• June 1, 2006
  • By Coreen Bailor, (former) Associate Editor, CRM Magazine

7 Strategies for Partnering With Outsourcers

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Contact center outsourcing at first glance does not set the stage for delivering a seamless customer service experience. At its base, the relationship often forces companies to weaken, not strengthen, direct interactions with their customers. But bringing an outsourcing vendor into your service blueprint doesn't have to mean the business's slip will show. Instead, the vendor should represent an extension of the company, rather than a separate entity. Fashioning that seamlessness, however, can be tricky. Following are seven process-focused strategies to help ensure that the outsourcing partner is an extension of your business. Give the Outsourcer a Crash Course Reps are only as good as the knowledge they have about the product or service they're supporting. "You could have terrific technology infrastructure to link the two organizations, but if you haven't taken care of training, then you could have great infrastructure and a poor result from the outsourcing relationship," says Tom Sweeny, a principal at ServiceXRG, which specializes in helping companies develop and execute service and support strategies. The responsibility for training the agents on contact center skills falls on the shoulders of the outsourcing provider. But you know your organization best: Product, culture, and overall company training should lie with the customer organization. And remember to provide the outsourcer any information (i.e., clothing, videos, product) to help agents represent your brand. Consider TeleTech's approach for a hospitality client. "We actually have our agents go to the trade shows and work the booths," says Greg Hopkins, executive vice president of global accounts. This allows agents "to get better visibility into the corporation and the culture, and that's all brought back into learning." Sally Hurley, COO and cofounder of VIPdesk, a provider of home-based customer care agents, recounts an example of an experience with an automaker to impart the manufacturer's brand and ideals on the support staff. The company gave VIPdesk videos, its mission statement, and company vision. VIPdesk then incorporated these materials into its training. "We even went so far as to have the managers for the team go to a plant and go through a tour, understand how they make the cars, understand their brand down to the factory floor. Then that team turned around and instilled the pride, brand, and values within the team that's actually handling the calls," Hurley says. Although "it's not feasible in a lot of cases for a lot of people" to see how a product is manufactured, Peter Ryan, an outsourcing and offshoring analyst at Datamonitor, says "they have to have an idea about what's under the hood of a product or service." One way to do this is to have agents use the product they're supporting, which helps deliver a more personal service experience. "Being able to read on a piece of paper and then regurgitate the information, anyone can do that," says Brent Davis, director of call center services at The Jay Group. "But having the person tell a story behind their experience with the product--that allows them to take ownership, explain their situation and what they did, and create empathy while solving the person's problem." Keep Communication Lines Open
As with any business partnership unexpected challenges and changes may arise. To stay on track, frequent communication and periodic site visits from day one will keep the organization up to date on the health of the initiative. "Unfortunately projects get launched and everybody gives it a lot of attention, and then it's just up and running," says Christa Heibel, president and founder of CH Consulting, whose focus includes teleservices, sales, and marketing. "But people need to have an ability to periodically examine if the goals of [their] organization changed. And if they have, or if the direction needs to change, is the project moving with that?" McKesson Health Solutions, a division of Fortune 15 healthcare services and IT company McKesson Corp., has one of its employees conduct a biweekly telephone call with home-based agent provider Working Solutions. Based on its experience with Working Solutions, McKesson launched its own home-based program focused on its clinical staff, according to Mike Modiz, vice president of strategic projects and operations at McKesson Health Solutions. It relies on Working Solutions to provide outbound support for peaks in workload that accompany the launch of large programs and/or special projects. The biweekly interaction allows both organizations an opportunity to go over projects and to identify potential coaching opportunities for agents. "It gives us a defined channel for some of the communication between the two organizations," Modiz says. "It gives Working Solutions' people an opportunity to come to us with ideas and opportunities as well." Understand Needs and Expectations One important tenet of providing a seamless service experience is to establish what your current service levels are, what you'd like them to be, and relay these expectations to the outsourcing partner. "We really work with clients to identify what we do at the point of execution," says Bruce Dawson, senior vice president of global accounts at TeleTech. When creating the early strategy plans, Dawson's team asks, "Does that map to the enterprise goals?" He adds, "It gets us away from customer care as a pure cost, but really as a value-added extension of what the business is trying to accomplish in total." If each side understands the other's needs and expectations, companies will minimize misunderstandings and create a more trusting and successful relationship. "As long as both sides are honest you can work to a budget, you can work to a benchmark, you can work to a culture, you can work to a customer experience," Davis says. Along with goal alignment, select an outsourcing partner whose corporate culture and work ethic align with yours. "If you're a very detailed company you don't want to pick a vendor that concentrates just on the big picture," says Donna Fluss, principal at DMG Consulting. Break Out the Measuring Tape Although the decision has been made to farm out a customer service function, this process still involves your customers. Maintain a balanced scorecard to measure the outsourcing provider against contractual KPIs that you deem important. "If the contract will only hit on one or two points, it's really not a balanced scorecard," says Rob Duncan, vice president of customer care for Capgemini. "What gets lost are the ones you don't immediately see as an impact to the financials, but they have a big impact on the customer experience." Dennis Gonier, CEO of TARP Worldwide, a customer experience research and services firm, recommends that organizations measure outsourcers against specific, realistic targets that change no more than once every year. Measurement, however, should be both operational and customer experience based, according to Gonier. But targets, should be limited to no more than 10 key variables, he says. "Don't freak out about early performance and don't jerk the outsourcer around with the latest corporate fire drill over one of the metrics. Steady leadership and accountability using methodical tracking is essential." Gonier cites a few examples: attitudinal measures of satisfaction, first-call resolution, and internal transfer rate, which is the rate at which your customers are being handed off to someone else (generally a dissatisfying experience). Assign Equal Authority Most customers would agree that the worst service experience is one that ends without a resolution. Lack of partner empowerment is often the cause here. "Many times the company who decides to outsource regards the outsourced relationship almost as a second-class citizen," Duncan says. Customers "don't have a problem waiting to be answered by an agent if it's not too long. What they do have a problem with is once they get to an agent, being bounced around from agent to agent or queue to queue or even told to call another queue because that person cannot resolve the problem. The client must empower the outsourcer and give them the same ability that the internal center has." Say a customer calls her credit card provider's service department to report a mistake on her balance or dispute a late fee. In some cases, outsourced agents have the authority to waive a late fee associated with the account. But, "typically, the outsourced party has less autonomy to handle those exceptions," Sweeny says. So, avoid adding to customer frustration by implementing consistent service policies across centers. "If a provider allows its agents in the [New York] call center to do it, they've got to make sure that anyone who handles the phone on behalf [of the organization] has the same authority." Trust Thy Partner Trust: It's an essential component of building a successful connection. Companies should trust their outsourcing partner with access to critical timely and accurate data. "The more access that you give your outsourcer to your data, the more successful they will be," says Gary Pudles, president and CEO of The AnswerNet Network, a supplier of outsourced contact center services. "The most successful relationships that we have come from clients who give our agents the same access they give their own." A lack of timely and accurate data can translate into a customer service nightmare, Davis says. For example, "If a customer is calling to order a product, best-case scenario is that the CSR can see how much of that item [is available]." But if certain elements haven't been communicated, such as when information is updated, there may not be any more of that item. So, establish the communication of data back and forth between the client and the outsourcer. This, according to Davis, is a critical piece to delivering a good customer experience. "[Some businesses] only give the minimal amount of information required to the vendor about the specific project," Heibel says. "A vendor can act much more as a partner to your business and an extension of your internal team when they have a better, clearer understanding of the big picture." Capture Customer Feedback Agents' interactions with customers can equate to tons of valuable information. But if that information isn't filtered back to the organization itself, much of its value goes untapped. To avoid this, provide a platform for the open exchange of ideas, says Mehmet Tokmakci, vice president of professional services at Convergys. "The people who are talking to the customers are exposed to why the customers are calling. There needs to be a process to capture those ideas and communicate them back to the business, and the company should be in a position or willing to take action on those." "As we move forward out of the postrecession mindset, it's going to be crucial for investors and outsourcers to really focus on that seamless experience," Ryan says. They must "try to ensure that the outsourced portion is really part of the value proposition because if it's not, if it's just a front end to handle calls, nobody's going to win." Contact Associate Editor Coreen Bailor at cbailor@destinationCRM.com
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