Has anyone else noticed how fragile call center outsourcing is? Outsourcers are at the mercy of a customer base that demands the highest levels of technology and who insists that outsourcers provide and integrate incredibly sophisticated off-premise technology into existing systems.
On top of that, outsourcers perform a service that, to most of their clients, is a luxury — during bad times it will be scaled back to cut costs and that, I think, will prove to be price competitive.
Every negative thing that affects call centers hits outsourced centers harder — a shortage of qualified labor, the capital costs of keeping up with demand and new technology, and the capricious introduction of unproven innovations (like Web/call center combinations) which the market calls necessary but are a killer to do properly. Is it any wonder the few outsourcers who are public, and hence report earnings, have a devil of a time making money?
What if you ran a call center and your network carrier offered you the same services — call handling, transaction processing and order fulfillment? What if they offered to consult with you on creating the most efficient center and using the center to support your company's strategic goals? Or offered you the chance to offload some or all of your volume to their centers?
What if you could take it a step further and use the carrier network itself? After all, you may have automatic call distribution (ACD), but they have better ones. That's what the phone networks are made of. What if all the queuing, routing and call processing — in short, every touch of the customer from the first interactive voice response (IVR) to the return fax of an order confirmation — could be handled by AT&T or Ameritech or US West or MCI or even British Telecom? Wouldn't that be at least as attractive a proposition as going through a traditional outsourcer?
Carriers have a powerful incentive to get into this business. First, the expertise is already there. They know how to handle calls and call centers, some of their centers are among the world's busiest. The long distance carriers have long used their own centers as test beds for their new technologies, including some of the enhanced network services that make their entry into the outsourcing field possible.
Secondly, the economics are compelling. Carriers thrive by selling telecom minutes to call centers (to others, too, of course — but 800 number traffic, the bread and butter of call centers, is also a key part of their revenue). Anything they can do to generate more usage of their networks is money in the bank. If they offer a call center an off-premise solution for IVR, for example, or a multi-site option that lets the company hold calls in the network while waiting for an agent to become available, that generates minutes. Maybe they'll craft you a discount that brings your long distance costs closer to zero cents per minute. They'll be able to do this because you're paying for the value-add, the service that happens in their network.
This works best when carriers offer software-based services that don't require them to hire agents. But over time, the carriers will evolve their call center offerings into as close to turnkey call processing as anyone has ever gotten. Already we have seen carriers get into the act as call center consolidators fitting together all the technology pieces under one umbrella purchase.
Come here, the pitch goes, and you can get up and running quickly with a center we will help you build, and you can select from an extensive menu of hardware and software vendors who can supply the applications you want to run; we (the carrier) will certify that everything integrates efficiently, that everything works together, and you can call one number for multi-vendor technical support.
Two of these umbrella offerings were unveiled by Regional Bell operating companies about a year ago; they even included traditional outsourcers as partners in the mix.
But it's clear that the carrier is beginning to take on more of what we traditionally expected an outsourcer to do. The carriers can craft these offerings and push other vendors into working relationships because they are large; they can set standards; and they have a relationship with the call center that runs deeper than that of the traditional outsourcer.
Of course, traditional outsourcers are not going to go away. That carriers are superbly positioned to get into this business does not mean they will do so in any meaningful way. Although carriers have had the means and the opportunity for six or seven years, we are only beginning to have this discussion in the industry. And that shows that the competitive advantage still lies with the traditional outsourcer. Carriers are only now awakening to the possibilities of enhanced services, but they are notoriously bad at crafting products from technologies.
Carriers can be slow, cumbersome — anything but fleet of foot. They can be danced around by clever competitors.
From the call center consumer's point of view, the more choices the better. In the next few years there will probably be a tremendous boom in the kinds of things a call center can outsource to a carrier network. All the automated front-end transactions, especially IVR and routing, will be well handled outside the call center.
I think companies will look to outsourcing as a specialty: If an application has more to do with routing and automated call handling, the carrier will be a better choice. But if it's more agent-based, and involves touchy things like selling or servicing existing customers, a traditional outsourcer will probably get the call.
It's virtually certain that we are in for a few years of amalgamation, where the lines between different types of outsourcing blur. Who will offer Internet-based transactions, for example, or video-enabled call centers? What's certain is that they will all compete to offer a wide variety of new and improved services, and call centers will be better off.
Keith Dawson is a technology writer and editor of Call Center News Service.