January 31, 2008, 12:00 AM

Keep In Touch

(Page 2 of 2)

Before signing a contract, a retailer should visit all the outsourcer’s facilities that will be handling calls, advises Elizabeth Herrell, a Forrester Research analyst specializing in contact centers. She notes some contact center providers subcontract work to other companies, so all sites should be seen in person.

“You can walk into a contact center and immediately see what it’s like,” she says. “Are agents busy, at their desks, is the sound volume reasonable, is it a good, clean work environment? In a poorly run contact center you’ll see people running around with a lot of paper, stickies on monitors, outdated training manuals.”

Some contact center outsourcers use agents who work from home, and Herrell says those workers can provide superior service. “You can get a higher-caliber person who will work for a lower salary just for the privilege of working from home,” she says.

But the retailer must get guarantees that the customer information handled by home-based agents is as secure as it would be in a contact center facility, and that the environment is business-like. “You don’t want barking dogs or crying babies in the background,” Herrell says.

Alpine Access employs 7,500 home-based workers, and Carrington says that allows the company to offer agent time in 15-minute increments, which means retailers are less likely to be paying agents who are waiting idly for calls.

If calls slow down, Carrington says, Alpine Access can ask agents if they want to take a short break, reducing a retailer’s costs. “An agent might say, ‘Great, I can get off the phone for 30 minutes, put in a load of laundry, and come back,’” Carrington says. “That’s because there’s no commute time. If things are slow in a contact center, an agent won’t sit in the break room for 30 minutes and not get paid.”

Quality scores

While it’s easy to measure how long a call lasts, or how many seconds before it is answered, it’s more difficult to measure how well an agent handles a customer’s call. E-retailers say it’s important to regularly monitor calls and go over the results with the outsourcing company.

Roots Canada conducts what it calls “calibration sessions” about every other week, listening in on an hour or so of calls along with a representative of the outsourcer, PFSweb. Everyone monitoring the calls uses a scoresheet that rates agents on a scale of 10 on how well they know the retailer’s products and processes, on courtesy and helpfulness, and their overall ability to interact with the customer.

The Roots and PFS staffers score the calls independently, then share the results, Connell says. “This way we make sure PFS’s expectations are in line with ours,” he says.

FAO Schwarz uses an outside evaluation firm to make five “mystery shopper” calls each week to gauge the quality of service, product knowledge and order accuracy, Martin says. Results are shared during weekly conference calls with the outsourcer, Global Response.

While that feedback is helpful, Fettes of 24-7 INtouch says poor results often are not the fault of the agent but of the scripts the agents work from. For instance, if a retailer wants all callers asked how they heard of the company but puts that question at the end of the script, it’s not likely agents will ask that question every time.

Preparing for success

Retailers and outsourcers agree that providing agents with as much information as possible is crucial.

In preparation for the holiday rush, FAO Schwarz brought Global Response trainers to New York, showed them around the retailer’s flagship Manhattan store and had them sit in with buyers to discuss the items they were ordering.

Roots Canada sends samples of its products to agents so they can see and feel the items they’ll be discussing with customers, Connell says. The retailer also tries to make agents feel like they’re part of Roots, he says.

The company does that by offering the PFS agents working for it discounts on products, sends them internal newsletters and links to company blogs, encourages them to visit the more than 110 Roots stores in the U.S. and Canada, and sends them videos of in-store events. Connell emphasizes the importance of such interactions.

“Never undervalue training,” he says, “The more you train agents, and get them to touch and feel your products the more likely you are to have an agent who will be able to represent your brand in a consistent way. And if you can involve an agent, even though they’re outsourced, and treat them like an employee, the benefits are phenomenally higher.”


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