Outsourcing Can Benefit Customer Service

Many executives resist outsourcing sensitive functions such as inbound telecommunications because they realize a bad customer service experience can cost them business.

This is a legitimate concern. But trying to go it alone on customer service is not practical either economically or functionally, especially with tight labor markets and rapidly advancing technology. Outsourcers and internal service teams can work together seamlessly to provide customers with the highest level of service, even in times of crisis.

After the blizzard of '96 almost brought New England to a halt, many employees at the customer-service center of a major Massachusetts newspaper could not get to work. A skeleton crew staffed the call center, but the phone lines were jammed with callers.

All calls were automatically routed to call-center facilities in Florida, where every workstation was staffed.

The transfer involved much more than flipping a switch. The publishing company had a coveted subscriber base, including busy professionals, captains of industry and heads of state. Handing over these highly valued subscribers to an outside company required trust in the vendor's employees and their ability to be articulate and knowledgeable enough to deliver the quality to which the subscribers were accustomed.

The publisher could maintain customer service despite the blizzard because of its seven-year relationship with an outsourced call center. In 1990, concerned about reliability and backup services, the company had contracted a four-month project with six outsourced call specialists to handle about 5,400 subscriber address-change orders per week. The trial worked well and took pressure off the Massachusetts call center. A permanent relationship was formed.

The publishing company was able to avoid a costly expansion and staffing increase by contracting with the outsourcer. The relationship has evolved to the point that the outsourced call specialists have become virtual employees of the publishing company.

The publisher's customer-relations manager said the outsourcer's staff always keeps her informed about potential problems. “For instance, they'll let us know about weather problems quickly because there is a National Weather Service facility close to the Florida operation,” she said.

“We exchanged home phone numbers, and at times we've called each other in the middle of the night about a problem or opportunity. When someone from our company was scheduled to appear on 'Good Morning America,' we alerted the call center to be prepared to handle additional calls the appearance might generate.”

Each day the publishing company assigns a percentage of calls to the outsourcer. “One of our supervisors deals directly with one of their supervisors and determines maximum call allocations for the day,” the customer-relations manager said.

“We can adjust these every half hour as necessary, depending on call volumes and the number of staff available at each center.”

The publisher designed a training program for the outsourced staff that mirrors the specialized training it provides to its own call-center employees: four weeks of classroom training and four weeks of on-the-job training.

Call specialists from the customer-care facility have also attended training at the publishing company's Fort Lauderdale, FL, offices. There, they view a press run and get an understanding of the publishing process so they can more knowledgeably handle calls, such as a customer reporting that a paper was wrinkled or torn.

When the newspaper launched an online edition, call specialists inside and outside the company were trained to use the site, thus expanding the scope of the relationship.

When the outsourcing arrangement began, the publishing company had to receive subscription orders from the call centers over a single data line. The outsourcer's facilities are now linked directly with the printing plant, creating seamless data entry.

“Our mission is to provide useful, timely and exclusive content whenever, wherever and however customers want to receive it,” said the publisher's call-center manager. “Our outsourcer has a better vantage for determining what the best new technology is.”

Modern call centers also have solved one of the oldest problems about outsourced call volume: remote monitoring.

Listening in directly on customer calls used to be a major undertaking. Publishing company representatives would visit the site quarterly to monitor calls. With remote monitoring technology the company can monitor calls — and the concerns of customers — whenever necessary without travel.

Monica Mehan is president-CEO of AT&T Solutions Customer Care, Jacksonville, FL.

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