In a packed ballroom at the Westin Dragonara in Malta one night last December, Sean Hammerle sat anxiously with his husband and parents. Hundreds of contact center executives representing 80 countries had gathered for the annual Contact Center World Awards. Hammerle’s company, ONQ, was a finalist for awards in the large outsourced contact center category. By the end of a very long night, he and his cheering section were all smiles; in its category, ONQ was recognized as the Best Contact Center in the World. ONQ’s Lucas Fuentes was awarded Best Trainer. For the second consecutive year, ONQ won both Best Customer Service and the “Dream Team” Award for valuing its people. And Sean was crowned Best Contact Center Executive. Again.
Hammerle is the Chief Operating Officer responsible for the global operations for ONQ, a labor and technology healthcare outsourcing company. He moved to Panama from Houston in 2013 to standup ONQ’s first contact center, personally interviewing every applicant and training every cohort during the company’s formative years. Ten years later, the company has more than 700 employees on three continents, with offices in Kenya and India coming online over the last 18 months. In addition to inbound and outbound call center services, ONQ offers front and backend billing services, robotic process automation, and proprietary business tools targeted to physician groups, hospitals and billing companies. As the awards continue to roll in, we decided to sit down with Sean to see what we could learn about his leadership style.
It is impossible not to be inspired when you meet Sean. He is bright and engaging. His enthusiasm for his work is infectious. He speaks of ONQ employees as though they were his own children. Indeed, the company refers to its people as the QFamily. In an industry with notoriously high turnover, he is convinced that their culture is the main reason that ONQ survived the pandemic and continues to enjoy impressive rates of employee retention.
Hammerle takes the QFamily culture extremely seriously. He personally teaches the company’s core values during the training of each new cohort of agents. He conducts a question and answer session with every training class to give employees the chance to ask him anything. “I tell them that this is not a session for them to ask about policies or HR,” Hammerle explained. “They can if they want, of course. But I tell them it’s an opportunity for them to ask a global business owner personal questions to get to know more about me, the ONQ owners, our priorities and dreams for the company.”
This session isn’t the last time the employees will see of their busy COO. Hammerle conducts in-person team-building sessions in each of the global offices. For the almost 300 employees in Kenya, that necessitated 20 sessions. He led another ten in India. Every month, he hosts a “town hall” style Zoom call for each office. Non-overlapping shifts in Panama and India mean he hosts a total of five of these calls monthly.
“ONQ is a global operation, and I am currently spending about a month at a time, at least three times a year each, in our Kenya and India offices,” Sean explained. “I find that the best way to be able to dig in and truly be a part of each community is by being there and getting to know our employees personally. Thankfully, it’s easy to connect with the others virtually while I am away. I think my employees will tell you that I am never so far away that they can’t reach me when they need to.
Every week, he sends a company-wide message via email, in addition to a weekly video highlighting one of the company’s “QWay” principles. He also schedules time each week to place ten to 15 calls to employees. These check-ins are personal, and he makes it a point to ask about their families and personal lives. Mithun Kambila, Operations Manager at ONQ India commented, “I have worked for several international companies, but I have never met anyone like Mr. Sean, who provides his personal WhatsApp number to all of his employees.”
Sean believes the unique culture is what sets ONQ apart from other global outsourcing firms. “Our culture is definitely distinctive. We have five core values: Value Creation, Can-Do Attitude, Commitment to Quality, Elevate Others and Embrace Diversity. These values are implemented through QWay Principles through which we walk the talk. We’ve created a family environment, and that culture is one that we were able to successfully export from our first operation in Panama to Kenya and now India. Our growth and the awards have been the validation.”
ONQ seems to have found a secret sauce for motivating their young workforce. “Our employees know that the sky is the limit for them,” Sean explained. “Some of our original agents are now on the senior leadership team. Who better to provide our new agents with testimony of what you can achieve with hard work and determination than people who were in their shoes not long ago? We created this family-style culture where mutual respect, camaraderie., and even some friendly competition are the norms.”
What It’s Meant to Employees
We asked members of the ONQ senior leadership team to help us understand what makes Sean an inspiring leader. They resoundingly applauded his creation and reinforcement of the QWay. He is admired for leading with integrity, for never asking for more than he is willing to put in and being the first one in and the last to leave at the end of the day. Above all, he is appreciated for having confidence in his people. Asira Seixas, ONQ Director of Accounts Receivable, gave an example. “Once when I was a new leader, I was called out by a client. I can tell you that I deserved that call-out. Mr. Sean could have been very upset with me, but he wasn’t. He came to me, listened to me and all my frustration, and then gave me feedback. He knows exactly how he needs to treat me. He knows our different personalities. I so appreciate that in him.”
Sean has made it a priority for ONQ to grow and promote talent from within. Caitlin Morvidelli, ONQ’s Vice President of Finance and Administration explained, “Because Sean develops and promotes leadership within the company, any new employee is a potential future leader. Their training and continuing education is developed with that in mind. This is a huge motivation for the employees to know from the beginning that they potentially could become senior leadership if that is a goal that they want to work towards.”
Though she is now ONQ’s Vice President of Operations, Edith Alvarez had worked for three companies in the five years before she joined ONQ, job-hopping when she was unhappy. “When I joined ONQ, I found my home. This month marks my eight-year anniversary. Sean saw something in me that, at that moment, I didn’t even see in myself. He gave me a purpose. Because he believed in me so much, I couldn’t let him down.”
Aydee Riera joined in ONQ’s second training class and is now Director of Billing Operations. “I was going to resign back in 2016 when I was offered another job,” she told us. “Mr. Sean called me from his hospital bed after having a hip replacement to ask me to stay. He saw so much potential in me that he wanted me to stay in his company. I can tell you now, that was one of the best decisions I have ever made.”
While healthcare remains ONQ’s main focus, its subsidiary company, QSolve, extends its services to other industries. “With QSolve, we really aim to leverage our award-winning call center network and our innovative technology, including amazing automation, for clients as wide ranging as banking/finance, travel/entertainment, energy, governmental solutions and so much more,” Hammerle stated. “QSolve exists to help businesses improve quality and reduce costs.” Furthermore, Hammerle is working towards an expansion into South America in 2024 with additional countries planned for 2025 and beyond.
ONQ operates with a virtual workforce in Panama, complemented by traditional work environments in Kenya and India. The Executive Team feels this the right mix for ONQ’s current global operations, but something they will continue to evaluate as they expand and move towards ONQ’s core target of 10,000 employees on five continents elevating others through employment at ONQ Companies.
Hammerle’s style of leadership is endearing, and it is ONQ and its clients that benefit most from the staff he has motivated. “I’m a Gen X American leading a workforce on three continents that is almost exclusively Gen Y and millennial college graduates,” Hammerle told us. “We didn’t psychoanalyze it to figure out the culture that would work best. We felt our way along and built something strong that really resonates with our people. I am lucky to lead an aggressive, motivated team that wants to serve and excel for themselves, for our clients, their customers and for me. We’re all trying to make one another proud.” Indeed.
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