I have written previously that we no longer live in an all-or-nothing environment when it comes to outsourcing. Especially with the advent of the cloud, businesses can outsource many different aspects of technical services individually. As companies continue to seek alternative, lower-cost channels of support, outsourcing solutions will continue to be a key part of the support services strategy.
We still hear plenty of anecdotal comments about the challenges associated with outsourcing, on both sides of the relationship. Organizations move blindly into relationships based purely on cost savings, without knowing the true costs of support upfront. These relationships are often based on vague service levels that manage expectations and service performance, and American ethnocentricity and aversion to off-shore service providers abound.
It’s a good time, then, to get the perspective of a near-shore outsource services provider around these precise challenges. José Casillo is the CEO of Soporto Remoto de México, a company that provides service desk, call center, and field services support across Latin America, Central America, and North America from its headquarters in Jalisco, México. SRM provides full-service operations in English, Portuguese, and Spanish.
Cinda Daly: Outsourcers, particularly off-shore providers, have certainly taken their lumps over the years. In your opinion how and why did that happen? To what extent is that still the case today?
José Casillo: This perception, and the accompanying complaints about outsourcing in the past, was shaped by the fact that the American market formed relationships with countries, like India, that set up operations in the United States and relied on their offshore operations to deliver the services. These companies were looking for looked for high-quality, efficient, and competitively-priced services. Over time, regardless of whether the offshore companies delivered on that promise or not, some American companies discovered the advantages of nearshore service providers that operated in the same time zones and were geographically closer (meaning shorter business flights). At the same time, nearshore outsourcers have easy access to training and conferences, like HDI’s, which can help them learn more about industry’s best practices. We speak the same language, and we offer our services at a good price, with high quality and end-user satisfaction. So, today, the tension between outsourcers and customers today is not acute or widespread as it has been in the past.
Daly: Historically, the decision to outsource was based primarily upon price, as organizations sought to reduce costs. According to HDI research, cost savings are still the driving factor. We know that price alone will not keep a customer engaged or loyal. How can an outsourcer provide a low-cost solution while simultaneously maintaining high-quality service levels and remaining profitable?
Casillo: Some companies offer cheap, transactional service desk solutions that are focused on answering phone calls, not on improving first call resolution or end-user productivity. These providers end up being more expensive than providers who charge more because they have to escalate these calls to second- and third-level support for resolution, which is exponentially more expensive.
What really matters is good problem resolution and the positive impact that aggressive first level resolution metrics can have on end-user productivity, customer satisfaction, and the outsourcer’s bottom line. It’s better to help the CTO realize savings on the total cost of technical support while also helping her take care of the other business functions, like billing processes, shipping processes, and so forth. It’s our role to help customers be more efficient internally. At that point we’re a strategic, value-added business partner for our clients. When we meet prospects who are more worried about price than about problem resolution or the ultimate impact on their organization, we’re speaking different languages. We try to pass on that business.
Daly: Beyond cost, what are some of the other reasons companies should consider outsourcing?
Casillo: A company’s most valuable assets are its human resources. These individuals need to be thinking about how they can deliver more value back to their company in terms of their processes, in terms of what they build and sell, and leave the operational aspects of support to the outsourcer.
Outsourcers, by nature, support many different types of customer environments and situations. This allows us to specialize in issues related to our services and use that knowledge and expertise to serve our clients. We deliver situational solutions for problems we’ve already resolved for other customers, and we help our clients improve their business practices. Employees in our clients’ organizations are immersed in their own environments and they don’t have the benefit of being able to use other organizations’ experiences to enrich their service practices. Our degree of specialization and broad situational expertise are greater than any client’s internal staff could achieve.
Daly: What is the main difference between the relationship an end user has with an outsourcer and the relationship an end user has with an internal support organization?
Casillo: Outsourcer employees are held accountable every single day. Their dedication and commitment are perhaps even greater than their client’s employees because they face penalties when they don’t deliver results or live up to the expectations set forth in their SLAs and OLAs. This level of daily accountability is not always built into internal support organizations’ performance metrics.
Also, this level of competition keeps us alert; we’re especially careful not to lose clients. This competition is a real pressure point for outsourcer employees; they don’t live in the same comfort zone as employees in internal support organizations. Outsourcers live on the edge, always focused on customer satisfaction, and always driven by a sense of urgency, regardless of the issue at hand. We have to solve all problems the fastest and best way we can, every time.
Daly: From your perspective, what key variables should come into play when a company is deciding whether to outsource or continue to rely on internal support resources?
Casillo: A few things come to mind pretty quickly, particularly related to the client’s experience and knowledge. If the client is lacking in either regard, an outsourcer that has the technology, automation, processes, and industry best practices in place can provide those dynamics much more quickly than if the clients tried to build them themselves. It’s very easy to put another brick in the wall.
Two additional variables relate to time, specifically to the speed with which the client is able to achieve its long-term objectives. First, how quickly can a client meet its target metrics for first-level resolution? Outsourcers can typically deliver that more quickly than the client. Second, how much time and money will it take the client to develop industry best practices and certify its employees? It’s often more efficient to hire an outsourcer that already follows industry best practices and has fully certified staff. The bottom line is that it’s actually easier to manage a contract than it is to build and maintain a full support operation. Instead of dealing with day-to-day operations, internal support teams can devote their energy to creating overall business value.
Finally, it’s important to remember that the client shares the risk of the operation. And though there can be financial penalties for outsourcers if performance negatively affects SLAs or business outcomes, when those outcomes are achieved, everyone benefits. That’s a powerful thing, and it’s key that outsourcers are wedded with the client’s operation.
Daly: We often hear from our community that support managers lack the know-how to manage vendor relations and contract compliance, a role that is often imposed upon them when an outsourcing arrangement is made. How do you help your clients address that challenge?
Casillo: We need to be an advisor to our clients, many of whom are stuck in a reactive support mode, and guide them through three distinct stages in the relationship. The first stage is operational. We work closely with our clients to learn all we can about their existing operations, identify opportunities for process improvement, and transform those findings into service level agreements and key performance indicators. This stage takes about three months, and it involves changing the mindset from reactive to proactive support and creating an environment that is more responsive to the end user.
Once the foundation has been established, we start giving clients automated processes and tools that can extend the service benefits beyond just calling for help to resolve problems: PC provisioning, voice response automation, etc. Ultimately, we reach the strategic stage where we’re aligned with our clients’ business processes and we’re in a position to help them with any business elements that aren’t working well.
We follow a defined path, holding their hand every step of the way. Our delivery support manager lives in the client’s account and is responsible for that relationship, along with our on-site support team.
Daly: According to the 2013 HDI Support Center Practices & Salary Report, organizations see the loss of customer control as the biggest risk. To what extent is this a real risk, and how can companies who choose to outsource mitigate that risk?
Casillo: This isn’t a real risk. In fact, it’s just the opposite. If you choose the right outsourcer, you’re not only going to be praised by your end users for delivering a good service, you’re also going to be put in a position to be a consultant to your business colleagues as you bring value to the operation.
Let me give you an example. One of our clients had a very cumbersome, manual vacation-request process that its employees didn’t like. It required filing a request, filling out a form, submitting it to the HR manager, and waiting for a reply. We automated the process using a voice-response system. And because this company has a lot of services like that, we automated those services in the service desk. The time it took to get vacation submitted decreased significantly, and the IT manager got the credit for having a good idea.
Another client wanted to simplify and automate the process for responding to their customers’ inquiries about accounts payable. We were able to apply a similar solution using automated voice response for all suppliers. Today, when a supplier calls, they provide their name, access code, and the invoice number in their question and the system returns an instant response: “The invoice will be paid on Friday, November 28.”
Since we’re using the technology and same processes we already have in place—the same processes and technologies customers use to request new PCs or network passwords—these solutions are easy to implement and there’s no extra cost for the client. If you choose the right outsourcer, you don’t lose any control. You will, in fact, become the one who always has a good idea.
Daly: How do you set appropriate customer expectations? How do you manage those expectations?
Casillo: Setting customer expectations is critical, and we start working on it together at the very beginning of the relationship. We work and consult with clients on site to set the expectations, and our on-site delivery support manager reviews them at least twice a year. These expectations must be clearly aligned with the contract scope. For example, if the contract doesn’t stipulate that we answer in Portuguese, we don’t set that expectation. Expectations become real when we introduce them again in the KPIs that allow us to measure and report on how well we’re fulfilling our clients’ expectations.
Daly: In terms of ensuring that the outsourcing relationship thrives, what accountabilities remain with your customer?
Casillo: It’s the customer’s responsibility to create and manage monthly meetings with key stakeholders to review SLAs and KPIs, the metrics of the service. The client is also responsible for sharing information about its services and the expectations that have been set with the end users. Constant communication with end users and key players regarding the scope of service and the service they can expect is critical.
It’s our responsibility to report the information, and we create communications on the client’s behalf. But the client is responsible for ensuring that end users push those messages through their internal communication channels. These communications have to be reviewed at least three times a year because the end users expectations are always shifting. We have to tell them constantly who we are, what we do, and what services they have. At the same time, we also have to tell them about improvements we’re making so they can take full advantage of those services.
Daly: What you describe here is a constant challenge for internal support organizations, too. End users and customers have increasing support needs, and they have their own expectations of the services they receive.
Casillo: The service desk is a living thing; it changes every day: new users, new processes, new client technologies, etc. We have to adjust very quickly to all of these variables, in the contract, in our SLAs and KPIs, and in actual service delivery. For both outsourcers and internal support organizations, expectation and perception management is an ongoing effort.
For more than twenty-five years, Cinda Daly has managed teams, written dozens of industry articles and thousands of pages of technical documentation, developed training courses, conducted sales and service training, and consulted in the technical support and customer service space. In her current role, as HDI’s director of content, she is responsible for HDI’s virtual events, research, and print and electronic publications.