Tag Archives: outsourced customer service

3 Steps to Successful Vendor Management

I don’t manage vendors much these days but I know a lot of people who manage client accounts. On what makes for a successful client/vendor relationship (seen from the vendor side), they are unanimous on the following three things:

  1. Keep focussed, make things simple – big organisations are complicated and when internal conflict spills over to the vendor their desire to satisfy amplifies the conflict, making vendor success virtually impossible to achieve. So, simplify without dumbing down, prioritise – be reasonable (but ambitious) and don’t boil the ocean, stretch is good – but don’t break.
  2. Communication – not the contracted, structured, reporting stuff. The sharing type of communication. Tell your vendor what’s going on in the company; how the business is being affected by economic conditions, or competition; changes in management and corporate style; where the business is headed, and how things may shape up in the future. Naturally, you can’t share confidential information but you can speak with a trusted partner, can’t you?
  3. Share something of yourself – what’s your own goal? What are your interests and aspirations? Contracts and statements of work, though very necessary, are like a wall. If the parties stand either side then sharing is like lobbing bricks (or worse) over the top. But if you can open a door and share something then opportunities open up.

It’s in your vendor’s interest to do well for you. Turning in a green scorecard isn’t really it – that’s contract. A good vendor will go beyond the scorecard to find the other stuff that makes you, the vendor manager, shine. There’s nothing dishonest or immoral about this – a good working relationship with trust and understanding works for both parties and incorporates honesty and integrity. I’m not promoting under-the-counter payments or foreign holidays. There’s no place for that today and no need for it.

You’ve probably heard the saying “people buy from people”. I like this phrase because the four words contain so much. The key is relationship. This is supported by the pillars of understanding, trust, confidence and integrity. These stand on the foundation of “people serving people”Relationship Pillars Foundation

TowerGroup Conference – progress in a conservative world?

Banks don’t fare well in the Temkin Group’s recent UK customer experience survey. None are placed in the top 10 and only one makes it into the top 20. In fact, banks haven’t fared well for a while with anyone, being blamed for the last 4+ years crisis around the world and are the kicking boys for every aspect of corporate and personal greed. The media loves having such an easy target to point the public’s attention to.

I attended last week’s London TowerGroup conference (February 8 & 9). This was my first exposure to a banking event. I noticed conflict.

On the one hand, banking is, by breeding, a very conservative sector with structures and processes that remain largely unchanged for decades – perhaps even hundreds of years. Banks, card issuers, and the like, handle your money on your behalf. They bear little or no risk and you pay for their services either through fees (whether you realise it or not) or by allowing them to use your money but not pass on to you the full benefit. It’s quite simple really.

On the other hand, the world is moving much faster than they are. Technology enables instant, long distance, wireless, secure communication and transaction. Bank customers are pretty savvy and aspire to do lots of cool stuff using their mobile phone, mobile internet etc. But few banks are ready yet. Some are progressive, relatively speaking, but trail behind retailers and grocers (who, incidentally, dominate the Temkin rankings table).

Let’s briefly compare the banking and retail/grocery sectors

  • Banking: slow, steady, careful (?), big salaries/bonuses, not trusted/liked by customers, big profits, rarely go out of business (and when they head that way are often bailed out by government)
  • Retail: quick, dynamic, progressive, average salaries/bonuses, lots of loyal customers, low margins, go out of business or are taken over by competitors when they get it wrong

Why is this? What do banks need to do to be loved? Clearly, they need to change. TowerGroup analysts gave superb presentations about trends and the like in the industry but I wonder if focus within the sector is entirely healthy. Comparison with the outside world comes in two flavours:

  1. What are other businesses doing?
  2. What do customers want?

The best banks are showing a more retail/grocer-like face to the customer, and are making better progress as a result. Take a look at the efforts of Co-Operative Bank (#15 in the UK Temkin rankings) and First Direct (a very well regarded UK internet bank). Customers favour them. They clearly didn’t do what the others are doing but have made a difference that customers like.

“We listened to you and…” is quoted a lot by institutions. I say, thanks for the apps, and Saturday opening hours, and clear English T & Cs. But what took you so long? Customers have enjoyed internet shopping and communities, 24×7 opening hours and simple, honest words from retailers for years. Are banks catching up quickly or doing this grudgingly?

My closing comment – I joined one session that looked at Retail Banking in 2020. This was largely a focus on technology-enabled possibilities. Technology is exciting because of what it enables. I know because I provide insight and comment on the sector for my colleagues at SYKES. But I heard no prediction of changing attitudes and practices in the banking sector. This is troubling because without this banks will continue to be trundling behemoths, unloved and untrusted, and playing catchup at the customer’s expense.

PS – I met some really nice, super people and acknowledge their conversations and thoughts

PPS – what do you think?

Technical Support – the Onshore, Nearshore, Offshore Debate

The move offshore to India and other low-cost countries started away back in the late nineties/early 2000’s and heralded an exciting downward shift in the cost of providing support to customers. But has it helped businesses, or hindered them?

For some, it was a brave step – offering 40-60% lower costs, graduate calibre staff, and an unimaginable number of native English-speakers willing to work in a contact centre. For others it turned out to be a step too far – regulatory issues, cultural conflict, and adverse customer feedback. Let’s examine what happened.

  1. There were evidently some questions unasked, or long-term thinking left for later. What happens as demand grows? As competition increased?
  2. Customers began to complain. Strong dialect was typically cited, however, this masked poor business processes, little customer empathy, cultural misalignment and many other fundamental things.
  3. Companies found it very hard to manage remote operations because of legal, commercial and cultural differences.
  4. Having gone straight to the lowest English-speaking labour markets, the evolution of support becomes less clear with many companies examining even lower-cost markets where English is an outcome of the education system rather than culture.
  5. And what about other languages? For some, good shoring options exist – Spanish and French, for example. For others, the options are more difficult to justify.
    Labour Market Forces
    Labour Market Forces

It’s not exactly rocket science to state that you can attract top talent when you offer relatively high salaries and a career in a limited demand market. But when demand grows, economic forces drive higher salaries for the same/similar talent or requires compromise in moving down the pyramid – accepting lower skilled, but more readily available people. This applies to onshore, nearshore (not so far to travel) or offshore locations.

Fast forward to today. Most shoring options are now stable and plentiful. Many of the companies that went offshore have closed or sold their own centres and outsourced customer service and technical support. Why? The business benefitted from outsourcers better placed to manage the workforce, willing to meet service levels and able to cope with rapidly changing local labour market conditions. For technology companies, outsourcing customer contact management became as natural as subcontracting parts production and product assembly. The outsourcer focusses on satisfying one of many business needs.

But there are other factors to consider. Today’s technology consumer doesn’t merit a one-size-fits-all approach to support. Low cost consumer electronics can’t sustain a high cost support model, so self-help, community forums and offshore resource options make sense. High value customers merit more attention because they are repeat buyers, spending more in each transaction. This doesn’t mean that offshore/nearshore = low skills and onshore = high skills. It does mean that what your business needs, and what your customers want, are unique to you.

Few companies have the resources to finely model their customer service operation themselves. At the simple end of the spectrum, it’s about the cost of skills and required effort to manage and maintain. At the other end, many factors such as business growth, economic cycles, talent availabilility, staff development, attrition, technical skills, languages, multiple communication channels, customer sentiment/opinion, and added-value make the model very complex. Multiple shoring options are a few of the gauges and dials an outsourcer has to finely tune to company current and future needs. Even technical support is no longer just that, but an opportunity to establish rapport with the customer to win more or repeat business in a tough market.

And then there’s the political pressure. President Obama’s speech last week referenced the repatriating of US jobs from other regions through tax incentives. Will these be enough to make a difference? Or is the tide turning for technology companies anyway, because of customer preference/pressure?

Where are you in the cycle? Considering offshore or nearshore? Been offshore and considering moving closer to the demand?

Social Customer Service | Need to Scale the Team or Not?

Most company social media (SM) activity is promotional – brand, profile, product, offer. So the majority of available help is focussed in this area. Emerging, though, is the need to engagement with customers in a service and support, not promotional, environment.

In many cases, marketing departments are handling customer enquiries like a discussion, which isn’t good. Or are ignoring them, which is really bad. So, companies need to be customer service consistent at least, and this will soon be joined by the need to scale engagement team because social customer service will grow over time and as channels mature and companies succeed.

Therefore social customer service and support is not the domain of the creative team. If your service/support need is small now, ask yourself the question “will it remain small?”

Answer “yes”, and your design/creative/marketing department, with input from customer service will be fine. Answer “maybe not” or “no” and you could soon find yourself with a collection of small, disparate teams, dedicated by country, language or product line.

Is this a bad thing? For many companies it is because poorly regulated, inconsistent interactions is the least effective way to support customers and, in social channels, carries real risk of embarrassment or adverse (public) reaction.

How can consistency and scale be achieved? By design and deployment of the social service engagement to complement the creative and promotional aspects. This is not a creative agency/department core strength and is, perhaps, the unglamorous face of social media activity.

What’s needed for social programs that are established and need to be brought into alignment, or will scale as milestones are passed, is an approach and structure to provide a platform for the aims and culture of an enterprise social program. I’ve created an image of it here:

Social Team Infographic
Key Features for Establishing and Scaling the Social Support Team

The corporate steps every company should follow are on left side of the image. I may have over-simplified as it’s not my area of expertise, however, companies such as AntsEyeView, Radian6, Lithium and others are well positioned to advise or provide.

On the right I’ve summarized the key team elements. Excluded from this are corporate community management and creative resources because these sit on the left, but day-to-day community management and customer engagement is covered.

Many organisations manage with part-time and small teams working within or side by side with creative and customer service teams but, once your team grows beyond a single location or skillset, or gets to 10 or more people, a lot more structure and focus is needed maintain control and focus on what you doing. This doesn’t diminish the ability to adapt and flex to meet changing needs but does, however, require attention and process to prevent things becoming unwieldy and deliver consistently.

With scale comes the need to specialise. “Super-moderators”, natuarally skilled across the whole environment, are already becoming difficult or expensive to hire. Finding individuals with potential, and developing them through coaching is the way to increase capacity and deliver consistent outcomes.

More to come on related topics in the near future.

Industry certification in Social Media? Not a bad idea, but not necessary in my view

Jeremiah Owyang recently posted on this topic. I agree with what he wrote, but believe that certification is needed to achieve consistency and not expert status. To explain…

Industry-level certification won’t deliver much value in my view, as each company’s need, each program, each project and each channel is different. Additionally, social customer service is not yet established or consistent enough for such certification to be meaningful. Industry certification is like trying to hit a fast-moving target at half a mile with a bow and arrow. Fun setting up but hitting the mark is difficult.

He speaks of experience, which is a vital ingredient, but the demand for talent and experience could well have the same effect that the Y2K issue had on IT sector pay 11 or more years ago. Young, inexperienced people with little more knowledge than a regular IT user were paid a lot of money as companies screamed out for resources to help save them from the meltdown. The current demand is, I confess, a bit different but experience takes time and there isn’t enough time available to allow talent to mature at its own rate.

So, what’s the answer? Well, outsourcing could well be. I have a vested interest which I am happy to declare now. My employer is a contact centre outsourcer, employing around 45,000 people around the globe, and does a ton of recruitment, training and development every week.

Why is this relevant? Well, contact centre outsourcers focus on managing customer interactions and are not burdened with other company stuff such as research and development, marketing, managing channels, and fighting off the client’s competition (though the services delivered are a component in doing this). We focus on the conversation and taking it to the customer’s (and hopefully client’s) desired conclusion. To achieve this, at a cost that the client will pay and to the required standard, we have incredible resources to identify, recruit, train, develop, retain and manage the right talent. People are taken from little or no knowledge to “capable” in just a few weeks and continue to develop with regular coaching.

We do this on a huge scale for regular voice, email and chat programs, and on a smaller scale for social programs. Even though smaller, we still have more people engaged in social customer service and support than many specialist companies employ.

The result is that every client program has social-certified agents. No need to adopt someone else’s standards, or create from scratch. As every program is different, a key element is customising to satisfy the unique needs while leveraging experience from elsewhere. Success is achieved without running the risks brought about by limited capability and exposure. This way, no one goes online without achieving the agreed basic standard and what they are allowed to do is determined by their level of experience and achievement.

Why would a company develop their own program when they can leverage the experience and best practices of others? Which is better?

I’ll post again with more details on this topic over the next few days.

The impact of customer service in social media is a rounding error, Customer Response Summit 3

I attended CRS3 (Scottsdale, AZ) last month as a sponsor and speaker, and was impressed by the very open way in which delegates discussed their drive to improve their understanding of customer service in social media, and the ways they’re establishing and improving their existing activities.

For me, There were two standout presentations. I’ve added a few sentences to summarise the highpoints:

Jeff Russakow of Yahoo started proceedings. “Looking ahead,” he says, “the current is not sustainable in the future. The proliferation of devices with all the associated interoperability and configuration issues, and the much narrower margins achieved by companies, are a good indicator that the cost of supporting a customer has to change.” Clearly Jeff says this from his own perspective, however, the writing is on the wall for all businesses as consumer expectations shift and cost pressures build. So what does the future look like? Most likely customers will be given much better self-help and peer-help options such as online knowledge and community forums. Additionally, companies must do more to prevent the customer from needing help. Jeff called this “Tier -1”.

By building more features into products, companies increase their complexity. This increases the gap between what a product can do and the user’s ability. Much complexity needs to be hidden away and, as pioneered by Apple, the user interface will be simpler with individual applications designed around a task rather than a range of tasks. Similarly, the shift towards the cloud (and (applications installed there) will result in fewer installation help calls (because installation is replaced with configuration). As this type of call accounts for around 25% of help requests the impact is significant. I’m indebted to Jeff for his insights.

Carol Borghesi of Telus followed with a challenge to the claimed importance of social media, stating that “the impact of social media on customer service costs is so far a ’rounding error”. Additonally, “the future must be established by companies delivering against expectations they set with customers”.

 Carol also shared the following phrase “customer service is the drip tray of the organisation”. This resonated with me. The vast majority of customer interactions are necessitated by something that happened outside of the customer’s expectation. Whether this be a software installation that failed, or a credit card statement showing items you didn’t buy, or an abnormally high mobile telephone bill, the customer’s need to interact is not always as they wish.

Then, of course, it can get worse when the customer calls to make a change to an arrangement and has to get in touch again because the transaction was not carried out as agreed. Imagine the impact if a company always did what it said it would – the cost of customer support would reduce dramatically, customers would be happier, and margins would be healthier and customers happier.

Customer preference is important in the choice of communication channel, and this is where social media has a part to play. Before social networks, Twitter, community forums and chat came along the customer was able only to have a conversation or correspond by telephone or e-mail or in writing. The proliferation of online channels has opened up wonderful possibilities for the consumer but created a nightmare for the organisation. The best companies are those that are thoughtful about the customer’s preference and manage and meet customer expectations. These are the companies that will succeed!

There were a number of other thought-provoking what helpful presentations made. Full details will be available on the CRS three website. I met a lot of very good people this week and wish them all success on their journey in social media and improving the customer experience. The conference was held at the Western Kiel and resort and spa in Scottsdale which is a lovely location, and provided the perfect atmosphere is delegates sought to learn and contribute and improve.

Get Started with Your Online Support Community in Four Steps | A How-To Guide

Establishing your own website community may seem like a big undertaking, but following a few simple steps will make this a success.

1. Be objective – decide why you want your own online support community (OSC). Typically there are two goals associated with this

a. Reach a new audience – people who would be reluctant to contact you through traditional channels, or savvy users who have no need to contact your company themselves but will share their knowledge to help others

b. Cut support costs – by leveraging the altruism of community members, the majority of questions asked are answered for free

Unlike social network communities, OSC are designed to help customers rather than promote products or influence consumer decisions. But the positive impact on your brand through the relationships built with fans or followers is clear.

2. Plan for success – ensure the following elements are in place

a. Time – establishing a healthy community can take as much as 12 to 18 months, so relying on a pilot to gauge success is inadvisable. Start small and simple, and build out from a single forum or category to cover your entire product range at a pace that feels right, and as milestones in community participation are reached

b. Platform – the choice of software available to host your own community is immense, ranging from free open source applications to SaaS available for monthly subscription. When choosing, plan ahead to take account of future capacity and capability needs.

c. Performance – people ask questions because they want answers. Unanswered questions either disappoint users or drive a call to your company, or both. So decide how long to give the community to provide an answer, and how long the enquirer needs to wait. Twenty-four hours is a good guide.

d. Resources – your community manager will ensure that day to day issues are addressed and that the plan is adhered to. Your community, like a garden, needs to be tended. A team, starting small, of moderators, responders and analysts will do this (see #3 below).

e. Promotion – search engines love regularly changing content so healthy community participation will increase visitor traffic and enhance the value of your web presence. Positioning your community in an easily found place on your website will achieve the best results. If it is key for your customers to find your online resources before they contact your company by phone or email, then make it easy to do this.

3. Community team – a popular misconception is that no community maintenance is needed, that it will be self sufficient. This is not so. In a well kept garden, the flowerbeds need to be weeded, the lawn cut, and fertiliser applied to everything. Having paid a landscaper to create a beautiful garden, no conscientious owner would stand back and admire the view as nature takes its course and it becomes a jungle. Your community is like a garden and needs regular attention to be at its best.

The great thing about your own OSC is that it is what you make it. Most community members contribute to the environment through their participation, however, like a garden where weeds get in bad contributions need to be founded and removed to maintain beauty and value.

Similarly, really good content is provided by community members for the good of all. This can be gathered and repurposed, For the benefit of all and as a compliment to the provider.

4. Patient approach – communities rely on people, and in the right environment people will give. There comes a tipping point where the community has sufficient mass and participation to accelerate and deliver the value planned. Watch your garden grow.

Customers value the convenience of online resources to answer simple “how do I?” questions. OSC provides a new kind of interaction, satisfying these and perhaps more complex questions and being an outlet for contributors who want to help others. As part of a multichannel support model, OSC adds immense value for both businesses and their customers.