Contact centers and their agents are the first line of service and support for utilities. They communicate with customers, triage inquiries, open trouble tickets and dispatch repair staff. While web self-service is helpful and low cost, it is of little use if the lights go out.
The big issue that hangs over all outsourcing arrangements is ensuring performance and quality. It takes a leap of faith to contract out contact center functions. The utility is trusting individuals-agents, supervisors and managers-who are not employees to be as efficient and to treat customers as well (or better) than its own staff.
steps to performance and quality
To reduce costs and provide greater flexibility to meet changing needs, many utilities and utility suppliers have been outsourcing their contact center services. Additional agents can be brought on more quickly, and for less money, than expanding or opening internal contact centers and hiring and training new staff. And should needs change, it is the outsourcers who reassign and lay-off staff or close facilities, not the utility companies.
To ensure effective, high-performance, high-quality outsourcing, there are several steps a utility can take.
Decide what performance and quality goals you want your contact centers to achieve, and select the right metrics to measure results against those objectives.
One of our utility clients requires us to measure and report four statistics to them several times a day: average speed of answer, number of abandons, number of calls offered, and maximum delay. We must also answer 85 percent of calls in 30 seconds or less. These are quality-oriented metrics and high standards.
Consider benchmarking against similar companies. Benchmarking gives you a rough idea where you are in the performance spectrum, but be careful. Going to a higher standard, e.g., 95 percent of calls answered, might not have an impact on customer satisfaction sufficient enough to merit the added expense. Customers’ attitudes are affected by many other factors such as rates, outages and the length of time it takes to get problems fixed, all beyond the control of contact centers.
Plan to train outsourcer staff
Outsourcer agents must think and act like they are on your team when your customers call, because they are your representatives. This requires additional training and ongoing education if you change your program. Supervisors and managers should also be trained properly so they know what to listen for, and can effectively coach your agents so they perform to your expectations.
One of our clients undertakes the initial training of our agents at their contact center. They also arrange ongoing training for new software or changes in business procedures and/or any change to the existing database.
Maintain consistency and performance
Customers should detect no difference between in-house and outsourcer handling of their calls; contact center agents must adhere to your protocol and style. Consistency and performance can be ensured by several methods:
“- Have the outsourcers monitor agents to see if they are conforming to the programs’ requirements.
“- To follow up on commendations and complaints, ask outsourcers to record calls, e-mails and chat sessions and archive them (up to 30 days.) Also consider utilizing mystery call programs and test e-mails or contact form submissions.
“- Arrange for the outsourcers to provide dedicated program managers. They will be your single point of contact and are always available to you when you call. They will contact you if there are any issues; discuss issues/concerns/needs; perform daily quality checks; and continually monitor and check all account activity. They also handle training, changes in scripting or on-call schedules, and will prepare and send you reports.
“- Arrange for site visits at which your representative listens in on calls. Use this technique sparingly. One of the reasons why you outsourced was to free yourself from the cost of directly managing employees. Frequent visits, which hike expenses, can disrupt the flow of operations and wound trust between clients and vendors. One of our contracts with a utility provides it with one two-hour visit, gratis, every three months; any more than that, and we will charge them. This arrangement has worked out very well: The utility has been with us for nearly two years.
Plan your internal requirements to support outsourcing, such as issue escalation.
There will be customer service or technical issues that not even the best trained contact center agent will be able to handle. At a major East Coast power company where we handle residential customer service calls, when calls are urgent, due to a power outage for instance, we escalate calls to a staff representative.
Consider stipulating that outsourced contact centers be in your service area
Electric power issues hit close to home and customers may prefer to speak with contact center agents who can relate to them and to any problems they are experiencing. For that reason, we assign one of our utility contracts to a contact center that is less than an hour’s drive from that firm’s head office.
Keep a portion of your contact center services in-house
By doing this, you can track and benchmark the outsourcers’ performance, which keeps them honest and competitive. It also provides backup in case there are sudden call spikes.
Insist outsourcers have business continuity plans
Your customers are counting on you to be there when they need you the most. If your contact centers have on-site emergency power, insist that your outsource partners have it too.
Another way to protect your operations is to require your outsourcer to have additional networked sites located in different climates or geographic zones so that they are not impacted by the same events. If a disaster hits the principal center, the other centers will keep functioning. Have the outsourcer direct a small portion of the regular calls to the backup location(s). This keeps that site’s agents and supervisors familiar with your program. If they suddenly need to handle more of your calls, they will be up to speed, delivering quality service. We have this arrangement in place for a Midwestern utility supplier.
Select outsourcers that are the best fit
There’s a wide variety in outsourcer size and capability. Look for those that can handle your highest contact volume, have low staff turnover, a varied customer base and a successful track record. Be sure to obtain references.
Ideally an outsourcer will have utility experience. If it does not, but has worked well for other service-intensive businesses, such as cable companies and telcos, then it can deliver for your firm too. Also, consider those outsourcers with outbound capabilities and expertise for follow-up customer care calls and surveys, and to market new services.
Choose an outsourcer that has the capabilities you need at the right price and that’s a good fit culturally. Most importantly, be sure they have the same commitment to both performance and quality.
Gary A. Pudles is president and CEO at The AnswerNet Network, North America’s largest telemessaging firm and a leading contact center outsourcer. Gary won the Ernst and Young Entrepreneur of the Year award for business service providers and is an instructor at the Wharton Small Business Development Center. Gary can be reached at email@example.com