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Outsourcing Is Evolving, Providing Many Options

Contact center outsourcing is not “all-or-nothing;” to succeed, you’ll need to think through the specifics

I am often asked for my thoughts on outsourcing: "How do customers feel about it?" "Which states or regions are best?" "Does outsourcing help an organization succeed—or isolate it from the customer base?" “What are usual cost comparisons?”

The problem is because these questions are so general, the answer’s always going to be: “It depends. Please tell me more.”

There are plenty of success stories. And yes, there have been some well-publicized failures. Many well-known brands who maintain top promoter scores in their sectors outsource some of their service operations, e.g., to help cover surges, hours, languages or channels. This is not an all-or-nothing question. Those who succeed have learned step-by-step, project-by-project, what works and what doesn't, and the approach that’s best for them. (See Dougie Cameron’s article, “The 4 W's of Outsourcing Strategy”)

Outsourcing customer service

The types of contacts being outsourced vary widely and can encompass after-hours or weekends, special promotions, languages, emerging channels (chat, social, mobile), specific customer segments (ranging from new customer welcomes to large corporate accounts), back-office work, and others. In short, the types of work being outsourced suggest specific areas in which individual companies need expertise or resources. An essential key to success, whatever the mix, is for the organization to maintain ownership of the overall customer experience. (As Justin Robbins put it in a Contact Center Insider piece, “When everyone owns the customer experience, no one owns the customer experience.”)

Which brings up another interesting issue, a common misunderstanding. Contact center outsourcing is often compared to trends in manufacturing. But handling customer communications is not the same thing as building shoes or computer circuits. It's not a commodity. Many efforts to simply reduce costs, in the absence of improvements to service, have backfired. The outsourcer becomes an extension of the company’s brand, and it's essential to weigh the impact of outsourcing on the brand and business. Do your homework! For a helpful look at the kinds of issues you’ll want to investigate, see Mike Hasler’s article, “52 Contact Center RFP Questions to Ask Vendors.

Interestingly, a recent ICMI study found that 62% of contact centers are perceived as a cost center by their organization. Believe me; you can keep everything in-house and still not get the cross-functional support and customer focus you need to deliver an exceptional customer experience. Many of these organizations blame service failures on outsourcing partners, then run into the same issues when they pull the work in-house. There’s no substitute for building the right commitment to service, whatever your approach.

Blocking and tackling matters, too. For example, getting operational enablers such as forecasting right can make an enormous difference to success. Andrew O’Brien covers “Three Critical Measurements in the Outsourced Contact Center” in a recent article. As he rightly reminds us, “The more accurate the forecast, the tighter the client and center can plan and schedule the staffing model.”

One of the other areas to be clear on as you think through options is employee classification—e.g., for domestic agents who can be hired as either independent contractors or employees. Jodi Beuder provides an excellent summary of the considerations in her recent article, “Does Employee Classification Matter to Customer Service?” As with so many of these issues, Jodi concludes that there is no one right answer for everybody: “At the end of the day, customers don’t care what type of software you are using, or where your agents are located. What matters most is they feel respected, listened to, and valued for their patronage. It’s up to you to ensure that anyone representing your brand or product is delivering this type of service regardless of their employee classification.” Yep!

Outsourcing will continue to evolve. The global economy, fueled by the rapid proliferation of communications technologies, has created the opportunity for intellectual work to be delivered from anywhere. It would be a mistake to think these trends are only about less expensive sources of labor. Those outsourcers who do more than compete on cost—e.g., they deliver great service that addresses needed gaps, represent the company’s brand well, and capture intelligence that the organization can use to improve products, services, and processes—will likely have a bright future.  

And client companies that explore service improvement, not just cost-cutting, will find outsourcing options that may very well make sense as part of the service mix. No organization can abdicate the responsibility to know and serve customers as they expect and demand or they will pay a hefty price. That requires a thorough and balanced assessment of alternatives on a case-by-case basis. There are many choices in today's world—and with some thoughtful consideration and planning, you will find the approach that’s right for your organization.