM, ERP, e-Procurement, and SCM) to e-Business solutions to more than 50 Fortune 500 companies in industries like retail, manufacturing, transportation, logistics, media, and entertainment. Traditionally, businesses relied on technology and product innovation for competitive advantage. However, as products became commodities due to global competition and relentless technological advances, the battleground for differentiation and customer value creation shifted to customer intimacy and service. A reputation of superior service has proven to be a valuable differentiator in the industry. Hence the company believes that quality is not just about operational efficiency, and it is built upon people, relationships, and skills.

The company invests on the quality of its client relationships rather than the quantity of transactions. This client-centric model results in constant attention to client needs, flexibility, and commitment beyond contract. Fortune 500 clients of UST Global like the attention they receive when the company’s priority is on client share as opposed to market share. To ensure relentless attention to its clients the company targets only a few clients in a year for a long-term business relationship and concentrates and invests on them fully. “This was a conscious decision we made in the very early days of the company. Even if there is a short term opportunity for revenue we ignore it,” explains Pillai.

“Investment does not end up in technologies but also in customers and in some cases even before the contract is signed,” Pillai says. But doesn’t this proactive strategy of investing ahead of time slightly risky? On the contrary, UST Global believes that investing ahead of contract can result in some long-term relationship like what happened with many of its clients.

A Fortune 30 retailer company based in the U.S. was looking for a vendor to prototype their product in the Radio Frequency Identification (RFID) domain. Many of the top tier companies in the field had turned down the proposal. But UST Global took up the challenge. The company built a lab exclusively for them to prototype the technology. The Fortune 30 retailer was bowled over and UST Global caught them just in time to expand their customer platform. Says the Senior Vice-President, IS, “During our five plus years relationship, UST Global has become a strategic partner and our preferred IT service provider, edging out a well-known competitor.”

The willingness to invest and the willingness to be flexible have helped the company in more than one ways. If in some cases it has helped them gain customer confidence, in some others it has helped them deal at a level that was financially beneficial for both the parties. However, investing in new technologies can be a really costly and challenging task for technology companies. Hence the company has devised a model by which they consider buying the IP from the client to reuse and reallocate the resources. This scenario is best understood by tracing the early days of the ERP practice of UST Global. A few years back, a Fortune 500 retailer came to UST to enhance and upgrade their existing archaic ERP system. As in the case of the Fortune 30 retailer, most top tier companies turned down the proposal since it needed a huge investment in terms of money and resources. However, UST Global took up the challenge, made a tremendous investment, bought the IP from the company and helped the company develop an ERP solution which suited its requirements. This investment became the foundation of the strong ERP practice that the company has today.

The client-centric engagement model, which the company follows, has clearly helped the company to identify more revenue opportunities and also confidently venture into newer areas. Business Discovery, or change management, is yet another area which opened up when a client of UST Global decided to consult the company for some of its business problems. Business Discovery consists of capturing the organization’s existing processes and analyze them to identify and diagnose their weaknesses. Based on this diagnosis, they design new processes that correct these weaknesses. Further analysis, to compare the existing processes with the proposed ones and create a case for action, is also done. If the analysis indicates that the benefits will justify the costs, the organization will then develop and deploy the processes. Finally, the organization will operate the processes in the production environment and maintain them. The company plunged into this area when an existing client, a Fortune 500 retailer, was going through diversification and needed somebody to manage the change. “Change is never an easy process to implement,” said that company’s CIO, “however, UST Global, with its thought leadership and business processes, integrated that change and took us to the level we had to be in order to be competitive. They delivered far more than that which was expected or contracted for, and their staff of professionals fit right in with our team. All things considered, the change was handled professionally and on time, and on budget.”

An offshoot of all the proactive approaches the company undertook with the well-defined operational methodologies to improve the customer’s business and derive an ROI for the company led to the launch of UST Consulting. “Interestingly the UST consulting is co-designed and co-created by many of our customers acting as strategic advisors”, explains Pillai. The consulting organization focuses on serving senior level executives and introducing new advisory services while continuing to provide tangible, practical, and actionable deliverables. The new services include CIO advisory services such as IT Blueprinting, Outsourcing Strategies and Controls, and additional ‘hands on’ services such as process and platform re-engineering, architectural diagnostics, and technology rationalization. The company has built a team of 15 consultants from across the world with expertise in multiple areas. This is a bold venture considering the fact that in the crowded IT services market hardly anyone (except the big five Indian players) has ventured into the space.

Commitment Beyond Contract
At UST Global, customer satisfaction goes far beyond the implementation of new processes, organizational structures, new databases, and systems. It translates the heart of the organization: the culture defined by management and lived by each employee. If an organization is not able to transfer a customer-oriented culture to the hearts and minds of its employees, it will be very hard to be successful in managing customer relations. Hence commitment beyond contract has become an integral part of the company’s engagement model. Every business review will have a simple question, “What have you delivered beyond the contract?” and each employee has to demonstrate how he or she did that. This is done by encouraging ideas beneficial to the project or the company through the innovation management system. This also includes the number of proposals or ideas they have submitted to augment the improvement process of a customer’s business application. UST Global also has a Strategic team whose sole mission is to work with each account and assist them in developing ideas, institutionalize them, clearly write a proposal, and create an ROI model.

However, commitment beyond contract goes beyond business and its ROI’s. Recently, there was a hurricane in some part of the U.S. and the company had a retail client in that location. All the stores in the locality were getting closed after the news started spreading about the Hurricane. The employees of UST Global who were working at the client location went to the store and helped the store manager and even took over the operations during the emergency.

Handprints to Success
As a company growing at a tremendous speed, implementing operational methodologies is imperative to it for building core competence. To build core competence, the visionaries of UST Global have developed a framework that identifies the competency level of the employees and helps them to use it in a more productive manner. The framework approaches the employees from different levels. But the basic idea stemmed out of a belief that 50 percent of what makes people effective is their behavior. “Here we measure behavior by minimizing subjectivity. This also facilitates a lot of introspection,” explains Krishna Prasad, General Manager for Strategy and Services, who also is the mastermind behind this framework. The framework also benefits the customer because when he selects the resources for his engagement, the framework tells the customer which employee stands close to his expectations. The assessment through the framework is mandatory for every employee at UST Global. Prasad says that the framework is built around behavioral traits and other core issues like humility, client relationships, innovativeness, risk taking, and idea generation. It starts asking a simple question to the employees like ‘are they aware of them’ and then moves on to ‘do they practise and promote them.’ Adequate training and coaching are given by experts and not by trainers. The Handprint framework is integrated with all the organizational processes in the company.

Competency is incomplete without continuous innovation. At UST Global the founders have strived to build a system where innovation is expected. To encourage this culture the management has put up four different methods like setting up of a Physical Innovation Gym, Virtual Innovation Space, Open Minds, and Eureka Idea Management System. Portal for technical collaboration, blogging, tech discussion forum, wikis, and access through an Intranet form the core of innovation management. “We approach innovation in a democratic fashion to ensure the participation of every single employee. Hence, many such ideas that found their seed in the innovation space are being formally implemented,” says Murali Gopalan, Senior Vice President. The company runs on the principle of doing what they do by transforming lives of people both inside the company and in the international communities they operate in. ‘Colors’ is a strategic framework that helps to achieve UST Global corporate goals by means of participative management and associate empowerment. The framework facilitates process improvement and organization-building through people empowerment based on the fact that each associate has the ability to contribute towards specific areas, beyond what the job function naturally stipulates. Colors is a platform for an individual to improve and become an expert in a key area of interest. The employees can also create value addition through cross-functional participation. It is also a powerful tool for enterprise-wide communication and inspiration, while it also plays a role in organizational growth.

Pooling in the right level of people and making the right investments has indeed aided UST Global to focus on building quality relationships with its customers. The company also developed a talent pool of more than 6,000 people with offices in multiple locations across the world and is growing at a rate of 60 percent year-on-year. UST Global, with its business strategically spread over a balanced portfolio, and an unrelenting focus on the future of the market and some well-timed technology and business investments, is well positioned to emerge as a major player in the services market.

Making footprints in the sands of time
Sajan Pillai may sound a little philosophical when he says;” Life is enriched by how much you give than by how much you take.” But if you take a sneak peek into his journey till his rise as the CEO of UST Global, he has lived this view and enriched not only his life but also of more than 6,000 employees working with him. It was with this vision to enrich the life of people around him and with the aim to have a purpose beyond self that made him leave his comfortable job at Tanning Systems, a high end consulting firm, where he held various senior management positions.

Pillai shared his vision with a great visionary G. A. Menon, co-founder of UST Global. Pillai and Menon used to spend hours talking and chalking out their plan at a restaurant in Orange County, California. Later, they decided to start in a small office in Technopark; but he knew that to build the company he needed a strong team. Hence, he went to Arun Narayanan and Murali Gopalan, his classmates at College of Engineering Thiruvananthapuram, and discussed the plan. He convinced them to join the company and, to put in his own words “To leave your footprints in the sands of time.”

In those days, to start a company in Thiruvananthapuram seemed to be a little imprudent. But Pillai had faith in his decision, and his conviction proved right; and today under his leadership the company has grown from its founding team of 14 in 1999 to about 6000+ professionals.
A constant traveler across different geographies and time zones, Pillai also manages to pursue his hobbies like hiking and biking. He also loves music and has been instrumental in creating a school that would offer free classical music education to everyone.

Pillai is an alumnus of the College of Engineering, Thiruvananthapuram, in Computer Science and Engineering. He resides with his family in Orange County, California.

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