Deciding to outsource something as critical as your interactions with customers is no easy task.
The Customer Experience (CX) you deliver is utterly central to your brand and your identity as a business. Unlike other activities that are regularly outsourced – accounting, order processing, or even supply chain management – customer service stands out as a distinctly non-procedural activity.
Many customer interactions involve emotional content, and ideally, there exists an emotional bond between your brand and your customers.
Entrusting all that to a partner is a huge cultural and mental barrier for any organisation to overcome.
While we have written before about the benefits of outsourcing your contact centre – which, after all, is not a core activity for most businesses – those advantages can only be accessed if you choose the right outsourcing partner for your business, and for what you want to achieve.
Here we look at the 50 most important things you should do during the process of selecting a BPO (Business Process Outsourcer). We have broken the list up into sections based on each stage of the selection process.
STAGE 1: Research
These are the initial activities you will do when first deciding to outsource. Some of these may already be covered in your outsourcing business case, but it’s good practice to reassess them when you begin the selection process.
At this point you have not yet contacted any BPOs or completed the RFI (Request for Information) or RFP (Request for Proposal) you will send to your shortlist. The objectives for this stage are to decide what you need and whittle your list of potential partners down to a manageable size.
Planning – here you decide what you want and how best to achieve it.
- Define your goals and objectives: At the beginning of your outsourcing journey it’s essential to clearly articulate what your organisation is hoping to achieve through outsourcing. Are you looking to cut costs, improve service quality, or both? Maybe you want to extend customer service hours, respond to customers more quickly, or set your business up for rapid growth? By setting your objectives now you can ensure alignment with outsourcing partner from the start.
- What to outsource: You may not need to outsource all aspects of your CX or customer service to achieve your objectives. It’s important to identify areas where you need assistance the most. This could include managing high volumes of customer inquiries, handling social media interactions or providing after hours support. By identifying your needs you can find an outsourcing partner specialised in those areas to maximise their value. This will also determine what type of outsourcing model is going to be the best fit for you. Options include full outsourcing, co-sourcing, offshoring, staff leasing, managed services, agency services, overflow, and so on.
- Compliance and security requirements: It might seem strange to put this so high on the list, however, data security and regulatory considerations – which will vary from sector to sector and between geographic locations – can place some limitations on what you want to do and who you can select as a partner. For example, if you work in financial services or the medical industry it’s likely your partner will need appropriate certifications and to follow certain operating methods.
- Location: You need to decide where you want your outsourcing partner to be located. This will largely be an issue of cost if you are thinking of outsourcing to an offshore provider. Depending on your needs having an outsourcer in a different time zone could be advantageous if you require after hours support. Cultural considerations also come into play, particularly if you are looking to improve quality. A provider with a head office in your own country, even if the service is delivered offshore, is generally a preferred option these days.
- Languages: Similarly, it’s important to understand upfront what languages you need to be able to provide service to your customers in. If your customer base is global, do you need a partner that can serve customers from multiple locations, or are you looking for a single, multi-lingual contact centre? For most businesses it is crucial that all customers receive the same level of service regardless of their preferred language.
- Determine your process: As with most things in business and life, there are many ways to skin a cat. The process of selecting your BPO partner can take over a year and be extremely complex. Or you can do it in a matter of weeks. You can run the whole process yourself, bringing in your internal subject matter experts and department heads as necessary, or you can get help from external experts who can recommend the right potential partners to you and assist you through the process.
Assessment – here you start researching potential partners to come up with your shortlist.
- Explore online: The place to start is Google (or Bing, if that’s your thing), industry associations and publications, groups on social media, and your peers in other companies to get a longlist of potential BPO partners. The next logical step is to visit the websites of each to understand their locations and languages, size of their contact centres, who they work with, and services they offer. You should also be ablet to get insights into their operation, work environment and company culture. The idea is to quickly rule out those who do not offer what you need, and then investigate the rest in more details.
- Expertise and experience: No two BPOs are the same – each has their own areas of specialism whether that’s sectorial or horizontal. Look for a partner who has a track record of managing the functions you are looking to outsource for clients within your own industry. While it’s crucial to find an outsourcing company that understands the exact challenges your business faces, don’t rule out those with little experience in your sector at this stage – they may have experience in an adjacent space that is just as relevant. You may also prefer to work a partner that does not already work with your competitors.
- Reputation in the market: Conduct research into the market reputation of outsourcers before whittling down your shortlist. Very few, if any, BPOs have a strong reputation for doing everything extremely well. Each has their strengths and weaknesses. Look for partners that appear to have a strong reputation for quality, reliability, and innovation. These are the three main factors you will need, even above sectorial experience. You can gather that from their track record of being recognized as thought leaders in the industry, their participation in industry events, or the awards they have entered and won.
- Outsourcing models: Closely linked to the services they offer, check what outsourcing models your shortlisted BPOs offer. Some BPOs, for example, only offer staff leasing – which means you manage the staff on a day-to-day basis and they might even be based at your office. Others provide only managed services where a whole function – or part of it – is entirely outsourced to them. Determine which model, or mix of models, best suit your specific needs and business structure.
- Industry certifications: These can serve as evidence of an outsourcing company’s commitment to maintaining standards and following industry practices in certain sectors. These may include quality management systems, information security measures or standards related to customer service excellence – such as COPC for customer experience. An outsourcing company that holds industry certifications has proven their competence and dedication towards upholding operational standards.
STAGE 2: Request For Information/ Request For Proposal
Most of the activities you are going to undertake to select a partner are covered in this section. The purpose of the RFI / RFP you will send to your shortlisted BPOs is to answer all the questions below. Only with detailed information on all these topics will you be able to make an informed decision.
Capability – gather basic information on the capabilities of your potential partners.
- Added value: Beyond their core service offerings, consider any value or expertise that each outsourcing provider brings to the table. This could include industry knowledge, innovative technological solutions, or strategic insights that can drive your business forward.
- Scalability: Your business needs can fluctuate rapidly, so it’s crucial that your outsourcing partner can adapt accordingly. Whether you need to increase capacity during peak seasons or scale down during fallow periods they should be flexible enough to adjust their offering based on your changing requirements. A partner that is scalable will ensure that you receive the right level of support no matter what the business climate might be.
- Growth potential: One of the major reasons that companies outsource, particularly those in the start-up phase, is to manage rapid growth. As your business expands your customer experience needs will inevitably evolve well. That is why it is crucial to select an outsourcing partner capable of growing with you (which isn’t quite the same as one that offers scalability). They should demonstrate their ability to handle increased volumes efficiently, adapt their services according to emerging customer service or market trends, and even expand their service offerings if required. While you can give yourself a high ceiling for growth through the simple expedient of selecting an outsourcing partner that is already huge, you must be certain they will offer you the same level of attention and investment as a smaller partner that is committed to growing with you.
- Reporting and Business Intelligence (BI): It’s a data focussed world, so having access to reports and analytics that help you make sense of the reams of data a contact centre produces is crucial. Your outsourcing partner should be capable of reporting transparently on performance metrics that enable you to monitor service quality, identify patterns, and make commercial decisions based on data. Ideally, they should be able to go one step further and use AI and machine learning tools to uncover insight and connections in your raw customer interaction data that would otherwise be missed.
- Capacity for innovation: You simply don’t know what’s around the corner, or how your sector will change in the coming years. As we have just seen with the pandemic, business rules that we thought were hard and fast got upended in a matter of months. Look for an outsourcer that has previously demonstrated a flair for innovation in its approach to their services, operations, or technology. Preferably you would look for one with a consistent track record. This shows that they can bring new ideas and perspectives to the table that can improve your CX and help you stay one step ahead of your competition.
- Crisis management: While your chosen BPO should have its own business continuity plans in place (see #46), here we are talking about its ability to respond to any crisis or unusual event that impacts your business. From product recalls to negative press, to a data breach to some sudden disruption to your market, your BPO should be able to help you manage the response. A BPO that is calm in a crisis while being flexible, nimble and creative can help you navigate a crisis with your business and customer relationships intact.
Compatibility – here you are looking for specific information on how each BPO fits with your culture and aligns with your needs.
- Cultural fit: An outsourcing partnership is not a basic business transaction such as purchasing a product or service. It’s a complex, ongoing relationship that requires commitment from both sides to make it work. It also involves numerous individuals from both parties, each of whom has their own values, personalities, and preferred ways of doing things. As much as possible, this relationship is going to go much easier if there some common ground, or shared values, between the parties. A strong alignment in culture aids the high level of collaboration required for success.
- People: We look at employee management and the Employee Value Proposition in more detail a little later, however, to see if you’re compatible with a potential partner you should first of all check how they treat their employees. HR policies provide you with an insight into your potential partner’s culture and how they view both themselves and their employees. Policies related to diversity and inclusion can indicate a commitment towards fostering an inclusive work environment, which in turn can positively impact service delivery and foster innovation. The most impactful thing you can do, however, is to physically meet as many of your partner’s people as possible. You can have the tightest contract in the world, and service level agreements nailed down to the nth degree, but if your people can’t get on with your partner’s people it’s all going to be in vain. So you and your team need to ask yourselves if you can really work with your potential partner’s team.
- Expertise: While a partner with general customer service experience is a must, one that possesses domain specific knowledge and experience could be a game changer for your company. A provider with that kind of insight will understand the challenges and opportunities faced by players in your industry, enabling them to offer more tailored and effective solutions and help you navigate the choppy waters of a challenging business environment.
- Previous work and references: At this point in the process are beyond looking at publicly available information such as case studies on a website – you now need detailed information on successful client projects, and proof of your potential partner’s ability to deliver results. You should be able to ask for a client list – at least a list of clients relevant to your sector and the services you are looking to outsource. References from these clients hopefully demonstrate that your potential partner has a track record that gives you confidence in their ability to meet your needs.
- Partnership: It’s worth considering if the outsourcing company sees the relationship as more than a vendor-client arrangement. A partnership approach means that they are genuinely invested in your success. They will be more inclined to go beyond to fulfil your requirements, offer insights, and collaborate closely with you to enhance the overall customer experience.
- Transparency: As with any relationship, transparency and honesty are key. You should be able to tell from first contact, from their RFI responses, and from meeting with them, if a potential partner is sharing with you honestly or holding things back. From how they manage their operations (when you’re not there) to their commercial model and pricing, they should be open about their processes, provide detailed information, and offer comprehensive reports on their performance. A high level of transparency fosters trust and collaboration within the outsourcing partnership.
- Brand alignment: The alignment between your brand’s values and those of the outsourcing company can greatly influence how effectively they represent your business to customers. Consider factors such as mission statements, core values and brand personality when evaluating this alignment. Finding an outsourcing partner whose brand and values align well with yours can enhance the consistency and authenticity of the customer experience.
Operations – how a potential partner operates and how they synch with your own day-to-day operations is crucial to a functioning partnership.
- Quality Assurance: Delivering customer service relies on having a proper QA framework in place. You know this, and so do your potential partners. Performance monitoring, feedback sessions and ongoing training programs for frontline agents should be the absolute minimum. Only a BPO with a relentless commitment to quality deserves to talk to your customers, ensuring they always receive top-notch service.
- Flexibility: This goes beyond scalability, which is about the size of your outsourcing partner’s business and the amount of resources they can deliver at any one time. Flexibility speaks to what they can do and deliver by way of business benefits. Your business environment is dynamic and your needs will change over time. Therefore it is vital to choose an outsourcing partner that can adapt to these changes seamlessly, not just scale with demand, but adjust its entire service offering to your evolving requirements if need be. A partner with experience handling change management and digital transformation is going to be useful here.
- Customer feedback mechanisms: It’s important to see if the outsourcing company has methods of collecting and responding to customer feedback. This could involve conducting surveys using feedback forms or having a system in place for addressing customer complaints. When an outsourcing company actively seeks and acts upon customer feedback it shows their dedication to improvement.
- Proactive communication: Evaluate how the potential outsourcer communicates with you. Do they proactively share updates, news, and performance reports? Or do you always have to ask for information? Opting for an outsourcer that proactively communicates helps you stay informed and enables you to make better strategic and operational decisions.
- Customer retention and satisfaction: Given how much competition you likely face in your market, it’s probably fair to say that retaining your existing customers is paramount. Evaluate your potential outsourcing partners’ approaches to customer retention. Consider factors like their customer service, loyalty programs or initiatives aimed at engaging customers, and their capability to gather and leverage data to optimise outcomes and personalise interactions. Consider their customer satisfaction scores and feedback they have received from customers of their other clients – they should show this to you. These metrics can provide insights into their commitment to customer service and their ability to fulfil their promises.
- Sales: While most people don’t like being sold to, you probably need an outsourcer that loves selling. This doesn’t mean you should look for a specialist in outbound telesales. It’s just that your partner should demonstrate the ability to create sales opportunities during customer service events, when appropriate, and the skills to close them. Every interaction, even a complaint, is an opportunity to sell or somehow provide extra values to customers.
Employees – how your potential partner manages their staff and runs their HR department – as well as their Employee Value Proposition – are critical to ensuring best fit.
- Workforce management: Consider how your potential partner structures its workforce, as this can impact service delivery. For example, are their agent teams and managers usually based on-site in a contact centre, or do they work from home, or have a hybrid working arrangement? By considering these points you will be better equipped to evaluate an outsourcer’s customer service capabilities and decide. Every model has its strengths and the suitable choice will depend on your specific requirements and the kind of interactions you have with your customers. At this stage you will also consider what kind of employment contracts you will be requiring. Will agents remain as employees of your business, or will they TUPE over to the contact centre? If so, has the contact centre experience of this process and how best to handle the transition?
- Training: The quality of training provided to the outsourcer’s agents directly affects the level of service they can deliver on your behalf. Make sure they have training programs that equip their agents with the skills to handle customer queries effectively and represent your brand well. Look for outsourcers who prioritise learning and development initiatives for their staff, as this indicates a commitment to maintaining high service standards.
- Employee engagement: The level of engagement of your outsourcing partner’s staff in their work and their employer’s success directly impacts the level of customer service they can offer. Engagement is not only a strong indicator of staff turnover, engaged employees are also more likely to be dedicated and committed to their work, leading to productivity and superior service quality. Take the time to inquire about outsourcers’ employee engagement initiatives such as recognition programmes, career development opportunities, and policies promoting work-life balance. A high level of employee engagement signals a good work culture which is essential for a successful outsourcing partnership.
- Employee Value Proposition: When selecting an outsourcing partner it is crucial to consider what they offer their employees. This includes aspects such as employee development programmes, promotion policies, and the overall company culture. An outsourcer that invests in the growth of its employees creates a better work environment and provides opportunities for advancement. If they look after their own staff, it is a strong indicator that they will look after your customers too. A company that values its employees is more likely to have a satisfied workforce, resulting in lower turnover rates and consistently high-quality customer interactions.
Technology – your partner must have the technological know-how and capabilities you need to achieve your goals, and should be able to integrate with your own stack where necessary.
- Infrastructure: It goes without saying that your outsourcing partner should have a CRM system, cutting-edge contact centre technology, and robust measures to ensure data security. When it comes to their infrastructure and technology stack, it’s important to know what is proprietary and what comes from third-party vendors. If the latter, what are the vendor support and maintenance agreements in place, and when do these run out? At the most basic level, you need to reassure yourself that your partner either already has in place the technology you need or can easily acquire it. Beyond just looking at the technology itself, you need to know that they have the people on board with the necessary skills and knowledge to not only manage the technology for your current needs but also suggest paths for innovation for the future.
- Integration: When evaluating the technology capabilities of outsourcing partners it’s essential to consider how well their systems can seamlessly integrate with your own. Smooth integration may be crucial for data exchange and effective workflow management. While it’s quite possible you will want your outsourced operation to exist in a technology silo, it’s far more likely you will want to integrate where possible to speed up and automate processes as far as possible.
- Data, privacy, and security: When it comes to handling data and ensuring privacy, we cannot underestimate its importance in today’s world. It’s crucial to have trust in the outsourcer who will handle your customer information. Make sure they have data security measures in place and adhere to all data protection regulations. Don’t hesitate to inquire about their data handling policies, security infrastructure and any certifications related to data security that they may hold.
- Embracing technology: Harnessing advanced technologies can greatly enhance the level of customer service provided by an outsourcing company. Evaluate how extensively your potential partners utilises technologies like artificial intelligence (AI), machine learning and automation in their service delivery processes. Ideally, you’re looking for an outsourcing company that keeps on top of tech trends and uses the latest technologies to enhance customer experience for an efficient, personalised and responsive customer service.
- Multichannel and omnichannel: It sometimes feels as if contact centres only pay lip service to the idea of omnichannel – which simply means eliminating siloes between channels so that customers can receive the same response and quality of service on all channels. It is, however, one of the most critical roles a modern contact centre can play, so you should assess whether your outsourcing provider can provide support seamlessly across all channels, and if so, how do they do it? By offering support across multiple platforms an outsourcer can greatly enhance the customer experience. This not only meets customers’ expectations for convenience and accessibility, but it also ensures consistent delivery of high-quality service regardless of their preferred means of interaction, with your business.
Governance – your chosen partner needs to be a secure, stable and well-run business that’s going to be in it for the long-haul.
- Sustainability: As we become more aware of our impact on the environment as individuals and small parts of a business, it’s worth considering your partner’s commitment to sustainability. Choosing a partner with sustainability practices can enhance your company’s social responsibility efforts. Look for outsourcers who prioritise energy conservation, waste reduction initiatives or who offset their carbon emissions. Opting for such an outsourcer not only reduces your company’s carbon footprint, while maximising community impact, but also resonates with the values of environmentally conscious consumers.
- Social corporate responsibility: It is also important to consider an outsourcing company’s commitment to responsibility as it can positively reflect on your brand. Look into their involvement in community initiatives efforts that entail giving back to their local community. Collaborating with an outsourcing company that values responsibility, can enhance your company’s social responsibility profile.
- Longevity and stability: When choosing an outsourcing partner it’s important to consider their track record and financial stability as indicators of reliability. Look at their history, financial reports and market reputation. An outsourcer with an established presence, financial track record, and a positive reputation is more likely to be a dependable partner capable of navigating business challenges.
- Cultural sensitivity: If your target audience consists of customers from diverse backgrounds, it’s essential to assess your partner’s ability to offer services in a culturally sensitive and respectful way. This can range from their ability to provide culturally appropriate services to specific groups, to their language skills, cultural training programs and experience in serving different markets. Working with an outsourcer who demonstrates a sensitivity to cultures can help you establish deeper connections with your customers.
- Protection of Intellectual Property (IP): Today there is a lot of value and capital stored in an organisation’s customer data, business processes and proprietary technology. It is important, therefore, to evaluate what measures your partner has in place for protecting your property. They should adhere to all relevant laws and regulations, of course, while implementing security measures to prevent unauthorised access or data breaches. Encryption, access controls and regular security audits are necessary components for ensuring the safety of your property.
- Financial track record: When selecting an outsourcing partner it is imperative to consider their stability and track record carefully. A reliable and sustainable business partner can be identified through an outsourcer’s performance, consistent profitability, and history of significant investment. Such a partner is less likely to face difficulties that could disrupt their service to you. Additionally, a stable outsourcer is more inclined to invest in the technologies, training and other resources necessary for providing exceptional service to their clients. Hence evaluating an outsourcer’s financial stability plays a role in establishing a successful and long-lasting partnership.
- Business continuity: With the pandemic ever fresh in our minds you need to know that your partner can keep operating even when disaster strikes. Whether it’s a calamity, a cyber-attack or any other unexpected event, disruptions to your provider’s ability to serve can occur at any moment. It’s imperative therefore to assess each outsourcer’s preparedness and plans for such situations. These plans should guarantee customer service during significant disruptions. Maintaining customer trust and satisfaction hinges on the ability to provide continuous service. Partnering with an outsourcer equipped with continuity and recovery strategies offers peace of mind that your customer service will remain resilient, in the face of adversity.
Contractual – Finally you agree on the price and terms of the partnership.
- Pricing: Understanding the pricing structure of each outsourcing provider under consideration is also vital as it can significantly impact your outsourcing experience. Consider whether a per-hour or per-agent rate, fixed fee or project-based pricing transaction-based pricing or performance-based pricing would work best for your business model and objectives. Each option has its advantages and disadvantages; choose wisely to ensure results. While cost should not be the only or main factor in your decision-making process it holds importance. Take the time to comprehend how the outsourcer prices their services and ensure that it aligns with your budget.
- Dispute resolution procedures: It’s crucial to understand how your potential outsourcing partner deals with disputes or issues that may arise. It’s important that they have defined procedures in place for resolving disputes related to service quality, billing, or any other aspects of the partnership. This should include maintaining lines of communication, designating a point of contact, and demonstrating a commitment to promptly and fairly addressing any problems. By having a robust dispute resolution process in place you can effectively address any issues that arise and minimize their impact on both your business and customer experience.
- Exit strategy: When entering an outsourcing partnership, it’s equally important to consider the end of it. You should thoroughly understand the outsourcer’s terms and conditions for terminating the contract. This includes being aware of notice periods, and termination fees, as well as the process for smoothly transitioning services back in-house or to another provider if needed. Having an exit strategy ensures that you are prepared for all scenarios and can navigate through any changes in the partnership seamlessly.
- Avoiding dependency: Comprehending the terms of the outsourcer’s contract, and whether it includes vendor lock, is crucial. Some contracts may impose conditions that hinder or incur costs if you decide to switch providers due to dissatisfaction with their services. These conditions could include long-term agreements, hefty termination fees, or complex transition processes. It is essential to ensure that you have the flexibility to change providers if needed without facing obstacles. This safeguards your business interests and ensures uninterrupted high-quality customer service even if your relationship, with the outsourcer undergoes changes.
And finally …
Your RFI / RFP process may involve many stages, including multiple site visits, consultation with reference clients, and even input or assistance from expert third parties. Depending on your sector and specific needs you will likely have even more questions you need answers to than we could cover here.
Our most important advice is to take your time and be thorough in the selection process. Selecting a contact centre outsourcing partner is a decision that has substantial implications for your business.
Once you have made your selection you then move on to final negotiations, signing the contract, and then onboarding…but that’s a checklist for another day.
About the Author
Siobhain Goodall, Business Development Manager at Ventrica
Siobhain has over 25 years of experience with transformational contact centre’s.
Siobhain is a judge for categories in both the annual CCMA and ECCCSA awards with specific expertise in outsourcing using offshore/onshore solutions and peak planning.
If you want to reach out to Siobhain, connect on LinkedIn.