Champagne Service On A Beer Budget
By Basil Bennett, WillowCSN
For the small and medium-sized business, establishing a satisfied
customer base is the first step in transforming an emerging company into a
flourishing enterprise. The challenge for smaller businesses lies in
managing the tight constraints on resources with a mandate for efficient
and best-in-class practices. Emerging companies concerned with reaching
the next level in their operations cannot afford to have quality glitches,
particularly in customer service. Replicating a top-notch customer service
program with limited resources is possible for the company that proceeds
Size Doesn't Matter
Your customers expect high-quality service and attention, regardless of
the size of your operations. While the challenge of providing quality
customer service remains the same, small and medium-sized businesses are
charged with providing this with fewer resources. To do this successfully
requires making customer service a priority, balancing resources and
maintaining flexibility. All of these factors come into play when
determining what type of customer service program fits best with your
business needs and goals.
Make Customer Service A Priority
A business cannot survive by alienating its customers, and therefore it
follows that the demands of the customer must be met to his or her
satisfaction. Ultimately, this is the essence of providing excellent
service. In many cases, the opportunity for direct communication with
customers comes primarily through one channel: a company's contact
Most organizations realize the heightened importance of contact centers
and the role that contact center agents play in establishing a company's
brand and reputation. Since your sales and service representatives are the
face and voice of your company, their performance sends a strong message
about the commitment of your organization to its customers. Regardless of
whether the contact center is Web-based, a call center, or even automated,
ultimately, it is based on some type of interpersonal interaction.
With customer service in its proper place, a growing company's next task
is to determine how to balance service and sales goals with precious human
and capital resources. When business development goals are bigger than
budgets allow, many companies consider obtaining some services from
While there currently is some debate over the concept of outsourcing,
the bottom line is that all companies outsource at least some type of
business function, whether it is payroll, employee benefits, secretarial
support or customer service. When organizations partner with a vendor that
excels at delivering a service because it is their core competency,
everyone wins. When outsourcing a customer service function like a contact
center, the challenge becomes selecting a provider that can meet customer
expectations to your satisfaction. To get started, a little corporate
introspection is in order.
First, determine what your customers value most from your customer
service agents: is it minimal wait time? Quick answers or routine order
taking? Detailed or technical assistance? Or, is it the simple reassurance
that someone will get back to them later (and then actually does)? Knowing
what is important to your customers at the outset allows you to prioritize
needs and determine what type of outsourcer can benefit you most.
Next, identify your company's current ability to support a contact
center operation. Can your existing office space house a quality customer
service program? Do your servers have the bandwidth to handle incoming
calls or e-mail? Do you have the appropriate level of IT staff on-site to
support technology issues that may arise? What type of quality control or
agent monitoring programs do you require? Gauging your current
capabilities will enable you to determine what type of outsourcing you may
want to consider.
Finally, if you already have a customer service program with a contact
center in place (either in-house or outsourced), ask yourself: How does
your current customer service department meet the needs of your customers?
What tracking mechanisms do you have in place to benchmark the quality of
service? Does your current method offer a truly seamless experience, so
the caller cannot differentiate between agents who are in-house as opposed
to outsourced agents? What special skill(s) do your most successful agents
possess? Is there an emphasis on upselling, cross-selling, technical
know-how, or product- or industry-specific knowledge? Understanding your
ideal agent prototype and the strengths and weaknesses of your existing
customer service department will assist you in determining which
outsourcing options can best complement your business needs.
After considering these questions, you should have a clearer picture of
what you expect to get out of a partnership with a contact center service
provider. The next step in finding a perfect match starts with
understanding your options.
Customer Service Outsourcing Options
The appeal of outsourcing contact center operations is easy to see.
Forging an alliance with a partner whose core business is customer sales
and service can eliminate the costs (and headaches!) involved with
retaining a full-time, in-house staff to manage the function.
The outsourcing alternatives for these operations are essentially the
same for both small and large companies: offshore brick-and-mortar sites,
domestic brick-and-mortar sites and virtual agents. Offshore contact
centers can provide an emerging company with agents for comparatively low
cost. Traditional domestic contact center outsourcers tend to circumvent
the challenges specific to their offshore counterparts for a higher fee.
Virtual agents are oftentimes better trained than traditional
brick-and-mortar agents, and do not use a contact center facility because
they work from home offices.
Sending customer calls offshore is a common choice for many companies
because of the exceptional labor cost difference when compared with
traditional brick-and-mortar contact centers in North America. The average
domestic contact center agent earns somewhere between $10 and $20 per
hour, depending on the industry, level of expertise and experience, and
pay structure. Agents in India, for example, earn $275 per month for
providing the same service. In fact, the Indian call center market grew 59
percent to $2.3 billion between 2002 and 2003, according to that
country's National Association of Software and Services Companies.
Potential drawbacks in the offshore arrangement include dealing with the
effects of cultural differences ' miscommunication and agent
psychological and/or physiological stress, which are issues that greatly
influence customer service and support.
Traditional brick-and-mortar contact center outsourcers based in North
America offer the same advantages as offshore outsourcers; that is,
someone else oversees the management, training and administration of your
contact center agents and customer service program. They also, obviously,
circumvent some of the drawbacks associated with going offshore. For
example, choosing a provider with agents who are fluent in your
customers' language, usage of slang and cultural idiosyncrasies
diminishes, if not eliminates, the number of instances of cultural
barriers inhibiting customer-agent communications.
Virtual agent outsourcers are universally different from
brick-and-mortar providers, as virtual agents do not work in a traditional
contact center ' they work from home offices. In many cases, each
virtual agent operates his or her own incorporated business. This
eliminates much of the overhead costs associated with a traditional site
' real estate, technology and benefits, for example. Agents who work
from home also tend to offer more flexibility in scheduling, which can
benefit a company that is seeking help either sporadically or outside of
normal business hours, or is subject to dramatic spikes in call volume.
Evaluating your outsourcing options means weighing the costs and
benefits involved with each alternative. To find the contact center
provider that is best suited for your particular needs, ask questions.
Inquire about scalable program offerings that can be customized to fit the
cycles of your business. Find out if the contact center agents have
particular skill sets or language capabilities. Ask about a company's
own agent recruiting and training process, and their quality control
A seamless operation is critical ' there should not be any hiccups in
service or technology between companies. Ask an outsourcer if its existing
technology platform is compatible, and if not, what can it propose to make
things work smoothly? Look for a provider with a comprehensive
benchmarking and agent monitoring program. Visit the facility ' or in
the case of virtual agent providers, an agent's home office ' and
watch the operation in action. Check references and talk to agents. While
the outsourcer evaluation process may seem time-consuming, due diligence
up front pays dividends in the long term.
Need For Flexibility
Ultimately, any successful customer service program will include a
partnership with a contact center service provider that understands your
need for flexibility. A provider that can handle the needs of an emerging
business will have a similar mindset: enthusiastic, independent and
Since resources are limited, look for outsourcers that are open to
flexible billing structures, such as variable cost arrangements. Although
there is security in knowing your fixed monthly contact center costs
regardless of how high or low call volume is, the ability to pay only for
agent productivity can be a huge benefit as well. In a pay-for-performance
structure, client companies are billed only for the calls that agents
answer. This not only benefits companies financially, it also provides an
assurance of agent quality and motivation: agents who do not perform up to
standard do not get paid.
While it is not unusual for an organization to outsource its entire
customer service operation to one provider, some companies take a
multitiered approach to maintain flexibility. Using some combination of
in-house and outsourced agents enables a firm to draw on the strengths of
each as needed. For example, a steady stream of daytime calls might steer
an organization toward a brick-and-mortar provider during business hours,
with off-peak calls routed to virtual agents. Maintaining one or two
customer service personnel on staff for incidental inquiries and using an
outsourcer on a project basis seasonally or during a specific sales
initiative is another option. For smaller companies concerned with
entrusting its entire customer service function to one outsourcer, using
some mix of contact center service providers can be a viable alternative.
Finally, when deciding how to allocate resources most appropriately for
your customer service program, do not forget your contingency plan. The
unexpected does happen, whether your organization is prepared or not.
Rather than having an unplanned crisis shut down your customer service
operations, have a Plan B in place. Regardless of whether you choose to
handle your day-to-day customer service calls in-house, outsource them
entirely, or institute a program that involves a combination of services,
take the time to develop a plan for continuing uninterrupted, quality
service in an emergency situation.
[ Return To The
April 2004 Table Of Contents ]
Service Should Never Be Sacrificed
Emerging companies should never skimp on providing quality customer
service, and with the wealth of options available to them in the contact
center industry, they don't have to. Building a customer service program
that benefits both your customers and your bottom line involves evaluating
your needs, understanding the benefits of each provider and how it aligns
with your business and finding vendors that will partner with you to
construct a customer service program that helps you achieve your business
goals. Above all, think like your customers and maintain high service
expectations from those with whom you develop partnerships.
Basil Bennett is president and CEO of WillowCSN , a virtual contact center
service provider based in Miramar, Florida.