By Allen and Pat Kalik,
with Ray Shaw, Judy Wood, and Randy Harmat
Making a big purchase for your call center is never an easy task. There’s the excitement at the prospect of major improvements for your business. There’s the fear that you might make the wrong decision. And, of course, there is the cash you have to front for the purchase. So how can you make purchasing a positive experience? We put our heads together and reflected on our experiences running an outsource call center; we also thought about all the changes in buying behavior we had to make when we changed our business model. Plus, we asked a few friends in the biz to share their thoughts. The main thing we learned is that there are some common best practices that really work. Consider this a collection of lessons learned — the trials and tribulations of purchasing in the call center world.
Plan for Your Trip: You wouldn’t leave your house on a major road trip without a map (okay, maybe you would grab the GPS unit) or an idea of where you were going. You usually have a plan, a well thought-out one at that. Making a major purchasing decision shouldn’t be any different. The first step to navigating the complexities of major purchases and vendor selection is to know where you will end up. Have a plan.
Ask yourself some serious questions. Do you intend to run the call center status quo? Sell it in the near future, expand into new markets, or acquire other call centers? Will you be moving your location in the future, incorporating multiple locations, or networking with another call center operation? Are you looking to expand to new geographic markets via VoIP? How much do you want to spend (really, what’s your absolute threshold)? What will you gain with the purchase? Will you be able to expand market share or serve your current client base more efficiently?
Know how flexible you are willing to be with any of these important questions and how much your purchase will impact (or be impacted by) any of the answers. How important is this decision? Is it worth a lot of due diligence?
Put all your thoughts down on paper and refer back to them throughout the trip. This will help keep you focused on your objectives. Prepare a formal Request for Proposal (RFP) document that can be sent to more than one bidder. This will organize your objectives, core requirements, “nice to haves,” and options into a format that allows you to more easily compare vendor with vendor. If you don’t have an RFP document, ask your vendor to share one with you that you can tweak for your needs.
Recognize that you will go through all the buying stages, so give yourself the time to navigate effectively through them all:
- Discovery – yeah, look at all the things this can do! This fits my needs!
- Evaluating alternatives — oh, but this one fits the best!
- Evaluating risk – but I don’t want to pay too much!
Talk the Talk with Those that Have Driven These Roads Before: Speak to other users about their vendors, the big, little, and medium centers. Probe for answers about not just the good things about the product but what it may be lacking, too. Ask about the vendor’s integrity: does the vendor deliver as promised? How responsive are they? If they had to make the decision all over again, would they make the same selection?
Visit one of the vendor’s client’s sites. One of the best ways to understand how they use the product is to observe firsthand. It might take a few extra minutes for the stop, but you’ll be recharged for the rest of the trip, and you’ll have a renewed sense of direction.
Attend user groups or customer summits for any vendor on your list. This is the most honest and open environment to take the temperature of the user base. Not only will you learn about the product, but you will have numerous informal opportunities to hear what users really think. After all, they know where the traffic backups are and where the road construction is. They’ll have some great tips on how to avoid headaches along the way.
Have an alternate plan for detours along the route. Anticipate the increased cost of doing business both for the short-term during your transition period (including labor costs) and for the long-term (including any new hardware that you’ll need to support your purchase).
The More the Merrier! Get your call center supervisors and managers involved in the decision. No matter how great the product might be, it is a change, and change takes work and causes stress. If the key staff was part of the decision, they will be ready to accept these challenges. And they might just have a few thoughts about the operation that will be a contributing factor to the decision. Make sure all your key stakeholders are engaged and on board; this will make the trip much more peaceful (i.e., maybe it won’t feel so much like the kids are screaming in the back of the minivan).
Ask for Directions: Don’t be afraid to ask for directions as many times as you need to (men, are you listening?). As you progress and learn more about what options are available to you, you might have new questions from one vendor that didn’t come up with a prior one. Don’t be afraid to go back and ask more. The process should be consultative and open. If they aren’t willing to dedicate the time to you now, during the sales process, what does it say for their customer service later?
Make a list of special services and accounts that you provide outside of typical call processing. This could involve IVR, special telephony functions, connecting with databases, information exports, special dispatch instructions, and so forth. Ask your vendor if and how such requests would be handled. Ask them about alternative or creative solutions. Make sure to gain an understanding of their flexibility.
Research Doesn’t Have to Be Done in a Library: Homework stinks, but you sure do learn a lot by doing it. Use all the resources that are available to you to learn about your potential vendors. Visit the vendor’s website. Check out your sales representative on LinkedIn (or, if you want to have some fun, try to find them on Facebook or Twitter!). Check out your vendor’s longevity and financial stability. Don’t be afraid to ask for financials. New vendors come and go every few years and are risky. Make sure your vendor will be there for the long haul – and that they’ll still be around to help you get to your final destination.
There Should Be a Cost Benefit: If it was cheaper and easier to fly instead of drive, would you? Consider all your options. Is there true value in the solution? Don’t forget both the tangible and intangible benefits. Throw a dollar amount at it and weigh that against the cost. Find out what features and capabilities you will have that you don’t have today. Evaluate these from a labor savings point of view, as well as for business growth opportunity. Projecting your growth and expenses might not be an exact science, but it’s certainly worth your educated guess.
Trust Your Gut: If you think the minivan is going to be more comfortable, take the minivan and not the MINI Cooper. Your feeling about the vendor, his or her integrity, and his or her willingness to listen, to be helpful, and to care beyond the business relationship is important — don’t discredit it. You’re not making a one-time purchase; you’re entering into a long-term relationship, and you want it to be a happy one.
[From Connection Magazine – December 2009]