With more than 20 offices around the UK, a major consolidation of backroom functions had long been seen as desirable. Changes in technology toward the end of the 1990s made it possible. Having done so has, says consulting director Bob Smith, “very much met our expectations”.
Mr Smith, who enjoys overall responsibility for the centre, says that a convergence of factors made Birmingham an obvious location. Outside of London, the firm already had its biggest office in the city, “so it made sense for us to locate somewhere where we already had sufficient office space”.
The other advantage Birmingham offered was the availability of young, bright and ambitious potential employees. “Birmingham is the youngest city in Europe and its educational attainments were very good… it had everything you need to build a skilled shared service centre.” And, he says, it is worth emphasising that Birmingham enjoys the second largest financial services-related economy of any city in the UK, which meant that “there was already a financial services culture, which makes it easier to recruit. And in the future, we’ll be part of a growing sector of the economy, which isn’t necessarily the case elsewhere”.
For its part, says Mr Smith, the centre is regarded locally as an employer of choice, both by bright school leavers and by graduates looking for immediate opportunities with long-term prospects. The motivation to attract and retain good staff is, after all, one of the key drivers for the centre’s existence, as its allows for HR issues to be handled much more quickly and easily than before – an imperative which has increased with the travelling habits of both staff and partners.
“It means we can answer all the niggling questions, such as ‘how much annual leave do I have left?’ and so forth, without our employees having to wait days for the answer. And it frees up senior management time if they no longer have to deal with those kinds of questions.” On the tax front, he says, customer satisfaction has also shot up, while the cost of answering queries has gone down.
Unlike an outsourcing operation, the centre’s staff members are very much a part of the larger picture. Employees of, for instance, the tax operation are regarded as employees of the firm’s wider tax practice. “We couldn’t achieve the same results with a call centre in, say, India. Typically, call-centre staff use scripts or answer questions by rote. But we need staff that can exercise their own judgement. The tasks are more than transactional, in that sense,” says Mr Smith.
He adds that the respect accorded staff is reflected in its physical location. It is, he points out, “right in the centre of Birmingham – not in a shed in the middle of nowhere”, and employees are offered opportunities for advancement within PwC and beyond the services centre. The centre’s close physical proximity to the larger operation, he adds, is an essential ingredient, allowing face-to-face meetings between employees from all parts of the firm – again, an advantage that would not be possible with an outsourced, offshore operation.
The shared service centre employs 400 staff, handling enquiries for and regarding only UK-related tax and HR issues. As a partnership with a federated decision-making structure, the London headquarters has no authority to impose the shared services model on other locations. But, Mr Smith says, it is receiving a lot of interest from other parts of the PwC empire.
No two centres will ever be the same, and each will have characteristics reflecting location, function and size. The essential thing, he tells colleagues and other enquirers, is to locate somewhere that has the appropriate infrastructure, and where the demographics are right: a young, ambitious, educated population, in a city where employment rates aren’t so high that demand has driven up wage expectations beyond competitive levels.
Getting it right, he says, pays dividends that the whole organisation can enjoy.