Offshore Versus Onshore Contact Centers

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There is no bigger topic in the customer service market these days than that of outsourcing--more specifically, offshore outsourcing. Walk into any contact center and you'll hear the same fears: Management has mostly let "enlightened" customer service go by the wayside, in favor of simply doing it cheaper. These fears may be based on assumptions that cheap offshore labor equates with low quality. Now put on your customers' shoes for a minute. When you have a service request or problem, do you care if the agent:
  • works for a third-party service provider?
  • is physically seated in an international location?
  • is physically seated at a remote, e.g., home, location?
  • has an accent or an unfamiliar, e.g., foreign, name? The answers that just about any honest customer (including you) will give are no; no; no; and no. Customers care about quality of service and efficiency of service. Period. In other words, offshoring will succeed if it results in a more productive customer service operation. This means higher quality and lower cost. One without the other will not be successful. But both together will continue to succeed. Technology is enabling this success. Moving agents offshore has never been all that difficult. The challenge has been moving the infrastructure--in particular the telephony and IT systems that support the contact center. Today on-demand computing and voice over IP are rapidly making both trivially easy. Within the next 24 to 36 months legacy call centers that are only hanging on because it's too expensive to move the boxes and the telephone lines will no longer have a reason to exist at all. Forward-thinking companies, such as JetBlue, are doing this today. Their call centers aren't centers at all--they're wherever the reps happen to be, and wherever the company wants them to be, whether it's in the sales rep's kitchen or in Bangalore. So does this mean that everything's going offshore? Of course not. Look at the automobile industry as an example. What will happen over time is not mass migration, but equilibrium. Inefficient local companies will shutter some operations, but efficient foreign companies will establish new ones. Some jobs will be lost, but many more will be gained. Smart companies will recognize that the right strategy involves a blending of resources, and that there are big advantages in having the agents situated where they can be supervised, trained, and managed without racking up thousands of frequent flyer miles. Offshoring has advantages and disadvantages. The companies that are most successful in understanding both will achieve maximum benefit. And customers will ultimately be more satisfied as a result, regardless of who is answering the phone and where they happen to be sitting. Chris Selland is vice president of sell-side research at Aberdeen Group. He previously founded Reservoir Partners, a relationship management strategy consultancy, which was merged into Aberdeen Group in March 2004. Contact him at chris.selland@aberdeen.com
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