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]

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