Beyond the core Featured

8:00pm EDT April 25, 2007

One definition of trust in the business world is allowing someone outside the company to handle an important task or operation. However, the decision to out-source functions like operating a call center should not be taken lightly.

“An outsourcing partner bears the burden of turnover, training, health insurance, support,” says Ken Dawson, chief marketing officer at InfoCision Management Corp. “They can do it all: marketing, creative services, copywriting, direct mail, fulfillment — not just handle calls.”

Smart Business talked to Dawson about some of the key considerations for outsourcing call center operations.

Why outsource?

The big reason is that call center operations usually are not part of a company’s core business. Call center professionals bring marketing experience that branches far outside of your product. We have experience with hundreds of clients, spanning dozens of vertical markets, as well as every media channel in existence today.

Scalability and flexibility are paramount. Productivity is the lifeblood of a call center operation. That is, the ability to blend a couple of programs where necessary to keep a client from paying for unproductive time or dedicated agents. Increasingly, federal and state rules require a level of regulatory compliance that is critical in many industries. If you do outbound calling in-house, I can almost guarantee you are not able to invest enough to guarantee full compliance the way a good outsource partner can.

When comparing your in-house operation to outsourcing, look at the fully loaded cost of your operation, not just the $12-an-hour paid to an agent. Add the cost of technology, supervisors and other support. A good partner will have a more robust infrastructure. The agents will be better trained.

How do you choose an outsourcing partner?

Price is important, but not the most important factor. Pair with a partner who will take the time to know your products or services well. Evaluating the technology, quality controls and productivity measurement tools should be a given. But you need a partner who will take the time to learn your product, your goals and your services. It should be able to provide you with innovations and marketing concepts to improve your product offering.

Consider their resources and ability to dedicate needed agents. If your business starts a new national ad program, you may need to scale capability from 20 to 800 agents. There is no way an in-house call center can do that. What do you do with all the idle people if the campaign does not fly? With a good partner, you can ramp up and ramp down almost instantly without a major capital investment.

How do you monitor an outsourced function?

Even the best partner must be monitored. The telephone works well because it can be used to build a one-to-one human relationship. But that dynamic encounter opens the door for human error, so a company needs to be sure the call center takes a consistent approach and quality controls are in place. Be sure the agents stick to the script.

Real-time reporting is vital so you can see the metrics and listen to calls. The outsourcer should provide an online, dedicated portal. On-demand reporting is a key. That said, don’t try to run reports every five minutes — you’ll be unnecessarily stressed out if numbers are down and falsely elated if they are up.

Another suggestion is to listen to calls. Your outsourcing partner should provide a digital file of every call, if needed.

Can a service provider eventually become a key part of the company? Is this a good idea?

Yes. You must treat outsourcing providers like partners, an extension of your business. They need to be empowered with data so they can cross-sell and upsell.

In a good relationship, the partner should have full integration into the company’s database, be able to see billing systems, track customer transactions. It makes for a much more powerful experience with your customer. Yes, it takes a lot of trust. But it assures better customer service from simple things like changing addresses to scheduling repairs and adds the possibility to upsell and activate a premium service in minutes.

How, and how frequently, should outsourcing agreements be re-evaluated?

Don’t do it on price alone. Look at return on investment. Give a relationship time to grow and flourish. If things go well and results are consistent and strong, I’d recommend re-evaluating every couple of years. It isn’t bad to give another supplier 5 percent of the market to be sure you are getting optimum results. But changing suppliers every six months is detrimental to all parties.

KEN DAWSON is chief marketing officer at InfoCision. Reach him at ken.dawson@infocision.com or (330) 668-1400. In business for 25 years, InfoCision Management Corp. is the second-largest privately held teleservices company and a leading provider of customer care services, commercial sales and marketing for a variety of Fortune 500 companies and smaller businesses. InfoCision is also a leader of inbound and outbound marketing for nonprofit, religious and political organizations. InfoCision operates 28 call centers at 12 locations throughout Ohio, Pennsylvania and West Virginia. For more information, visit www.infocision.com.