Increasing A Call Center's Effectiveness
BY PETER BENDOR-SAMUEL, THE EVEREST GROUP
The call center is often the first and only link a customer has to a business. Because
a customer's experience on the phone can directly affect the way the company is perceived,
it is critical for the customer's experience to be positive. When companies treat their
call center as a liability or as a "cost of doing business," its effectiveness
is limited. Employee morale may dip and technology may lag behind the times as a result of
managers who will not finance the call center appropriately. One option to consider is
outsourcing. This enables outside experts to handle the process -- experts whose core
function is the proper operation of a call center.
In some ways, the call center is the customer's life-support system. The technology and
the employees who use it support the product that is delivered. To deliver the
best-possible product, it is important to stay on top of technology and training. Because
technology is in a state of continual evolution, the overhead needed to keep up with
changes can be tremendous. Outsourcers, however, have the ability to keep IT costs to a
minimum by spreading their technology expenditures across a number of clients. Outsourcing
high-tech and other programs not only provides added resources to stay on top of
technology, but eliminates the need to spend funds for recruiting, paying and retaining a
staff -- and these savings are often passed on to the customer.
Putting a company's IT functions in the hands of qualified professionals also provides
a business with the ability to concentrate on its strategic functions. Instead of spending
time and energy operating a call center, a company can invest those resources in marketing
strategies or improving the company's product, which in the process may reduce the calls
that come into the call center. With both sides, the customer and the vendor, specializing
in the activities they do best, the highest-quality product can be produced and marketed.
Using these leverage points, a company must determine if it makes sense to outsource.
If there is enough leverage and outsourcing is considered, a company must then learn how
to get the full potential out of an outsourcing relationship.
Maximizing The Value Of An Outsourcing Relationship
The outsourcing of any technology-oriented business process is similar. Whether a
company is outsourcing the call center or the entire IT department, there are certain
steps that must be followed to ensure a successful outsourcing relationship. First, set
the project scope through strategic planning and defined business objectives. Narrow the
scope as much as possible to ensure that the company is getting exactly what will meet its
needs. If the goals are too broad, the foundation will be loose and the outsourcing
structure will eventually crumble. Have a clear understanding of what the companys
cost drivers and requirements are. This understanding allows managers to create
initiatives that are realistic and review a prospective outsourcers proposal with
real cost figures in mind.
Once the scope has been identified, a company can begin the bid process. Before sending
out requests for proposal (RFP), a company should first send out requests for quote (RFQ)
to potential vendors. Find an outsourcer that is within your budget, but consider that the
lowest cost bidder might not be the most effective if it cuts too many corners to meet
your companys needs. The lower costs may be a result of inadequate technology or an
underpaid and undertrained call center staff. Paying higher prices does not necessarily
guarantee satisfaction, either. Do the prerequisite research and look for a close match to
your companys needs. Look for an outsourcer with a qualified staff of agents and
managers, cutting-edge technology, the financial backing to stay on top of the latest
hardware and software, an effective methodology and a proven track record.
It is also important to find a vendor that is proactive and can identify problems
before they happen or at least resolve problems before they become a disruptive force. The
vendor should also be able to provide you with detailed analyses of call center statistics
and complaints. The outsourcing process can be confusing, but external outsourcing
consultants are available to assist you from the beginning to the end.
Ensuring High Performance
Metrics that closely match the clients business objectives should be
implemented into the contract. Additionally, meaningful penalties should be developed for
insufficient service, along with rewards for continuous improvement. These service level
agreements help keep performance at a consistent peak. It is very hard to hold a vendor
accountable for unsatisfactory service without metrics and performance measures.
Typically, a portion of the monthly bill should be withheld for poor performance.
Customer satisfaction is one of the most meaningful metrics, but it may have a broader
index based on the product quality or the difficulty of the question. So, overall customer
satisfaction is hard to measure and therefore would be difficult to associate with a
penalty system. Penalties should be assessed for measures that are directly under the
control of the supplier.
These controllable measurements can include the average time callers spend on hold, the
amount of calls that are resolved on first contact, the number of callbacks and the total
amount of time spent on the phone. Penalties should be based on averages instead of
individual incidents, as no company has the ability to guarantee the absolute
effectiveness of every instance of a process. However, the outsourcer should be able to
manage the process effectively and efficiently within statistical boundaries.
Managing The Contract
A company gets what it manages in outsourcing and this is particularly true in
the case of call centers. An outsourcing arrangement is managed through metrics and
communication. The most effective form of communication takes place through billing, so a
company must have easy-to-understand service levels and billing algorithms. Never allow
the relationship to go unguided. Work with the supplier to increase the quality of the
product. Both sides are accountable for the success of the call center.
The final issue is the length of the contract. Purchasing services for a long period of
time is not recommended. Long relationships are beneficial, but long-term contracts are
not. If a company isnt sure what the call center function is going to look like in
two years, then it is very unwise to purchase services for that long. Technology and
volume can change considerably in a short period of time. Consider a series of one-year
deals that fall into a master contract. New service agreements and terms can be dropped
into the master contract annually. Using master contracts helps minimize transaction
costs, but keeps the outsourcing relationship flexible.
Call center outsourcing has been sufficiently standardized now, so it is possible to go
to an outsourcing consultant and get an integrated procurement package. Consultants help
the customer develop service descriptions, negotiate the contract and implement the
services. Some consultants also have monitoring software so that companies can check the
vendors performance. Because the call center has become so standardized, companies
should keep transaction costs to a minimum; however, they should take the necessary care
to ensure that they are getting the best-possible service at a competitive price.
Peter Bendor-Samuel is the editor and CEO of the Outsourcing Center and president
of the Everest Group, an outsourcing services firm.