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[August 26, 2004]


Upstream Not Caring To Be Trendy




In the midst of an eviction of outsourced customer care services to other countries, companies managing contact centers in such trendy locations as India, ever-increasing contact center-implementing Canada, the Philippines and the Caribbean, customer care outsourcing enterprise Upstream LLC is attempting to stunt the movement by hiring hundreds of associates in the U.S.�offering an alternative to offshore outsourcing hand-in-hand with its pledge to provide customized solutions. For those who are unsure of the definition of �outsourcing�, it is, according to farceur Dave Barry,a business expression that means, in layperson�s terms, �sourcing out.� It�s a trend that started years ago in manufacturing, which is a business term that means �making things�.�


Although Upstream does offer an offshore solution through its facility in Mumbai, India, where its parent company Godrej Group is based, the outsourcing enterprise�s growth is driven by its three U.S. customer contact centers, employing 700 associates in total: 140-150 in Chesapeake, Virginia (named by MONEY magazine as one of the top ten U.S. cities for small businesses); more than 200 in Campbellsville, Kentucky (a town that manufactures church steeples); and 300 in Fargo, North Dakota (home of the designer of the Hjemkomst Viking Ship). The contact center operations will continue to expand to meet the growing demands of customers; Upstream has increased its workforce in the U.S. by nearly 15 percent over the first five months of this year and is currently seeking a fourth domestic site for a center.  


For companies in the contact center industry, there are numerous positive factors of outsourced offshoring; however the downside is significant. Although the quality of off-shore work in certain areas of focus has gotten better over the years, chasms remain. On a larger (national) scale, the loss of American jobs can be impressively painful, especially now that such a myriad of offshoring is taking place. On a smaller yet still significant scale, the company can be negatively affected, due to cultural differences, by the time spent training non-U.S. workers to effectively take calls from Americans. While offshore agents may speak English well (though not all do) and be quite pleasant speaking on the phone (though not all are), expertise training for customer service agents is still required.


Upstream emphasizes its training and skill sets in its distinction from other contact center outsourcers. Specific skills required of Upstream agents include Web support, inbound selling and customer service, for a cost-effective delivery and for fitting customers� needs. These agents are required to attend a minimum of three weeks, and as many as five weeks, of classroom-based learning.


Upstream provides industry specific services in three areas: enterprise support; acquisition and sales; and business process outsourcing for several major airlines and travel services providers. A major customer care company in the travel vertical, its wholly-owned subsidiary specializes in last-minute online travel. Upstream added inbound sales operations for Orbitz to its list of clients in 2002 and is employed by the online travel company for its Web site support for travel customers. Upstream�s customer service agents have considerable training in providing travel-related support, including air, hotel and car reservations. Their classroom-based learning requires extensive training in travel inquiries of multiple tiers of importance and complexity:


  Tier 2: Booking and re-booking


Example for classroom learning: �I need to book a flight to Oulu, Finland, where I am participating in a high altitude, last-minute � last minute, like booking this flight � training camp for the Air Guitar World Championship. I was originally supposed to be on an earlier flight today, but I missed it because I was stuck at the security checkpoint, where they confiscated my air guitar pick. I was there arguing with security because I can�t play air guitar without my air guitar pick, and that�s when I missed my flight. The lines at the ticket counters are each roughly a mile and a half long, and I have to be in Oulu by tomorrow so I can help end all bad things (which is what would happen if every person in the world played the air guitar, according to Air Guitar ideology). Oh, and can you get me on a flight that will allow me to do my arm stretches and warm-ups for pre-training prep?�


Handling this call could be a good training exercise for agents, I think, as it may be a more common situation in the airlines customer service industry than you think.


Tier 1: Forgotten Password


Example for classroom learning:  �Hi. Yeah, I forgot my password.�


This one is pretty common and self-explanatory.


Upstream, according to its president and CEO Jerry Johnson, trains its service agents to be intimate with their customers (no, not �intimate� in the manner of 1-900 numbers). Caring about the customer and his or her situation, as well as quick efficiency, is the highest priority in customer care service. And Upstream seems to be doing it properly, as it provides business process outsourcing for additional paramount airlines and travel services providers United Airlines, USAirways, Travelocity and Site59.


David R. Butcher is the assistant editor for Customer [email protected] Solutions Magazine.

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