The Smaller Side of Outsourcing

By Greg Levin

More call centers are turning to outsourcers to “fill in the gaps” by taking on smaller projects. It used to be that the term “outsourcing” elicited fear in the hearts and minds of many in-house call center managers. Managers generally equated outsourcing with an inevitable loss of control and perhaps even employment. But times, and trends, are changing.

Progressive call center professionals are learning that outsourcing customer care doesn’t require an all-or-nothing proposition involving the elimination of their in-house operations. Those who have taken the time to explore the “smaller side” of outsourcing have found that a good service bureau (and today they do exist) can provide valuable extension services that greatly enhance an existing call center, helping it stay ahead of the competition.

It’s no surprise that partial outsourcing is on the upswing. Rapidly growing call volumes as well as an increased customer demand for round-the-clock service and support through a variety of contact channels are placing a lot of pressure on call centers today. Many of these centers, while well run, lack the necessary capital, human resources, or technology to effectively handle the expanding and changing workload. As a result, they are turning to reputable service bureaus that specialize in filling the gaps. In essence, these service bureaus do the “little” things that can help in-house call centers achieve big results.

Still, some call centers remain skeptical about outsourcing even a small portion of their calls because of the negative reputation that several service bureaus have been tagged with. While it’s true that unreliable and dishonest agencies exist, many are worthy of effectively handling a variety of tasks for call center clients, says Donna Fluss, principal of DMG Consulting and a recognized speaker and writer on customer contact issues. “Even though many of the early [service bureaus] tainted market perception, they are not all bad and some are building viable business models. There are many business situations where it’s beneficial [for a call center] to handle a function outside of its primary organization.”

Opportunities for Outsourcing: Many call centers agree with Fluss. Here are some of the most common ways in which they are using service bureaus to expand their customer contact potential:

  • Overflow support: In an ideal world, the call center’s workforce management specialist nails each call volume forecast on the head and schedules just the right number of agents to cost-effectively handle the load. But the reality is that unexpected call spikes often occur, resulting in long hold times that can damage service levels and customer satisfaction. To cleanly overcome these spikes, a number of corporate call centers contract with a service bureau that can effectively handle the overflow. In such partnerships, whenever the number of calls in queue at the in-house center exceed a set threshold, the overflow is seamlessly routed to agents at the service bureau who have been trained on the client’s specific call types. “Outsourced specialists provide an extra service resource on an ad hoc basis for clients whose own call centers are over-stretched,” explains David Bishop, managing director of Kingston incontact – a U.K. based firm that specializes in managing outsourced customer contact solutions. “A specialist overflow service can ease the burden of excessive peaks on call centers by fulfilling a short-term need for extra capacity.”
  • Peak-season assistance: Not all peaks in call volume are short-term. Many call centers have well defined busy seasons where the average number of calls shoots up for weeks or even months. Rather than recruiting, hiring, and training seasonal staff to help handle the influx, a lot of these call centers turn to a reliable service bureau year-in and year-out. Managers who take this approach often report that it is an efficient and affordable way to provide good service during key busy periods. It also eliminates the need to continually lay-off temporary staff, which often has a demoralizing effect on everybody involved.
  • Specific campaigns and promotions: Some call centers create their own peaks by introducing special product or service campaigns that cause call volumes to skyrocket over short periods. The nature of these calls is usually predictable and basic, often requiring an agent to simply take an order from or send an informational brochure to the customer, which means they can be easily handled by competent service bureau staff. Often during such campaigns and promotions, a special toll-free number is used that connects customers directly to the service bureau, without the need for any special routing from the client’s call center.
  • Routine call handling: Calls generated by specific campaigns and promotions aren’t the only basic contact types that call centers outsource. A number of organizations offload the lion’s share of routine calls that their centers receive daily, thus freeing staff to focus on more complex customer transactions and projects. The consensus among these companies is that their in-house agents are too valuable to spend hours a day handling simple requests. Instead, the companies identify such basic call types via front-end IVR voice prompts in the call center, then automatically reroute them to the service bureau with whom they have partnered. (Note: Most call centers that opt for this outsourcing option keep a small percentage of routine calls in-house to help newer agents develop.)
  • After-hours support: Around-the-clock support is fast becoming the norm in customer contact and patient support, as many callers now expect to be able to reach an agent whenever they choose to do so. Some centers, while wanting to answer this call for 24×7 service, find that it simply isn’t economical to remain in operation all day and night. Consequently, after-hours outsourcing has become a very popular customer care solution. Sometimes call centers choose this option initially to test the waters, then, if they see that off-hour call volumes are high, decide to become a 24×7 operation and bring the outsourced calls in-house.
  • Foreign language capabilities: With the ever-increasing cultural diversity of companies’ customer bases, it’s not uncommon for call centers in the United States to receive calls from callers whose first language is something other than English. However, depending on the labor pool in a call center’s region, it may be difficult to find staff with the language capabilities the center requires. Thus, outsourcing foreign language calls has become inevitable for many call centers. The good news is that plenty of today’s service bureaus have made multilingual services a priority. “It’s possible to provide service in a variety of different languages, 24 hours a day,” says Bishop of Kingston incontact, “with each [agent] individually trained to a specific customer’s requirements.” To do this, many service bureaus have set up shop in or near large urban areas with diverse populations, making it easier to create an agent base that can collectively handle calls in anything from Spanish to Mhong. Some larger outsourcing agencies have separate centers in a variety of different countries, which they can access to expand language services for clients. Sitel, for example, is able to handle calls in 25 languages using this approach.
  • Disaster recovery: One day – or even just one hour – of down time for a call center can be devastating in terms of lost revenue or customer trust. While multisite call center operations are often able to overcome a crisis at one center by rerouting calls to the other centers, single-site call centers do not have that luxury. That’s why more and more companies with only one center are including service bureaus in their contingency planning strategies. Managers at these call centers work closely with the service bureau to develop a solid disaster recovery plan and test it thoroughly. They are then able to sit back and rest assured that their center and their customer loyalty will be protected in the event of system failure.
  • E-sourcing services: Most call centers realize that, to remain competitive today, they need to meet online customer and patient demand for dependable Web-based support. The reality, however, is that many centers struggle to successfully handle email and live chat sessions. Either they can’t find enough agents with the skills needed for these contacts, agents have little experience in managing a Web-based environment, or they lack advanced e-support tools. To overcome their shortcomings, a lot of these call centers have teamed up with one of a growing number “e-sourcing” agencies that specialize in handling organizations’ online contacts. These agencies already have trained Net representatives and the latest technology in place, as well as plenty of experience in providing e-support services for a variety of clients. Many traditional service bureaus have added similar services to their list of outsourcing solutions, which means that call centers looking to e-source can shop around quite a bit for a firm that fits.

Looking beyond the Large: Customer care outsourcing is showing no signs of slowing down. According to Framingham, Massachusetts-based research firm International Data Corp. (IDC), the overall worldwide market for call center outsourcing will grow to $51 billion by 2004. While offshore outsourcing and other mammoth projects involving service bureaus may get most of the call center media coverage, for managers in charge of existing in-house operations it’s typically the “little” outsourcing opportunities that mean a lot.

[This article was originally published by ICMI in Call Center Management Review. It is reprinted with permission from ICMI, 410-267-0700.]

Quick Tips for Outsourcing Success

Just because a call center may choose to outsource a select portion of its calls or contacts doesn’t mean that the partnership can be taken lightly. A company’s careful selection of and constant communication with its service bureau are what determine outsourcing success, regardless of the size and scope of the venture, says Kathy Sisk, president of consulting firm Kathy Sisk Enterprises. Here’s a list of specific practices she recommends to help call centers create and maintain an effective outsourcing relationship:

  • Assign project leaders who can head a team, who have initiative, and who have background experience in the project that is being outsourced.
  • Check to make sure the outsourcing agency you’re considering has low turnover. Ask to see their HR reports.
  • Hand-select the people from the service bureau you want to be assigned to your account.
  • Make sure the outsourcer has a proven background. Don’t just rely on their referrals; speak with a few of their current or past clients. Also interview the management staff who will be assigned to your account.
  • Never give your outsourcer full control. Make sure the outsourcer has a method to allow you to assess the operation onsite or remotely.>
  • Stay on top of the project on a daily basis.
  • Include a “way-out” clause in your agreement that will enable you to easily end the partnership if the agency does not meet your expectations.
  • Don’t focus on the cost to outsource as your number one objective. Consider all the other quality assurance factors such as experience, history, and results that make the cost factors more profitable.

[From the Winter 2004 issue of AnswerStat magazine]