Tips on Outsourcing Call Centers

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You have weighed the pros and cons of who should handle your contact center programs (inbound and outbound calls, telemarketing, e-mail, snail mail and Web contact), and you have decided to outsource. This decision will leave you the ability to concentrate on your core business instead of spending your time learning how to handle your business inhouse.


If done properly, outsourcing can be an efficient, cost-effective way to run your inbound and outbound contact center. If you are a service industry, it is a great way to put your resources into your core business and let someone else worry about seven-day, maybe 24-hour coverage. You also might decide to handle calls or contacts during prime business hours and have someone else take your overflow during peak periods and off hours, when you may have difficulty staffing your group.


Once you decide to outsource, how do you find the outsourcing supplier that is right for you? Selecting an outsourcer is not just a matter of picking a name from a telephone book or an association directory. You are selecting someone who in many instances will be the only person-to-person contact your customers have with your business.


In essence, you are hiring a supplier that will act as an extension of your company. Instead of selecting a name from a list, searching for an outsourcer is similar to landing an airplane: You need to circle around your target and get a feel for the land as you get closer to your destination.


Selecting a supplier takes more than knowledge about the contact center industry, though that certainly is a part of it. You also need to examine your own company and clarify what is important to you and your business. Though it may seem like a no-brainer, one of the biggest mistakes many companies make is to seek an outsourcer without really understanding what they want one to do.


There are four steps in the selection process, each designed to filter out outsourcing candidates that would not be a good match. In the spirit of our airplane analogy, we will detail each step in distances, from 25,000 feet (getting started) to landing (making the final cut).


25,000 feet - preliminary research. The first step is interviews - not of suppliers, but of the managers in your own company. These interviews are designed to determine your outsourcing goals and expectations.


What are your company's program needs? What services do you want the supplier to provide: taking incoming calls, making outbound calls, answering e-mails and snail mail, replying to Web inquiries in real time? How much data do the representatives need at their fingertips to work effectively? How long does your average contact take, including customer follow-ups? What kind of technology should the center have, e.g., interactive voice response, monitoring and call logging systems, real-time scheduling systems?


After completing the interviews, construct a generic profile - a description of the perfect supplier, built specifically to your program needs. The best way to hit your target is to know exactly what you want from an outsourcer.


The next step is to educate yourself on the outsourcing market. With your supplier profile in hand, you may search contact and call center industry reports and journals as well as client and industry contacts for service providers that match your needs. The goal is not to find a perfect fit; you just want to determine which providers do not meet your needs.


Again, consultants can do wonders here, because they will not fall into the trap of going for the biggest and brightest companies. While searching industry journals is important, it is too easy to be swayed by the companies that have the biggest and boldest advertisements but may not be the best fit for your needs.


5,000 feet - phone interviews. After assessing your needs, building your idea of the perfect service provider and getting some general information on the outsourcing market, you should have screened out at least 50 percent of potential candidates. In this phase, your job is to look at specific suppliers.


You should have several potential candidates to outsource your work. However, it is not prudent to send requests for proposals at this stage.


Asking suppliers to take the time to respond to an RFP when you are not even sure whether they meet your basic criteria is a good way to waste everyone's time, including yours. No one wants to spend the time or money to fill out an RFP if he is not truly in the running. Remember, every RFP response will take you time to review.


Instead of sending out RFPs, this stage entails telephone interviews with your list of prospective suppliers. The plan is to find out whether these companies are a good fit for your business. The interviews should take no longer than 20 minutes each and should consist of basic questions, such as: "What industries do you cover? Do you handle inbound calls, outbound calls and other types of contacts?" Once the interviews are completed, compare the companies to see which come closest to matching your profile.


500 feet - RFP. Now it is time to take the narrowed field of candidates and submit an RFP. Here is where you start asking the tough questions.


First of all, while the RFP is commonly known as a forum where suppliers are expected to put their best foot forward, you also should sell your business to them. In an RFP, you ask companies to consider a partnership with you, and you need to explain to them that they will benefit from the relationship, too.


Second, be as specific as possible. Provide your exact situation and ask for a solution. Suppliers should be required to detail their pricing, the locations where they might place your business and why they chose them. It is also not a bad idea to ask what the unemployment rates and general educational levels are at their respective sites (low unemployment means there is a smaller pool from which to hire representatives).


Finally, you should send your RFP electronically and ask companies to respond by filling in the blanks. That way you will have consistency in your responses and it will be much easier to compare them. Be forewarned: Suppliers will want to change your format to fit their standard reply.


In reviewing the RFPs, you should sift out all but two or three of the suppliers who responded. You are now ready for the final screening process.


50 feet - site visit. The final step before choosing a supplier is the site visit, where representatives from your company meet with account management and operations personnel at the candidates' contact centers. During the site visit, conduct interviews at every level - with management, operations and even the representatives.


The purpose of the interviews is twofold. Not only do you review the RFP statements but you also want to get a firsthand feel for its employees, equipment and technology, and you want to determine whether you would be comfortable working with this company. Will your managers get along with its account managers and operations personnel? Do you share the same goals for customer satisfaction? Are you comfortable with the level of training the representatives receive? In many ways, finding a good fit with a service provider is just as important as knowing this provider can handle your needs. After each visit it is important to score each provider component - training, technology and hiring practices, for example - so you can compare apples with apples. Many suppliers bundle common services, but each one includes different components.


Once the site visits have been completed, it is time to make a final choice. This entire process, from interviewing your managers to making a decision, takes at least two to three months, depending on the number of RFPs sent and the number of sites you visit. A consultant can be a big help with pricing negotiations.


The process is not easy, and it will not happen overnight, but with patience, the proper tools and a little help, your business can land a top-flight supplier to represent you.


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