December 29, 2009, 12:00 AM

Home and Abroad

Offshore contact centers offer cost savings, but cultural concerns keep many retailers close to home.

Every country has its own wedding rituals. In the U.S., they can include everything from tiaras to unity candles-not the kind of terms people in other countries would often learn when studying English. That’s why wedding products retailer David’s Bridal Inc. didn’t look far beyond the U.S. and Canada when looking for a provider of contact center services.

“It was essential that agents understood the culture, and were sensitive to the experience of investing a significant amount of money in a gown,” says Dwight Klingenberg, the company’s vice president of profit improvement. “With something so essential to our business we couldn’t afford to introduce variables where you have a language and cultural differential.”

That depth of cultural knowledge isn’t necessary when buying a duvet or a vacuum. Overstock.com Inc., which sells such mundane products online, has outsourced a portion of its contact center live chat work to India for the past five years and been happy with the results-and the cost.

For retailers like David’s Bridal and Overstock that decide to outsource contact centers there are a slew of options available-from vendors whose agents work from home, or in U.S.-based bricks-and-mortar call centers or facilities in Canada, Mexico or another continent.

Whether to consider contact centers outside of North America is a question more retailers are likely to face. That’s because a growing number of retail companies are outsourcing this function, says Peter Ryan, an analyst at Datamonitor, a market research firm based in the United Kingdom. In 2007, the percentage of global retailers outsourcing their contact centers was 17%. In 2009, the percentage grew to 18%, and by 2012, Datamonitor forecasts it will reach nearly 20%.

Offshore call centers offer significant savings. Factoring in wages, benefits, taxes, technology and other costs, the average contact center worker in India earn $13.50 per hour compared to $27.80 per hour for U.S.-based agents. And there can be other, less obvious benefits. In countries like India and Mexico, where working in a call center is an attractive career path, retailers may be able to employ more educated agents than they’re likely to find in the U.S., Ryan says.

But there are also the cultural nuances to consider, for instance, the distaste many consumers express about speaking with customer service representatives with foreign accents. Retailers outsourcing this work must work closely with the outsourcer to bolster a customer’s impression of the brand, says Natalie Petouhoff, Forrester senior analyst. “Customers can either have an experience in which they feel like they’re dealing with a call center focused entirely around corporate efficiency,” she says, “or they can have one that leaves them feeling that a company truly cares about its customers.”

Brides to be get plenty of personal attention in a David’s Bridal store-a typical customer spends an hour and a half going through the store’s offerings with a specially trained sales associate, Klingenberg says. When the retailer contracted with Global Response, which uses U.S.-based contact center agents, it wanted to replicate that in-store experience.

Enter online chat.

When a customer is on a product page at DavidsBridal.com for 40 seconds, a pop-up asks the shopper if she’d like chat assistance. If she opts in, agents use the same terminology in-store associates use, language they learned by going through the same David’s Bridal training as store associates.

“You try to have the agent create an image in the bride’s mind that is similar to that in the store,” says Klingenberg. Rather than have the web site feature recommended accessories, suggestions come from the associate. “It makes it more personal and hands-on,” he says. And for shoppers merely browsing on the site, a chat agent can schedule an in-store appointment.

To ensure continuity among the web and in-store experiences, Andrew Durant, vice president of order fulfillment, talks with Global Response three to five times a week, in addition to a weekly call that often involves Klingenberg. Three David’s Bridal employees monitor chats and calls daily. In total, they review 5-15% of chats, depending on the season, to ensure everything follows the retailer’s training protocols. While that same level of contact is possible with an overseas contact center, interacting with a U.S.-based contact center means not having to deal with such issues as big differences in time zones, says Klingenberg.

Keeping in close touch is also important for Pataskala, Ohio-based The Limited Stores. “Most customers don’t understand the difference between a contact center and the actual store, so we try to limit the distinctions as much as possible as possible,” says Heather Popadych, e-commerce operations manager.

Since the SpeedFC contact center that the Limited works with is located in nearby Columbus, Ohio, Popadych is able to personally train each of the contact center’s supervisors. She also speaks daily with those supervisors, visits the call center at least twice a month and monitors calls to ensure agents are meeting her expectations about two hours a week. She also includes the call center’s supervisors in the retailer’s customer service and operations conference calls. Doing so not only improves customers’ experiences, she says, but also helps the retailer learn and rework what may not be clear on the web site or in agents’ scripts.

Avoiding customer annoyance with dealing with agents who speak with foreign accents is a big reason many retailers keep their contact center work in North America. But there’s no guarantee that all agents working for North American companies will speak uninflected English. In addition to regional accents, there are many immigrants in the work force-in fact, more than 10% of the U.S. population and 20% of Canadian residents are foreign-born. And although retailers may want its outsourcer’s agents to speak without accents, asking an outsourcer to ensure that is the case could open up a human resources and public relations brouhaha, says a Global Response spokesman.

In discussing agent recruitment with outsourcers, retailers should keep in mind that some accents are easier for some consumers to understand than others. “For a U.S. citizen to hear someone speak with a Hispanic hint of an accent is normal,” Ryan says.

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