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January 2009 | Volume 27 / Number 8

Best Practices in Multi-Sourcing

By Keith Dawson (News - Alert)
As we head into a period of prolonged economic downturn, companies with call centers are going to spend much of 2009 and beyond looking for the most cost-effective mix of labor. At the same time, centers are trying to lock in customers for as long as possible, with the best mix of service, speed and convenience. Many are turning to multi-sourcing, the practice of creating the best possible mix from numerous outsourced suppliers and internal resources, including remote agents.

Mixing a multitude of labor and service options is complex. Companies have historically had a hard time coordinating multiple outsourcers, and centrally managing their various outsourcers alongside their internal and virtual agents.

But there are some best practices that can be applied (and questions to ask before you embark) that can make the process flow smoothly.

The consequences of lingering disharmonies are serious because the customers that are most likely to detect inconsistencies are your most valuable ones. The ones likely to be annoyed or dissatisfied are disproportionately the repeaters, the higher value continuous customers.

Does it impact service quality? It can, but it doesn’t have to. If you posit a mixed environment that combines in-house and multi-sourced agent pools, you will likely start to see variations in some of the key metrics: first call resolution, the number of transfers, and the length of calls. Customer satisfaction, as expressed in survey data, may start to show a drop.

The problem, though, may be as simple as lack of harmonizing basic simple procedures among your varied sources. That sounds painfully obvious, but it’s key because small disharmonies magnify into large variations in customer sat. The consequences of lingering disharmonies are serious because the customers that are most likely to detect inconsistencies are your most valuable ones. The ones likely to be annoyed or dissatisfied are disproportionately the repeaters, the higher value continuous customers.

Will you see the savings you expect? That depends on whether your expectations are realistic. Do your plans for savings anticipate material benefits? That is, can they be measured? If you’re expressing your hopes for gain in intangible things, or even semi-tangible ones like customer sat, you’re in for trouble. Also, one pitfall is the question of whether savings in one area will be overwhelmed by extra costs in another — these can sometimes be foreseen and dealt with. It’s lack of foresight that gets people in trouble. Having a mixed, hodgepodge of labor sources (and systems that measure their performance) can cause a steady erosion of service levels over time. Not a catastrophic decline, necessarily, but an accretion of management headaches that come from the fact that people in one group are being monitored times per month, and those in another group times per month, and who is calibrating the quality evaluations between all the different sources?

The lack of common infrastructure means you may be unwittingly measuring by different yardsticks or incenting for different outcomes in different locations.

Having said that, is all this an argument for not multi-sourcing? No. It’s an argument for preparation, harmonization, and adoption of certain practices to inoculate yourself against these pitfalls.

Straightaway, you need to make two critical distinctions:

• between what you can control and what you can’t control
• between what matters and what doesn’t matter

The whole point of multi-sourcing in all its many forms is letting go. That means there will be things you might like to control that you have to give over to someone else for cost reasons. You could spend a lot of time and trouble agonizing over what switching or call routing platform your various outsourcers use. You could even lay down the law and say you’ll only use sourcers that have Avaya (News - Alert) or Genesys implementations, or whatever specific qualities you prefer.

But what matters most is the outcome, and your ability to measure the outcome. The whole point of multi-sourcing is to allow for variations in how to achieve the outcome you desire, because not all methods and modes are right for every opportunity.

So you need to draw a hard line on the page separating what you really and truly care about from everything you can let go. And the most important thing you care about is consistency of the customer experience.

You need to abstract the measurement of the customer experience from the providers of the multi-source environment. In other words, despite multi-sourcing, you have to create a system-wide format for how you’re going to define and measure “success” in customer interactions.

All of this depends on a consistent data infrastructure. Even if your physical infrastructure is distributed, even if your human resources are dispersed, you can enforce a common set of data standards among all the parties.

The main justification for multi-sourcing is the idea that it shouldn’t matter what or where the physical components are, as long as you have consistent results. That’s true if (and only if) you establish standards that have everyone measuring the same things with the same criteria and reporting through a centralized portal or data warehouse. The central dashboard should be able to roll up across all sources and should be able to pinpoint which sources deviate from set norms.

What should dictate the business processes and policies and workflow is not the outsourcer, or the outsourcer’s technology. It’s call center management overall, as measured in-house.

The message overall is this: don’t assume that multi-sourcing, or outsourcing of any kind, replaces sound internal management. You can multi-source capacity, but you can’t multi-source judgment, control, or management oversight.

Call center multi-sourcing should never be the source of more risk and worry. It should always reduce risk and worry. If it’s not, you’ve fallen into the trap.

Keith Dawson is a Senior Analyst with Frost & Sullivan (News - Alert).

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