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There comes a time in every support team’s existence when they start to feel the pressure of growth — we see tons of questions come up about it in both #chit-chat and #leadership, for instance! Maybe that means that their user base is growing to different time zones, or their company’s needs are rapidly increasing and they are feeling the strain to keep up. No matter what the situation is, it is often in these times of pre-desperation that companies start to consider outsourcing some of their work.
We’ve chatted with some industry experts that have both used and provided outsourcing to find the best tips for things to consider before you make the jump. Taking tips from people who have been through it before will give you the jump on anything that could go wrong as you shift from entirely internally to partially outsourced team members.
Here’s a summary of what you can expect to learn:
- What is outsourcing?
- Why do some companies do it?
- To increase coverage
- To cover extremely quick growth
- To increase flexibility
- 6 things to consider:
Let’s get into it!
What is outsourcing?
Outsourcing is when a company hires another company or an individual to complete tasks or services, or handle operations that are either usually executed by people within the company. In support, that means handling customer requests, implementing processes and tracking feedback. This process can also be called business process outsourcing, or BPO for short.
The company that is providing the outsourced employees is known as the service provider or a third-party provider. If contracted by a company, they arrange for their own workers or software to work on-site or externally, depending on their agreement with your company.
The History of Outsourcing
In the gig economy, outsourcing has become extremely popular. Boutique and niche service providers have connected with excellent employees to provide companies with experienced, trustworthy help. However, it hasn’t always been that way. Outsourcing originally started with sailors in the 18th century—captains would lose much of their crew in long and laborious journeys across the ocean. To never be left high and dry, they would hire dispensable employees to fill the gaps. This later translated to the military, where bringing on unskilled daily labor to fill holes in the ranks became common practice.
Outsourcing, though, has not always been a trade for the unskilled. In the 19th century, companies realized that they could hire extremely skilled and knowledgable individuals for one-off legal cases. After all, you probably don’t need a bird law specialist every day, but having someone that you can bring in as needed can be incredibly valuable. Later, this level of professional outsourcing grew and translated itself to the IT and software industry in the way that we see it today. So, if you think of call centers filled with untrained workers when you think of outsourcing, that’s a partial truth, but there’s much more to it than that. It’s also a unique way for companies to fill niche or difficult-to-hire-for needs without straining their own resources to do so.
Why do companies outsource?
There are so many reasons that a company might outsource, but usually, it is because they are experiencing a need that they are not currently equipped to handle by themselves. This may be because the company doesn’t have the infrastructure or staff in place to handle hiring, or it may be due to shifting trends in their industry. During our interviews, we asked why our experts chose to outsource their support function. Here’s what we found:
As companies grow, so does their customer base. To continue providing excellent support, most companies determine that they need to offer support in the same time zones that their customers are reflecting it. That opens a myriad of questions:
- Do you open a new office?
- Do you hire remotely?
- How do you staff in countries where you do not have a business presence?
- Are there finance or tax implications for hiring in other countries?
- Do you hire people as employees or contractors?
- Should you “follow the sun” or have people work the overnight shift?
- What impacts could any choices you make have on company culture or customer experience?
For business owners, these are huge questions, and it can feel overwhelming to make decisions without completing a ton of research. A BPO service can help: they handle the hiring and they handle the employee management, so that takes two huge pieces out of the hands of the parent company. Along with that, though, there’s much more. As Darnell Witt, formerly Senior Director of Community and Support at Vimeo, said: “I started looking into outsourcing primarily so I could outsource the administrative logistics of hiring overseas and in different states in the US.” (Darnell now works directly for a BPO, PartnerHero.)
Third-party service providers have a ton of experience with staffing and hiring laws, as well as wage legalities—and they are entirely responsible for managing that for any of the employees that you employ through them. What that means is that you save yourself the time and energy of having to worry about staffing regulations, learning about wage laws in Germany, or finding ideal candidates in regions where you don’t yet have a presence.
Extremely Quick Growth
Handling a sudden incoming rush of new customers can be tricky. A BPO provider can help you level up without letting the quality slide. Companies that offer third-party services are well-equipped to handle the challenges of quick growth when they arise. Instead of learning a whole new skill set, many companies choose to use a service that has already developed expertise in growth and can help them through the process.
Hiring the right people, working through your pipeline of candidates, maintaining best practices for onboarding—these are all things that can suffer under the pressure of rapid growth. Using a BPO provider means that you can put your trust in someone who’s been there before to get you through the process successfully.
Some companies see extreme holiday spikes. For example, costume stores, tree retailers and maybe even certain bakers will need to hire to cover growth during certain seasons, and then layoff during others. This was certainly the case for Ashley Conway when she worked for Cratejoy. “We had some seasonality in our business that caused support tickets to spike during the holidays, and we also were growing at a pace that made it difficult to support our customers in an affordable way.” Using a BPO allowed Ashley to help hire seasonal workers as needed without the fear of wage repercussions or the need to lay them off afterward. After all, the third-party service provider could put excellent employees or candidates to work elsewhere after the conclusion of a seasonal project with a previous company.
Max Swagler of Interfolio, had a similar experience:
During various points of the year, we were stretched really thin in support. We responded to most inquiries within a reasonable time frame but felt that we were falling short of where we hoped to be. Anyone who has worked on the front lines knows that it can be total grind during high-volume periods, but it’s especially taxing on morale when you’re working hard but still falling short of meeting your service goals.
Finding the right hours/coverage is a tricky thing that can (in our case) evolve slowly or really quickly over time, depending on your growth rate. Our primary focus in expanding our coverage hours was the ability to extend the window of time that we had to get back to customers on those really busy days. We also wanted to provide a much better experience for our customers and support staff. We were monitoring product usage and logins, noticing that more customers were logging on later in the evenings, and knew that the general expectation for support goes well beyond a traditional 9-5 these days.
Rather than needing to worry about the logistics of temporary seasonal employment, many companies look to service providers to help them cover themselves during busy seasons. This increased flexibility is a huge benefit to companies that have other, larger fish to fry.
Some important things to consider
Maybe some of those examples in the above section resonated with you, or maybe you already knew that you needed a BPO to better your business processes. No matter where you are with your considerations, it’s important to mull over a few things as you’re talking to different providers. There are a number of different aspects that can make or break your experience with a third-party service provider, so making sure you have defined your needs before starting the evaluation process is super important. Similarly, having a clear definition of what you want in mind prior to starting the conversation allows you to ask the right questions once you get to the evaluation stage with a BPO.
For many companies, cost is a huge factor in thinking about which service to use. Many customer experience budgets are lower than they should be, based on the metrics that they funnel up to and impact. For example, it can be difficult to determine whether support costs fall under Sales & Marketing (a generally larger budget), or Cost of Goods Sold (COGS). Often times support falls under COGS, which leaves them with less financial bandwidth as it’s viewed as less of a pillar of the business’s success. Because of that, even the consideration of adding an additional expense to the customer experience budget may leave many support managers short of breath.
Before you go into evaluation with a BPO, ask yourself a few questions:
- What is the most that you could spend on this service annually or monthly?
- What contract terms are you comfortable with? For example, are you keen on having a one year contract, or would you be willing to sign for longer?
- What is the least amount of money you’d want to spend to trust that you’re getting value?
Flexibility around things other than cost can also be extremely important. Take, for example Erica Seamster’s experience while working for GIPHY:
One of the other major selling points for us was that the company we were working with offered three-month contracts. So, if wasn’t working out, it was easy to re-evaluate. That gives everyone the incentive to make sure things are going well. When I started talking with our BPO, I told them I needed one agent, but prior to signing the contract, quickly changed that to four. This was an easy and agile process for us.
If you have some numbers in mind before you start conversations or contract negotiations with a third party, you’ll be less broadsided when the topic of money arises.
Almost everyone that we talked to for this piece mentioned quality as a huge consideration when moving forward with a third-party service provider. Darnell voiced it best when he said this about his experience at Vimeo:
We needed our customers to talk to people who love the platform as much as they do, who would have personal experiences that allowed them to make a genuine connection. This translates to higher engagement, which is crucial for customer advocacy (issue tracking, surfacing feature requests, etc.).
Everyone can resonate with the need to improve customer advocacy and engagement through their service delivery process. It’s key to find a partner that knows the level of quality that you are looking for and commits to providing even better candidates than you expect.
As another example, Heather of PartnerHero, a BPO, says that “more and more partners want to go global, but they understand that night shifts aren’t ideal from a quality perspective. We’ve been advocating ‘follow the sun’ for a while and put associates in every time zone to accommodate that approach. Call centers based in a single region aren’t ideal for that.” Finding a BPO that can offer their own expertise and advice to improve quality can provide a better return on investment. A true partnership means that your BPO can identify areas for quality improvement before it becomes an issue.
Some questions that you can ask the BPO to make sure that this is covered:
- What metrics do you use to determine agent success?
- How deeply can we be involved in the ongoing training of agents?
- What QA processes does your company have in place?
- Will we be able to directly access reports on agent productivity?
- How easy is it to phase out an agent who is underperforming or not performing to brand standards?
More than 50% of executives say corporate culture influences productivity, creativity, profitability, firm value, and growth rates. So, it’s no wonder that many of the companies that we spoke to were concerned about how partnering with a BPO would impact culture-fit. When you’re working with a third-party service for staffing and hiring, it’s right to be concerned about how well they’re going to preserve the culture that you’ve built for your team up to this point. Not only that, but the likelihood that your team will be shifting from a wholly colocated one to a partially-remote one is high. Many founders, managers, and team members have a lot of rightful concern about how that can impact the culture of an existing team.
Here’s what Darnell said about how they looked at this at Vimeo: “Vimeo has always had a close relationship with its community and our support channels were a vital part of the user experience. We needed our customers to talk to people who love the platform as much as they do, who would have personal experience that allowed them to make a genuine connection. This translates to higher engagement, which is crucial for customer advocacy (issue tracking, surfacing feature requests, etc.).
In other words, we needed someone who would hire the same way we hired internally, and we knew intuitively that old school BPOs weren’t set up that way.
Luckily, there has been a rise in BPOs that are concerned about just that, and you can be as involved as you’d like in making sure each hire is a good fit. Here are a few questions that you can ask to accomplish culture fit:
- How can we pass along culture-fit guidelines to ensure that the people you bring on fit them?
- How involved are we in the interview process for deciding who gets to work on our project?
- Do you have a process in place to switch out employees in the event that they don’t fit our needs?
- We don’t have any remote members of our team, what are some best practices we can put in place to make sure that these new employees feel connected and invested in what they’re working on?
If you acknowledge your concerns ahead of time, any good BPO will be able to assuage them or put a process in place to make you feel confident in maintaining culture fit.
Many companies run into the issue of multilingual support when trying to scale. After all, 74% of customers would be more likely to purchase from a company that offered post-sales support in their language. As you expand into countries outside of your own, the languages required to cover that preference will also expand. Many BPOs already have specialties in offering specific languages and are able to grow and flex that muscle as needed on a customer-by-customer basis. However, it’s important to make sure that it’s something your BPO of choice offers in a way that will cover your future needs. Here are a few questions to ask:
- Do you currently offer multilingual support with any of your other clients? If so, how’s it going? If not, why not?
- What languages have you offered support in?
- What does the process of managing multilingual agents look like?
- If we need to add additional languages that you don’t currently support, what would that process look like?
Not everyone needs to be able to support multiple languages, but if you do, it’s a good thing to address with your BPO while you’re still in the discovery period.
5. Style of Engagement
Many of the old-style service-providers think of themselves as “yes” people. Meaning that, instead of telling a company when a process is broken or doesn’t make sense, they would just agree to do the work. In fact, some of the people that we interviewed said that it seemed like the companies were more concerned with seeming like they were working hard than being invested in working with us as smart partners.
For example, Max Swagler of Interfolio shared this:
We were looking for a partner that could leverage past experiences in thinking through new and existing challenges, be willing to think outside the box and find solutions that would help us provide improved services to our customers. We were looking for a partner willing and curious to learn how we do things. In evaluating our options, we found that many BPOs had predefined employee profiles and training methods, while others were willing to adapt their methods to ensure that the BPO team mirrored our on-site team as much as possible.
It’s beneficial to look for a BPO that is invested in being managerial partners with your company, rather than just in fulfillment. Working with a company that cares about the success of your customers just as much as you do will lead to happier agents, a better connection between your two companies, and even better processes as you gain constructive insights from them. Here are a few questions that you can use to help understand if the company that you’re thinking about working with feels the same way:
- What conversations have you had with other companies in the past to let them know when processes or documentation didn’t make sense?
- Have you ever made a really large positive impact on a company by offering agent insights?
- What kind of communication can we expect from your team and from your agents? Will we have a regular meeting cadence?
- When was the last time that you had to deliver hard constructive insights to a client and how did you do it?
6. Building Rapport & Trust
Did you know that, in the SaaS world, word of mouth marketing is responsible for driving $6 trillion of consumer spending nd is estimated to account for 13% of consumer sales annually? It’s similar in the services industry. Most individuals that are looking for a BPO find them through mutual connections, whether it be that they know someone within the company or someone that they trust has used the company in the past. However, if you don’t have a personal connection, you can still build a sense of rapport and trust within the evaluation period to ensure the BPO is the right fit for you.
James, from Change.org recommends even going to the physical location of the services provider:
Getting eyes inside a local operation is absolutely critical to making a decision as you can get a much better understanding of the culture your team would be working in, the conditions/equipment they use and many other factors you just can’t get via email/phone with a sales team. It also helps start that trusting relationship that you’ll come to depend on in the years to come.
Moving forward into the procurement process with the knowledge that you know what the office looks like and feeling like you have a real connection with the BPO is incredibly important. It helps to unify and connect two separate companies and create a lasting bond.
It can be scary to let your customer experience move, even partially, out of the hands of your support team. However, if you take your time to really consider what you <need when looking into an outsourcing partner, and then do your due diligence during the evaluation process, you’ll likely end up with amazing results. Before looking into any providers, do an inventory of what is important to your company and what goals you are looking to achieve by using a BPO. This will help you get a picture of what type of partner you should be looking for. After that, use that checklist to ask questions that help you to uncover the ethos of your potential partner company and see if they feel the same way as you do.
Be open to working with your BPO partner to better your own internal processes and tooling—it’s easy to see things that are problematic with fresh eyes. Allow your company and your team members to learn through osmosis—your partner will be able to teach you just as much as you can teach them, if not more.
BPOs have moved so far beyond the reality of call centers that just do their daily work and then go home for the day. By knowing what you’re looking for and what to consider to find it, you’ll uncover a perfect fit to help grow and scale your support team’s needs.