Outsourcing your customer service or support activities to someone else is never a simple decision. Nevertheless, modern consumers are more demanding than ever and require nothing, but the best when it comes to customer experiences. These days, an increasing number of companies are discovering that professionally managed call centers can help do just that — provide stellar experiences to their customers.
Whether you’re thinking of making the transition to outsourcing with your first call center (or if your first experience was not all it should have been), partnering with the right organization is of paramount importance.
While a good call center partnership certainly provides numerous advantages and benefits to your business, choosing the wrong provider will probably do your company much more harm than good. Therefore, in this post, we will cover some of the most important factors that you should consider when selecting your next (or your first) call center partner.
What to Look for in a New Call Center
According to statistics compiled by IBISWorld, there are about 31,000 call centers in the United States alone. And other sources estimate there may be 100,000 call centers worldwide. In a separate SmallGenius report, statistics show that the global market value of call centers will reach approximately half a trillion dollars by 2027.
What do all the numbers mean for your company? Well, it means that there is no shortage of call centers that want to compete for your business. However, it also means that wading through the thousands of call center options available to you can be overwhelming – especially if you’re not sure where to start.
The purpose of this article is to help you develop a series of questions that can help you build a shortlist of call centers that may be right for your business. While there are many things to consider when choosing a call center to partner with, the following list of questions can certainly help make that decision much easier.
What Types of Services Do You Need?
Perhaps the most important factor to consider when beginning the process of selecting a call center is to determine exactly what type of service(s) you need. Generally, there are two major options available – call centers that offer inbound services and those that provide outbound services. Of course, there are many call centers that offer both types of services (and hybrids that mix the two for clients.) Nevertheless, inbound and outbound are the two you should concern yourself with most.
According to CustomersFirst Academy, inbound call centers are best for companies that may need help in enabling their customers to reach out for customer service or support. On the other hand, an outbound call center makes better sense for companies that need agents to reach out and contact customers or potential customers on behalf of the company.
For instance, if you need agents to provide round-the-clock service, offer tech support, resolve customer complaints, or man a help desk, then inbound services will be a much better fit. Conversely, if you want to outsource cold calling, sales follow-ups, lead generation, or surveys, then an outbound center is the more obvious choice.
As mentioned, there are many call centers that provide hybrid inbound/outbound services as well. So, if your needs are more complex and require a little (or a lot) of all the services mentioned here, a good call center partner should be able to handle your situation with minimal issues.
Where is the Call Center Based?
The location of your own business is really not that important when considering potential partner call centers. However, the physical location of the call center itself (or the location of its agents) can be very important depending on the needs of your business. In fact, in a Business News Daily article by Adam Uzialko, the author writes, “Where your call center service company is headquartered, as well as where its agents are located, is one of the first things you should identify.”
Call centers based in the United States may offer more comprehensive services than their foreign counterparts, and most domestic services use native-English speaking agents. However, the costs associated with utilizing US-based call centers are significantly higher than using offshore services.
American-style English fluency of foreign-based agents in countries such as the Philippines, South Africa, and others has improved considerably over the last decade or so and now rivals that of US, UK, or Australia-based agents (English has been a primary language in the Philippines and South Africa for a few hundred years.) Therefore, for many companies, offshore call centers in these locations generally provide a much better value overall.
Depending on your company’s specific needs, a domestic call center may be a better option – but be prepared to pay a premium. On the other hand, if you don’t require native-English speakers (with no hint of an accent,) offshore options will surely be more affordable. Keep in mind, though, that just because offshore call centers are more affordable does not mean that they are less capable. Quite the contrary, many offshore centers provide services and benefits that rival (or surpass) even the best US-based call center providers.
Does the Call Center Offer Flexible Pricing Models and Contract Terms?
For most companies, the most important concern when considering a new call center partner will be cost. This is only natural, as the costs of partnering with a call center will affect profits across the board. Therefore, before you decide on a particular vendor, it’s essential that you understand their pricing model and contract terms and be aware of any unexpected or unpleasant surprises that might arise.
In most cases, call centers like to advertise their pricing models as “pay as you go” or offer a bundle of call minutes for a certain price point (much like the old cell phone plans.) At first glance, these types of pricing models may appear to be more affordable than they actually are.
In a Business.com article, the author points out (correctly) that call centers may charge additional fees or employ billing tactics that can lead to surprisingly large bills at the end of the month.
Services You Will Use
Some call centers offer many different services from which you can choose. And as with many other vendors, most call centers often attempt to get you to use as many of these services as possible. Of course, the amount you will ultimately pay to a call center will depend primarily on the services you use. For instance, services, such as simple message taking or order processing, will usually cost considerably less than outbound services that require dedicated agents or teams. Therefore, always compare estimated monthly costs with those of other vendors (or with the costs associated with creating your own in-house customer service team).
Another thing to consider is if your company requires a dedicated team of call center agents or if you can get by sharing agents with other businesses. A team of dedicated agents will provide service and support tailored to your business, but will be much more expensive than using “general-availability” agents shared between several client companies.
Minimum Monthly Call Volumes
Does the call center require a minimum monthly call volume? Or in short, does the call center charge for a minimum number of call-time minutes, even if your business does not require the minimum levels dictated by the call center? If yours is a smaller business or one that does not rely too heavily on inbound call services (but still wants to provide great customer service), then call centers with minimum monthly call volumes are a big “no-no.” Select a call center partner that will work with you without charging for more than you use.
Be sure to ask a potential partner call center if and how they use incremental billing. Incremental billing is, by far, the biggest “gotcha” with call center expenses. Incremental billing refers to how call centers “round up” call times. Many, if not most, call centers bill in six second increments, which means they always round up to the nearest one-tenth of a minute for billing. Some call centers, though, take this much higher and round up to the nearest full minute. Over time, of course, this can cause an enormous difference in the amount you pay every month.
On the other hand, some call centers bill only for the actual time an agent spends on the phone. This is referred to as real-time billing and can decrease the costs of your call center services significantly compared to incremental billing. If the call center offers real-time billing, it’s definitely a plus to consider.
Additional Fees and Costs
Besides call-time fees, call centers may charge other fees. For instance, many call centers charge some sort of “setup” fee, charge additional for work done on holidays, or assess overage fees. In other cases, a call center may charge more for implementing an IVR (Interactive Voice Response) system for your business (press 1 for sales, press 2 for support, etc.) And most times, call centers calculate IVR costs in addition to and separate from inbound calling services.
Agent Work Time
This can be a huge “gotcha” if not considered beforehand. Some call centers not only charge for time on the phone, they also charge for what is known as “Agent Work Time.” In the call center industry, agent work time refers to any time spent working on your account – whether or not the agent is on the phone. If agents need to spend “off-phone” time researching issues, following up with customers, or performing other tasks associated with your account, this can cause additional costs that are difficult to project or predict.
To avoid costly billing surprises, be sure to ask for a breakdown of all pricing/cost models and scenarios from the call center – before signing a contract. Make sure that breakdown includes detailed information on setup costs, incremental billing and any other miscellaneous fees or agent work time charges.
Many call centers will offer lower rates to lock you into a long-term contract. And while this may be something to consider in some situations, it may be best to avoid jailing your company to a particular provider for a long period – at least at first.
Great call centers are completely up front about their contract terms, and most have no problem allowing you to “try before you buy” with a generous trial period. If a call center insists on locking you into a “draconian” contract from the beginning, it’s probably best to look elsewhere for another vendor.
Is the Size of the Call Center a Good Fit for Your Business?
This is a question that some overlook when shopping for a new call center vendor. Many call centers will advertise their services with slogans, such as “we help businesses, big and small” or “no business is too big or too small.” However, more often that not, this is simply not the case.
If you require a call center partner that can handle thousands of calls daily, a smaller partner with only a few agents cannot handle the volume. However, on the flip side, it is easy to get lost in the “mix” when partnering with a really large call center.
When a call center is large and has agents taking calls for many different client companies, attention to customers and service personalization for your company may suffer. And while smaller call centers will be less able to handle huge call volumes, they can often provide a much more tailored experience for your business.
Ultimately, though, when it comes to call center size, you really just have to consider call volume and how much personalized attention and service your company needs.
What is the Availability of Agents at the Call Center?
Ask the call center when their agents are available to take calls. This simple question is easy to overlook; but it is important. If the call center employs agents in different time zones, shifting could become an issue if times do not align with your business hours or after-hour handling requirements. The best call centers offer 24/7/365 agent availability so that shifts and time zone considerations are never an issue. If possible,
Does the Call Center Have Viable Contingencies for Outages or Disasters?
One important factor to note when considering call center vendors is also one that’s frequently not given much thought; that’s how call centers plan for service outages because of calamities, natural disasters, bad weather, political unrest, or other emergencies. It might not seem important now. But if a call center has to cease operations because of an emergency, it will affect your business greatly – even when the call center’s agents are far away from your business or its operations.
Does the call center have its facilities in areas known for bad weather or political troubles? Does the call center have multiple locations or does it employ all its agents in a single building? Does the call center employ work-at-home agents that might offer better availability during emergencies or other types of outages? Can a fire or storm potentially destroy all the call center’s infrastructure, or do they utilize cloud services that help to protect against such problems?
All of these are important questions to ask, and things you really should know before making a decision. Flexibility in locales and infrastructure, backups, cloud redundancy, and other disaster or emergency mitigation measures are enormously important and cannot be stressed enough. So, be sure to ask a potential partner about what types of emergency response measures they have in place.
Does the Call Center Offer Multilingual Services?
Does your business cater to the Spanish-speaking community? Well, even if it doesn’t, call center agents fluent in Spanish can help you reach a vast number of potential customers who speak Spanish as their native language. Spanish is the second most-widely spoken language (right behind Chinese), and the US has the second largest population of native Spanish speakers in the world (second only to Mexico.) So, as you can see, partnering with a call center that has agents fluent in Spanish can be of significant benefit to your business.
Does the Call Center Provide Agents with Specialized Training in Your Industry?
If your company’s call center requirements are modest (think basic answering services or billing support), then general-knowledge agents are more than up to those sorts of tasks. If your clients and customers need support and call services that require extensive knowledge in your industry, though, specialized training is a must.
Many call centers focus on being everything to everyone. Therefore, their services seem to align better when clients need general-level answering and support services. And while this does indeed work well for many companies, it’s certainly not for all businesses.
Specialization can help build trust and confidence among both your current customers and those thinking of doing business with you. If your call center offers agents that specialize in supporting your industry, it’s a definite advantage.
What Type of Technology Does the Call Center Use?
Does the call center use on-premises software to manage calls, or do they use cloud services? In most cases, cloud software is more robust, more secure, and offers more flexibility in terms of management, reporting, and analytics. If a call center is still using older on-premise solutions, they may not be the best suited to help when you need to expand or require additional services.
If you require advanced IVR or automated CRM services, you might want to look into call centers that utilize AI technology. A FinancesOnline article asserts that while the technology is not yet perfect, great strides have been made in AI that enable it to act as an automated advisor to callers and not just a phone menu or database system.
Of course, if your business requires a more personal approach for customer service and support, nothing beats real live call center agents.
What Type of Culture and Environment Does the Call Center Provide for Employees?
In a Connections Magazine article about the importance of call center culture, author Gabriel Bristol writes, “Professionals use frequently the phrase ‘corporate culture,’ but they seldom really define it. Simply put, corporate culture describes and governs the ways in which a company’s owners and employees think, feel, and act.”
The way call center agents feel about their work and environment plays a major factor in how well they perform in terms of exceeding customer expectations and providing stellar service. If call center managers and executives don’t promote a pleasant and productive atmosphere for agents and supervisors, not only will those employees be affected – your business will probably suffer as well. After all, if agents are unmotivated because of an unproductive work culture, how can they provide your customers with the service and support they deserve?
If a call center shies away from questions regarding their work environment or culture, just move on to one that will share how they cultivate an environment of excellence and productivity. Remember, great customer service requires proper motivation, great attitudes, and a high desire to succeed from everyone who comes in contact with your customers.
These days, there is perhaps nothing more important to keeping customer loyalty and trust than properly protecting their data and personal information. Nevertheless, data breaches and system hacks continue to occur at an ever-increasing rate. And if customer data is compromised or lost due to a breach or attack, the reputational damage to a company’s brand or image can be devastating.
It doesn’t matter if a breach or data loss is the fault of a vendor or call center; customers and users will blame your company for the problem. Therefore, it’s absolutely essential that your call center partner do everything possible to protect and secure customer data and information.
Articles on sites, such as TechTarget and Customer Think, provide excellent advice and suggestions for ensuring call center data security. However, the list of things needed to protect data in a call center is long and a bit technical. But, in a nutshell, experts recommend that call centers employ the following strategies to protect from data loss, hacks, breaches, and ransomware:
These are just a few of the important security concerns you should think about before partnering with a call center. Before you make your final decision, be sure to ask the call center to review their security methods and procedures with you. Also, be sure to do your own research (or hire an expert) to determine if their security protocols and policies align with your company’s requirements.
Management Involvement and Commitment
In many call centers, the gulf between agents and supervisors and upper or executive management couldn’t be wider – especially in really large centers. When upper management and executives don’t engage frequently with agents and supervisors “on the floor”, they lose touch with what’s really happening in the call center and how effective employees are in meeting the needs of their customers.
If you are considering a new call center vendor, one of the most important things to consider is how involved upper management is in the day-to-day operations of the “floor” or actual call center experience. Sure, executive meetings and calls with investors are important; but nothing helps increase productivity and boost agent morale than seeing the “boss” on the floor. When management displays a high level involvement, it’s a very good indicator of a call center’s commitment to their customers.
Will the Call Center Be a True Partner?
We know many companies tout “being a partner” with your company or brand. But at IA Call Center, we really do mean it. When you choose to partner with us, we take that relationship seriously and do our best to nurture it so that both your company and ours benefit. We accomplish this by learning as much about your business as possible and tailoring our methods and training so that we can provide specialized, expert customer support services and experiences for your company and brand.
IA Call Center is not the biggest call center, for sure, but we strive to be the best call center partner for everyone of our clients. And in that regard, we pride ourselves on providing exceptional services at reasonable costs.
If you would like to find out how partnering with IA Call Center can help strengthen your business and its customer service efforts, please click here to contact us for a no-cost, no-obligation consultation. We look forward to hearing from you.
Ian Tempro, Head of Special Projects, at IA Call Center writes about his 20+ years of extensive contact center experience in leadership, client relationships, operations and specialized vertical markets.