5 Tips For Scaling With An Outsourcer

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This post is adapted from a talk I gave in March to a group of entrepreneurs and customer service leaders at a Customer Service Lab workshop hosted by Sophie Conti and Eric Hallquist.

Tell me if either of these scenarios, or dare I say challenges, ring true for you.

Scenario #1 – High Call Volume Anticipated

Business is booming in general, or even for a season, and you need a customer service team to handle the increased volume of contacts. 60% of our clients at FCR have contracted with us in anticipation of higher volumes – either rapid growth, expanding markets, a product launch, and in some cases, seasonality.

Scenario #2 – Out of Space

You’re business is headquartered in a major metropolitan area like San Francisco, New York, or LA and you’ve simply run out of space. Or perhaps you’re like many of our clients who simply can’t hire fast enough in your market to keep up with the volume.

Start Planning Now

If either of these scenarios describes your current reality or your future reality, my recommendation is that you find your customer service outsourcer now. Even if you don’t need a team right now, it’s better to begin the selection process and get your contract signed BEFORE your ticket queue is 3,000 deep and customer satisfaction has plummeted as a result. A little advance planning will ensure a smooth, measured implementation process.

Sometimes we get companies that want to “dip their toe in the water” and start with just a few agents to see how it goes. Although that sounds plausible on the surface, I recommend timing your use of an outsourcer around when you think you’ll need at least 5 to 10 agents. This will give you more of a feel for what your outsourcer is capable of rather than a reflection on a few individuals.

Now, if you are already buried under a queue of 3,000 tickets, have no fear. It’s not too late! You can still get help and find a great outsourcer to help dig you out and sustain your service. A new program can be launched in as little as 30 days.

Regardless of your current situation, here are my five tips for successfully scaling your customer service with an outsourcer.

Tip #1: Think of your outsourcer as a partner – an extension of you – rather than a vendor.

At FCR, we approach the relationship as a partnership versus a strict “client/vendor” arrangement. When shopping for an outsourcer, try to pick a company that is interested in being a true business partner rather than just another client. Consider the people you’ll be working with, and more importantly, who will be talking to your customers. Do you like them? Do they seem authentic? Does the outsourcer treat their people (the people who will be talking to your customers) well? That’s a barometer for a lasting relationship.

Once you find the outsourcer you like here are a handful of things to strengthen that relationship:

  • Invest in the relationship.
  • Visit often with the team.
  • Share your vision and mission. Give them purpose and connect them with the “why” of what you do.
  • Tell the origin story of the company.
  • Share what your brand is all about.
  • Share your company values.
  • Engage the team as you would engage your own people.
  • SWAG, banners, and access to your product all go a very long way as well.
  • Celebrate success together.

Thinkers like Daniel Pink and Simon Sinek have helped the business community understand the importance of creating a sense of purpose and connecting people to the ‘why’ of their product and brand. Utilize these concepts in your training and interaction with your outsourcing partner as you would your own team. The energy and enthusiasm you unleash will pay dividends for your customers and the team of people assisting them.

Tip # 2: Think about communication and transparency as a process and plan your communication strategy with your outsourcer.

Like any good relationship, communication is key. Your outsourcer will ask you about the best communication methods that meet your needs and style. Here are a few things they will want to discuss with you:

  • What is your day to day communication going to look like?
  • Do you want to touch base once every morning or chat throughout the day?
  • Do you prefer Slack, HipChat, Google Hangout, emails, or old-fashioned phone?

I know no one likes the thought of more meetings, but some more formalized meetings will be set up so that key things like quality, customer satisfaction, and day-to-day operations can be discussed and not lost in the day-to-day flurry of activity. A good outsourcer will be flexible around your schedule and priorities and keep the calendar updated.

In addition to the daily cadence of communication, I suggest two types of weekly meetings. The first is a meeting focused on quality monitoring to make sure that the way the outsourcer evaluates customer interactions aligns with your expectations. The second meeting is an operations-focused meeting to discuss contact volume, KPIs, and staffing. Monthly or quarterly business reviews give you a chance to step back from the day-to-day, get some perspective, and discuss future plans.

Another critical line of communication is the timely relay of product and process information from the frontline agents back to your engineering and product teams. Look for a partner that will give you full access to your frontline agents and the rich insight they possess from speaking with your customers every day. Your outsourcer can arrange roundtable discussions with the agents as well as access to them through Hipchat, Slack, or another great collaboration tool. You don’t want a partner that will limit you to just talking to the manager of the team.

Tip #3: Look for a partner nimble enough to adapt and evolve with you.

For businesses, and especially startups, it would be odd if things weren’t hectic and chaotic. Tools change quickly, processes evolve organically, and much information is shared through the proverbial ‘tribal knowledge’. Look for an outsourcer who can roll with those changes. As part of the implementation process, they can walk you through the steps to transfer that knowledge. Don’t worry if you don’t have a developed training program yet. They will work with you to develop the program initially and over time.

Here are some important pieces of information to share that will better equip your outsourcer to adapt to your ever changing needs:

  • Culture and Style – What’s your company all about and what makes you unique?
  • Customers – Who are your customers, what’s important to them, and what’s driving them to use your product?
  • Brand Voice – How do you want to sound and what tone do you want to set with your customers?
  • Troubleshooting Procedures – What are your basic procedures for resolving customer issues. Discussing and understanding what a quality interaction looks like is one of the most important things we’ll discuss.
  • Escalation – At what point should interactions be handed off or escalated and to whom? Which types of work do you want your in-house team to handle versus the outsourced team?
  • Documentation – Where and how should information be documented?

This should be enough information to get the ball rolling. Your tools and channels of support will change throughout your growth trajectory— that’s a given. A great outsourcer will evolve right alongside of you.

Tip #4: Look for an outsourcer that will first help make sense of your data and then partner with you to achieve your business goals.

Data. So much data. Startups usually have a lot of available data but not a whole lot of time and resources to make sense of it all. An outsourcer has access to insights, often from other clients, that you can use to help make sense of your data. You can use your outsourcer as a resource to better understand your customers, contact volumes, and other levers.

Conversely, the outsourcer will need data from your tools in order to manage their people and provide insights back to you about productivity and efficiency. The more access you give to them, the more transparency you each have, and the more robust the insights will be.

To give you an example, we recently dove into the customer satisfaction survey responses for one of our clients and saw many requests for a particular feature, and without that feature there was significant customer dissatisfaction. Luckily, this feature was already on the client’s roadmap. We were able not only to help make a case for the release of that feature, but also to relay customer feedback about that feature after the release.

Workforce management is another area where an outsourcer can add tremendous value. As a standard, outsource providers have workforce teams and tools you can leverage to project incoming contact volume and the number of people you will need to staff to hit your desired service levels. This is an area that’s discussed and modeled pretty extensively during the implementation phase. We’re here to help and we probably have experience solving some of the problems you’re up against. This is the value of a strong partnership with your outsourcer.

Tip #5: Remember, we’re dealing with humans, not widgets

Between customers and their needs, a team of customer service agents, and the challenges of the startup environment, things will happen. Your agents will inevitably have a bad contact with a customer, someone will get the flu and call in sick, you or your marketing team are going to forget to mention some big event that floods the team with contacts, and on and on. That’s just the way it goes.

If I can boil it down into one piece of advice as you aim for a fruitful partnership with an outsourcer it’s this: Keep a sense of humor, wade through the issues as they arise, focus on learning and continuous improvement, and live to fight another day.


Katheryn Carnahan

Katheryn Carnahan is the COO of FCR and has been leading the Operations Team since 2009. Prior to joining FCR, she ran both large and small contact centers in the  wireless, consumer product, and entertainment industries.  Katheryn is passionate about creating a culture that brings out the very best in people and where people can have extraordinary customer interactions. Follow her on Twitter and LinkedIn.

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