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Call center sourcing: Get it right

Are your internal and external customers satisfied with the service they're receiving from your call center and help desk? In his monthly column, James Champy offers advice for successfully running a help desk and call center.

The phone rang again last evening during dinner. It was the anticipated interruption: an unintelligible caller trying to sell prescription drugs. The call was clearly being made from an offshore service provider. The agent didn't know the products he was selling, nor did he understand our request not to call again. We get the same call every week.

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It's these kinds of personal experiences that cause IT managers to hesitate as they consider outsourcing and/or offshoring call center or help desk operations. Whether providing services to internal or external customers, call centers and help desks are the face of the company -- the potential for service breakdown should not be taken lightly. But for companies that need a 24/7 operation at an affordable cost, outsourcing or offshoring these functions is an option that must be considered.

Here's some advice on how to do it right.

Focus on the caller experience.

Separate the requirements of outbound calls from inbound calls -- and focus on the caller experience. Most outbound call center operations support marketing, selling or research processes. It's important that outbound calls represent your company intelligently and provide the customer experience you want. Many companies tolerate unskilled agents making these calls. Most consumers, including myself, won't do business with companies like this.

Have a triage capability.

The processes and systems required to handle inbound calls are more complex than those required for outbound calling. Begin by trying to anticipate the nature of the calls and problems that will get directed to the help desk. IT help desks will get calls from customers with questions on the company's products. You cannot easily establish the "universal" help desk, so make sure your call centers have triage capabilities to transfer a caller easily from one place to another.

Improve help desk business processes.

A service agent on a help desk can be polite, but orders don't get filled or real problems fixed if a company has poor execution processes. Make sure you understand both the help desk processes as well as the fulfillment processes. This is even more critical if you decide to outsource or offshore.

Deliver consistent messages to your customers.

Business processes and products can change so fast that it's possible for multiple points of customer contact to become unaligned. In many cases, a manufacturer's Web site describes one set of service contract terms, while the help desk has another. Keep checking all your channels to customers to make sure they're delivering consistent messages.

Look for a service provider with value-add, not just low prices.

If you decide to outsource or offshore your call center or help desk operations, go for skills and experience -- not just price. Too many outsourcing decisions are still driven just by price. There are many experienced service companies that can provide what you need for call center and help desk capabilities. They may know more than you about how to operate these functions. Look for what they can add to how your company serves both its internal and external customers.

Find a service provider that shares your business values.

If your company really believes in delivering a quality product and service, you need a service provider to operate your help desks that shares those beliefs. The moment of truth comes when your customer is in trouble and needs your help. You want the service agent to behave just as you would to solve the customer's problem.

Check out companies that do call centers and help desks well.

Look at the Web site for Fidelity Investments. It's a company that has hundreds of products and services. Then make a call to one of Fidelity's help desks and see how your question gets to the right place. In the end, that's the result you want. It takes good processes, good systems, good agents and a good partner to get there.

James Champy is chairman of Perot Systems Corp.'s consulting practice and head of strategy for the company. He is also the author of the best-selling books Reengineering the Corporation, Reengineering Management, The Arc of Ambition and X-Engineering the Corporation.

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