Nearshore Americas

Insider Perspective: Don Berryman’s Rise From Agent to EVP

Don Berryman, Executive Vice President and Chief Commercial Officer for North America at Transcom has enjoyed a long and storied career in the customer service industry.

From Berryman’s beginnings as a phone agent for a local newspaper, he has steadily risen throughout the ranks of several of the industry’s largest organizations, and has been there at milestone moments within the call center world. 

He was there when inbound outsourcing first began in the US, and was among the first industry players to step foot within the Philippines and to strike the match that would go on to generate an outsourcing boom in Southeast Asian nation. 

He has seen the evolution of technology within the industry and knows where technology will go, has experienced destructive natural disasters and the wholesale change of work life through the pandemic.

Here, Don Berryman gives us his Insider Perspective.

Nearshore Americas: How did you first enter the BPO industry?

Don Berryman Executive Vice President and Chief Commercial Officer for North America at Transcom

Don Berryman: I never set out to enter the customer service industry, I’d originally wanted to go into politics and attended Michigan State University with that intention. In college, I was a phone agent for a local newspaper. I began my career as an agent. 

The newspaper I worked at was owned by Gannett and they were just starting USA Today. One of my tasks was to pick up the regional president – who became the first president of USA Today – at Detroit airport. He was a rough and tough guy and no one else wanted to do it. We hit it off, and when I graduated in 1980, he offered me a job on the launch team at USA Today. It was an incredible break. I worked with the team across various cities but when the paper was successfully launched we realized that we had no customer service team. I went back to Washington, D.C. and opened up the first national customer service center for USA Today in 1982.

At that point all customer service was local due to the need for physical proximity to data centers where customer records were located. We worked with IBM on this and so I saw both the CX side and the tech side of the industry early in my career. I worked at Gannett for 11 years until 1991.

After this I went to Ryder Truck Systems. They hired me to build and outsource their national reservation center. We worked with outsourcers, though it wasn’t huge at the time. We worked closely with American Airlines because they were one of the few companies who had experience with outsourcing. 

Berryman at a recent 5K race

Then Hurricane Andrew hit. We had 400 people in Miami, Florida answering phones. I used contacts from American Airlines to fly 100 of our people in Miami to our outsourcing partner sites in Dallas, Texas and Omaha, Nebraska. We never missed a call. But the hurricane was devastating; around 1,200 employees of 3,000 completely lost their homes. We turned out reservation center into a help center to offer aid.

After that, I received an offer from a small outsourcing company, APAC, that had five outbound centers in Iowa. At first, I didn’t consider the job. But I spoke to the leaders who convinced me that the industry would pivot towards inbound outsourcing due to the emergence of server technology and high-speed data lines that would remove the need for call centers to be physically proximate to data centers. At the time, call centers were in major cities like Chicago, New York and Los Angeles because that’s where the data centers were. We were able to build a data hub in Iowa and answer phone calls for half the price that it cost to hire agents in places like New York. 

We saw rapid growth, went public as a company, and in four years built 35 call centers across the US. This was the beginning of inbound outsourcing, and the beginning of national labor arbitrage.

These circumstances taught me how to prepare for exceptional events, apply disaster recovery methods and know that in this industry there always needs to be a backup. This all led me to the position I’m in today. 

NSAM: What was your first experience in working with outsourcing internationally?

Don Berryman: We first opened an offshore call center in 1999 in the Philippines. We were one of the first US companies that moved there. There was great English there, but no one knew anything about handling calls, let alone from US consumers. Over the next three years we built four call centers in the Philippines and one in India. 

It wasn’t easy because there wasn’t the familiarity with US culture then as there is today. The first customers that joined us were the huge telecommunications companies. But there were certainly very few cell phones in the Philippines and many didn’t have direct landlines at home. This had to be taught, and the structure of the call center team had to be built: there was no supervisor or team manager position, for example.

But the industry helped create a middle class in the country. Today, there are around 1.5 million agents providing CX services there. 

Nearshore Americas: Technology has advanced massively since the beginning of your career, but how will technology influence the industry’s future?

Don Berryman: There’s no doubt technology will continue to have a huge impact on the call center business but the human element will never go away. The industry is founded on relationships and the human connection is needed. 

But clearly technology has advanced. Digitalization of the industry has seen all basic calls – like customer queries of how a bill can be paid – taken over by technology, through apps or automation.

I’d suggest that the biggest shift will come around translation. Transcom now offers translation products for text and email translation. These translate in real time. This means that an agent who does not speak English can speak to an English-speaking consumer without problem. This has helped a lot, but when voice translation can be done in real time, the opportunities expand. There are billions of people in outsourcing markets who don’t speak English, so when real-time voice translation happens, call centers will have access to huge talent pools at low cost.

Nearshore Americas: What are the major lessons you’ve learned throughout your career and which you apply to your current position at Transcom?

Don Berryman: The major lesson, and something that I hope never changes, is the importance of relationships within the industry. People grow in this industry and spend their lives within it. I’m still friends with people I met at APAC in the mid-90s, and have mentored others who now head companies.  I’ve been extremely lucky to work under several amazing bosses and they have been a huge part of my professional development.

The importance of relationships is also key for business development. Oftentimes people leave the call center industry and go to the buy-side, and they tend to buy services from people they know they can trust. 

“The industry is founded on relationships and the human connection is needed.” — Don Berryman

Another lesson would be to take risks when you feel they’ll pay off. I left Gannet because I thought there was a brilliant opportunity at Ryder, even though many people questioned me. It’s necessary to step outside of your comfort zone at times.

Never stop learning. The industry is advancing so quickly and there’s a real need to stay in the loop with ever-evolving technologies.

Nearshore Americas: How important has the support from your loved ones been for your professional development?

Don Berryman: I would never have arrived to where I am without my family. My wife, Charlene, and I will have been married 42 years this year. We have three kids and we moved around a lot when we were first married, due to my job. Without the support of my family and their willingness to take a risk, none of it would have been possible. 

We started off in New Jersey, and have lived in Florida, Iowa and Atlanta, Georgia. When we got to Atlanta, where I’d needed to be because one of our largest clients was based there, my wife said that she wanted to plant roots. That meant I would fly to where I needed to be on Monday and return to Atlanta on Thursday night or Friday. That was tough for the family. After that I returned to Atlanta when I joined Earthlink, where we outsourced to India and the Philippines. When I took the job with Sitel, I’d drive to Nashville for the week. All of this was difficult, and without the support and solid structure from my wife and family, I’d never have been able to do it. 

In 2011, my wife was diagnosed with Multiple Sclerosis. That was devastating for us. I’d been about to the leave the outsourcing industry but my employer at the time, Sitel, kindly allowed me to work from home and spend time with my wife during that difficult time. 

My wife is doing really well and we’re now involved in fundraising, particularly at the MS Walk. The entire family takes part; we’re there to support her. The walk recently took place in Clark Gables and my wife was the largest individual donor, raising the most funds. 

Nearshore Americas: Given that traveling puts pressure on families and individuals, what are you opinions on the remote or hybrid future within the industry?

Don Berryman: I started with Transcom on March 9, 2020, on the eve of the global outbreak. On my first day on the job I flew to the Philippines. On the leg between Japan and the Philippines, I was the only person booked into business class. Everyone was flying out and I was flying in!

We will certainly be in some form of hybrid model moving forward. Some clients need us to be at site, but not all agents want to be there. The Philippines has just passed a law to say all remote agents need to return to the office.

There’s a lot let to be seen but I certainly think executives will travel less. 

We never would have thought remote work at scale would have been possible prior to the pandemic but we know now it does. In the US, many people have moved states to be closer to family and they’re not moving back. The Great Resignation caused companies to rethink forcing people into the office.

Nearshore Americas: How has Transcom’s reentry to Colombia gone and what are the company’s plans for the immediate future?

Don Berryman: Our arrival to Bogotá has been a huge success. We hoped to have 400 agents by the end of last year but had 550 in place. Our model there is a hybrid model, whereby agents can work either at home or in the office. We’ve seen absenteeism fall off a cliff there. This has helped a great deal and our expansion there will continue. We’re building our US site in Greenville, South Carolina, on the same model. 

We’ve recently made acquisitions in Europe and there is a possibility this will continue. The fastest way for Transcom to grow in Nearshore would be through acquisitions. 

There are new markets opening up, Honduras being one. Clients want diversification out of the Philippines and Latin America is a real favorite for them.

Nearshore Americas: What are the daily habits they help structure your professional life?

Don Berryman: My whole schedule has changed since I joined Transcom. Because it’s a European company, and is six hours ahead, I have 50 emails in my inbox every morning by the time I start work at 6 a.m. That means the morning is very busy and it requires a lot of coffee. By mid-afternoon the European side has slowed down which allows me to take care of business in the US.

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I love running. Running outside gives me the chance to get fresh air and clear my head.

Me and my wife have recently moved and we’re now closer to the downtown area of our city. That gives us a lot to do; restaurants to eat at, music to listen to. I also spend a lot of time with my family. Working from home also allows me to have one-on-one time with colleagues.

Now that the world is opening up again I’m travelling again and I’m looking forward to more.

Peter Appleby

Peter is former Managing Editor of Nearshore Americas. Hailing from Liverpool, UK, he is now based in Mexico City. He has several years’ experience covering the business and energy markets in Mexico and the greater Latin American region. If you’d like to share any tips or story ideas, please reach out to him here.

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