Leader Talks: BlueLink GM Vincent Leonardi on fostering individual workplace growth

BlueLink is a place where international success stories are made, and the leader of the company’s Prague center is a great example.

William Nattrass

Written by William Nattrass Published on 11.03.2024 18:24:00 (updated on 11.03.2024) Reading time: 12 minutes

People working in large corporate environments, for companies employing hundreds of people, may feel concerned about how they can stand out from the crowd. How do you get noticed and progress individually when you’re part of such a large business machine?

The answer depends on the specific business you work for. BlueLink, a France-based customer relations provider with a major center in Prague, prides itself on creating opportunities for everyone, whatever their background or skill set. The company doesn’t just talk the talk; it walks the walk, too, as many of its senior figures rose to managerial roles from entry-level positions.

Among them is Vincent Leonardi, General Manager at BlueLink International CZ. Expats.cz sat down with Vincent in BlueLink’s Prague office to discuss success in the workplace, personal growth within a major business services center, and the attributes needed to deliver great customer experiences.

Can you tell us about your personal story which led you to where you are today?

I was in France for most of my life until the end of my studies in International and European law. After studying this course, you need to gain experience abroad. At that time, many would go to countries like the UK, but I decided to come to Czechia, which was new in the EU. It felt more interesting and challenging.

I arrived in Prague at the start of 2006. I had some contacts for a place in the French embassy, but they told me it would only be available in another six months. I looked for a job in order to pay my rent and ended up starting here as a first-line agent; what we now call a brand ambassador, or a client advisor. The company was small, with around 80 people, and very new; it was created in 2003, so it was only a little more than two years old.

I’d never studied in any kind of business school; I was using my law background in a different environment, but it seemed to work.

BlueLink then proposed for me to help build a call center in Morocco from scratch. I thought it was a great opportunity, so I said yes, and spent six months between Prague and Casablanca. At the time, I’d been working at BlueLink for around six months.

Then I came back here, and just when I was thinking of going back into the law, a new project came in from Air France. I took it on and implemented a new activity which later became one of our biggest. I became Team Leader for this activity, and after six months, I became the Service Manager in charge of the contract with the client.

Six months later another project came, then another and another continuously for my first eight years here. We grew from 80 people to around 500 in about six or seven years. I’d never studied in any kind of business school; I was using my law background in a different environment, but it seemed to work.

Do you think part of the reason for your rapid rise to leadership was because of your high level of education as a lawyer?

Possibly. As a lawyer, you learn to be very efficient. I was also lucky, because I was in a company which had just been born and which needed to expand. I was there at the right moment. 

After eight years, I left Prague to take over the BlueLink center in Mauritius as General Manager. This center was created two years earlier, so it was a similar story; the center employed around 80 people and needed to grow. I spent four years there, and built the center from 80 people to around 400-450 people. Even this wasn’t enough, so we created a partner center in Madagascar, which employed around 100 people by the time I left (it employs about 800 people today).

After four years, from both a professional and personal perspective, I decided together with my wife, who is Czech, to come back here. We moved back to Prague six and a half years ago. I came back to take charge of the center in my current position as General Manager.

How challenging was the step up into the role of General Manager when you went to Mauritius?

I was lucky, because I had already been in charge of many parts of the business in Prague. When I got to Mauritius and there were just eighty people, it seemed extremely simple and small. But I felt a big difference in terms of being the number one, because you have the responsibility for decisions in everything from IT and tech, to financial or local political matters.

My first boss in Prague was the best of the best, she was a great teacher and coach,  challenging me when needed. When I arrived in Mauritius, I had the pressure of being the one making the decisions, but I knew most of the activities already, which made it simpler, and at such a small center I had time to acclimatize to this new level.

When I came back to Prague to replace my previous boss, I was in charge of 600 people. If I had replaced her before doing Mauritius, it would have been more difficult, because with this size of center, the external relationships and decisions you have to take are much more important. So the experience in Mauritius helped me to become a better General Manager.

Based on your experience, what advice would you give to aspiring young leaders who haven’t studied management?

I would tell them to come to BlueLink! This is a place where we don’t look at your background or your qualifications. The only thing we look at is your willingness and talent. I was doing things that I didn’t know or understand and had to learn; I didn’t know how to manage a team, how to take care of marketing, and so on. I learned on the job, and if you can do this, BlueLink is a perfect place to be.

We value internal promotion and try to help people achieve it. Just take my direct subordinates in the top management executive team; the CFO also started as a customer advisor, spending years in operations before moving step-by-step into finance. I’m not sure he could have made that move in another company. The Director of our Commercial department also started as customer advisor, as did people in our recruitment and IT teams.

If people need specific education in order to achieve their goals, we can help them, perhaps paying for studies or pointing out studies they can do themselves. When a position comes up, it’s opened internally, and people can apply and continue their new path with more on-the-job training, including external certifications if relevant.

We have a program named S.T.E.P., which helps people find their own way. Within this program, you have a discussion with your line manager about your skills; your manager may agree with you about your skill set, or they may suggest another area of learning. If we find agreement, you receive training and coaching to enhance these skills. It’s really important to have someone on your side telling you: “Yes, go for it”; or “I don’t really see you like that, have you considered this?”.

There’s no predefined career path, like in some companies. To us, everyone is a talent, or has talents which we want to develop. We can pay for external studies, but the most important thing is that we invest our time into you.

How often do people at BlueLink get to talk to their line manager about their career?

In terms of informal opportunities that you can take yourself on a day-to-day basis, it could be every five minutes! In terms of structured opportunities, you have a monthly and yearly meeting with your manager about your performance paired with your S.T.E.P. plan. Here, it’s always the right time to talk about your career and your learnings.

Still, if your manager gives you a learning path that will take three months, you’ll have to discuss it again after three months. If at the end of that period you haven’t had time to do the training, then it’s wise to go to your manager and ask for an extension.

In real life, about 20-30 percent of people work on their own development without being reminded. They really value that we offer paid time for training. Our role is to motivate people in the best possible position to take these opportunities.

Is there any particular skill that is the single most useful thing people can learn to grow and progress at BlueLink?

Leadership skills, for which we have internal training, are really helpful. We want people to be responsible in their job, whatever their position. Whether you’re a recruiter, a supervisor, or anything else, you’ll need leadership skills in order to speak, sell your idea, and get people to cooperate.

Getting people to listen and cooperate is the most important thing. We try to work as one big team, but with so many people, we can’t all know each other perfectly. At the same time, the finance team knows people from other departments, the IT department knows people throughout the company, and so on.

We recently asked people from HR to work on a financial subject, because we thought people from outside might bring a different perspective, without in-depth knowledge. At first, there can be tension in such cooperation. This is a natural process, but by combining everyone's enthusiasm and collective intelligence, we ultimately create innovative ideas.

For me, the key words in leadership are teamwork, humility, open-mindedness, and creativity. With an open mind, people cooperate and have a nice time together; in this context, diversity and inclusion are simply natural. I would definitely prefer someone humble to the best-in-class, self-important person who would not fit within our atmosphere. 80 percent of our people are foreigners, with over 70 nationalities, and in such an atmosphere, if you’re not open-minded and humble, it’s not possible to cooperate.

Are these attributes particularly important because of the nature of the work you do here at BlueLink?

I think so. I think it’s important in any business for the executive team to drive the way that people in the company act, and I believe this direction should be adapted to the type of job.

We do around 60 percent customer calls, and we also do social media, emails, and other interactions. In all cases, the contact must be satisfying to the customer, who should come away feeling that they have had a great experience. Our job is to make sure that they’re not just buying a flight ticket, but that they’re happy traveling.

This is about speaking to the customer in a positive way. I tell our people: you’re here to make passengers happy to travel; if someone hangs up with a big smile, thinking “Yes!, I’m going to Las Vegas!”, you can hear that over the phone.

To achieve this, you need to be positively minded, and that goes for complaints, too. You need positivity, friendly colleagues, and a nice atmosphere. It’s part of the job.

What sets the Prague center apart from other BlueLink centers?

The history of the center. The headquarters are in Paris, and here in Prague we have around 50 people working for the headquarters, so we are almost like a second headquarters for BlueLink. We are also the second oldest site after Paris.

We are pioneers, perhaps because of the types of people who work here; we have a lot of foreigners with innovative ideas. Our diversity sets the ground for our creativity. It’s also easier to try new things here than in France. They are more structured and we are more creative; it’s a good combination.

On the topic of innovation, how are modern technologies affecting the work you do?

We sell customer satisfaction, so we’re not simply selling manpower, but also a lot of consulting and advisory services in terms of automation and the right technologies to use. The job we did when I joined BlueLink doesn’t exist anymore; it’s automated now. With airlines, 70 percent of what we did seventeen years ago is self-managed by the customer today.

For all our clients, whether in travel or fashion, we help make the customer experience seamless. BlueLink is here if you need a human to talk to, as many people still prefer speaking with a real person. Now, though, we take on more complex work. It’s not a one-week training, like we used to have; it’s at least four weeks, and to become really good, it takes at least six months.

AI and generative tools are coming in, and that could be the next big change. We’re working on this actively, because such tools could help us in our job. When talking to customers, AI could help us find the right answers. It will decrease some parts of our activity, perhaps, but more importantly, I think it will help humans do their jobs better, so it’s not a threat

Why has the Prague center grown so much despite new technology increasing your efficiency?

New clients, more work, and more complex activities. We used to do simple claims, then it became complex claims, then pre-legal claims, then policy investigation claims; we had that progression just in the area of claims.

We didn’t have fashion clients five years ago; today, we have several high luxury brands, so that brought more growth. The luxury industry is a very good one for us, because it’s an industry in which people often want to speak to a human. You can go to the shop and get direct advice, but many people live far from the shop.

Just imagine: you’re going somewhere for an event, and you want a perfume that’s suitable. You need someone to advise you about what specifically you want and the impression you want to convey.

Our advisors can help with this; it’s a complex, expert job. Twenty years ago, we wouldn’t do such work, because people would go to the shop for such services. Now, people are used to shopping online, yet for some specific types of advice you still need a real person. You can still sit at home and have someone advising you on WhatsApp, similarly to in a store.

You mentioned the importance of leaving the customer with a smile. Is it harder to create such positive experiences through digital technologies?

We are skilled in this and it’s a completely different approach. Over the phone, it’s all about tone of voice. 

We also call it “tone of voice” on WhatsApp, but it’s a written tone of voice. You interact faster, with quick, simple messages, with a much less formal tone. On such platforms, customers are comfortable with quick, informal answers, perhaps with a more “jokey” style adapted to the customer’s manner.

What is the usual motivation for clients to outsource their customer relations to BlueLink?

I would put it like this. A restaurant may have people calling them, asking for complex  information about their meals. It’s probably a cook answering these queries; it’s not in his regular line of duties and he may not be skilled for this.

What we bring is expertise. We are experts in delivering customer satisfaction. For many of our clients, the specific goal is to have a high level of customer satisfaction and retention. If your target is just to answer calls, you’d go to another outsourcer that’s less into interaction with customers.

We take good care of customers, which means customers will rebuy, be loyal, and speak of the brand positively. Perhaps brands could do this themselves, but this brings me to the second advantage of BlueLink: we have interconnected centers around the world, so if you need people with certain language skills, we have them ready to serve you 24/7.

Finally, we’re up-to-date with all the latest technologies, and as we have many different clients working in different sectors, we can share best practices when clients ask for advice. It’s the same as with any other outsourced service. If you want truly great customer service, you find an expert.

This article was written in cooperation with BlueLink. Read more about our partner content policies here.

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