Taking Customer Contact Offshore: Know What and When to Export


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Today’s contact center operators face a dizzying array of site location options, the most confusing (and challenging) being going offshore from their home country—away from known hiring and management practices, native language speakers, familiar systems vendors, practiced legal and tax approaches and comfortable surroundings. Yet the lure of 30 percent or more cost savings, along with "keeping up with the Joneses," means that almost every company needs to figure out if offshore makes sense and, if so, what—and when—to take offshore.

(Note: I’m aiming this article at an American-based audience, but most of the concepts apply, irrespective of your home country)

There are two basic options when going offshore: opening your own contact centers (also called "captive" or "insourced") or partnering with a third-party specialist (also called "outsourced"). Until recently, the minimum economic size required to open your own center was 200 agents, but advances in offshore site location (while not as advanced as onshore programs) have enabled companies to start with as few as 100 agents.

Below that threshold, it is much wiser to select an outsourcing firm that knows the area, the hiring and management processes, and can add value to your company’s end-to-end success. Above this threshold, it still might make a lot of sense to find a local partner, and not try to navigate the shoals to launch a captive operation.

Dual shore
If you do decide to take operations offshore, there are good reasons to keep certain operations or functions onshore—or at least create what I’ve been calling a "dual shore strategy" with certain elements onshore while others can go offshore:

  1. Where your company frequently releases new products or revisions and needs to test in a pilot environment before releasing to a general customer audience
  • Where especially sensitive or complex issues need to handled by an escalation desk or highly skilled team
  • Where some customers are so important that they need to be "handled with kid gloves" close to your company’s head offices
  • Where your company is developing or sustaining "high-touch" phone contacts and cannot afford to get negative feedback from customers used to "American" accents and call-handling styles.

    Assuming, then, that your company’s needs fall outside these four areas, it is important to ensure that basic operational guidelines and processes are working adequately before taking them offshore—you don’t want to export your problems. Good examples of what to take offshore are well-honed contact programs that can simply and easily be conveyed via training and straightforward quality monitoring; entirely new programs, where an outsourcing firm can accelerate market entry (e.g., email or chat handling); and routine contacts that require less judgment or hair-splitting at the agent level.

    Today, companies are sending offshore inbound and outbound sales, pre-sales and post-sales care and broad categories of technical support—using phones, email and chat. You can offshore most anything.

    If the size of your projected center warrants it, a captive operation would provide for control and, in most cases, be less costly than contracting with a third-party outsourcing specialist. But it can be a balancing act.

    Working a few years ago with a U.S.-based client, my company isolated an email-based operation that was functioning well but was poised to grow dramatically, projecting very high contact center costs based on limited available labor at the existing site and much higher costs to recruit and retain agents. We decided that phone-based and other email operations would remain onshore, but the bulk of the fast-growing email support would head offshore to allay those costs.

    We produced a spread of offshore outsourcing partners for our client to consider, all the while asking ourselves, "Would this be big enough to merit a captive operation?" Initially, we were skeptical about opening a captive center, because the number of operators the company wanted to begin with wouldn’t warrant the additional headquarters costs to set up and manage a remote operation. But because the email-based operation was growing, we felt the company was right on the cusp and could possibly benefit from a captive center in time. As we got close to selecting the ideal partner, our problem was solved when our client’s IT group decided to open a captive offshore site. Support executives shifted their plans, deciding to co-locate customer support with IT. This made the question of operation size moot. With IT, the operation was large enough to warrant a captive site.

    That initial offshore operation is thriving, and the company has since added another center, with one more in the works. Clearly, the initial scope proved correct (the "what"), and timing worked well ("the when").

    With a little effort and dedicated attention, any company can embark on this path, "going offshore" with confidence—and with eyes wide open!

  • Bill Price

    Bill Price is the President of Driva Solutions (a customer service and customer experience consultancy), an Advisor to Antuit, co-founded the LimeBridge Global Alliance, chairs the Global Operations Council, teaches at the University of Washington and Stanford MBA programs, and is the lead author of The Best Service is No Service and Your Customer Rules! Bill served as Amazon.com's first Global VP of Customer Service and held senior positions at MCI, ACP, and McKinsey. Bill graduated from Dartmouth (BA) and Stanford (MBA).


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