@mikejulietbravo set me an essay question the other day. Having expressed forthright scepticism about the value of customer service outsourcing, he asked me this:
“How does [outsourcing] work from the point of view of transmitting the ethos of each of your clients to THEIR clients?”
That’s an interesting question, and one that I couldn’t do justice to in tweets. This is my more considered response.
The first thing to say is that sometimes it doesn’t matter. For some clients, brand values aren’t a key concern – that would apply to a lot of public sector outsourcing, for example. In those cases, basic competence and politeness is what’s required, and those can be delivered through relatively straightforward training and quality methods.
But if brand values are important to you, how do you get them across when the people who are speaking to your customers aren’t your employees?
There’s a few basic things that pretty much all clients do to get their values across to outsourced contact centre workers. The most obvious is branding – most outsourced contact centres are festooned with client branding, often far more than you would see in the client’s own buildings (it’s fair to say that this is partly the result of management’s attempts to flatter the client into thinking that we’re “living the brand”).
There’s also usually a part of initial agent training that’s devoted to the client’s brand and values. Quite often this is delivered by the client’s own trainers, which at least ensures that the message isn’t diluted. But as it’s unlikely that more than 25% of trainee agents are awake at any given time, this is of limited value.
For some types of service the client might ask for a script to be used. This gets a bad rep, usually because it’s assumed that it means reading out a lot of verbatim text and not allowing for any real interaction. That’s sometimes true, but it can be as simple as a specific branded salutation, or a list of words to use and words to avoid. The agent is then free to work around this, but the key brand messages are present.
[I remember seeing on TV a while back that First Direct (which isn’t outsourced) agents are trained to use “above-the-line” language, or (in English) positive formulations like “I’d love to” rather than the apparently less helpful “I will” – there’s a review of the program at http://bit.ly/aRTTJ0. But there are less fatuous examples]
Training and scripting is usually backed up by some sort of quality framework (which may or may not involve contractual service levels). A sample of calls for each agent will be reviewed every month against specified criteria, by some combination of local management, the client themselves and (sometimes) an external quality consultant (there might also be mystery shopping exercises). Those criteria often include some measure of adherence to brand guidelines and other client messages, and any agent departing from those requirements can expect to be subject to additional coaching, loss of bonus, and (in the case of serious delinquency) disciplinary action.
The problem with all of these measures is that they attempt to address the question of brand and corporate values directly. If the question is “how do we get the agents to understand our values?” then the obvious answer is “we’ll tell them what they are”.
But that may not be a good idea, not least because a lot of corporate mission statements, while meaningful in terms of the behaviour and goals that they articulate, sound pretty trite (or worse) when you say them out loud. Simply telling agents what they are, and kicking them if they don’t pay attention, won’t get them to really believe in your values or to convey them to customers in every call.
So the best approaches are the ones that don’t dictate and don’t coerce (or at least not as much). The key is to get the outsourced agents to feel like part of the client’s business, even though they’re not your employees.
One retail client that I used to work with always invited our agents to its staff conferences, where they would hear the corporate messages directly and be immersed in the culture for a few days. By overcoming the disconnect between the client’s business and the outsourced call centre, it made it easier for the agents to take on the client’s values.
It also helps if the client stays involved with the contact centre after set up, particularly in relation to employee communication and training. If there’s always a few client representatives around the call centre to provide strategic direction and knowledge support, they’ll be able to foster the appropriate culture and values almost in passing.
Why doesn’t this sort of thing happen more often? One reason is that expanding the audience for staff conferences and putting additional managers into contact centres carries an identifiable cost, whereas it’s more difficult to put a cash value on the benefit of embedding corporate values.
That’s a particular problem where an outsourcing transaction is created and owned by the procurement team rather than the service experts, which is pretty much always. Procurement wants to reduce costs as far as possible, and sees the risk of reductions in service quality and customer satisfaction as something to be mitigated through contractual mechanisms (service levels, liquidated damages and so on). Trouble is, by the time you exercise those mechanisms you’ve already pissed your customers off.
And one more reason why client values aren’t shared by outsourced customer service agents – the outsourcing provider doesn’t want it to happen. After all, we’re the customer service experts, and if the client wanted to have a say in running the service they wouldn’t have outsourced, would they?