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Outsourcing customer service: Double trouble

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10th Apr 2007
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By Louise Druce, staff writer

Translating staff performance and product delivery into good customer service can be difficult enough but if you decide to outsource part of your business, it’s doubly imperative you ensure the disparate parts are talking the same brand language.

Just look at the controversy surrounding offshoring. Norwich Union recently confirmed that 150 call centre jobs were moving from India back to Britain due to "cultural differences" in the handling of home insurance claims.

But even if you look past the language and cultural barriers, as Adrian Garton, HR consultant at Merchant Consulting, emphasises, a badly managed, low cost contact centre that has not made sufficient investment in quality agents and training will probably provide poor customer service wherever in the world it is located.

Merchants is one of the largest contact centre providers and consultants in the UK. It advises businesses to try to match the agent to the customer, something it calls ‘lifestyle competency’. For example, if a company is operating a contact centre which is taking calls relating to the motor industry, it needs to ensure its agents know how to drive. “It may sound incredibly obvious but you would be surprised how many people get the simple things wrong,” says Garton.

“There is certainly a challenge to making sure that a brand is conveyed in the outsourced contact centre setting. One is to make sure clients are prepared to invest in making the process as brand-centric as possible. Investment in brand coaching and brand immersion techniques is essential, as is hands on involvement in the brand coaching experience from the client.

“From a technology point of view, where businesses are using blended combinations of virtual and human agents they need to consider joining up the whole experience so that it is consistent for end users. It does not make sense to work with agents to deliver a brand experience if the automated part of the call does not deliver the same.”

Model behaviour

Philip Cassidy, founder and CEO of gem, also understands the fears and negativity surrounding outsourcing. gem is the largest indigenous contact centre employer in Northern Ireland, providing outsourced call centre services to major brand giants such as Channel 4, Play.com and MSN. But he argues that it is possible to implement a customer service model that delivers brand integrity and cost benefits, as well as transforming the customer experience to drive loyalty.

“The key is to find the balance between quality versus efficiency,” he says. “A major issue within the contact centre industry is that it focuses on cost reduction and traditional performance metrics such as contact handling time, rather than assessing whether the customer is satisfied with the service they have received. If the agent is rushing to complete a customer call within a set timescale, it’s no wonder the customer experience falls woefully short of the brand expectation.”

The model gem employs is split into three main elements: commitment to brand values, recruitment, training and development, and ‘fitting out the home’. The first category deals with understanding the client’s brand from the initial courting period. This involves assessing brand values and alignment, trying out products and support, and organising internal focus groups for staff at all levels.

When recruiting, there are a number of methods to imbue staff with a client’s brand values. Cassidy believes client participation is key and also advocates recruiting staff with a diversity of skills and passions who already have an affinity with the brand.

Ring in the changes

The most fundamental aspect, however, is training and development. Under this umbrella, the gem model recommends looking at how the brand is being communicated, whether written or verbal, visiting the client’s centre, mingling the teams through reciprocal visits by agents to both client and company sites, regular brand refreshers so staff evolve alongside it, and empowering them so the traditional role of agent transcends into that of ‘brand guardian’.

Finally, outsourced contact centres need to create an environment which resonates with the client’s brand, which goes beyond putting a few posters up in the office. Webcams to other facilities, wall boards, screen savers and mouse mats are just some of the everyday office equipment that can be used to reinforce the brand.

Cassidy admits that measuring brand integrity is still a grey area when it comes to judging how successful these programmes have been, but there are a number of tools that can be used to improve this including quality assessments, the mystery shopper, competitive analysis, focus groups and ongoing collaboration.

One of gem’s customers, figleaves.com, was initially cautious about outsourcing its customer contact function due to the risk of diluting a brand it has always been fiercely protective of. However, its director of customer operations, Nigel Richards, is impressed with the level of customer insights the company has now gained – what information is being requested the most, how they are navigating the website, what is required to close sales etc – which will actually drive improvements within the business.

“Delivery of the brand promise relies, in part, on having a deep awareness of the customer’s needs and behaviour. Every interaction allows the customer contact team to develop a unique customer insight, thereby transforming the contact centre into an intelligence hub,” says Cassidy.

“By empowering staff to interact with customers in a less prescriptive way, such as providing guidelines not scripts, they can begin to better understand the customer and champion your brand. This also creates the opportunity for a two-way relationship or conversation in that every interaction also allows the customer to learn more about the client’s company and brand. This is essential for brand integrity.”

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