Scratch the old ringy-dingy call center that answers unattended phones. Step up to the 21st-century "contact center" that fully integrates online, mobile and land line communications, whether inbound from customers, outbound from the company or both. How much or how little integration is up to you.
Services can include monitoring and managing email, voice, real-time chat, fax, website orders or queries, IVR (interactive voice response) menus, mobile SMS, call routing, multimedia queuing, automated callbacks and more. That's 24/7, so multimedia orders or complaints after hours are covered, too.
You also have a choice of operations. Some centers house agents all under one roof. Others employ home-based or far-flung agents who remotely log in. Some have only American staff while others work with agents abroad. High-performing centers can be big or small. Some work with land lines and in-house servers. Others rely on VoIP (voice over Internet Protocol) and use cloud-based applications.
The successful new contact centers are righting mistakes of the past. "Their agents are empowered to decide how much time to spend talking to each customer and are taught to personalize each call so customers feel the company is genuinely trying to help them," says sales consultant Ron Volper, author of "Up Your Sales in a Down Market."
To decide if a contact center would add value, weigh advantages and disadvantages for your company's culture, service needs, staff skills and resources. Remember, in order to grow, you'll need to relinquish control to a third party -- not always easy.
Here are other key considerations:
- Take a hard look at your customer experience. Personal attention is always touted as the hallmark of small business, but that could be far from the case.
"Not all business owners are great customer service or sales agents," says Patrick Hall, chief marketing officer of CallCopy, a contact center based in Columbus, Ohio. We've all met the my-way-or-the-highway entrepreneur. If you're better at designing products or analyzing spreadsheets than satisfying customers, a contact center could be just the ticket.
In addition, smaller enterprises, especially growing ones, rarely have trained or dedicated customer service staff. Issues are often fielded by whoever happens to be available, with decidedly mixed results. Salespeople get pulled into troubleshooting when they should be making sales calls. That translates into lost revenue.
Now that centers offer sophisticated service menus, companies have become more willing to outsource, according to Kathie Edwards, owner of Westpark Communications, a Houston contact center. "Not having enough people to continue to grow can hurt you," she says. "Businesses can't do everything, so by outsourcing to specialists they can grow much faster."
- Audition a contact center's performance before signing on. Invest time in listening to agent responses and reviewing services. Call in as a customer of one of their clients and see how your issue is resolved. Test how agents communicate.
Although usually technically proficient, offshore agents may have pronounced accents or language difficulties, says singer-songwriter Dave Carroll, who co-founded online consumer complaint resolution platform Gripevine after an airline broke his guitar. "On the phone, it gives the impression to the customer that if they have to struggle to be understood then their issue will be just as difficult to resolve. It creates frustration," he says. In such cases, customers may walk.
Ask to use the center's client applications software. Check the ease of setup and customization options. See if the real-time reporting provides data you need.
- Calculate real costs and savings. Pricing varies widely at contact centers, based on volume, hours of operation and technical requirements, with the average being perhaps $20 to $35 an hour. For minimal, cloud-based services, it's roughly $150 to $200 per month.
At Westpark, charges for shared agents run $.85 to $1.50 per minute for actual online time. For businesses with complex products, or, say, industries with legal compliance needs, Edwards also offers an option of designated agents trained for your business, priced at $22 to $45 an hour, depending on training needs.
Be clear about what you're paying for, advises Grace Platon, spokesperson for Working Solutions, a Plano, Texas-based contact center. "For example, if the customer service reps are also providing sales, will there be a percentage increase of sales you can expect? Will there be a minimum service level agreement for customer service satisfaction as a metric?"
Most center contracts spell out remedies and penalties if agreed-upon service levels are not met. That might sound like a good guarantee. But remember that bad customer service can kill your business. Lots of givebacks or very low pricing could be a tipoff to look elsewhere.
"The real ROI lies in customer retention, service metrics and customer satisfaction scores," says Platon. "If your customers are happy, they will continue to purchase and they will refer their friends."
- Balance IT with EQ. Caroline Daniels, a business owner and lecturer in entrepreneurship at Babson College, near Boston, urges caution before relying on a contact center. "Customer service provides owners with the knowledge, nuances and preferences that make a customer feel he or she wants to come back," she says.
So if you outsource, find ways to maintain the emotional quotient, or EQ, and stay close to your customers. On the pro side, the more data you have and the better the experience, the more you may attract and retain customers.
As Daniels points out: "Customer service has got to be a balance of high tech and high touch."