Nathan Teahon, QCS Director of Operations, featured cover story in Connections Magazine with "Lessons Learned in Vendor Selection"
lessons learned in vendor selection
By Nathan Teahon
What makes a good call center? Better question, what makes a good call center partner? It’s a good question, and not always a simple one, but something that I ask myself frequently as I am constantly working with several different call centers and always want to find opportunities to test new ones that can end up doing work with us for years to come. I’ve worked with a lot of call centers over the years and have been fortunate that my good experiences have far outweighed the bad. But, there have been bad experiences and there are definitely lessons to be learned from those experiences. With every bad experience, do I believe I was working with a sub-par call center? No, definitely not. Sometimes the timing is just off and not everything gelled the first time around. Sometimes two companies just don’t mesh well with each other for one reason or another. And, sometimes, not often, but sometimes, you do come to the realization that you’re working with a sub-par call center and there is no nice way to sugar coat that.
Unfortunately, there isn’t an exact science to finding the perfect call center partner. However, hopefully I can point out some important things to consider both if you’re in need of a call center but also some things to consider if you are a call center looking to be a solution for another company.
David vs. Goliath
Is bigger always better? Well, obviously that depends on what we’re talking about, and it’s no different in vendor selection. If you are a company that is looking for a single call center to staff a 200 seat credit card sales program then going with the company that has two centers at 50 seats each isn’t going to work for you---clearly. But let’s say we’re looking at a program that is going to take 10-20 seats. Is the same type of center that is able to staff that 200 seat credit card sales program the way you want to go? There are other things to consider but in just looking at the size and nothing else you have to consider when a company is too big for a campaign. When is your campaign going to be just a small fish in a very big pond? Is it going to be assigned to an account manager that already has too much to handle and your new pesky program is more of an annoyance? There is something to be said for the company that wants it more, needs it more, and is hungry for it. What is a small fish to one company can be a game-changer for another. There is something to be said for that feeling you get when you know the call center management team is going to put everything they have into making your campaign successful.
Location, Location, Location
Does the location of a call center really matter? Just like using local telephone numbers for Caller ID to improve answer rates, having a call center in the right location for a program can be an important part of whether a campaign is successful or not. Or, having a call center in the wrong location can be a recipe for disaster. Offshore call centers, I’m talking about you. Without diving headfirst into that topic, I will say this. If the majority of your agents have a heavy accent of some kind, odds are that your call center is going to be the perfect fit for any program calling into a market that also heavily uses that accent. However, you’re also probably a less likely fit for a campaign that is calling into any other market. Obviously there is a lot more flexibility when you’re working with accent neutral agents. And if you don’t care about your sales rates or the overall customer experience you’ll be delivering but rather want really cheap rates take your business offshore and don’t look back. Zing!!!
The supervisor position is, by a mile, the most difficult job in the call center industry. The supervisor is the person that is most responsible for driving performance on their team, constantly pushing, coaching, and motivating. A good supervisor has sore feet at the end of every day. Having a good supervisor is everything. Having a bad supervisor can be disastrous. If a supervisor isn’t motivating they are probably bringing the team down. This position is also the most difficult to evaluate if you are not physically in the call center to see the supervisor in action. Most interaction that a client has with a call center is going to be through an account manager and there could be some QA interaction in monitoring sessions as well, but probably less with the front line supervisor. It’s because of this that when you get to visit a call center in person that spending time with the front line supervisor is very important, and you will quickly get a sense of if the team is responding to that supervisor, if they are motivating, if they are focusing on the most important areas that need to be focused on, etc.
The next major question when it comes to a call center supervisor is looking at the kind of support that they are being given. A common mistake that I see call centers make is that they have an incredible supervisor and they fail to provide that person with any support. They have their supervisor and a team of 20 agents and they are on an island all by themselves. Like I mentioned before, the supervisor position is the most difficult position in the call center industry, and is it being made even more difficult because of a lack of support. Is there Quality Assurance staff that is also coaching the team so it’s not all on the supervisor? If the program is dynamic and has a lot of moving parts, is there a Program Manager or some other position that is managing the dial strategy effectively, or is that on the supervisors plate as well? Does the supervisor have more agents than can reasonably be expected to manage by themselves? There are no blanket right or wrong answers to these questions. The call center industry is so dynamic. What works for one call center campaign isn’t necessarily going to make sense for the next one. A supervisor for one program can handle 20 agents, another possibly 7, it depends on the program. But when evaluating a call center it is good to understand the answers to these questions. Understanding that the supervisor position is a critical role, it’s important that the right person is in that position, and that the right person is receiving the proper support to be successful.
Different companies take different approaches to how they handle quality monitoring. I have worked with a number of organizations that have an actual quality department, with a department head and staff that is completely separate from the operations staff. There are certainly pros to this kind of structure. If an organization has created a structure such as this, they obviously hold quality in high regards, and keeping this kind of department separated from operations does ensure an unbiased approach in regards to quality. Let’s face it, operations people can have absolute highest regard for quality, but results are top priority. That doesn't mean that quality is being sacrificed in order to achieve results, but campaign results are the first thing that an operations team is responsible for. If asked, most operations people probably would categorically deny that, but those same people are reading this article and nodding their heads in agreement. Again, it doesn't mean operations managers are sacrificing quality one bit, but the results are the first thing on their mind, and quality comes directly after. When you have a QA department that is separate from operations, quality is the absolute number one priority, and there is some value in that.
The majority of my career I "grew up" in the model where each call center had a Quality Assurance manager that was directly tied to operations, where the call center supervisors and QA managers all reported to the call center manager. The pro of this type of model is that everyone is always completely aligned with expectations and the harmony between QA and operations is flawless because they are all working in conjunction with each other, as opposed to departments that are separated. The question that arises with a QA department is who is giving quality monitoring feedback to the agents? In a department setting, it is common for that feedback to be passed from QA to the supervisor directly overseeing those agents. One disadvantage of this process is that the feedback can get diluted or lost in translation as the feedback is relayed. So, which way is the right way? Honestly, I don't care. It makes for fun debate but both ways have their pros and cons. At the end of the day when evaluating a call center, you have to make a determination if there is a true commitment to quality assurance and does the process that particular organization has in place work well for them? Citing previous examples, if the person you have doing quality assurance is also your supervisor, call center manager and IT person, then there may not be a proper commitment to quality. Each company may have a different philosophy in going about quality assurance, but do they have a strong commitment to the process and can they demonstrate it works for them?
Also, when monitoring with a client, who should be leading the session? More specifically, what should the role of an account manager be when monitoring with the client, even in the early stages of a client relationship? Again, different organizations probably handle this differently, but when I'm working with a call center I do not expect the account manager to be leading quality monitoring sessions. When it's a first session with a call center or a launch of a big program, I would expect that they would attend and add value, but I prefer having a quality assurance manager lead the session. First, I know that it's the quality assurance manager that is the one constantly listening to the program and delivering feedback. I want to be able to have a sense of comfort that the person that is always doing listening is capable in that role and we can align expectations. When the only person I can monitor with is the account manager it's harder to gain a sense of comfort that the actual quality managers are competent in their roles.
Don’t Do This (My Pet Peeves)
Any time that we talk about potentially adding a new vendor, there is one step that we always take prior to actually testing, and that’s listening in on some of the agents that the call center thinks would be a good fit for your respective dialing campaign. If you test a call center without taking that step first, you are wrong. Why do we do that? Well, obviously it’s kind of one final sanity check before a company starts calling on your behalf. The last thing I would want is, to start working with a call center on a campaign, and find myself thinking, “the agents really sound terrible” and then think, “Gee, if I would have just listened to them first this wouldn’t be such a surprise.” Having that final sanity check is certainly a must and eases my mind prior to testing a company, but during this process there are other things that you notice that also have an impact. For instance, I’ve listened to several companies, both big and small, that haven’t been able to figure out how to have a monitoring session with the sound projecting through the phone. When this happens, I can almost always see the speakers being positioned carefully around the speakerphone. That’s not a horrible thing, just a little tacky. Where that does become a bit of a problem is that the sound quality of the session is obviously degraded. As long as I can hear just fine, it’s not a problem as long as I have confidence that the actual sound quality of the call is good. However, if my client wants to monitor, they aren’t necessarily going to realize that, and I wouldn’t want the client to have questions about sound quality just because we have to position computer speakers carefully around a phone in order to monitor. If you’re a call center out there currently doing this, it’s probably time to find a solution. There are simple and cheap solutions out there that allow you to have the sound emitted by your computer to transmit through the phone, eliminating the need for awkward speaker arrangements.
Along those same lines, be conscious of the background noise on your calls. No one wants to listen to a monitoring session where we’re listening to Sally, and are plainly hearing the conversation of Bill who is sitting right next to her. If we hear it in monitoring, the customer probably hears it too. And even the most conversational sounding agent has a hard time selling a conversation if the customer hears someone in the background saying the exact same things.
Set Yourself Apart as the “Vendor of Choice”
As far as the Do’s, I believe there are some obvious ones. Do be good people to work with. Good people like working with other good people, and I’ve been fortunate to have the pleasure of working with a lot of good people in a lot of good organizations. And at the end of the day, do under promise and over deliver. I’m not talking about sandbagging goals or expectations, but what I do mean is don’t bite off more than you can chew thinking you can figure out how to make something happen later. More times than not more than one person ends up dealing with a difficult situation. If you can communicate what you can do that’s all you need.
Nathan Teahon is Director of Operations for Quality Contact Solutions. He may be reached at Nathan.email@example.com