The outsourcing of customer services has grown at pace in recent years, as more companies recognise the benefits of partnering with external specialists.
According to data from Arvato, UK companies spent £508m on customer services outsourcing in 2017 – up from £449m in 2015. Outsourcing is clearly growing, but you need to know how to pick the right customer services outsourcer and build a successful partnership.
Why are more companies outsourcing?
In a highly competitive, globalised marketplace, many organisations are seeking opportunities to not only bring down costs, but also differentiate their service around quality.
Outsourcing can enable an organisation (particularly a fast-growing one) to focus valuable internal resources on product development and service innovation, while leaving an experienced external partner to take care of high-volume, low-level customer interactions.
It also allows companies to scale their service in line with demand, without having to worry about moving offices, ongoing recruitment, or staff utilisation challenges.
What’s stopping the rest of them?
While the benefits are clear, outsourcing any part of your customer service is often viewed with apprehension – particularly by companies who’ve not outsourced before. Common objections include:
- “No one can understand our product/service like our people do”
- “It doesn’t provide the cost savings we anticipated”
- “Our processes are too complex for an outsourced arrangement”
- “We can’t risk our brand reputation with an ‘outsider’”
- “We’d feel too distant from our customers and day-to-day operations”
- “We never outsource”
On the other side are companies that have outsourced before, but had a bad experience. Inevitably, these can breed a mistrust of all outsourced suppliers.
How to avoid making the wrong decision
If you or your company has experience of unsuccessfully outsourcing customer services functions in the past, you’ll no doubt be aware of the pitfalls to look out for next time around.
And, if this is a new and slightly disconcerting leap into the unknown, you’re probably wondering where to start.
Regardless, the following checklist will highlight some obvious and not-so-obvious considerations that will help you decide whether outsourcing is the right option, and what to look out for when speaking to potential customer service partners.
#1. Define your objectives
This seems like an obvious one, but it’s surprising how many companies define their detailed short and long-term objectives after engaging with us!
While this is often part of the process of assessing the best option, you can save a huge amount of time by encouraging senior teams to get involved in the process to provide clarity around long-term strategic goals.
#2. Set priorities and expectations
Once an outsourced option has been identified as a potential direction, be clear why this is and try to keep this in focus throughout.
For example, if short-term scalability or 24/7 availability is the driving force, it’s likely to come with an appropriate price-tag. If cost savings are the driving force, you may need to concede service features to meet your goals.
You are unlikely to find a premium service that meets all of your needs for a rock-bottom fee.
#3. See the company in action
Would you risk your customers’ brand experience by putting them in the hands of people you had never met?
If you do decide to look at outsourcing options, be sure to go and meet the teams and people who could be looking after your customers. That includes speaking to frontline agents and team leaders, not just management representatives.
Seeing the company in action will give you a good idea of how they will handle your customers, how they support and motivate their employees, how they partner with existing customers and what their company culture is like.
#4. Check agent quality, training and quality monitoring data
Your outsourced partner’s people will be your frontline brand representatives – and perhaps many customers’ most enduring ‘experience’ of your brand.
You should therefore seek qualitative and quantitative data on the quality of their people, and specific information on how this is monitored and maintained. Training structures and processes should also be reviewed as part of this to complete the picture.
#5. Assess their scalability
While your current needs have led you to the point of considering outsourcing, what is the likely shape of your organisation in one, two or five years’ time?
This consideration should also be applied to your outsourced partner. Will they be able to scale their service in line with your growth? What are their long-term growth plans? Is there a large enough talent pool in their local area?
#6. Ask for references
If there is an opportunity to do so, find out how existing clients feel about their relationship with the provider you’re assessing.
Getting references (ones you’ve asked for rather than the ones you’ve been offered, if possible) will allow you to understand how good they are at helping clients solve their customer service challenges. You should also be able to understand the longevity of the provider’s clients – a key indicator of their ability to innovate or adapt to changing needs over time.
#7. Review business continuity and contingency processes
The strength of a company is truly tested during times of crisis. When the company in question is tasked with keeping your customers happy, you will want reassurance that they are equipped to cope with such circumstances.
Request information about a provider’s business continuity and system failure contingencies – but don’t accept a policy, alone, as proof of preparedness. Ask how often contingency plans are tested, and how your customers would be treated in such exceptional circumstances.
#8. Conduct financial due diligence
Again, this is obvious consideration for any organisation with a critical reliance on key suppliers, but it’s one that cannot be underestimated for outsourced customer service functions.
Should your outsourced provider suddenly go out of business, it may take weeks to deploy an alternative solution. Conducting the appropriate due diligence checks at the outset will highlight any major areas for concern quickly.
#9. Look into security, privacy and quality processes
Failure to protect sensitive customer data carries significant financial penalties from card issuers and regulators alike. Beyond the crippling fines that could be imposed, serious breaches can cause untold damage to a company’s brand, and hinder its ability to conduct its core business.
As such, you should interrogate outsourced suppliers’ security, privacy and quality controls with the same diligence as you would do within your own business. Ultimately, a provider’s mistake could not only cripple their organisation, but yours too.
Great brand fit and trust are key to success
The value of outsourcing your customer services should not be understated. The potential benefits can provide tremendous advantages to your organisation from not only a financial perspective, but to your customers as well, who receive dedicated attention from industry specialists.
That being said, sadly there will be bad experiences out there that could damage your trust in outsourcing key parts of your service. But that shouldn’t put outsourcing completely out of your considerations. If you follow the steps outlined above and carry out careful assessment of each potential vendor, you will whittle out those organisations that could be damaging to your brand and find an outsourcer who is right for you.