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During the startup phase of most direct sales companies, call centers are utilized to provide direct communications to both the organization’s field representatives and customers. However, what oftentimes goes unnoticed is that the call centers created during the startup phase of the business can end up controlling nearly 90 percent of those communications, directly impacting the overall credibility and perception of the organization, as well as influencing the purchase decisions of their consumers.
Call centers, whether internal or outsourced, are the front lines of your organization. They interact with your customers and distributors on a regular basis and can impact their loyalty to your organization. Making sure that your center is optimized, reliable, cost-effective, and a good representation of your brand are of the utmost importance.
Whether you are looking to provide a call center internally, currently have an existing call center or are looking to outsource, the below criteria can help serve as a checklist to ensure that your call center operations are efficient, reliable and cost-effective.
- Consider Hiring a Qualified Consultant. While this can be a big investment, the dividends often pay off in cost savings by capitalizing on the knowledge of an independent third-party analysis. Should you make this decision, be sure you:
- Have a clear scope of the work that includes goals and duration for the consultant’s analysis.
- Have clear expectations for both parties that highlight response times, fees, travel costs and timelines of when items will be completed
and provided. Choose Key Performance Indicators (KPIs) that will allow you to measure the success, internal workings and productivity of the call center.
- Outline a list of deliverables that you will be provided at the end of the analysis.
- Set Business Goals and Objectives. Determine what you want the call center to accomplish and develop a set of criteria for tracking and evaluating those goals.
- Define Key Performance Indicators (KPIs). Implementation of any service requires you to measure its success. Select important KPIs that will allow you to measure internal workings and productivity of your call center. Tracking of these metrics will allow you to gauge where you might be able to gain more revenue by increasing staffing, or identify cost-saving areas where you might be spending more money than necessary. Some of the most common include:
- Service Level
- Agent Utilization
- Abandon Rate
- Cost per Call
When determining these KPIs, make sure you understand how they relate to one another, as well as what the impact could be to your bottom line. A general industry operating standard that maximizes your cost savings is 80 percent of calls answered in 30 seconds or less with a 5 percent abandon rate. Deviations from these metrics could increase or decrease each of your KPIs and budget, so make sure you understand how before agreeing to specific operating metrics.
- Set a Budget. Setting a budget is integral to any operation. If the decision is being made to set up an internal center over outsourcing due to cost, make sure to include any hidden costs associated with your center for a cost-for-cost comparison. These hidden costs oftentimes include the behind-the-scenes individuals and software programs necessary to monitor, oversee, and run your call center. They include training, quality assurance, human resources, supervisors, recruiters and workforce scheduling, to name a few.
If the decision is being made to outsource, make sure you understand exactly what is and is not included in the cost prior to making any decisions.
- Discover and Determine Any Operational Parameters or Constraints. Evaluate your customer base to determine which communication platforms your customers use to interact with you. This will allow you to offer services that will make your team the most efficient. Some of the most common include:
- Integrated Voice Response (IVR). This offering allows you flexibility to provide customers with information without interaction with an agent. It can also point users to a secondary platform for the information they are looking for, or simply provide informational messages to them while they are on hold.
- Data Recognition Software. This matches the number or information provided by your customer and pulls up their account for the agent once the call has been answered.
- Live Operator. This can be dedicated agents or shared, depending on your business model. Live agents enable your customers to interact with a live person during scheduled hours of operation. Workforce solutions exist that can help provide scheduling to include lunch breaks, rest periods and time-off requests, as well as optimize coverage to either your operating metrics, or to your budget.
- Email Response. With technology being so prevalent, email is a widely used feature for many businesses. Providing scripted responses to your most commonly asked questions can enable your agents to provide fast, consistent responses to email inquiries.
- Live Chat. Allow customers to interact with agents via a live chat feature on your website. Scripted responses enable your agents to provide consistent responses and handle three to four chat sessions at any given time. Like the live operator, the hours of operation and scheduling will need to be handled via a workforce solution.
- Social Media. Many companies, especially direct selling organizations, are finding more and more of their customers and distributors communicating via social media platforms. Develop a content strategy for a regular posting schedule as well as management and listening tools to help gauge what is being said about your product and organization online.
- SMS/Text Messaging. Provide order status updates, tracking updates, contests, campaigns or special deals to your most loyal customers. This service can be provided either through a live agent or via a software offering.
Whether you are outsourcing or keeping your call center internal, make sure you have a plan in place that addresses problem escalation, disaster plans and outages.
- Understand the Technology Platforms Selected. Once you have selected your service offerings, it is important to understand the technology platforms that will be used to deliver those services and how they will integrate together as well as with any internal operating systems for compatibility. This includes any software you use for taking orders, billing, email and CRM, as well as others.
- Establish the Team. In addition to your agents, you will want to hire team supervisors, human resources, and analysts. These individuals will help you manage and monitor your ongoing program and evaluate your productivity based on your KPIs. You may also want to consider staffing a recruiter, depending on how quickly you need to scale.
Other positions that will help with your program success include hiring individuals capable of workforce staffing and scheduling, quality assurance programs, training and monitoring, as well as trainers to develop your onboarding curriculum and ongoing training programs.
- Train Your Team. Developing the initial training program is the first step to any training curriculum. Start building your training program by identifying which training skills you want your staff to take away from the training. Some of the most common items include:
- Product Training
- Company/Brand Training
- Soft Sales Skills
- Data Security and Protection
Once you have established your initial training curriculum, build the modules around it and determine how it will be delivered to your agents. Make sure that you can test your agents’ retention of the material prior to making them live on the floor.
We also suggest regular review periods with your trainers, quality assurance team, team supervisors, HR, analysts and IT team to determine any ongoing training that is needed. These ongoing trainings could be revisions to your existing programs, additions due to compliance, technology updates, or efficiency and quality improvements identified by your analysts and quality assurance teams. It is recommended that you review your training program once every six months internally and once per year with an independent third-party consultant.
Develop an Outsource Plan. Even if you never use it, you will be prepared for outsourcing should the need arise at a moment’s notice. Determine how quickly you are able to scale and to what capacity. You also will want to set parameters that define when, within those boundaries, you will need to outsource, if at all.
It is always a good idea to partner with an outsource call center ahead of time to determine their ability to be an effective partner to your organization without having time pressures forcing the decision. When discussing outsourcing with a firm, make sure you:
- Choose a call center that understands your corporate goals and can work as a strategic partner to help you achieve those goals.
- Choose a call center that can handle the volume of expected incoming and outgoing calls on an annual, monthly and daily basis.
- Choose a call center that will not only allow but also encourage you to stop by for visits and interact with your agents.
- Evaluate pricing based on your call volumes and understand completely what that pricing includes. Make sure you address quality assurance, training, training supervisors, etc., as well so you aren’t surprised with any hidden costs when the invoice comes.
- Discuss KPIs and program goals.
- Understand the center’s approach to quality monitoring and training programs to ensure they align with your company objectives.
- Understand the center’s approach to initial and ongoing training curriculums related to your program.
- Evaluate any disaster recovery plans, outage plans or escalation plans for the center and determine if they meet the needs of your organization.
- Ask for references and check them.
By evaluating and partnering with an outsource call center ahead of time, you can be sure that should the need ever arise to utilize them at a moment’s notice, they can scale quickly and cost-effectively, and be able to provide reliable service that replicates the energy and service level of your brand.
Managing a call center is not an easy job. It takes constant evaluation and program management; but when done well it can have a huge impact on your business. Here’s to your call center success!
Karen Danielson is Director of Marketing for The Connection, an outsourced call center that provides customer and distributor support services as well as Tier I and Tier II technical support for direct sales organizations.