You probably outsource your payroll services, rent your office space, and even lease vehicles. You do this for tax advantages and for flexibility. One rule of small business has always been buy what appreciates and lease what depreciates; call center technology definitely depreciates.
Given the many functions that can fall under the purview of a call center (telemarketing, technical support, live Web chat, phone, e-mail, or a combination), you might think that the sticker shock on call- or contact-center technology might be too horrific to endure. Fortunately, there are numerous options for small businesses, from outright purchase to partially hosted, to fully hosted, to fully outsourced, and the prices on many of these are no longer prohibitive.
The outsourced call center is probably the kind that comes to mind quickest: a large room overseas where people with international accents and American names usually have a fifty-fifty chance of either solving your problem or driving you crazy. In this scenario, you neither own the equipment nor hire the employees (the cost varies widely, depending on how many agents you want and what services you’ll need).
To make outsourcing work, you have to consider your line of business. To what extent do you feel that your employees need to have customer contact? How complex are the contacts? In other words, can agents who have no specific knowledge of your industry still aid your customers? If so, you may want to consider hiring an outsourcer that can provide after-hours work if you want overnight hours covered.
Whether a fully outsourced call center arrangement can work depends on your type of business. If your customers require technical support for mission-critical activities, you might want to have someone on call 24 hours a day. You probably need more than five people to do this. No one in their right mind would agree to be on 24-hour call more than one night per week.
A key facet of any call center is escalation. If the first agent who answers a call can’t answer a question, the call is routed to a more senior person. Thus, you may hire an outsourced call center to field your run-of-the-mill questions and then have them route more complicated questions to your in-house staff. In addition, you can hire outsourcers to handle calls during anticipated daily or seasonal increases in activity. Finally, if your company is in the middle of a growth spurt (you just released an amazing new product), you can hire an outsourced call center to handle overflow calls until you get staffed up yourself. It’s a balancing act to determine what’s best for your customers.
Many companies rely on the sales advantage that comes with having their own expert employees on the phones. For instance, alpine skiing retailer Backcountry.com, which uses call center software from LivePerson, has found that when Web site visitors engage with its highly experienced and passionate sales force, it converts browsers to shoppers at a higher rate, and the company has tracked a 40 percent increase in average order value since the deployment of the software. According to Kevin Cohn, LivePerson’s executive vice-president of marketing, the agents at Backcountry.com can see prospects browsing on a Web page and ask if they want help. Once they’re speaking to the prospect, the agents make recommendations regarding ski bindings or note what has been most popular among other customers.
For an operation such as Backcountry.com that relies on the unique knowledge and commitment of its own sales and customer-service staff, a hosted approach to the contact center makes the most sense.
With outsourced contact centers, it’s all about flexibility. A lot of outsourcing vendors offer state-of-the-art solutions on a per-transaction or per-hour basis, which allows small companies to have all the call-center capabilities they need without the capital investment and without locking themselves in. It helps you deal with changing market conditions because you’re not locked into a one-size system that won’t scale.
Though outsourced vendors insist that their uptime levels are much improved from early hosted systems, if you’re concerned about the viability of an outsourced, or even hosted, system, you should contract with your telephone carrier; they’re more viable and less likely to disappear.