The right call center or business process outsourcing (BPO) vendor relationships can lead to a great customer experience and sustained growth for both parties. Partner with the wrong vendors, however, and the experience could be quite different. That begs the question: When is the right time to look for call center and BPO vendors?
All BPOs will experience ups and downs in performance, staffing, and other areas. Higher-quality BPOs are generally proactive and quicker to address problems, but BPOs with deeper organizational issues will consistently struggle.
Searching, selecting, and onboarding new vendors is time-consuming and resource-intensive, so it makes sense to try and fix current relationships. But there comes a time when you must explore your options, not only when vendors disappoint, but for growth, diversification, risk-mitigation, cost containment and other reasons that we will outline in this article.
Reasons to Search for a New Call Center Vendor
These are some of the many scenarios in which a brand should start considering new vendor options:
One or More Current Vendors Is Underperforming
Any vendor can miss targets, but a sound organization will cure problem areas and eventually recover. However, if your vendor(s) are consistently underperforming, or there are incurable communication gaps and transparency issues, it might be time to seek more reliable partners.
In-house Call Center Staffing or Performance Issues
Several brands we recently helped with vendor selection were previously committed to an in-house call center strategy. But internal staffing challenges and rising costs led them to evaluate outsourcing and ultimately select the right vendor partners.
Diversify from Larger Vendors
Size alone does not constitute a safer choice, nor does it guarantee better results. To be fair, service issues can happen at BPOs of all sizes. However, brands often look to diversify when they don’t “feel the love” from larger BPOs. If you find yourself in a bureaucratic maze with your BPO, it may be time to look for a partner that offers more customer intimacy.
Timed RFI/RFP Schedule—Contracts Are Expiring
You may have a set schedule for RFPs when contracts are up for renewal or other reasons. If so, refer to our article on innovative RFP ideas. We prefer a curated approach over casting a wide net with blind RFPs to help ensure partner alignment. It is best to pre-qualify vendors, and only RFP a shortlist with a genuine chance of winning your business.
Volume Fluctuation and Growth
Growth, volume spikes, seasonality, or even intraday staffing gyrations can overwhelm certain BPO(s) or your internal operations. If current operations cannot meet staffing requirements despite your best efforts, it may be time to consider new vendors. Don't jeopardize customer relationships with service level issues and long hold times.
Benchmark Against Current Vendors - Champion vs. Challenger
The champion-challenger framework is a good way to create healthy competition. The current vendor(s) hold "champion" status, while the challengers are possible replacements vying for your business. You'd be surprised how often underperforming champions miraculously rise to the occasion when challenged by competitors.
Going Nearshore or Offshore for the First Time
With U.S. staffing challenges and rising costs, more companies are launching nearshore or offshore BPOs. Especially appealing are unsaturated and high growth offshore markets such as Sub-Saharan Africa. And if proximity is a concern, nearshore BPOs may be especially appealing as a starting point due to shared time zones, and cultural similarities.
Bringing Work Back to Domestic Call Centers
When brands decide to bring work back to the U.S., they might look to their current BPO’s onshore operations or seek new vendor relationships. Reshoring back to the U.S. generally carries a lower risk (debatable), but the cost difference will be 2-4x more compared to nearshore and offshore.
Reduce Dependence on a Single Vendor
Single sourcing makes sense if your outsourced headcount is relatively small. Most of our clients with fewer than 50-100 outsourced agents use only one vendor. However, as your headcount increases, it may be good to de-risk and bring in a challenger, especially if you have seasonal volume fluctuations.
Where to Look for the Right Vendor
Before researching vendors, you must first define your business goals and set the right expectations internally. Too often, a vendor selection decision is delayed or abruptly put on the backburner due to a lack of organizational consensus and planning.
There are far too many scenarios describing how brands and BPOs end up finding one another. Here are several common ways that our clients have searched for vendors in the past:
- Previous Relationships. Utilizing a "familiar" vendor you have worked with before is a good idea, but only if the vendor aligns perfectly with your current business needs. Vendors change and evolve, so it's wise to ensure the vendor is the best option regardless of past results.
- Seek Recommendations. Reaching out for advice from industry peers, experts, and colleagues is one of the best ways to find the right vendor. Regardless of where the recommendation(s) come from, you must still conduct thorough due diligence to ensure alignment.
- Peer-to-Peer Networking Groups. You'll have no trouble meeting vendors at the larger industry conferences as many, if not most attendees are BPOs and other types of suppliers. As an alternative, there are smaller, more intimate micro-conferences and invite-only groups that you can tap into for insights and recommendations.
- Google Search. Google may not be the first place you want to look, but it can't hurt to search, if only as a backup. However, if you search the term "outsourced call center vendors," you might be overwhelmed by how many you find. Your best bet may be to compile a shortlist of providers and use search engines for vetting purposes.
- Procurement and Sourcing. If you use procurement, they will most likely have a "file" of vendors. However, this can be tricky. Although vendors often register with sourcing, not all of them will perfectly fit your business requirements. Collaboration between business line leaders and procurement is required to ensure that the right vendors are carefully pre-screened for alignment before inclusion in the RFP.
Qualities to Consider When Selecting a Call Center Outsourcer
The vendor selection process can be a revealing exercise and will give you a greater understanding of your outsourcing partner's qualities to succeed. The following criteria can help you separate best-in-class call center outsourcers from average performers
- Range of services and innovation. Beyond checking off the boxes on table stakes, does the vendor use innovative operational practices? Deep-dive workshops with front-line leaders, site visits, focus groups, and references are good ways to verify the vendor's uniqueness.
- Reputation. Does the vendor have a positive track record in the marketplace? Ask around, check references, and research what the vendor’s employees say about the organization by looking into the vendor’s social media footprint and reviews.
- People. Many vendors talk about being people-centric. Verify by evaluating how they attract, train, coach, mentor, and retain talent. What is their employee engagement program? Diversity and Inclusion practices? How do they differentiate themselves as an employer? Do their physical sites need a facelift? What career path opportunities and amenities do they offer?
- Culture. Does the BPO partner’s culture align with yours? It starts with the BPO’s CEO, who should own and drive the company culture. As part of your vetting, meet the CEO and all key stakeholders. Confirm that their vision is in alignment with the BPO’s business practices and with your company.
- Brand ambassadors. Does the vendor demonstrate that they will “live” your brand by embracing your values and customer needs? How will the vendor become an extension of your brand, ensuring an effortless customer experience for you and the end customer?
- Mutual fit. Remember, the vendor should be vetting you as much as you are vetting them. The right vendors know when to say yes, and when not to. You want this level of honesty so mutual expectations can be set. And the vendor should "want," not "need" your business - this might seem counterintuitive, but your business is in better hands with highly selective vendors.
- Nimble and flexible. Vendors claim to be flexible, but many are unaware they are not. Ask the vendor's references how they pivot and adapt quickly to change or performed in a time of urgency or crisis. Is the vendor an effective listener, accountable and proactive?
- Data security and compliance. Is the vendor compliant with industry- or country-specific standards, such as HIPAA, PCI DSS, TCPA, SSAE, and GDPR? Does the vendor offer staff training in security protocols? How often does the vendor conduct security audits of its systems and protocols?
- Communication. Clear, open, and constant communication is vital to prevent misunderstandings from escalating. What is your communication cadence? Do you have unfettered access to the site or frontline leadership? Is the vendor hearing you and listening, or are you lost in a bureaucratic maze?
- Pricing. Cost reduction is one of the benefits of outsourcing, especially nearshore/offshore, but it's best to avoid a narrow focus on obtaining the lowest price or below market rates. Aim for a compensation model at fair market value, mutually equitable, and with shared risk.
- Vendor size. As described earlier, some companies begin the selection process with the impression that bigger must be better. Consider a "right-size" approach described in our helper video - picking vendors that value your business regardless of size. You may get de-prioritized if your account isn't large enough for a big BPO. Conversely, a BPO that is too small or "junior" may not have the maturity and infrastructure to support you.
- Staffing and wage rates. We must keep reminding ourselves that BPOs will fail you if they cannot pay agents a competitive wage. This rubric applies in the U.S. and every nearshore and offshore market. Many of our clients are “setting” the wage rate they want the BPO to pay agents based on skill sets required, understanding the impacts on the client’s all-in price.
- Financial stability. Confirm the vendor's financial stability, corporate ownership structure, and access to capital. The last thing you want is a vendor with "hidden" financial woes, incapable of funding resources and investing in growth.
- Leadership. Often, the make or break in client-BPO relationships comes down to leadership depth and style. Is your BPO’s leadership team stretched too thin? How many hats do they wear? Are they empowered to make decisions? What is your trust level? Most importantly, what training and experience do they have?
- Adaptability. Companies must be agile to stay abreast of fast-evolving customer expectations, technology, and expanding communication channels. Can the vendor flex and adapt to changes and disruptions?
In the end, if all the stakes are on the table and all the other boxes are checked, clients look for vendors who are “easy” to do business with. Clients are seeking seamless and mutually rewarding partnerships.
Timing is everything, along with a well-planned selection and implementation process. You must pay careful attention to identifying and selecting a vendor partner that best matches your organization’s mission, vision, and values.
The call center industry has undergone a profound change during the past two years - emerging into a highly visible touchpoint representing the human face of the brand. Perhaps we should think of the vendor selection process not as a Request for Proposal but as a Request for People… or Passion… or Personality.