TMCnet - The World's Largest Communications and Technology Community
ITEXPO begins in:   New Coverage :  Asterisk  |  Fax Software  |  SIP Phones  |  Small Cells

January 2002


What Today's Help Desk/Contact Center Outsourcers Can (And Should) Offer


Outsourcing used to be a numbers game, and choosing a provider was relatively easy ' just find the agency that could answer the most calls in the shortest period of time for the least amount of money. In today's multichannel world, however, companies need to look beyond initial numbers to find providers that can adapt to Web, e-mail and/or phone inquiries, while potentially blending incoming with outgoing contacts. After all, part of the reason for outsourcing is to avoid added investments in technology, infrastructure and people. Even if a company does not need all of these capabilities initially, it is important to select a partner that can scale to offer support when needed.

Today's outsourcing arrangements are not necessarily all-or-nothing, but often define a sharing of tasks, media or workloads. The outsourcer may take all e-mail communications while the client takes all phone calls; or the client may handle everything up to a certain capacity, with the overload routed to the outsourcer. Other splits are time of day, normal load versus special projects, outbound versus in-bound or anything else in between.

The following are the 10 specific areas that are crucial to the success of an outsourcing relationship. Ranging from technology to philosophy, these areas should be explored before signing a contract. A company should lay down clearly defined objectives and expectations, ask leading questions, conduct a thorough analysis, keep an open mind and negotiate a detailed and fair contract.

Technical expertise. The first step is to ensure the outsourcer's technical capacity. The checklist should include the capability to offer interconnections, database management and provision of new services such as IVR capability or Web-based services. Consider not only current needs, but expected future requirements. Part of the value of outsourcing is relying on someone who has in-depth experience and can offer advice regarding the benefits and pitfalls of various options.

Ensure the service provider under consideration has the proper business contingency planning and security measures in place so it can provide your organization with your customer data in the event of an unplanned business disruption. Coordinating a plan that covers contingencies in both the client and outsourcer's operations will prevent unpleasant surprises when you can least tolerate them. Developing these plans together is key to the successful implementation when the unexpected happens.

Experience in your industry sector. For many industries, it's important that the provider understand the business. If you are in retail, consider (and speak to) the outsourcer's other clients in that arena. If you have a tech-support center, consider whether the agents have the knowledge, experience and certifications they need. It is common for outsource providers to specialize in certain industries and kinds of work. This often means they understand the language and the issues that callers will raise, even if it isn't in the basic training provided on the client's products and services.

One important piece to discover is the outsourcer's turnover rate among agents. Many centers have upwards of 30 percent turnover. Make sure you check the numbers of an outsourcer with which you are considering doing business.

That doesn't mean you should never be the first client of your type for a firm. Sometimes the benefits are too compelling to pass up. If, however, you are the first, expect to make an investment in training the outsource staff in not only your systems and products, but in the industry as well. There is likely to be a ramp-up period when some additional quality monitoring would be advisable.

Experience with the kind of work requested now and planned for the future. Look for current clients who have similar contact types, media, etc. Can the reps manage inbound calls with outbound calls and handle Web inquiries and Web chat? You most likely will not want to demand that agents blend media or mix inbound and outbound calls, but if your provider can offer that flexibility, efficiencies and cost savings might be available.

It's important to determine if there is a clear methodology in place to deliver superior customer care to your high-end clientele or conversely, rapidly clean your queue of routine inquiries. These take very different skills and it is important to ensure that the experience the outsource partner brings to the game is appropriate to the role intended for them.

Financial stability. In today's market, you need to assess the financial stability of your potential provider. Be aware that they, too, will want data on your company's finances. Symptoms of financial stress include declining service, staff turnover, delay in meeting plans for new capabilities and slow payment of bills. Check out your partner carefully as this is likely to be a long-term relationship with significant investments involved.

The management team. The philosophy and personnel who will manage your account must match your company's style. Will their team blend with your customer service personnel as well as your executive team? Look for connections and possible disconnects before you make your selection. Find out how long the team leaders have been with the company and how many other projects they manage simultaneously. Identify the experience with this kind of arrangement and look for any history that should make you cautious.

Also, determine if the outsourcer will provide you with one primary contact who is dedicated to your account. Sometimes, the management contacts aren't a good fit. Corporate climates and management personalities can clash, and this seldom makes for a happy alliance.

The front-line team. If the management team is a fit, make sure the same is true of the front line ' the people who will touch the end users or customers. Take time to understand who will be handling the contacts on your account. Will you have access to dedicated personnel on your contact handling team, or will you be sharing them with other clients? Dedicated teams have advantages, but they are more expensive since the outsource provider loses the all-important economies of scale. Shared teams are generally less expensive on a contact basis, but more training for more personnel is required, and the depth of relationships with callers and understanding of the client business may suffer. Sometimes a dedicated core team can be supplemented with a general pool of reps to strike the best balance. There is no right or wrong answer, but it is important to understand the trade-offs. A company with a large call volume should consider a dedicated team, but a shared team is probably more appropriate for a company with lower call volumes.

Reporting capabilities. Before you choose your outsourcer, determine which data you need, from call statistics to customer information. This is often one of the most challenging parts of the integration process and must not be shortcut by either party. Looking beyond the efficiency component, consider how well your partner can help gather the customer intelligence you need and deliver it in a usable fashion.

The contact center will deal with more customers in a single day than many other organizations will in a month, so it is essential that the center gather data and make them available in a format that supports your business needs. It is equally important, though, that the intelligence gained from other channels ' including the Web, branch offices, retail stores, etc. ' be made available to the outsource provider's contact center staff so they can do the best possible job.

Monitoring capabilities and philosophies. An outsourcer should provide assurance that it is treating your customers the way you expect them to be treated. Consider how they are to measure service levels and provide you with these reports. Also be sure to perform independent measurements and your own monitoring functions. There is generally a contractual provision on quality scores, so the method of measurement must be clear.

Customer satisfaction measurement process. Customer satisfaction measurement is a continuation of the monitoring philosophy and process. You need to know if your customers feel your products and services are meeting their needs. Are they satisfied? If not, can your outsourcer provide statistics sliced and diced in a way that allows you to address the problem effectively? If not, how about the raw data in a form you can manipulate? This is not just satisfaction with the performance of the contact center, but with the company overall and will be key data for the entire organization. One effective tool your outsourcer can provide is post-call surveys.

References. After you have short-listed your prospects, gather customer references and plan the questions to ask of them. Inquire what they would do differently if they had to do it again and learn from their experiences. Even a happy customer has ideas about how things could be better.

Choosing an outsourcer is an involved decision, and not one that you want to make lightly or often. Following these steps can help ensure that you find the right fit and that your expectations are met. The answers and information you gather can help you establish a relationship that works from the start, and one upon which you can build over time.

Maggie Klenke is managing director of the contact center consulting practice of Getronics. She was instrumental in the development of the Call Center University program offerings that include courses leading to a certification as a professional call center manager.

[ Return To The January 2002 Table Of Contents ]

Upcoming Events
ITEXPO West 2012
October 2- 5, 2012
The Austin Convention Center
Austin, Texas
The World's Premier Managed Services and Cloud Computing Event
Click for Dates and Locations
Mobility Tech Conference & Expo
October 3- 5, 2012
The Austin Convention Center
Austin, Texas
Cloud Communications Summit
October 3- 5, 2012
The Austin Convention Center
Austin, Texas

Subscribe FREE to all of TMC's monthly magazines. Click here now.