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August 2001


Demystify Follow-The-Sun Service


[ Go Right To: Regional Call Centers Provide Follow-The-Sun Service ]

Some of the largest consumer-facing companies in the world are looking to solve what we call the "triple whammy": how to get the best customer support performance, how to find the best price and how to treat their customers like the world revolves around them.

Jupiter Research projects that with more complex products being sold over the Web, voice interaction will be the support of choice and e-mail will follow. Their research also points out that, although nearly three-quarters of online users will be based outside the U.S. by 2005, only about one-third of leading U.S. sites have made any efforts to support them.

Just to up the ante a bit in terms of putting the pressure on your budget, pricing for many complex, tech-based products and services -- such as mobile phones, printers, Internet access, broadband services and software -- are either static or in decline. So how can you provide effective customer support that will bond customers to your brand when the consumer only paid about $100 for your device?

Conventional wisdom says to push the customer toward automated response e-mail, self-help knowledge bases or voice-prompted support. However, will these solutions really differentiate your brand in an already cut-throat market? Automated responses may offer a good price, but generally will cost you money as they fail to create a strong relationship with your customer. The best way to build in loyalty to your brand is by making your customer experience one of excellence. To accomplish this, you need people helping people.

You say, "We know the people factor is important, but we can't afford to staff a customer contact center around the clock -- staff and the necessary skills needed are too expensive."

Luckily, there is strength in numbers -- and when you take those same factors offshore, where cultural and economic circumstances can work in everyone's favor -- you can offer the best customer service, with excellent performance, for a good price.

The fact that a customer's telephone call or e-mail is handled offshore shouldn't change the way your customers see you, but depending on how the operation is set up and the skills available, you may need to change the way you see your customers and interact with them.

E-mail can be handled very effectively offshore; it is perhaps the easiest part of the customer service equation to outsource to foreign contact centers. Computer programs check spelling and grammar, and training can be provided to improve the basics. Customers will probably not know where the sender is located, as time zones have very little bearing in today's digital age.

However, if there is one thing the dot-com chapter taught us, it's that people don't want to do everything over the Internet. Customers still want to interact in a human way: they still need to talk, so companies need to determine how to give them what they want.

Increasingly, businesses are finding that the number of customer interactions is growing, despite the era of online self-service. Customers are moving to the Web to shop, but they want a higher level of contact and right now they are turning more to voice contact. Offshore facilities can help alleviate the pain in managing this rise in customer demand.

In offshore situations, such as India or the Philippines, contact agent training routinely includes sitting through hour after hour of the target country's TV news programs, sitcoms and sports broadcasts so the customer experience can be flavored with regional characteristics.

But taking voice offshore is still a whole new ball game -- make the wrong move and it's like putting a ping pong player in a batting cage, as agents need the right mix of skills, tools and training to succeed, and must receive recognition for their own cultural values.

You must also decide if your company can afford to locate, build, equip, staff and operate your own contact center in another country, if a joint venture is feasible or if you can outsource the entire job to a reputable company offshore.

The lock, stock and barrel route. Be prepared to commit multimillions in capital up front to locate, build, equip, staff and operate your own contact center offshore. But if you have the expertise, or can hire an experienced consulting organization to achieve your goals, this might be a good choice. Just keep in mind ongoing capital investment will be needed to keep your center up to customer performance expectations.

The carpool path. Joint ventures can be a good way to share risks and rewards in an area where you do not have complete expertise. Your partners should understand the intricacies of local government, staffing and cultural issues, as well as technical infrastructure. Make sure you select partners who will not bail out when the going gets tough, or when they see greener pastures with a competitor. The best way to ensure a smooth ride is to have majority representation on the joint venture board.

The hired hand approach. By outsourcing the entire job to an experienced contact center business, you can gain control of how you want your customers treated and at what costs. Be sure to decide upfront if you want the company to link up with your systems, and gauge their reputation in the country you have selected.

Before looking in detail at the technical, managerial, organizational and cultural considerations in outsourcing a contact center offshore, it is worth looking at the concept of follow-the-sun service and the advantages of having a contact center where the cost of labor is more favorable.

Outsourcing to a large provider means you gain strength in numbers, as you can take advantage of lower telecom charges. Substantial savings can also accrue if you consider that e-mail processed in the U.S. is far more expensive than e-mail processed in the Philippines or India, for example.

Once you decide to go offshore, you need to ensure that your customers will receive the best quality service for the lowest possible cost. Consider the following issues:

  • Has your management team run a contact center of the size and scale required to get the job done?
    Hands-on experience cannot be underestimated. The number of skills required spans from workforce scheduling to training, call handling and data-mining. While there may be individual employees tasked with areas of management or technology, the overall job of running an 800-seat center can be hard to source in an offshore environment. Selecting an outsourcer that can provide skilled staff and management from a CRM background, as well as the systems and site expertise, can provide this security.
  • Do you have a full understanding of any local government regulations, employment and business issues in the offshore destination?
    Following the sun has to include following the rules, and in-depth knowledge of local tax issues or employment laws is imperative. On the ground, a provider should be able to source and prepare regional businesses to support a new call center location (such as telecom, security firms and other vendors). Academic institutions and university professionals will also prove valuable in facilitating contacts and training for potential employees. All need to be examined by a trusted provider who understands the local culture as well as the expectations and standards of your business.
  • Can you get the right staff?
    Customer service or technical support agents need to be carefully selected and trained. The location must have the raw talent available and the right mix of part- and full-time employees to keep the contact center at optimum operational levels, while allowing for the usual fluctuations in volume and demand. Offshore facilities in developing markets offer an open and untapped labor pool: one that can be trained and developed to a company's own standards.
  • What is the business model...is it a wholly owned operation or a joint venture?
    In part, this follows from the provision of a solid management team from a trusted and proven supplier. Ensuring you read between the lines in any partner agreement can mean the difference between consistently good service and a provider that may undercut your standards. Overseas, a partner could go on to deal directly in future contracts, rather than through the initial provider, risking quality and consistency in a potentially unknown market.
  • Consider channel capabilities -- can the center handle all incoming contacts, including voice, voice over Internet protocol (VoIP), fax, chat, e-mail and more?
    Your customers want to be able to follow the sun in any vehicle they choose. Voice is, as we have seen, the hardest channel to take offshore, but remains important in making your customers feel part of something local, close and comfortable.

Preparation for a high-quality customer contact center to meet an organization's standards of excellence is only the first step in locating offshore. Being able to constantly provide for customers around-the-clock means meeting ongoing standards of technology, skill and management.

To be there for your customers at every stage, what steps should an offshore provider follow and what should you expect if you outsource?

State-of-the-art technology. Some of the main ingredients of a top-tier outsourced solution include a software system with open architecture to link with you and support a heterogeneous environment of carrier networks; ACD, PBX, IVR, Web and e-mail platforms; and complementary software applications to enhance the value of your existing investments while supplying advanced functionality.

Less investment risk. As businesses improve customer service to help them become more customer-centric, there is a risk that companies will invest considerable time and money building second-generation CRM systems and find themselves fenced in when customers start demanding third- and fourth-generation services.

Synchronized reporting and routing. The service solutions should allow you to obtain a real-time view of customer contacts, and the software must make contact-routing decisions for populating agent desktop applications. For instance, the system software should be able to perform a customer profile database lookup during routing to more effectively serve customers and determine the optimal destination for each contact.

Trained, customer-centric staff. A highly skilled and customer-centric workforce trained in technical skills and "soft" skills will engender a close bond between your brand and your customer. The ability to analyze call patterns and identify top issues will allow for more streamlined processes and specialized teams for individual products.

Flexibility. As your business expands, or as you face peak customer contact periods in the customer life cycle, you need an outsourcer that can ramp up quickly to support your growth, as well as tool down during slower business periods.

Follow the sun to the center of excellence on behalf of your customers and you may just overcome the triple whammy of providing the optimum in customer care, at the lowest prices and at the fastest return on your investment.

Chuck Sykes is senior vice president of SYKES Enterprises, Incorporated.

[ Return To The August 2001 Table Of Contents ]

Regional Call Centers Provide Follow-The-Sun Service


When today's multinational businesses are considering the option of outsourcing their contact center/customer service capabilities among a variety of vendors, it is important that they consider the global reach and depth of the outsourcers' capabilities. No matter if it is early morning in New York, late afternoon in Munich, dinner time in Tokyo or even the dead of night in Sydney, today's global economy has made marketplaces much more competitive. As a result, businesses need to effectively serve their customers anywhere, at any time the customer chooses to initiate contact.

To be close to their customers, companies must have presence on the ground, although doing so in every country in which a company does business is obviously prohibitively expensive. Recently, companies have begun embracing the concept of regionalization, serving customers more effectively through the regional call center approach. This consists of a centralized call center with one or some regional satellite(s) or a network of regional satellite hubs interconnected with one another. Regionalization is becoming a more favored means of ensuring seamless "follow-the-sun" customer service. When outsourcing customer care functions along the regional call center model, firms and contact center vendors should ensure cooperation with one another based on wide time zone differences between markets and the capabilities for contact centers to handle multilingual inquiries and associated content at once.

Linguistics And Finances
Although companies might find it tempting to outsource their customer service and contact center functions to one vendor or country as a way of leveraging costs, their customer base contains a wider variety of language groups and countries than they did even a decade ago, and these customers expect the same level of customer care, in their own language, as every other customer. In many of today's pan-European call centers, it is becoming difficult to find enough Swedish, Italian, Hungarian, Spanish and German speakers in locations such as Dublin and Amsterdam, where many of these primary/pan-European/centralized facilities centers are located. When contact centers do have these multiskilled, multilingual staff on hand, they find a great majority of them are college students who remain with the firm for a very short time. As a result, turnover rates at many of these pan-European call centers are increasing at an alarming rate and customer satisfaction is gravely put at risk.

Additionally, beginning in the mid-1990s, large U.S. companies increasingly began seeking efficiencies in servicing foreign customers and by outsourcing their customer contacts to companies abroad. With unemployment running as low as one or two percent in some U.S. cities, it was becoming difficult to fully staff the U.S. centers, and the same dilemma occurs today. The lower cost of operating contact centers outside the U.S. is also fueling the trend toward outsourcing offshore. Companies under pressure to increase the bottom line are looking for creative solutions to enable some centers to be open to service off-peak hours while main centers are shut down, allowing them to save on overhead costs.

Using Time Zones To Your Advantage
Companies operating on a global scale with state-of-the art customer service centers in one location only are often caught between a rock and a hard place on the cost issues associated with peak and non-peak hour service. They are losing money keeping customer service agents available during non-peak hours, yet are afraid of skimping on their promises of delivering round-the-clock service. When companies adopt the regional call center model, they can take advantage of using one of the call centers during peak hours and the other during non-peak hours, routing the off-peak calls to the second center. Companies can keep delivering the high standards of service their customers expect while saving on overhead costs. They can effectively serve different geographic markets on one side of the globe, while customers on the other side are sleeping.

Two Methods
Companies or outsourcers can follow two directions to most effectively implement "follow-the-sun" customer service. One method, in theory, allows customer service to be shifted from one location to the other as day turns to night and vice versa. Customer service capabilities can shift seamlessly from New York to Los Angeles and then to Australia, New Zealand or Singapore, continuing to Frankfurt or London and then back to New York. Customer care completes one trip around the globe without customers noticing any lapse in coverage or quality of service.

The other method is the operation of one center that serves local, regional or even remote markets that literally "follows the sun" as one part of the globe goes into night while another region is in the middle of the workday. A small, U.S.-based company actually follows this direction to serve its national customer base using one call center 15 times zones ahead in New Zealand.

Providing Pan-European Support
In Europe, where many different languages and cultures exist on the same continent, customers must be reassured that whenever they contact a customer support center for assistance, they will reach a customer service representative who can speak their language and solve their problems quickly. One outsourcing firm saw the need to serve language groups that have recently been underserved by their facilities and responded quickly enough to be ahead of the trend.

Xtrasource, Inc., based in Kent, Ohio, is a provider of outsourced CRM services for multinational technology companies. The company provides global support for customers in their native languages via e-mail, Web chat and voice. While Xtrasource was already successful using its pan-European contact center in the Netherlands, it was noticing a sharp jump with inbound customer calls from France and Italy and was finding it difficult to recruit fluent French and Italian speakers to service this spike in customer inquiries.

After a long and intensive search, Xtrasource built a regional satellite contact center in the Metz-Moselle region of France, located in the northeastern part of the country. This area of France had the right mix of skilled labor with a large pool of fluent French and Italian speakers, modern information technology and communication infrastructure and a competitive cost environment. Xtrasource is now able to effectively serve its European customers across the continent along the regional contact center model of a main center with a regional satellite.

Going Regional To Be The Best Globally
Outsourcing customer care functions requires companies to look at creative ways they can perform customer service better than their competition. With global marketplaces becoming more competitive every year, the companies that will continue to thrive are those that service their customers in their own languages and time zones. Because of the challenges involved in serving different language groups and the possibilities of employing a network of contact centers from all points of the globe, the regional contact center model offers a viable, reliable and cost-effective alternative to the pan-European and pan-Asian call center approach of the recent decade.

Mark Smedley is the U.S. vice president for the European Call Center Alliance, a consortium of five European economic development agencies to present North American corporations with an attractive means for allocating call center direct investment across the European Union. Dr. Hanna Frederick is primarily responsible for Investment New Zealand's international call center initiative that encourages overseas businesses to outsource their contact center requirements to New Zealand.

[ Return To The August 2001 Table Of Contents ]

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