Outsourced Telemarketing: Data Collection Best Practices

By Melissa Hinrichs

Capturing data during a telemarketing call seems straightforward, doesn’t it? The telemarketing agent simply types in what the customer says. However, when it comes to analyzing data and running reports from that data, it becomes evident that the more streamlined the data capture process, the better the data is. Here are four basic steps I follow when setting up the data capture process with any new telemarketing program.

1) Understand Client Expectations: The first rule is: Never assume anything. Assumption can be a killer for all parties involved. Make sure you clearly understand what data elements are required by the client. In addition, make sure you clearly understand every data field that will be required, the file layout format requirements, the data capture limitations, and the fields that can be overwritten with updated data during the telephone call.

Set up a meeting with a client or make a phone call to clarify some of these answers if necessary. A client will respect you for caring about their data enough to take the time to ask.

2) Set Up Data Capture: Once you have identified the data capture requirements, make sure you set up your program so you are able to limit any possibilities of mistakes during the data capture process. While this may seem to be a time killer in the beginning, it will save you time in the end. There are many ways to try to limit the possibility of errors. Here are my recommendations:

  • Drop-Down Lists:It’s helpful to limit fields to specific answers, such as yes/no or a list of choices. This enables the telemarketing agent to move through the script more quickly and also helps ensure that the captured data is accurate. One example is providing a drop-down list of relevant or acceptable titles to choose from to prevent getting VP of Sales, Vice President of Sales, Sales VP, or some other combination. Check with your client and create a single list of standard titles.
  • Field Requirements: This can mean many things. For instance, for required fields, make sure the agent must provide an answer in those fields. If it’s a field that should only be a number, restrict it to a numeric field so agents can only enter a number. In addition, if the data field has a length restriction, limit the data capture field length. This will ensure that data isn’t truncated, and it saves valuable time later spent trying to figure out how to fix the data on the back end.
  • Rules: Determine what capitalization rules the data must follow, and then make every field require the proper use of capitalization. It looks sloppy if you have some fields in uppercase, while others are both uppercase and lowercase. Take a close look at all drop-down lists or pre-populated fields to ensure that you’re following consistent capitalization rules.

3) Create Checks and Balances: The program is now up and running and the data is captured. Great! You’ve set up everything so the data should be captured correctly, so go ahead and send the data to your client. Wrong! As much as I wish that all data collection processes resulted in perfect data, there always seems to be occasional errors. As data specialists we must catch those errors before the client catches them for us.

The best thing is to set up a system to double-check the results. This step takes place after the raw data is extracted from the telemarketing database and before we send data to a client. It’s best to do this double-check on a daily basis. If you find an error on day one, you can create a systemic fix that potentially prevents that type of data entry error from occurring again.

Ask the following questions: Are there answers in a field that should be blank? Are there answers missing in fields that should be populated? Are all the required fields completed with the relevant data? Doing a careful double-check on a daily basis helps ensure that data errors are not passed on to a client.

4) Deliver the Data: Bravo! You’re ready to deliver the data your client has been waiting for. There are three key pieces of information when delivering data:

  • Is the file type comma-delimited, tab-delimited, or in Excel?
  • What is the deadline for the data to be submitted?
  • Will the file be submitted via email or SFTP?

When you’re working with a new client, it’s a good idea to find out the answers to these questions before you start the telemarketing program. This helps ensure that you’re not scrambling to access this information at the last minute. In addition (and particularly with more complex data files), it is always a good idea to send a sample data file for the client to approve before sending actual data.

When it comes to the world of data, following these four steps ensures the delivery of good clean data.

Melissa Hinrichs is director of client services for Quality Contact Solutions, an outsourced telemarketing organization. Melissa leads a team that ensures that client data and reports are delivered on time and without errors. With more than twenty years of database management and reporting experience, Melissa loves helping her clients make better business decisions by providing them with relevant data and reports on a daily basis. Reach Melissa at melissa.hinrichs@qualtiycontactsolutiosn.com or 516-656-5125.

[From Connection MagazineJuly/August 2016]

Ten Steps to Finding the Right Car or Outsource Call Center Solution

By Stephen Ferber

Although my wife and I have been in the car-buying market before, this time is different. The car is not for us. It is for our soon to be sixteen-year-old daughter. For the first time, so many new factors have been part of our decision-making process: Buy or lease? New or “pre-owned?” How much to spend? How does cost play into safety concerns? What do we do with the car when she goes to college? Does our thirteen-year-old son acquire primary rights to the keys when he turns sixteen during the middle of our daughter’s freshman year in college? I could go on, but you get the point.

So, after we made our automobile decision, the complex (or dysfunctional) circuits in my brain, no doubt affected by my years in the call center industry, sent the following question to the front of my mind: Can we draw parallels between buying or leasing a car with making an informed decision about picking the right outsource call center solution?

I found an article on Edmunds.com, the self-proclaimed “US Online Resource for Automotive Information.” The article is called “10 Steps to Finding the Right Car for You.” It was comprehensive and well-structured, yet simple as well.

I took Edmunds’s ten steps for acquiring a new car and applied them to selecting the best outsource call center solution. This is not meant to be something formal – just something you can add to your file of call center resources.

There is nothing super-mystical about this. As with most strategic business decisions and transactions, there are three steps to take: 1) sound planning as to what you want to achieve; 2) a well thought-out and implemented process to get there; and 3) trusting your experience, your advisors or teammates, and your gut instincts to make a selection.

Step #1: Consider Your Needs Rather Than Your Wants.

Automobile Needs: How many passengers do you want to carry? What type of driving do you want to do? Is fuel economy a priority? Which is more important, functionality or styling?

Call Center Needs: How many call center agents do you currently need? How many do you anticipate needing at any seasonal or other peak periods? What about permanent ramping down the road? Do you require customer service, technical support, sales, inbound, outbound, back-office, social media support, or a combination of capabilities? How important are the economics to you? Can you evaluate your call center options based on a healthy balance between quality and cost? Or is cost the driving factor? How much weight do you assign to operational processes, company culture, results, and management versus the beauty of the building, furniture, flooring, layout, overall appearance of the facility, and desirability of the geographical destination?

Step #2: How Much Can You Afford?

Automobile: What is your budget?

Call Center: What is your budget?

Step #3: Should You Lease or Own?

Automobile Lease Pros: You can drive a more expensive car for less money. You can drive a new car every few years. There are no trade-in hassles at the end of the lease.

Call Center Outsourcing Pros: You can save capital expenditures, not carry fixed costs, and avoid underutilization of resources. Your outsourced provider is responsible for hiring, training and management, facility and technology maintenance, and upgrades. At the end of your outsourcing agreement, you do not have any hard assets to sell or try to re-allocate.

Automobile Ownership Pros: There are no mileage penalties for increased driving. In the long term, your car expenses will be lower. You have the right to modify your car to your tastes.

Call Center Ownership Pros: To the extent your available capacity exists, you can leverage your fixed costs and investment. If you can run your call center efficiently and at full capacity, in the long term you could save money after covering your initial capital expenditures, continued fixed costs, and ongoing maintenance and upgrade requirements. You have the ability to modify anything you want in the call center to your tastes. Step #4: Have You Considered All of the Costs of Ownership?

Automobile: Depreciation, insurance, maintenance, financing, banking fees, repairs, fuel costs, and more.

Call Center: Capital investment, depreciation, amortization, salaries and wages, benefits, payroll and other taxes, healthcare, utilities, technology licenses, maintenance, fixed costs (selling, general, and administrative costs), disposition costs, and more.

Step #5: Have You Considered Comparable Options?

Automobile: Have you evaluated similar cars in your class (based on your analysis in Steps 1-4)?

Call Center: Have you evaluated call centers with similar capabilities (based on your analysis in Steps 1-4)?

Step #6: Check Availability.

Automobile: What dealers have the car you want in stock?

Call Center: What specific locations, geographies, and call center providers have the capabilities to meet the above conclusions?

Step #7: Schedule a Test Drive (“Kick the Tires”).

Automobile: Take a test drive.

Call Center: Conduct a site a visit and perform due diligence.

Step #8: Take Your Test Drive.

Automobile: Drive it the way you would use the car if you bought it. Spend enough time to look it over. Consider your intuition and follow your instincts.

Call Center: During your site visit, evaluate the call center’s capabilities based on the criteria that motivated you to go there. Consider whether the people who work for and manage the call center operation are people you trust, who are qualified, and who you would enjoy working with each day. Spend enough time at the call center so you can really digest what makes it tick, and see it for what it truly is. Then, consider your intuition and follow your instincts.

Step #9: Make Your Decision.

Automobile: Sleep on it. If you need to, take several steps back and drive more cars. Realize there isn’t one perfect answer. There could be several good choices, and it’s really a matter of individual taste and intuition.

Call Center: Sleep on it, but maybe for more than one night. If you need to, take several steps back in order to determine if there are other call centers you should visit. Realize there isn’t one perfect answer. There could be several good choices, and it’s really a matter of you and your team’s taste and intuition.

Step #10: Complete the Deal.

Automobile: Make sure the agreement for the car you choose matches the deal and specifications; make sure it is the exact car you acquired. Then drive it off the lot.

Call Center: Make sure the agreement reflects what you wanted, contains all the important business terms, and matches the expectations set between the parties. Then begin the implementation.

As for my daughter, we bought her a new four-door Honda Accord.

Stephen Ferber is the managing partner for Golden Gate BPO Solutions.

[From Connection Magazine December 2013]

Corey Kotlarz Opens Outsourcing Advisory Firm

Corey Kotlarz, former vice president of an award winning outsource call center service agency, opened Outsource Consultants, a call center outsourcing brokerage and consulting firm. After nearly twenty years in the call center industry serving as vice president of new business development, Kotlarz has the experience and expertise to launch his own brokerage and consulting firm. He is helping companies save time, find the “best fit” call center, and reduce costs when switching or selecting a new call center outsourcing partner.

“My focus is to clearly understand the key call center outsourcing objectives of my clients and match them with the call center or BPO company that best meets their specific requirements. These requirements could be language, location, industry expertise, price, call type specialization, and many more,” says Kotlarz.

Outsource Consultants works with clients looking to reduce costs, increase ROI, and enhance CSAT scores by using call centers in the United States, near-shore, and offshore markets. Their experience includes working with clients in many industries, of all sizes, from startups and Fortune 500 clients.

For more information visit www.outsource-consultants.com or call Corey Kotlarz at 952-303-2478.

[Posted by Peter DeHaan for Connections Magazine, a contact center publication from Peter DeHaan Publishing Inc.]

Best Practices for Implementing New Programs with an Outsourced Call Center

By Richard Hamilton

The difference between a good program start-up and a poor program start-up is well-executed implementation. There are many variables to an implementation plan, and every call center program is different. What type of communication will take place – inbound calls, outbound calls, emails, IM, or mail? Know the goal of each communication: Is it sales, customer service, lead generation, collections, surveys, or appointment scheduling? Are there any regulations that need to be adhered to? What kind of reporting will be required, and how will it need to be transmitted? What type of technology is necessary and available for the program? How many seats will be required for the campaign?

Even though any two programs can be completely different, each one should follow the same general plan for successful implementation.

Steps to Successful Implementation: The first step is to clearly define and understand the vision for the new program. This means taking the time to speak with the client – whether internal or external – and any other stakeholders. Make sure you are in agreement about how the program will function, when it needs to launch, and the goals associated with it.

With an understanding of the client’s vision, create the plan to achieve that vision. The key to this phase is the internal team used for the project. Stephen Covey aptly noted that the greatest success comes from teams, not individuals. “Dependent people need others to get what they want,” Covey said. “Independent people can get what they want through their own efforts. Interdependent people combine their own efforts with the efforts of others to achieve their greatest success.”

The first step is identifying who needs to be on the program launch team. In addition, consider the following: What types of technology will be used? What reporting demands will there be? Who can best manage the program after the initial implementation? Does anyone within the company have past experience with a similar program? What agent resources will the staff need? Getting the right people involved early and often will lead to a more successful program.

Second, meet with the newly created program launch team and help them understand the client or stakeholder’s vision so that each member can better contribute based on their area of expertise.

Then, as you begin to put the program together, listen carefully to each member’s ideas, thoughts, and concerns. Along with using proven processes, encourage team members to think creatively and suggest new ideas. Each member’s input will help to establish the milestones and the tasks needed to reach those milestones.

Finally, based on the team’s input, create the plan complete with milestones, tasks, and dates to accomplish them. This will help the team understand how their individual tasks tie in with the rest of the team and the project. Set up a timeline to achieve all tasks based on these needs. (However, be aware that the time determined by the client is usually shorter.) Carefully creating the plan is vital to an on-time completion.

The new program plan can be organized in many ways, such as with project management software or a Gantt chart using a spreadsheet. The important thing is that it’s a plan all team members understand and refer to as needed.

Implementation: Once the plan is in place, set up reoccurring team meetings. Communication is the key to a successful program implementation. These meetings will help the team to communicate progress as well as bring up any issues the team needs to be aware of, and solve problems together.

It is important to be flexible and solution-oriented, since a new program will always encounter unforeseen issues and obstacles needing resolution. If timelines slip, be prepared to make adjustments so that the end date is still attainable.

Make sure to spend sufficient time testing the new program. After the team has tested all processes, have other employees – including the agents who will work on the new program – test each process to make sure everything works as planned. It is better to adjust the program during the testing phase when only a few people are involved then after it is launched and an issue affects the success of the whole program.

Before launching the program, take the time to properly train your staff. If management was involved in the creation process, they can be more heavily involved in the training of the agents. Although having agents help with testing is a good way to familiarize them with the program, formal training is still needed. Focus your efforts on those processes that are new to the agents, while briefly reviewing processes they have used before.

Follow Up: After the program launches, there should be a specified timeframe (agreed upon during the planning stage) to continue to monitor the new program to make sure it is running properly. It is important to respond to any issues or concerns the agents or client have as quickly as possible.

During this time, an evaluation should take place, looking at the new program from all areas. Make note of those ideas and concepts that worked well so they can be used on future programs. Don’t forget about the obstacles and issues that came up, and learn from them so they can be avoided or planned for in the future.

Throughout the entire process, make sure to document the processes and procedures associated with the new program. You will want to have everything written down so everyone involved in the new program understands how the program is designed to run most effectively.

Starting a new program can be exciting and stressful at the same time. Strive to strike a balance between following a proven game plan and engaging in innovative thinking. Clearly understanding what your client’s goal is and working hard towards achieving that goal using the steps listed here will lead to a successful new program launch.

Richard Hamilton is director of implementation and team improvement at Quality Contact Solutions.

[From Connection Magazine September 2013]

Lessons Learned in Vendor Selection

By Nathan Teahon

What makes a good call center? A better question might be “What makes a good call center partner?” It’s a good question, and not always a simple one, but it’s one that I ask myself frequently. I work with many different call centers, and I always look for opportunities to test new ones. In my career I have been fortunate that my good experiences with call centers have far outweighed the bad. But there have been bad experiences, and there are definitely lessons to be learned from those incidents.

With every bad experience, do I believe I was working with a sub-par call center? No, definitely not. Sometimes the timing was just off, and not everything gelled the first time around. Sometimes two companies just don’t mesh well with each other for one reason or another. And sometimes (but not often) you come to the realization that you’re working with a sub-par call center, and there’s no nice way to sugarcoat it.

Unfortunately, there’s no exact science to finding the perfect call center partner. However, I hope I can point out some important things to consider if you’re in need of a call center.

David Versus Goliath: Is bigger better? That depends. If you are a company looking for a single call center to staff a 200-seat credit card sales program, then going with a company that has two centers with fifty seats each isn’t going to work for you. But if you’re looking at a program that is going to take ten to twenty seats, is a center that is able to staff that 200-seat credit card sales program the way you want to go? There are other factors, of course, but you have to consider when a company is too big for a campaign.

Is your campaign going to be a small fish in a very big pond? Is it going to be assigned to an account manager that already has too much to handle and will view your new program as more of an annoyance? There is something to be said for the company that wants it more, needs it more, and is hungry for it. A small fish to one company can be a game-changer for another. There is something to be said for that feeling you get when you know the call center management team is going to put everything they have into making your campaign successful.

However, sometimes there has to be a little give-and-take. A ten to twenty-seat campaign might be a small fish in a “Goliath” organization, but rarely does it become a “Goliath” organization without having developed many good processes. Sometimes, those processes can be lacking in the “David” organizations. When your call center manager is also your account manager, supervisor, quality assurance manager, and information technology (IT) person, it becomes challenging. And when you have a non-IT person doing IT functions, that’s when the red flags really start to rise. Most telemarketing campaigns are worthless without having good quality data as part of the campaign deliverables, whatever data that may be.

Of course, these are extremes; there are many companies that are neither David nor Goliath but fit somewhere in the middle. There isn’t a right or wrong answer to the question, but when it comes to size, you need to consider whether the program is going to be meaningful to the call center or not. Is it something they are going to be hungry for, and do they have enough of the proper resources to devote to the program that is going to make it successful?

Location, Location, Location: Does the location of a call center really matter? Just like using local telephone numbers for Caller ID to improve answer rates, having a call center in the right location for a program can be an important part of whether or not a campaign is successful. On the other hand, having a call center in the wrong location can be a recipe for disaster. This particularly applies to offshore call centers. If the majority of agents have a heavy accent of some kind, odds are that your call center is going to be the perfect fit for any program calling into a market that also heavily uses that accent. However, you’re also probably a less likely fit for a campaign that is calling into any other market. Obviously, there is a lot more flexibility when you’re working with accent neutral agents. If you don’t care about your sales rates or the overall customer experience you’ll be delivering but want cheap rates, then take your business offshore and don’t look back.

Supervision: The supervisor position is the most difficult job in the call center industry. Having a bad supervisor can be disastrous. The supervisor is the person who is most responsible for driving performance, constantly pushing, coaching, and motivating. If a supervisor isn’t motivating, he or she is probably bringing the team down. This position is also the most difficult to evaluate if you are not physically in the call center to see the supervisor in action.

Most of the interaction a client has with a call center is with an account manager. There could be some QA interaction in monitoring sessions as well, but probably not much with the frontline supervisor. Because of this, when you personally visit a call center, spending time with the front line supervisor is very important; you will quickly get a sense of whether the team is responding to that supervisor, if they are motivated, if they are focused on the most important areas, and so forth.

The next major question when it comes to call center supervisors is looking at the kind of support that they are being given. A common mistake is that call centers have an incredible supervisor but fail to provide that person with any support. The supervisor and a team of twenty agents are on an island all by themselves. The already difficult position of being a call center supervisor is made even more difficult when support is lacking.

Is there quality assurance staff that is also coaching the team so it doesn’t all fall on the supervisor? If the program is robust, is there a program manager managing the dial strategy, or is that on the supervisor’s plate as well? Does the supervisor have more agents than one person can reasonably manage?

There are no right or wrong answers to these questions. The call center industry is so dynamic that what works for one call center campaign doesn’t necessarily make sense for the next one. One program’s supervisor might be able to handle twenty agents and another possibly only seven – it depends on the program. When evaluating a call center, it’s vital to understand that the supervisor position is a critical role, that the right person is in that position, and that the proper support is being provided.

Approach to QA: Different companies take different approaches in how they handle quality monitoring. I have worked with a number of organizations that have an actual quality department, with a department head and staff that is completely separate from the operations staff. There are certainly advantages to this kind of structure. Such an organization obviously holds quality in high regards, and keeping this kind of department separated from operations ensures an unbiased approach in regards to quality.

Let’s face it, operations people can have absolute regard for quality, but results are their priority. That doesn’t necessarily mean that quality is being sacrificed in order to achieve results, but campaign results are an operations team’s first responsibility. When you have a QA department that is separate from operations, quality is the absolute number one priority, and there is some value in that.

Within a QA department, though, who is giving quality-monitoring feedback to the agents? In a department setting, it is common for that feedback to be passed from QA to the supervisor directly overseeing those agents. One disadvantage of using this process is that the feedback can be diluted or lost in translation.

For the majority of my career, I “grew up” with the model where each call center had a quality assurance manager that was directly tied to operations, and the call center supervisors and QA managers all reported to the call center manager. The advantages of this type of model is that everyone is always completely aligned with expectations, and the harmony between QA and operations is flawless because everyone is working in conjunction with each other, as opposed to departments that are separated.

Both ways have their pros and cons. In the end, when evaluating a call center, you have to make a determination if there is a true commitment to quality assurance and if the process they use works well for them. Citing previous examples, if the person doing quality assurance is also your supervisor, call center manager, and IT person, there may not be a proper commitment to quality. Each company might have a unique philosophy regarding quality assurance; you’ll want to determine if they have a strong commitment to the process and ask if they can demonstrate that it works for them.

Also, when monitoring with a client, who should be leading the session? More specifically, what should the role of an account manager be when monitoring with the client, even in the early stages of a client relationship? Again, different organizations handle this differently, but I do not expect the account manager to be leading quality-monitoring sessions. During the first session with a call center or at a launch of a big program, account managers should be present and add value, but I prefer having a quality assurance manager lead the session. First, I know that the quality assurance manager is the one constantly listening to the program and delivering feedback. I want to be able to have a sense of comfort that the person who is always doing the listening is capable in that role and we can align expectations. When the only person I can monitor with is the account manager, it’s harder to gain a sense of comfort that the actual quality managers are competent in their roles.

My Pet Peeves: When we talk about adding a new vendor, there is one step that we should make prior to actually testing: listening to some of the agents the call center thinks would be a good fit for that campaign. Don’t test a call center without taking this step. It’s one final sanity check before a company starts calling on your behalf.

The last thing I want is to start working with a call center on a campaign and find myself thinking, “The agents really sound terrible,” and “Gee, if I would have just listened to them first, this wouldn’t be such a surprise.” Having this final sanity check eases my mind prior to testing.

When listening to agents, several companies I know, both big and small, haven’t been able to figure out how to have a monitoring session and effectively project the sound through the phone. When this happens, I envision the speakers being positioned carefully around the speakerphone. That’s not a horrible thing, just a little tacky and the sound quality of the session is obviously degraded. As long as I can hear just fine, it’s not a problem, as long as I have confidence that the actual sound quality of the call is good.

Along those same lines, be conscious of the background noise on your calls. No one wants to listen to a monitoring session with Sally and plainly hear the conversation of Bill, who is sitting next to her. If you hear it in monitoring, the customer probably hears it too. And even the most conversational sounding agent has a hard time selling if the customer hears someone in the background saying the same things.

Look for the Good: Good people like working with other good people, and I’ve been fortunate to have the pleasure of working with many good people in many good organizations. Look for call centers that under-promise and over-deliver. Be on the alert for those who are taking on more than they can handle, hoping to figure it out later. All you need is a center that communicates simply and honestly about what they can provide.

Nathan Teahon is director of operations for Quality Contact Solutions.

[From Connection Magazine Jan/Feb 2012]

Offshore Call Center Usage Decreases

The percentage of consumers routed to offshore call centers declined for the second straight year, according to CFI Group’s Call Center Satisfaction Index report.  The study finds that call center satisfaction is 79 out of 100 when the call is handled by U.S.-based agents, but only 58 for offshore agents; in comparison IRS satisfaction is 55.

For many large corporations, the call center agent serves as their customers’ only personal touch point to the company.  “If a customer hangs up mad, it isn’t the agent they are going to blame, it’s the company that put them in that position in order to save a buck by sending their call overseas,” warns Sheri Teodoru, CFI Group’s CEO.

The biggest frustration is the inability to understand the foreign agent on the other end of the call.  This may help account for the fact that U.S. agents are 34% more likely to resolve the problem on the first call than those handled offshore.  In terms of “soft side” skills such as courtesy and showing a genuine interest to resolve the problem, foreign agents perform relatively closely to their U.S. counterparts.

The report is available for download at www.cfigroup.com.

[Posted by Peter DeHaan for Connections Magazine, a contact center publication from Peter DeHaan Publishing Inc.]

The Future of BPO and the Question that Will Determine the Winners

By Dennis J. Adsit

I don’t have a crystal ball, and I don’t know who will be the largest and most wildly profitable Business Process Outsourcer (BPO) in the next five or ten years, but I do know the one question the winner will have answered to get there. Before I tell you, I want to start with a story that captures the current dismal state of the BPO industry.

The Story: A friend of mine, Alan Madison, who used to run customer service for H&R Block, was outsourcing a huge chunk of business. He conducted due diligence with some of the biggest brand names in the BPO industry. During each interview, he said: “I have X million minutes of calls that I have been doing myself with these levels of performance metrics for AHT, C-Sat, Issue Resolution, etc.” Then he asked a simple question, “If I give you this business, what are you going to do to make me better?”

While this is a completely reasonable question, can’t you just see the salesperson fidgeting after it was asked? They were squirming because they had no real answer. In fact, Alan told me each of these leading outsourcing firms – the best of the best – only gave one answer and it was the same for each one. They all said, “Well, we monitor and coach agents.”

Monitor and coach agents? Huh? Alan monitored and coached his agents when he handled all his own calls. Were they saying that their monitoring and coaching procedures were better than Alan’s? Were they trying to argue that their monitoring and coaching process was better than the other outsourcers?

If you have outsourced any of your business, as I have in the past, you know that there is nothing that differentiates the top tier outsourcers from each other. They all have broad geographic footprints. They all hire agents using assessments designed by industrial psychologists. They all have the latest and greatest technology. Moreover, they all, apparently, improve results by monitoring and coaching agents.

The Example: Other industries are not so me-too. There are many companies that make cars, but no one makes cars with as much efficiency and quality as Toyota. As good as Toyota is, they don’t do it all by themselves. They rely heavily on outsourcers who have achieved their own stunning levels of quality and productivity.

The performance of Toyota’s suppliers is no accident. Toyota has completely changed the game for how manufacturers work with suppliers to ensure these kinds of results. Moreover, these changes are coming in the BPO industry.

To better understand the dramatic shift that is coming, let me give you a little of the history on vendor-supplier relationships. As recently as thirty or so years ago, manufacturing in the United States had a brass-knuckles approach to negotiating with suppliers. They would give pieces of the business to multiple vendors and pit them against each other to get the lowest possible price. They had contracts that spelled out every detail of the relationship. When their outsourcers were punch-drunk, they sent procurement in to squeeze out the last drops of margin. Quality and other performance variables often suffered.

Then Toyota changed the game. They didn’t spread their business out; they concentrated it at one or two suppliers. This was a huge windfall of revenue for these suppliers to spread their fixed cost over and to invest against. Moreover, Toyota didn’t squeeze the last drops of profitability out of the vendors. They asked their suppliers to open their books because they wanted to ensure that they were allowing their vendors to make a fair profit. In some cases, they paid them more than they had in the past.

But in exchange for this windfall of revenue and profitability, the bar went up dramatically on expected performance. Smaller, more frequent deliveries, billing changes, higher quality standards, and drastically improved cycle times were now required.

Not only did the bar go up on current period performance, but the expectation was set that quality and productivity would continuously improve: the vendors were expected to experiment and deliver Year-over-Year (YOY) improvements. The gains that the suppliers were required to achieve were shared: Toyota got lower costs; the supplier got higher margins.

The Application: Turning to our own industry, the typical client-outsourcer relationship is closer to the old U.S. manufacturing model than it is to the Toyota model. Clients today typically don’t concentrate the business with one or two outsourcers; they don’t ensure they are making a fair profit; they don’t put people permanently on-site, teaching them better ways to improve results; and they don’t hold them accountable to hit and continuously improve performance measures.

The way Toyota works with their suppliers has been proven to be best practices for achieving YOY improvements, and they are coming soon to a BPO near you. The firms that are going to win and make real money in the new BPO world will be the ones who can demonstrably and continuously improve their clients’ output measures.

By this definition, no one is winning today. Outsourcers, unless they are starting from a terrible place, are not showing dramatic YOY improvements in quality, productivity, and customer satisfaction. No one is delivering YOY improvements, and I can say with absolute confidence that the current “we monitor and coach agents” approach will never deliver the level of improvements that will soon be required.

The way the winning BPOs are going to deliver YOY improvements is the same way the manufacturers did. They are going to move away from managing the worker and focus on managing the process.

This is not a theory. With a single process for the agents to execute, the primary improvement focus is on the process, not on the agent. Any changes that are made instantly improve the performance of all the agents. Through this approach, average handle time and after-call work can be lowered, along with improved compliance and cross-sell, and maintained or increased C-Sat.

An outsourcer armed with a process-centric approach would easily be able to produce continuously improving client outputs. This would enable them to capture new business and, over time, to outperform the other outsourcers the client is using. It would also enable them to increase their margins because the contract would be structured so that any gains the outsourcer achieved would be shared between the client and the outsourcer. This would result in a dramatic increase in both revenue and margins – and isn’t that how we define winning from a shareholder perspective?

Results like this will be almost axiomatic, because the winner will be able to definitively answer the one simple question that no outsourcer can answer today: “What are you going to do to make me better?”

Dennis J. Adsit, PhD, is the VP, business development for KomBea Corporation.

[From Connection Magazine December 2009]

Survey Reveals Shift of Business from Offshore to Domestic Teleservices Firms

Survey results revealed that U.S. companies that outsource teleservices shifted a substantial portion of their business from offshore to domestic providers over the past year.  This move reflects a significant increase in satisfaction with domestic teleservices firms, according to a new survey sponsored by DialAmerica.

In the survey, fielded last month among twenty-seven major U.S. companies that outsource over $300 million in customer acquisition and customer care functions, 44 percent of respondents said they only used domestic teleservices vendors, a jump from 28 percent a year earlier.  Consistent with this shift, respondents that utilized a combination of domestic and international teleservices vendors dropped from 71 percent in 2008 to 48 percent in 2009.

Overall satisfaction with teleservices providers rose year after year. Respondents who said they were “very satisfied” with their most recent teleservices relationship increased from 18 percent in 2008 to 25 percent in 2009. Combining “very satisfied” and “somewhat satisfied” responses revealed an overall improvement in satisfaction from 83 percent in 2008 to 92 percent in 2009.  However, satisfaction with offshore vendors rose more modestly in the ATA survey. “Very satisfied” respondents increased from 6 percent to 12 percent from 2008 to 2009, while “somewhat satisfied” respondents increased from 53 percent to 59 percent.

“Outsourcers increasingly appreciate the value that domestic teleservices vendors can offer.  While satisfaction with offshore outsourcers is also improving, it significantly trails U.S. companies,” said Tim Searcy.

Accompanying the greater satisfaction levels in the survey, respondents indicated they were less likely to change their teleservices vendor relationship in the coming year.  Only 24 percent said they were “very likely” to change, compared with 32 percent in last year’s survey.

Other key findings of the survey include:

  • Fifty-two percent of respondents say they plan to increase their teleservices program next year; 40 percent say they expect to maintain their teleservices program next year.
  • Of those that plan a budget increase, 43 percent say it will be in the 10-20 percent range; 29 percent say their increase will be in the 20-30 percent range.

“It’s gratifying to see growing confidence in domestic teleservices firms,” said Arthur Conway, president and CEO of DialAmerica. “Companies increasingly recognize the importance of industry sector experience, training, security, compliance, and strategic program management when they outsource a business function.”

[From Connection Magazine November 2009]

What Call Center Outsourcers Can Learn from Toyota

By Dennis Adsit

Here’s a challenge: try to be unimpressed about what Toyota has accomplished. From one small California dealership in the late 1950s, Toyota has just surpassed General Motors (GM) as the number one car manufacturer globally. Not only is this a stunning progress in gaining market share, Toyota’s operating margins are three times the industry average. Until the recent market carnage, Toyota’s stock was up over 200 percent since the early 1990s, while Ford and GM’s stocks were down 50 and 75 percent respectively. GM’s stock is now trading at the level it was in the 1950s.

The dissimilar results between the companies are even more stupefying when you realize that every car company in the world has had Toyota’s playbook for two decades. The Toyota Production System is known in every detail. Toyota even runs joint ventures with GM, showing them exactly what they do and how they do it. Despite this, no car company in the world can keep up with them.

What’s the secret?  I can tell you that it’s not the plays they run or the players who run them. Think about it: if an opponent hands you their playbook and they still run you over, can the secret be in the plays?  If their coaches worked shoulder-to-shoulder with your coaches and players, showing you exactly what they do, and still crush you year after year with different players, can the secret be the players?

Yes, Toyota makes good cars. But anyone who has worked in other manufacturing environments and then worked at Toyota quickly realizes that Toyota is doing something way beyond making good cars. They have developed an organizational capability that is continuously learning how to make cars better while continuously teaching every employee how to make cars better.

Cut to the global call center outsourcer and BPO (Business Process Outsourcing) world. There are dozens of global BPOs providing call center services. They are all global. They all have the latest call center technology stacks. They all have hiring processes designed by industrial psychologists. And they are all one-trick ponies when it comes to trying to improve the outputs of their agents: they monitor and coach. In other words, they are all the same.

A friend of mine, Alan Madison, who runs H&R Block’s customer service operations, states unequivocally, “I can safely say it’s a level playing field out there among the top ten BPO companies. Most are executing the same basic blocking and tackling game plan – some better than others – but there isn’t anyone bringing a new game to the field. The objective is to pick a BPO that has a solid blocking and tackling game, because you are definitely not picking a BPO due to its unique capability.”

This isn’t an article about Toyota. My intent is to highlight how a company can separate from the pack and totally dominate. So the real question here is: if an outsourcer actually wanted to develop a source of competitive advantage, how would they do it?  In my view, the success at Toyota suggests an answer.

If an outsourcer wants to pull away and dominate, the answer is not in adding more geographical locations, fine-tuning their technology stacks, adding a new agent selection test, or scheduling more coaching. Instead, they have to build a unique organizational capability that not only handles calls better but continuously improves call handling.

There are technologies available to support this effort. You can now clearly define a call handling process and get the agents to follow it using preprogrammed system actions and prerecorded audio files. Once you have a single process that all agents use, the focus is on continuously improving the process, not trying to improve each agent individually.

To do what Toyota has done, technology is not enough. A BPO must change its culture, teaching the leadership in all its centers how to continuously improve call handling across every call type on every account. This, in part, means restructuring to create a process engineering function that:

  • studies phone calls
  • continuously develops and tests hypotheses for improving those calls
  • rapidly cascades their knowledge across the entire organization

What could be won if an outsourcer developed an organizational capability like this?  To the victor go the spoils. Just compare the portfolio of Toyota’s shareholders to those of GM and Ford.

Dennis Adsit is vice president of business development for KomBea Corporation; he can be reached at dennis.adsit@kombea.com.

[From Connection Magazine November 2009]

Managing Your Customer’s Customer Relationships

By Eric Camulli

As an outsourced call center provider, your client’s customer relationships are in your hands. Providing the highest quality customer interaction is key to maintaining loyalty and repeat business. But when customers hang up the phone because they can’t reach an agent, little cracks begin to form in that relationship.

Will the customer call back? Will they call the competition? If they do call again, will they get through? Will they be angry? Will they create an uncomfortable situation for an unlucky agent? Will they escalate the matter to a supervisor?

This isn’t a crack that can be allowed to spread. Just like a crack in your windshield, it’s a chain reaction that slowly expands and eventually lands you in the shop where you have to rip out and replace the whole thing. To rip out and replace customers is expensive. It makes more sense to retain and reward the customers you have.

What’s wrong with a few abandons? As an outsourcer, each abandoned call translates into an immediate loss of revenue and a potential loss of future revenue for both you and your client. The act of abandoning carries with it the feelings and attitudes a customer has about a company. After waiting on hold for service, a customer is generally angry and frustrated at the inconvenience and may even feel slighted. If you multiply those negative feelings by the thousands of abandons passing through your contact center each day, you’ll have an angry group of customers ready to air their frustrations about your clients for the entire world to hear – and social media outlets like Facebook and Twitter are giving consumers a powerful, unified voice.

Most companies measure abandons in the call center to shed light on how often callers cannot reach an agent or how many callers find the hold time unacceptable. Measurement is an important first step. But understanding how to decrease abandon rates without affecting service in other ways must quickly follow. Unfortunately, many of the techniques used to decrease abandons are ineffective because companies fail to emphasize the underlying cause of abandons: hold time.

Addressing the root cause: Understandably, some clients simply cannot afford to have every call answered in thirty seconds. Additionally, unpredictable spikes in call volume can make it difficult to justify the expense of staffing for peaks. Instead, workforce managers try to do the best they can by modifying agent schedules or adding additional staff. While this can provide temporary results, companies usually find that the time and effort it takes to make continuous staffing changes is not sustainable. Since the outsourcer has no other tool or resource to address the problem, both parties are left with the painful reality that people who call may have to wait — and the cycle of customer dissatisfaction continues.

To truly reduce abandon rates and protect customer loyalty, you must implement a sustainable solution that decreases or eliminates hold time. Unlike the inconsistencies of staffing models and the coldness of a voicemail system, virtual queuing is a technology that provides a warm, interactive experience by allowing callers to virtually remain in line without being placed on hold.

With virtual queuing, a placeholder waits on behalf of the customer in the queue. When the placeholder reaches the top of the queue and is next to be answered by an agent, a callback is automatically placed to the customer. Callers can be called as soon as possible or choose a callback time, allowing them to put the responsibility for a return call back on the company.

The American Postal Workers Union Health Plan prides itself on being a customer-focused organization. But the combination of a growing membership and a new processing system caused unexpected strain on the organization’s contact center and an increase in abandon rates. In just three weeks time, the company was able to implement virtual queuing to address the underlying hold time issues. Within six months, abandon rates dropped by 40 percent.

A 2009 study by the TRIAD Group measured customer attitudes and perceptions about waiting on hold. The study revealed that customers physically waiting on hold perceived five minutes of hold time as unacceptable. Customers waiting in a virtual queue found wait times up to fifteen minutes acceptable. This research demonstrates how the perception of time changes when we, as consumers, are able to hang up the phone and engage in something more productive with our time.

As an outsourcer, you also have a responsibility to manage the hard costs associated with hold time, such as toll costs. AEGON USA’s Annuity Products and Services group has always provided a toll-free number for their customers, but it wasn’t until they implemented virtual queuing that they realized savings on these costs. Because virtual queuing allows customers to hang up, AEGON does not accrue toll charges while customers wait for their return call. Based on the time, location, number of callers using virtual queuing, and amount of hold time eliminated, this can add up to significant savings.

Differentiation for your services: Your clients are looking for outsourcing partners who can help reduce operational expenses while at the same time improve the customer experience. If you don’t provide the differentiation, then you’ve branded yourself as just another outsourcer providing a commodity service that can easily be shopped around to the lowest bidder. By implementing a system that safeguards customer relationships, you not only reduce hold time and abandon rates, but you cut expenses associated with toll costs and show your clients that you have their best interests in mind.

Eric Camulli is the chief technical officer at Virtual Hold Technology.

[From Connection Magazine September 2009]