By April Sealy, Vice President, Operations, Elevate
Using Business Process Outsourcing (BPO) to staff customer service has evolved significantly during my career. From a focus in the 1990s on cost-saving measures, by moving simple transactional processes to BPO, it has now become more about the need for strategic partnerships to transform and scale our business and continue to improve the customer experience.
Through trials, successes, and – even more so – a few failures in these relationships, I’ve learned a few things about selecting the right BPO organization to partner with and then ensuring the relationship continues to thrive.
Of course there are specific required industry, security, size and capability criteria, but in addition to these, I believe there are three significant factors in ensuring success:
• Culture, core beliefs and values match
• Building and maintaining trust
• Ongoing interaction and motivation for the front line
The relationship between key players at both companies is the core of whether the partnership will flourish. The communication styles, passion, energy, and camaraderie of the key players on both teams have to be complementary. By having matching core beliefs and values, as well as commonality in how those are expressed, we can ensure the relationship has the ability to last through the inevitable difficult times.
As an example, our company culture at Elevate is expressed in high energy and collaboration, challenging and ever changing, casual and fun – we work really hard but we play hard too. We enjoy working with each other and camaraderie is important to us. Recognition, rewards, and career advancement are keys to our success. And we are quite casual, with no dress code, and value individuals expressing themselves personally including, for example, in the décor of their Individual work spaces. Given that our customers are almost always facing tough financial times, we expect true care for the customer, with a commitment to providing customers with a prime experience.
When seeking a new BPO partner, I look to see how aligned the BPO’s culture is with ours. Do we sense a true desire to give customers a prime experience through their (and our) good times and bad? Is there evidence that employees are appreciated and allowed to express themselves as individuals? Are there visible displays showing an emotional connection to their coworkers, to the company, and to the products and clients they are supporting? Things like awards, certificates, balloons, and whether the employee’s desks are personalized with their own photos or décor. Team celebrations, contests, and photos highlighting these celebrations give me clues to how loyal, relaxed, and caring the team members are towards each other. I’ve found this flows over into how they care for the customer! This also indicates that, as a client, we can easily complement the recognition and celebrations of individual and team results.
We also have a very fast change cycle, which can be difficult for the front line. It is important that the leaders of the BPO can effectively manage and communicate change in a positive manner, gaining the buy in and support of the front line team. If, when faced with change, the first conversation from the BPO is “but the contract will have to be changed,” I become concerned. Of course we’ll ensure our contracts reflect all applicable and appropriate language to cover the both of us. The contracts are important to document the “letter of the law” but just as important is the spirit of our agreement – do the two teams operate in a manner to support and be flexible with each other’s needs? Do they roll up their sleeves and quickly make the needed change happen as quickly and as effortlessly as possible? It has to be a win-win.
Once I’ve selected the BPO and a relationship is built, it is important to maintain the relationship. Communication is key. But the foundation has to be one of trust and ongoing candid conversations to maintain trust once it is established. Timely candid conversations have to occur whenever there are even the slightest instances which cause any doubt or mistrust in competency (quality and results), character (making good decisions, using good judgment, and keeping commitments), or communication (speaking authentically and transparently, maintaining confidentiality, and being proactive in sharing information). Nothing builds trust more than a BPO team member proactively coming and saying, “we made a mistake and I wanted you to know” or “I found a problem you need to be aware of and here’s what we are doing to correct it.”
Just as important to me is the BPO provider providing candid constructive criticism on how we as the client are interacting with and supporting the BPO provider. I want agents at the BPO to see us as a top client where they want to stay for a while and build their career, so it’s important for the BPO to provide me candid feedback on how we can be a better client and engage with the staff. High quality execution is the goal for all of us, but to get there, we need an ongoing dialogue about what is working and what is not, and then collaboratively problem-solve. We have to be in each other’s courts!
Finally, building a connection between the support team and the product ensures the staff is connected with and takes ownership of our success. It is important to ensure there is ongoing involvement and interaction with the front line team at the BPO site. Frequent site visits from key players in quality, training, and leadership, providing recognition and rewards, giving out brand tchotchkes, holding contests, and engaging in team building activities go a long way in keeping the front line teams feeling appreciated. More importantly though is to express to them exactly how important their role is in the long term success of the business. Showing them they are a part of something much larger than just themselves, and that their role is a valuable and integral part of the business, is of the utmost importance. Everyone involved has to think, act, and move together as one team with our often-struggling customer at the center of everything. This changes the entire relationship from the outdated model of “client” and “vendor” to one of collaborative partnership and long term success.
April Sealy is a contact center expert and 10-year veteran at Elevate. As the Vice President of Operations, April is responsible for delivering a great customer experience through contact center customer support and operational readiness. She leads Customer Solutions, User Acceptance Testing, Quality, Training & Documentation, Workforce Management, and back office functions supporting the customer experience. She is focused on delivering a great customer experience and continuing the tradition of high employee engagement and satisfaction that has lead Elevate to be certified as a great workplace by the independent analysts at Great Place to Work.