A company puts a lot on the line when it hires a contact center outsourcing partner. It’s not a commodity service, where one vendor is as good as any other. A great contact center makes the client look great, and a poor contact center can create a disaster.
“Vendor management” is a poor label
The interactions between an outside contact center and its clients come under the general heading of “vendor management.” In many ways, that’s a poor label. The interplay of vendor and client is really more like a dance, with two partners trying to smoothly execute a lot of intricate steps. It takes a lot of cooperation to make it a satisfying experience for both sides.
“If we would struggle to manage a huge spike in call volume, why would we expect you to just jump up and handle it without issues?” – Jeremy Hyde
The dance gets complicated because contact center partners typically want to have as much autonomy as possible, while the client wants to stay in control. I recently compared perspectives with Jeremy Hyde (@jeremyhyde_), who manages relationship with outside contact centers for UCare health plans. We two have never had a business relationship, but have discovered we think alike on how to make such relationships work.
For example, we know that when there are synergies between the contact center and the vendor manager, the likelihood of success greatly increases.
Why is the Client Outsourcing?
From the client side, a good relationship starts with understanding why it wants to outsource the contact center function in the first place, Hyde says. Both parties need to understand that goal and what it will take to accomplish it. That understanding also has to evolve as circumstances change.
“I’ve seen some situations where the reason a nearshore call center was being utilized started out as one thing, and over many years it morphed into something very different,” Hyde says. Over time, the contact center may be asked to take on tasks that weren’t part of the original agreement. The vendor wants to honor the relationship and tries its best, but that may add more strain than the relationship can handle.
“I don’t think anybody goes into a relationship and says, ‘Man, I hope we really hate each other, and we don’t get along, and we’re constantly fighting.’ Hopefully you had a good statement of work and a good understanding of what your goals were,” Hyde says.
Some of those goals may be financial —the contact center wants to make money, and the client wants to save money —but that may not be the whole story. A contact center may bring services and expertise the client doesn’t have in-house, and it’s worth paying for.
Pleasing the Customer
Both the vendor and the client want to create a good experience for the client’s customers, but they first need to agree on what that successful outcome will look like, and what kind of budget is available to achieve it.
Many clients say they want to provide an optimal customer experience, but their key performance indicators, operational structure, and financial resources may not align with that wish. So there’s a lot of work to be done between what is said and what actually can become reality, and then what actually does become reality (see Hustle: My Take on ‘Why Tech Support is (Purposely) Unbearable’).
Without enough resources to do the job right, including proper training, a contact center can’t deliver.
“We need to really think about the business model and the impact to your employees and your ability to do things and execute on them,” Hyde says from the vendor manager perspective. “If we would struggle to manage a huge spike in call volume, why would we expect you to just jump up and handle it without issues?”
When a client introduces a new product, or even a new feature on an old product, it can have a big ripple effect on the contact center’s ability to handle customer questions.
That’s where communication is critical. Most of us on the vendor side would probably prefer a hands-off approach. But when we are kept at arm’s length, we’re not going to be set up to succeed. We need to have an intimate level of communication with the brand, with the people who work for the brand, the vendor managers. We don’t have the benefit of sitting in the same room with them.
“If we think there is a possibility of getting hundreds of unexpected calls dumped on us, let’s plan it out, do some stress tests.” – Topf
The contact center also must be its own advocate. If we think there is a possibility of getting hundreds of unexpected calls dumped on us, let’s plan it out, do some stress tests and figure out what times of day or days of the week, what we need to do to plan for these contingencies. Once you have that level of dialogue, then you’re far better off and far better prepared to deliver success.
Building trust with your Outsourcing Partner
Even after the best planning, life will still deliver surprises. A contact center may need to “color outside the lines” to meet challenges that haven’t been worked out in advance. That can work only when the vendor and client have built up mutual trust. To earn that trust, a contact center must deliver consistent performance from the start, meeting the metrics and turning in good reports.
“If you’re not meeting the performance expectations, I can’t trust you. So suddenly I become a very different partner and I am micromanaging everything.” – Hyde
In such cases, the client is right to lower the boom, I agree. That’s another reason a contact center must speak up if it hits a snag. Then the contact center must be ready to point out the root cause of any mistake and the plan of action to fix it (see Leaning In to Nonconformity). Or better yet, the contact center should approach the client before the client is even aware of the problem.
My thought is: Try not to sugarcoat it, but present it as honestly as you can. That’s the way you earn trust.
And, really, a single mistake or problem shouldn’t be a big issue, Hyde adds. Issues should only become big if the two sides keep having the same conversation over and over without a resolution.
A high level of mutual trust also can be critical when the client needs emergency help. Hyde recalled when UCare’s phone lines went down and the company had to shift a huge extra load to an outside contact center.
“I called them up, and we had a good enough relationship that I said, ‘Look, I know you guys can’t possibly meet service levels today if we throw all this at you, but just could you please help us out and do your best?’ And they said, ‘Absolutely.’ “
In the ideal relationship, then, the client sets clear expectations and holds the vendor accountable, but also makes sure that the vendor is not being put in a position to fail. That means providing clear documentation and not frequently changing requirements.
Authority, experience, understanding
Nearshore management might fall within a variety of departments. It may be part of marketing, operations, human resources, or finance. Vendor management may even be its own independent department. Likewise, a vendor manager may hold any of several titles: manager, director, vice president or some C-level executive role. What matters more is that the vendor manager have decision-making authority with respect to the nearshore contact center.
I’ve seen some contact center veterans make a seamless transition to vendor management, but those are exceptions rather than the rule. – Topf
A good vendor manager doesn’t necessarily need experience in a contact center, though she or he should understand how contact centers work and the day-to-day business that the vendor is supporting. I’ve seen some contact center veterans make a seamless transition to vendor management, but those are exceptions rather than the rule.
The successful vendor manager needs the soft skills good for managing people, but also must be able to analyze the numbers that measure human performance.
A vendor manager, I think, should have an understanding of human resources and how people are hired, how they are recruited, how they are selected, how they’re fired, how they are motivated, how they are compensated — all of those things. (See Transparencies.)
A vendor-client relationship is not a one-song dance. They need to stay nimble and coordinated through the whole evening — even when some of the tunes are less than great. When both partners can do that, they make each other look great.
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