Outsourcing: In or Out for Call Center Operations
Charles E. Day CMC, FIMC, President, Charles E. Day & Associates
Direct Marketing News Magazine 
March 2002

Call center outsourcing is now a widely accepted alternative to in-house call centers. Providing sophisticated technology and a wide range of services todayís outsourced bureaus and agencies represent an integral part of many companiesí sales cycles and/or customer-contact loops. But not all call centers are created equal. They vary in many ways including size, applications offered, costs, client servicing, access to information, training provided, quality control and general approach to teleservices projects.

How to Select a Call Center Service Agency

Whether a companyís outsourcing needs are large or small, there are specific approaches to selecting the right agency. Key criteria includes:

  1. Agency size and capability. This measure refers not only to the type of capability and the number of seats, but to actual transaction volumes of inbound and outbound calls. These quantifiers help define the technical and human resource capabilities at hand.

  2. Geographic location. Close geographic proximity to the service bureau may or may not be important. Location tends to be more important with respect to the quality of labor pool, good telecommunications, ease of access by employees, as well as the corporate culture represented by that region of the country.

  3. Site visits. Meet and greet firsthand the Customer Service Representatives (CSRs) and the Telephone Sales Representatives (TSRs) who will represent the company. When the reputation of a company is at stake, itís important to have a firsthand look at the front-liners as well as supervisory and management demeanor in the operating environment. It is equally important to begin building a relationship with support staff and to understand their roles in the overall organization structure.

  4. Database management and reporting. The ability to handle client databases with accuracy and great quality is extremely important. Relational database capabilities and access to legacy host processors remain a high priority. Since data analysis goes beyond capturing and translating reporting function, it is extremely important that an agency demonstrates its technical and support function for managing this valuable resource effectively. This permits the timely decision making required repeatedly during campaign processing.

  5. Technology. Integrated technologies are important, as is the potential to add more sophisticated services and equipment in the future. For inbound, look for: ACD versus PBX modified, skills base routing, interactive voice response capability; for outbound: autodialing and predictive dialing, list management capability; for both: workforce management software, remote and onsite monitoring, interface with client data systems, automated fax, and fax on demand capabilities, Internet access, scripting software, modification tools, disaster recovery and prevention, detail and real time reporting, computer telephone integration, compatible and flexible relational database capabilities, as well as, ability for third party transfer if necessary and multi-media functionality if required. Keep in mind that the use of advanced technologies is an indication of the level of quality and speed in handling business functions. It may also be an indication of TSR/CSR motivation and skill level in handling more advanced and sophisticated work requirements.

  6. Training. Investigate training thoroughly including the type, quantity, frequency and quality of support material. The supervisor to CSR/TSR ratio also weighs heavily with respect to the time allowed during the business process for coaching, monitoring and counseling. It is wise to look for training programs that are campaign-specific and include role-play, voice projection, sales and other types of communication training.

  7. Client services. The ability to produce timely and clear information regarding results of teleservices work is fundamental. A client's involvement in the overall process for monitoring and providing more advanced customer service capability can be an integral part of the overall marketing and sales program.

  8. Management experience and outlook. Managersí experience with respect to customer service, problem resolution skills, human resources management and technology is a good indication of how the teleservices business operates, as well as how a campaign will be conducted. The vision demonstrated in initial interviews and the consistency in management styles across various support functions can be pivotal with respect to a selection decision.

  9. Quality of service. In addition to the onsite observations, it is important to investigate the background and reputation of the agency's relationships with other clients. It is equally important to get a good handle on the internal quality assurance procedures that exist. Watch for the use of real-time and historical reporting to keep tabs on trends with respect to list penetration, the quality of list generated and the numbers of contacts and problems encountered. Request samples of day-to-day and monthly statistics for call lengths, average time on hold, call abandonment, average speed of answer, call handling time, and queue time. Additionally, look for reports that show percent of calls handled correctly on the first time, relative to callbacks, availability of staff for shifts, the average cost per call, as well as the cost per agent and per minute.

  10. Agent satisfaction and compensation. While not typically included on the evaluation list, and sometimes difficult to obtain, it is important to have a good idea of the level of job satisfaction agents describe and how satisfied they are with respect to wages and other compensation programs. Observation of working agents in the call center can be valuable. Listening to agents making and receiving calls may give insight as to how customers are treated. Job satisfaction, or lack of, may be an indication of potential turnover, retraining, motivation and level of eagerness to satisfy a customer. High turnover and constant retraining can lower the skill level and ability of staffers to complete work in a timely and cost effective fashion.

Success Requires Teamwork

Benefits are achieved by managing the relationship. This is done through conscientious call center management, counseling of the operator and overall management of the program with good metrics and quantifiable terms during test and contract periods. Pay Per Performance (PPP) contracts and quality information from projects can lead to better customization of the program characteristic to ensure continued cost effectiveness and, of course, improved customer satisfaction. When the call center can focus on the technology and developing the appropriate procedures and human resource programs, the outsourcer can then better focus on developing more effective marketing campaigns, measuring results and inventing new and more creative ideas for expanding customer services and a company's overall profitability.

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Major Players

The selection of an appropriate teleservices partner is not always based on the size, but may depend on other criteria such as synergy, background and experience with the defined application. Additionally, the best pricing and guarantees of service levels are important. There are several hundred outsourced teleservices, and many can be viewed at www.tmcnet.com and www.callcentermagazine.com. Some of the major players include:



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