Were David Letterman to do a top 10 list of questions call center agents get asked, “Where are you?” would rank high on the list. And he’d only be half joking. Increasingly, customers really do want to know if they’re being served by an offshore provider. “These days, if customers pick up the phone and the agent sounds not quite American, they may get upset,” says Chris Selland, principal analyst at Covington Associates. Dell, for instance, ran into resistance from some customers when it outsourced support calls to India. The company ultimately decided to pull support calls for large enterprise customers back in-house.
Steve Lamberti, associate director of services at Creative Labs, sees the fact that his company keeps all support calls in-house as a source of competitive advantage. By answering its own phones, Creative Labs is in a position to get a good handle on customers’ problems and pick up on ideas to improve its products.
But that’s not to say that outsourcing or offshoring is inherently bad. It really depends on your business goals and the type of call in question. “Some calls are not of any value in terms of building brand,” says Jon Anton, director of benchmark research at Purdue University’s Center for Customer-Driven Quality. If a call is basic and transactional and offers no opportunity to win points with customers, it might make a lot of sense to farm it out to offshore providers, who can handle it more cost-efficiently. Calls to Sprint to activate new cell phone services are an example of what Anton calls a very low relationship-building call.
Of course, as with any outsourcing agreement, you’ve got to carefully select your outsourcing partner, make sure you spell out the details of things like service-level agreements, and proactively manage the relationship. And you have to be extra vigilant about making sure agents are properly trained in how to handle callers and what information to collect, and designing processes for sharing actionable intelligence. “A lot of companies think they can just hand calls over to the outsourcer and it will go fine,” says Brad Cleveland, president and CEO of the Incoming Calls Management Institute. “But that’s not the case. Above all else, you’ve got to do your homework and really be involved in the relationship. It’s not just something you turn over.”