Can Outsourcers Best Handle Customer Service?

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It's never easy to hire an outsourcer. Especially when you want the outsourcer to handle your most precious asset -- customer relationship. It's hard enough to ensure that your own employees are doing the job right; how do you make sure that someone from outside is?


A recent study by Input, a market research firm in Mountain View, CA, found that companies reported higher satisfaction levels with in-house call centers than with outsourced call center services. It also showed that call centers will continue to grow at a rapid pace, forecasting that the market will more than double in the next four years, from $7 billion today to $18 billion in 2002. But growth does not come without a price. Input reports that users are worried about things like "staff competence," "flexibility" and "the caliber of operations" at their outsourced centers.


Let's remember that the outsourcing sector is a very large component of a huge industry. It's also undergoing a lot of change. Is service awful? Not as a rule. Could it stand improvement? Without question.


Managers who go outside their organization for help with teleservices are realizing how critical customer relationship is, and are understandably nervous about losing control over it. There's no question that turning sensitive service and revenue tasks over to an outside vendor creates stresses that boomerang as tentative satisfaction ratings.


"As an industry, in terms of keeping our own house in order, there's probably some truth to that," says David Kissell of Alert Communications. "But the client can't just hand off the account without paying attention."


The fact is that the outsourcing business has boomed in this decade. Companies need the service, the expertise and the technology that outsourcers make available. Sometimes, when a company is growing, the only way to keep up with an expanding customer base is by getting help from the outside.


Traditionally outsourcers served as a bridge -- handling high call volumes during peak seasons, for example, or during product launches. Additionally, service bureaus are a good way for a company to test something new without incurring capital expenses. A new campaign can be tested on an outbound list without buying dialing equipment, or hiring new workers. Outsourcers, to stay competitive, often feature the latest technologies in the most sophisticated implementations.


But just as the relationship between a company and its customers needs constant managing, so does the tie between a company and its outsourcer.


"When someone brings us an application, we have to go through it from square one to identify their goals and objectives," Kissell says. "The commodity mentality of the [service bureau] product has changed things."


Service bureaus cannot treat clients as if they were created by a cookie cutter, but, instead, need to nurture a close relationship. In general, service bureaus run centers that are larger than those run by companies in-house. They also tend to run more of them, often connected in networks of centers. They tend to be as afflicted by things like high turnover and employee burnout as any other sector of the teleservices industry.


Companies can actively make sure it gets the most out of its relationship with an outsourcer. But first, they need a clear view of what they want the outsourcer to accomplish.


"[Companies] need to find an outsourcer that is a partner, and not just paying them lip service, who makes a concerted effort to understand what their goals are and what's going to make their program a success," said Kissell.


He points out that a lot of service bureaus make the mistake of pigeonholing clients, that is, assuming that a single basket of services will suffice for all catalog retailers, another for hospitality companies, and so on. "A lot of service bureaus will fail this way," he said.


End-users should pay attention to the specialty of the outsourcer. Is it experienced doing the kinds of things your company does, and if so, are they coming into the relationship with preconceived notions of how your company should be running its business?


Check references and call into centers to see how calls are handled. Ask the outsourcer about staff training -- is there a regular program for refreshing the knowledge of phone reps? And how about turnover?


Find out what physical centers will be used for your campaigns, and what the turnover rate is at those centers. You have a right (and a duty) to find out how skilled and how motivated those reps are. Ask what kind of career path is available for agents -- do they get promoted to supervisor? How long is the average tenure? Knowing the answers to these questions will indicate whether the rep is bored when he answers the phone and it's an irate customer on the line.


I suspect that the disjunction between satisfaction at in-house vs. outsourced call centers is due more to "location comfort" than anything else. You know the strengths and weaknesses of the people who work in your own call center. Admitting the need for outside help -- especially for small, growing companies -- can be dispiriting. Losing touch with the process of customer contact, even if it's limited, can be unnerving.


Service bureaus need to emphasize the connection they offer between the customer and the company. Theirs is a problem of perception, not a real problem. They need to sell their experience, their consultation. Technical tools are available that enable call center clients to get closer to the point of interaction -- real-time reporting tools, for example, that let a client see the results of calls (inbound or outbound). Monitoring and quality assurance systems can deliver to the client voice and data records of everything that happens during a call. Outsourcers can be -- and should be (and, I think, are willing to be) held accountable to their clients.


Most important, according to Kissell, is that the two parties talk through the relationship before it even starts. "There should be hand-holding before the ink hits the paper," he said.


<I>Keith Dawson is a technology writer and editor of the Call Center News Service (www.callcenternews.com).
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