Lessons In Outsourcing Customer Care

Consumer-oriented businesses trying to cope with a surge in online customer interactions may want to consider turning to a service outsourcer. But before you place your customers in someone else's hands, make sure you have answers to several key questions.
By Chuck Sykes

Some of the largest consumer-facing companies in the world are looking to solve what we call the "triple whammy" -- how to get the best customer support performance at the best price, while treating customers like the world revolves around them.

Jupiter Research is projecting that with more complex products being sold over the Web, voice interaction will be the support of choice, and e-mail will follow. Businesses are already finding that the number of customer interactions is growing, despite the era of online self-service. Customers are moving to the Web to shop, but they want a higher level of contact and right now they are turning more frequently to the telephone.

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People still want to interact in a human way -- they still need to talk, so you have to find a solution to meet this expectation. Offshore and hosted facilities can help alleviate the pain in managing this rise in customer demand.

A new report from Frost & Sullivan estimates that the market for outsourcing inbound and outbound customer care, help desk, and telemarketing, will be worth $60 billion by 2007. The opportunity is there for the providers -- but what are the opportunities, advantages, benefits, and potential potholes, for the companies in need?

For an organization that needs a contact center to service customer demands and interaction there are some options. You first need to decide whether you can afford to locate, build, equip, staff and operate your own contact center; whether a joint venture is feasible; or if you can outsource the entire job to a reputable company.

Here are few thoughts to consider for each path:

The lock, stock and barrel route. Be prepared to commit up front and ongoing multi-millions in capital to locate, build, equip, staff and operate your own contact center. If you have the expertise, or can hire an experienced consulting organization to achieve your goals, this might be a good choice.

The carpool path. Joint ventures can be a good way to share risks and rewards in an area where you do not have total expertise. Your partners need to understand the intricacies of local government, staffing and cultural issues, as well as technical infrastructure.

The hired hand approach. By outsourcing the entire job to an experienced contact center business you gain control of how you want your customers treated, and at what costs. Be sure to decide up front whether you want the company to link up with your systems and also gauge their reputation in the country you have selected. Once you decide to outsource to the hired hand, ask yourself the following questions to ensure the best partner in the initiative:

  • Has the management team run a contact center of the size and scale required to get the job done? Hands-on experience cannot be underestimated. The number of skills required span from workforce scheduling to training, call handling and data-mining. Selecting an outsourcer that can provide skilled staff and management from a CRM background, as well as the systems and site expertise will provide security.
  • Does the organization have a full understanding of any local government regulation, employment and business issues in the offshore destination? An in-depth knowledge of local tax issues or employment laws is imperative. On the ground, a provider should also be able to source and prepare regional businesses to support a new call center location, (such as telecom, security firms and other vendors). All contacts need to be examined by a trusted provider who understands the local culture as well as the expectations and standards of your business.
  • Can you get the right staff? Customer service or technical support agents need to be carefully selected and trained. The location needs to have the raw talent available and the right mix of part- and full-time employees to keep the contact center at optimum operational levels, while allowing for the fluctuations in volume and demand. Offshore facilities in developing markets offer an open and untapped labor pool, and one that can be trained and developed to a companys own standards.
  • Channel capabilities -- can the center handle all incoming contacts, including voice, voice over Internet protocol (VoIP), fax, as well as e-mail, for example? Your customers want to be able to use any channel of communication they choose. Voice is the hardest channel to take offshore, but remains important in making your customers feel part of something local, close and comfortable.
Companies using a hosted center want guarantees that by putting their customers in someone else's hands service levels won't fall. As a checklist, in order to be there for your customers at every stage, what steps should a host provider follow and what should you expect if you outsource?
  1. State of the art technology. Some of the main ingredients of a top tier outsourced solution would include: a software system with open architecture to link with you and support a heterogeneous environment of carrier networks; ACD (automatic call distribution), PBX (private branch exchange or private telephone switchboard) , IVR (interactive voice response), Web, and e-mail platforms; and complementary software applications.

  2. Less investment risk. As businesses improve customer service to help them become more customer-centric, there is a risk that companies will invest considerable time and money building second-generation CRM systems and find themselves fenced in when customers start demanding third and fourth generation services.

  3. Synchronized reporting and routing. The service solutions should allow you to obtain a real time view of customer contacts and the software needs to make contact-routing decisions for populating agent desktop applications.

  4. Trained, customer-centric, staff. A highly skilled and customer-centric workforce trained in technical skills and "soft" skills will engender a close bond between your brand and your customer.

  5. Flexibility. As your business expands, or as you face peak customer contact periods in the customer life cycle, you need an outsourcer that can ramp-up quickly to support your growth, as well as tool-down during slower business periods.
If someone else is playing host, you should be able to sit back and reap the benefits for your customers, if you've covered these bases and found a solid partner. Any provider needs to have the expertise in understanding, using and supporting the technology to maximize the investment in a hosted service. But only when combined with the right people and processes to manage it will this deliver a world-class service that meets the triple whammy on all sides -- giving support, at a fair price, for the best customer service.

Chuck Sykes is senior vice president and general manager, the Americas, for SYKES Enterprises. This article first appeared in eCRM Guide, an internet.com site.






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