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
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
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
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
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
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
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.
THINGS TO CONSIDER
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
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
- 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
- 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.
STEPS TO FOLLOW
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
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
To The August 2001 Table Of Contents ]