Shared or Dedicated? Questions To Ask When Outsourcing CRM

Your business is thriving, and your products are in high demand. That’s the good news. Now, here’s the bad. Your growing customer base calls day and night, and the six people in the back office responsible for customer service are overwhelmed.

You know your internal team can’t handle the call volume and your customers are unhappy with your service, so you take action. After six months of hard selling, you have finally convinced management to consider outsourcing your customer relationship management program.

One of the most important things to consider is whether you want to use a shared or dedicated outsourced environment to fulfill your CRM needs.

A shared environment is similar to a waiter’s assigned group of tables, but with a twist: Each table has a unique menu and a unique kitchen to cook the food. The waiter must be familiar with several menus — or multiple product lines — and blue-plate specials and kitchen capabilities — or business rules and practices — for each of his or her assigned tables, or clients. In the call center environment, the shared agent usually supports several low-volume client programs that are billed on a per-minute rate for total call handle time, which consists of talk time plus after-call work time. Compared with dedicated programs, shared programs generally are the lower-cost solution because the client pays for the agent’s time only when the agent is actively engaged in that client’s customer contacts — service to customers sitting only at the client’s table.

A dedicated environment is more like the traditional restaurant where waiters are dedicated to serving customers at their assigned tables with one menu and with food prepared by one kitchen. Instead of mastering several menus, the dedicated waiter becomes a product expert with intimate knowledge of the nuances and subtleties of the restaurant’s signature cuisine — one client’s products, business rules and practices. Dedicated programs most often are billed on an hourly rate per agent.

Ask yourself these questions to determine which type of staffing is best for your outsourced CRM program:

Am I looking for a business partner or a low-cost service provider? There is no wrong answer here. A partnership relationship, however, implies a dedicated agent team with in-depth knowledge and proficiency with a host of products and CRM issues just for you and your customers. Again, the cost of dedicated service is usually higher than shared service.

Is competition or confidentiality an issue? Your outsourcer may propose a shared environment that includes client programs of your competitors. The agents will have skill sets and product knowledge appropriate for your industry. Shared agents will be carefully trained not to share information about you or your products with the consumers of other clients, and vice versa. Some companies are OK with this arrangement; you may not be. With dedicated service, your agents will interact with only your customers.

Is my program too small to justify a dedicated team? Perhaps, but consider that most outsourcers offer many services in addition to call handling. They may process mail, fax or e-mail; provide fulfillment; and offer closed-loop lead management or other pre- and post-sales services. You may be able to outsource additional CRM functions, the cost for which may be factored in to dedicated hourly rates to yield more bang for your buck. This economy works in situations in which minimum staffing is required to meet hours of service, even though call/ contact volumes alone do not mandate staff numbers.

Will my specified operating hours influence staffing requirements? Yes, especially for low-volume programs — shared or dedicated. For example, hours of operation, such as 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Friday, may only require four full-time equivalent agents if calls/contacts don’t exceed a certain level. On the other hand, a program operating 12 hours a day, seven days a week with the same volumes may require 10 FTEs.

How much training is required for my program? Your answer is important if you are leaning toward a shared environment. Keep in mind that even though your program may require only four FTE agents, each member of your shared team must be trained to serve your customers. That team could include 20 or more FTE agents. If your training is minimal, scheduling and training costs may not be critical. In-depth training could become an issue when your outsourcer must juggle service and staffing levels for multiple clients to adequately train the entire team for just your program.

How important is quality to my organization? All outsourcers will tell you they work hard to deliver quality service for all of their clients. You should expect quality service, regardless of the staffing environment. Quality, however, naturally improves in the dedicated environment because agents serve only one client’s unique customers. In general, dedicated agents develop greater expertise and knowledge with respect to a single client’s products and customer issues.

Can I really expect lower turnover with a dedicated team? Some outsourcers may say there is no significant difference in turnover between shared and dedicated agents. I have observed that clients who actively support their dedicated programs with focused product training and regular agent interaction experience much lower turnover.

How important are my service level goals? In a shared environment, you will receive the same commitment to meeting stated service levels as is established for all client programs served by the shared team. You may be comfortable with a shared service level, for example, of 70 percent of calls answered in 50 seconds or less. If the group service level is not acceptable, shared is not the way to go.

From time to time, I meet with prospective clients who struggle with the cost of a dedicated team. I remind them that the right outsourcer should be able to deliver CRM solutions as well as their internal staff. The whole point of outsourcing is delegating defined CRM responsibilities to a company whose core competency is CRM so you can devote your time and resources to your core competencies, i.e., making and selling products. While I may sound biased toward dedicated staffing, I do recommend shared programs when appropriate. The final choice is yours. Ask your potential outsourcer to spell out the costs, benefits, risks and rewards of both staffing scenarios, and weigh these factors against your ultimate CRM goals. Do remember that keeping the customers you have through robust and quality-focused CRM may be cheaper in the long run than finding new customers. How you staff your outsourced CRM program may influence its effectiveness in this regard.

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