CRM Demands a Global Perspective

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The global marketplace has changed in the past decade, with the deregulation of several telecommunications markets and national boundaries becoming less noticeable and restrictive.

Brick-and-mortar companies that wouldn't have dreamed about going international five years ago are finding it easier and, more importantly, profitable to set up shop in places like Europe or Asia. E-commerce companies are finding instant worldwide success due to the boundless Internet. Globalization is becoming somewhat of a U.S. business standard or integral part of growth for companies looking to be leaders in their respective industries.

The contact center industry has transitioned from being a domestic telemarketing business, helping clients find and acquire customers, into a full-service provider of customer-care services and support throughout a customer's life cycle. Why the change? Client demand.

And it is that same demand that is stirring overseas contact center expansion.

Going where the client leads. When viewing the international market, it makes no difference whether a business is a longtime multinational corporation, a company that is just beginning to seize global opportunities or an e-commerce enterprise. Each faces the same challenges.

How do you employ, train and retain the quality people needed to provide the best service for your customers in a country you know little about? How do you handle the many languages and dialects? How do you give overseas customers the same caliber of customer service, technical support and help that you provide in the United States?

These companies have discovered that it is difficult to build a global network of sites in a consistent, practical manner. As a result, they are seeking outsourcing partners that can bring efficiency and consistency to the process, that can handle all communication channels, including Internet-related services, and that can provide a cost-effective network infrastructure. Just as important, with customers becoming more remote, they desire vendors that can think outside the U.S. box.

Since 1996, several companies have grown with their clients' needs and have taken the initiative to open contact centers abroad, either by building new facilities or acquiring existing ones through mergers with local market leaders. No fewer than five or six companies have reputations as global contact center providers. Not all of them provide the full line of service. Some offer only technical support while others provide only customer care. But as the customer relationship management concept of being a strategic part of a company's initiative to grow customer value increases, expect more outsourcers to become one-stop shopping providers.

Labor and efficiency issues. It may be only a matter of time before managing U.S. customer relationships from 10,000 miles away becomes passé. The reason is that our labor market is saturated now, with about 3 percent of America's workers already working in a contact center environment. Realistically, the economy cannot support much more, which is why some companies are moving part of their CRM businesses offshore to other English-speaking countries with large, capable workforces.

When moving into new markets, CRM companies also begin to look at the prospect of using all sites more efficiently. This might mean that the next time a U.S. client offers additional work for 100 new seats, the work could be assigned to a facility in London that can utilize existing capacity, rather than creating those seats here. As telecommunication costs decrease, this will become a viable solution in more places. But even now, the growing popularity of the Internet and inexpensive chat-based communication make it profitable to handle customers electronically from anywhere.

Another example of contact center efficiency is the follow-the-sun approach some vendors are taking with regard to U.S. clients that request 24-hour customer support. Rather than creating costly graveyard shifts at American facilities, these vendors take advantage of their overseas operations in places like Singapore, where chat support is being provided in English around the clock. At the same time, these employees are able to receive phone calls from regional customers, thus increasing efficiency while reducing operating costs.

Overseas trend to continue. It is predicted by market research firm IDC, Framingham, MA, that foreign markets, including Western Europe, Latin America and Asia Pacific, will grow faster than the domestic market during the next five years, with the United States trailing by as much as 16 percent. Expect the continuation of the contact center globalization trend.

A global market is the rule rather than the exception, and so it comes as no surprise that the CRM industry is following closely on the heels of its clients. Other related issues, such as developing an offshore labor pool and improving site utilization, only strengthen the industry move.

But the bottom line is that if Microsoft wants a contact center built in Belgium, you can bet it will find a global vendor willing to do the job.

• Phil Clough is president/CEO of Sitel Corp., Baltimore. His e-mail address is

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