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Customer Relationship Management
April 2004

Providing 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 carefully.

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 center operations.

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.

Balancing Resources
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 outsourcers.

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 policies.

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 entrepreneurial.

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.

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.

[ Return To The April 2004 Table Of Contents ]

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