By Peter Lyle DeHaan, PhD
There are many good things happening in the call center industry. Millions of people are employed in productive positions that benefit both commerce and the economy. These jobs are desirable nonmanufacturing positions and essentially nonpolluting, making them highly attractive to state and local governments’ job-creation efforts.
Call center agents receive extensive training on customer service skills that are not covered in schools and universities. This expertise is in high demand in virtually all sectors, preparing these people for advancement within their companies or for migration into other industries.
Call center industry associations are proactively and successfully moving forward with certification and self-regulation initiatives, effectively raising standards and improving results. Most importantly, call centers serve all industries by helping them lower customer acquisition costs, increase customer retention, save money in the provision of personal customer service, and increase marketing effectiveness, thus aiding them in becoming more competitive and responsive.
Unfortunately, people outside the industry would never know that. Call centers in general, and outsource call centers specifically, are a much-maligned industry. The media loves reporting on our industry’s small number of failures, oversights, and errors; call center success stories are apparently not newsworthy nor sufficiently entertaining to merit attention. At the same time, our elected officials have found it politically expedient to restrictively regulate us, with reporters delighting in covering said legislation.
Transcending these two dichotomous perspectives is insight into the current state of the call center industry that can be gleaned from a recent study conducted by ContactBabel, called The US Contact Center Operational Review. It is their second edition and was published in late 2008. It is self-proclaimed to be “the largest and most comprehensive study of all aspects of the US contact center industry.”
The 299-page volume includes information on agent considerations, technology concerns, and general call center issues. It addresses various markets, in which the outsourcer vertical is included. An interesting, yet disconcerting, aside is that in their report they opted to use the label “contact center” instead of “call center” to describe our industry. This was not because contact center is a more accurate and inclusive moniker, but because they perceive too many negative connotations with the term call center. Ironically, this same reasoning was used in migrating from the telemarketing designation to call center several years ago.
The most sobering part of the survey was found in the respondents’ views of outsourcers. Five statements were presented to the participants, to which they responded with agreement, disagreement, or neutrality. These addressed outsourcer value, experience, visibility and information, offshoring, and comparability, as follows:
Value: The first statement considered was, “Outsourcers give good value for money.” Only about a quarter agreed with this assertion, and over half were neutral. (The figures were: 26 percent agreed, 52 percent were neutral, and 22 percent disagreed.)
Clearly, there is a deficiency, either real or perceived, in the economic utility of call center outsourcer services. In areas where value is in fact lacking, it can be improved though lower prices (not a recommended solution) or an increased quality of transactions and reporting. If doubts about call center value are merely perceived but not substantive, then efforts need to be undertaken to more effectively communicate overall competence and the resulting value via an intentional and ongoing campaign. Just as marketing initiatives are used to gain new clients, this same mindset needs to be applied to retain existing ones.
Positive Experience: The next statement considered was, “Our experience with outsourcing has been very positive.” About one in five concurred, and again over half were neutral, with more reacting negatively than positively. (The figures were: 19 percent agreed, 58 percent were neutral, and 23 percent disagreed.) Although experience tracks with value, the decrease in positive responses suggests that some of the respondents who acknowledge value nonetheless do not enjoy a positive experience. This exemplifies the old adage of winning the battle but losing the war.
Experience is challenging to accurately quantify. Therefore, it is reasonable to assume that this is largely a perceptual issue. There are two areas to address in this consideration. The first consists of interactions between the outsourcers and their clients. This includes: 1) billing accuracy, errors, and corrections; 2) accessibility and usability of reports and data collected; 3) infrastructure reliability; and 4) customer service interactions. Each of these items must be reviewed and assessed so that client angst can be minimized. The other area relates to a call center’s clients’ customers. Are they complaining about the call center to their clients? Do they need to make additional contacts with the center’s clients to fully resolve a situation that the call center could have handled more effectively? Are there times when the call center seemingly causes their clients more work than they save? These are important questions to ask and critical areas to improve.
Visibility and Info: Next was, “Outsourcers do not provide the visibility or information that we would like.” This is a negatively worded statement and includes two variables, so it is difficult to interpret. However, 60 percent concurred that visibility or information was lacking. (The figures were: 60 percent agreed, 22 percent were neutral, and 19 percent disagreed.)
The information issues likely relates to the availability, accessibility, usability, and accuracy of what a call center provides to its clients. This applies to both contact records and general reporting. Visibility may relate to the call center’s management structure and organization. Quite simply, who do the call center’s clients contact for information or assistance? In this regard, call center outsourcers are advised to appoint a single client contact who will be a specific point of access for all customer interactions and queries.
Offshoring: Although the previous statements dealt with all forms of call center outsourcing (onshore, offshore, and blended), this statement deals only with the offshore segment. It reads, “Our company is very receptive to offshoring customer contact.” Over two-thirds reacted negatively to this assertion. (The figures were: 18 percent agreed, 11 percent were neutral, and 71 percent disagreed).
Clearly, this signals significant concern for offshore outsourcers. This can be mitigated by establishing onshore contacts and even onshore agents for call escalation.
Comparability: Last was another contrary statement, “Outsourcing does not provide the same service as in-house operations.” Only a small number took exception to this assertion, while a whopping three-fourths agreed. (The figures were: 75 percent agreed, 21 percent were neutral, and 4 percent disagreed.) Clearly, there is the perception that in-house call center activity is deemed superior to outsourcer work. Although there is an expected natural tendency to judge one’s own company superior to a vendor, that fact does not provide an excuse to ignore this alarming result.
Addressing the first three items of value, positive experience, and visibility/info will go a long way to combat this comparability concern. Additionally, increased interaction between outsourcer and clients will serve to minimize perceived differences. Whenever it is feasible, outsourcer staff should periodically visit clients to gain knowledge and insights that can help the outsourcer perform better. Conversely, client staff can be invited to spend time in the outsource call center. This will increase understanding, improve empathy towards the outsourcer, and provide valuable information that can be used to mitigate the comparability issue.
In all cases, these initiatives should be implemented now and continued indefinitely, not hastily constructed when a major problem erupts or a contract renewal or continuance is in jeopardy.
Taking these actions is well worth the effort because there are many good things happening in the call center industry today. Remind yourself that millions are employed in desirable, eco-friendly positions; they are being trained for critical customer service roles and provide much-needed services to all sectors of our economy, thereby facilitating recession-busting commerce on multiple fronts. As call center practitioners, we must continue to move our industry forward; we are compelled to do nothing less.