Sourcing a Call Center Outsource Partner in a Post Pandemic World

Our special guest for this episode is Jeff Velodota, the Director of Sales and Marketing for one of our call center outsource partners; Telecom INC. Along with Doug Deker (President of Call Center Power and outsourcing GURU), we explore how performing the due diligence process on a potential BPO outsource partner has changed pre vs post pandemic. While many of the typical due diligence tactics are tried and true and work well today; some aspects of the due diligence process have drastically changed. In this episode, we offer suggestions and tools anyone can use, to navigate these changes. A few examples include vetting a BPO company’s proficiency and comfort with operating remotely. How well have they adapted to the “new way of work” desired by today’s call center agent? Do they have tools and practices in place to safeguard customer information in a remote environment? How do they drive employee engagement and build a positive culture remotely; and much more. In addition to using Call Center Power to facilitate a quality BPO outsource partner search for your organization, get the information you need to ensure your next outsource partner search goes smoothly.

 

Brian:

Welcome to the Call Center Corner, brought to you today by Call Center Power. This is Brian Redden, and I’m here with Doug Deker and our special guest, Jeff Velodota from Telecom, Inc. Jeff is the Director of Sales and Marketing for Telecom, Inc. He has been in the call center business for quite a long time. So, we’re definitely excited to have him join us today. Jeff, do me a favor, give the listeners a little rundown of yourself and Telecom, Inc.

 

Jeff:

So, I’m actually a 35 year call center veteran, at this point, which I have to pinch myself when I say that. But I started my career in college, and like so many people that you talk to in our industry, I kind of fell into a position and fell in love with the diversity and the rewards, both intrinsic and monetary in our industry, and have been happy to be involved with it for 35 years now, in a variety of different roles. But most of them have been in operations, client services, and sales. I’ve had a real good opportunity to learn from some great people along the way, and continue to educate myself with folks like yourself and other industry veterans who are always exposing me and the company to new things happening. And of course, we have our clients who are helping to keep us on top of things and push the envelope by the jobs that they work on with us. And as far as Telecom goes, we’re a domestic provider. We’ve been in business for almost 30 years now. We offer a robust group of services, both inbound in outbound, spanning all contact channels, employing both live voice and technology solutions.

 

Brian:

Excellent. Thank you. Thank you for that information. We really appreciate that. Just for the listeners out there, this is a unique podcast, as between myself, Jeff, and Doug, we have, I think, we’ve pretty much covered the entire gamut of the contact center industry. I’ve got the operations background, Doug has an extensive outsourcing background, and then Jeff’s got the sales, marketing, and outsourcing piece. So, ask us anything. Dovetailing into that, we’re going to talk about vetting outsource partners, and performing due diligence on outsource partners in today’s post pandemic climate. Doug and I actually did a talk on this at the Call Center Expo last week. That went really well, and we talked a lot about pre versus post pandemic, and how some of the tactics and approaches that you used to perform due diligence on outsource partners has changed. So, yeah, so we’re going to talk about that today. Jeff, you want to kind of open that up a little bit, and kind of tell us being on the outsource side and being on the sales and marketing side, you actually work with clients every day, or potential clients, perspective clients, during this process. Can you just talk a little bit about kind of what you’ve seen?

 

Jeff:

Yeah, absolutely. So, as we know, for most companies, outsourcing is a good decision, and you want to make sure that when you make that decision, that you don’t follow up that good decision with a bad decision, namely choosing the wrong company. And no vetting process is 100% successful, but sufficient vetting increases your odds of success. Vetting’s always been a part of the buying process, and it should be. Companies don’t want to take everything a salesperson shares with them as gospel, and they don’t oversee operations in most organizations. Someone else has to deliver on their promises. Vetting gives a potential buyer a chance to meet some other folks that are going to be delivering on those promises and making good on them. So, what we’ve seen is that, since the pandemic, most call centers have moved to, if not entirely, at least a hybrid delivery model, including virtual staff, as part of their team. And many companies were already there before the pandemic, in truth. The pandemic has really changed the landscape where early adopters have been caught by other companies, now, out of necessity. And I think that the landscape has changed forever as a result of it. And call centers should already be accustomed to prospective partners wanting to vet them. And those that have virtual staff, already have established ways to allow for that. So, the good news is that even though everything is, for the most part, virtual today, the vetting can still be done effectively. And I would argue that virtual vetting can actually more productive than premise based vetting in some ways. For example, you have the ability to sample specific contact interactions more effectively. One of the things that could be frustrating about going and spending a day, or days, in an office is a perspective buyer will come in and sit down and put headsets on and listen for particular types of interactions that don’t materialize. This happens, in particular, if you’re talking about outbound programs, if there’s sales involved. Some programs don’t have sales that materialize every hour. Certain high profile products and services take days, and sometimes weeks before a sale is consummated.

So, if you’re there to vet a call center, you might not hear what you want to hear. Where if you’re listening to recordings, you have a better opportunity to hear specific call types. There’s also another advantage of vetting call centers virtually, and that’s avoiding the travel headaches and the financial savings that are associated with doing it that way. I think back to 2014/2015, I was working for a call center based in the Northeast. And I had one prospect that scheduled five separate meetings with my staff, and that included our owners, so there was a lot of schedule juggling going on. And each of those five times we had to reschedule or cancel the meeting because of snowstorms. So, if you’re vetting a call center, yeah, mother nature will rear her ugly head at the most inopportune times, and that certainly doesn’t exclude call center visits. So, that’s another benefit of vetting companies in a virtual way. And then of course, there’s opportunity costs for buyers of being out of the office sometimes. So, you can vet the call center and still have some time in the office. So, there are definitely benefits to vetting a center virtually. Also, there’s been a lot of changes over the years with what a buyer of call center services wants to accomplish during their vetting sessions. So, back in the old days, when somebody would come on site, you would allocate a portion of your day to settling into the server room, and your IT staff would come along. And so you’d have the technical brain trusts in there looking at a whole bunch of boxes and servers and wires. And today, with so much of that technology being cloud based, you don’t really need to do that.

What you’re looking to accomplish has changed, and how you can accomplish it has changed as a result. All that being said, wherever possible, I still encourage a visit to a contact center whenever it’s possible. There’s something to be said for spending time with humans and businesses, where interactions take place between humans, and today, that’s still the way that most interactions take place. So, where it’s possible, I recommend that you do it. The greatest advantage of making the trip to a center, to me, is the opportunity to take in the culture, not just for a specific brand or several brands, but the culture of the actual center. Most everything else you want to do, you can accomplish virtually. And quality centers that will provide you with unbridled access to the key evaluation criteria and staff will be make your job easier for you regardless. When you do need to vet a virtual center, or you just choose to do so virtually, there’s certain steps you can take to make the most of that vetting process.

The first thing that I recommend that you hone in on is to understand the profile of the human capital. So, the people are the product in a call center, always has been. So, spend time with the agents, with the management team, with the executive team, and get very specific when you get to know them. Learn about the agent’s tenure, their makeup, their level of education, what types of programs they’re accustomed to working on, what they do and don’t like. Spend the time with the agents. It’s an investment in your potential program that’s going to pay great dividends. And the agents themselves, once they get beyond that initial unnerving, unsettled situation that they might experience where they’re talking to somebody and thinking that I might cost us this job or win us this job, and those fears that come along with that, once they settle in and buyers are really good in general, knowing, coming into it, that might be the case, they can help to diffuse that just by allowing their personality to shine through. And as agents get comfortable, you’re able to learn more about them.

I would say the next thing that you want to hone in on is to understand the profile of the company itself. You probably have been able to cover some of that in your initial conversations with the salespeople, but sometimes salespeople don’t have the full breadth of the entire history of the company, particularly for companies that have been in business for decades, there’s turnover that happens, there’s metamorphosis of companies over the course of time. So, you want to understand what the company’s all about, what verticals they’re strongest in. One thing that I would recommend is that you shouldn’t dismiss companies just because they don’t have a ton of experience in a vertical that you happen to be in. I’m not saying that’s to be discounted entirely, but I don’t think that you should summarily eliminate companies if they don’t have as much experience in a vertical as you would like them to. The reason for that is that, for example, a call center can have a lot of experience as an enterprise in total, but not as much as you want in your specific vertical. But some of the opportunities that they’ve had in other verticals have exposed them to best practices, which can bleed over into your vertical. Call centers that are proactive thinkers, call centers that bring ideas to the table for their partners, are always asking themselves when they learn something new, no matter where it comes from, whether it was somebody on a program or a management of the program that are internal staff or somebody that’s a client that has brought an idea to the table that’s paying dividends on their program. If it’s non proprietary in nature, the call center has a duty, as your partner, to look at those individual changes and say, “What other partners that we’re servicing could benefit from this.” And in the long run, your call center and partner relationship is always going to be best if it’s long term in nature. And the way you get there is to deliver good results and to truly approach things from a partnership perspective and to push boundaries and to bring ideas to the table in professional collaboration. So, that vertical experience is solid, it’s important, but you can’t make decisions exclusively based on that.

 

Brian:

Yeah. That’s a fantastic point. I’ve actually worked for companies where the executives were, that was actually one of the more important criteria. I learned a long time ago that I’d much rather have a contact center provider whose operations team is solid with a great culture, the company is flexible in their approach, and their solutions oriented people, that kind of thing versus they’ve done work in the past in whatever industry verticals. A lot of people miss that sometimes. It’s a very good point.

 

Doug:

Well, there’s also a ton of verticals out there, and the reality is you’re not going to have experience in every vertical. But I think one of the things for us is looking at categories. So, do you have experience in sales? Do you have experience in customer service, tech support, collections? And then if you also have the bonus of having the experience in one of those particular categories and the vertical, great. And it’s not always going to be- Jeff, you’ve talked about it, you’ve worked in a number of different companies that, as have Brian and I. We’re bringing experience to companies that we work for now, that that company may not have, but we have it. So, those are things that- There might be people on the leadership team or on your management team or agents that you bring in that have had that experience on that vertical in the past, maybe not with the current provider. So, it’s not always just about “What client do I have right now?” But you’ve got to look at it holistically. So, I appreciate that perspective. And just kind of getting into the vetting process side, I like what you said about being able to go into the center, historically, just to kind of see the culture, and that’s one thing that’s a little bit difficult to do these days. And one of the things that I’ve done, historically, is go in, talk to the management team first, in sort of a separate group that have a separate focus group, where you have a QA and supervisors, and sort of ask some of the similar questions, and then another group of just agents and ask some of the same questions.The providers that I always have the most confidence in is the ones that I’m hearing very similar things down the line to how they run their business, where there’s the big disconnects. Those are the ones that I have the most red flags with. I think we can still do that in an environment where we’re virtual, but we have to do it this way. And it’s a little bit harder to vet that that supervisor isn’t sitting over that agent’s shoulder. For me, that is a big part of just figuring out what’s the culture like, is what the management thinks is happening at the center actually what the agents are saying is happening at the center, and where those two line up that’s where I’ve seen the most success in the past.

 

Jeff:

I agree wholeheartedly too. You can’t spend enough time. Obviously, if you’re sitting there grasping at straws of what to talk about, then that means it’s run its course, but I think you can’t spend enough time with those different levels of staff, both the frontline agents, the management staff, and the executive team. And certain companies you’ll find will offer more of their executive management teams time than other companies. And I think that’s something that you should take into consideration. If you’re important enough that the president, the CEO, the owner of the company are taking time from their busy schedule to meet with you and make themselves accessible to you, that’s something that if I was on other side of the fence, I’d want to know that. That’s something that would be important to me.

 

Brian:

Jeff, just real quick, so you mentioned something earlier, we were talking about the vetting process, and you talked about during the pandemic and post pandemic that actually going to the contact center to vet it and see the culture and so forth became a little tough, but that a core practice before the pandemic. So, for me, and I know Doug feels the same way, actually going there, being there, seeing the culture, talking to the people, for me, is the most important thing I do when vetting a partner. But you have the outsourced partners side, you have the view from the outsourced partner. Doug has spent decades vetting from the customer side. So, a question I would like to ask both you guys, and love to get both of y’all’s input on, is when you’re vetting a call center today, a call center partners today, and most, if not all, of their workforce is remote, what do you do to get a feel for that culture, or the customer engagement? How have the tactics in those specific areas changed from the way it was pre pandemic? Because I know that’s a big challenge. We heard a lot of that at the expo last week. People came up to Doug and I after our talk on this topic. How do you do that?

 

Jeff:

Yeah. It is different and you’re not going to be able to fully replicate what takes place in an office environment. When you look at a call center, those that I’ve worked at, where you have the opportunity to do this, part of the culture had a physical element to it. So, let’s say that you have a client that sells vacuums, for example, and you’re doing troubleshooting on those vacuums, tier one technical support. The call center might have a room dedicated to these vacuums where an agent can put a customer on hold and go grab the vacuum, and bring it over to their desk and do some troubleshooting with it. Chances are most agents working at home, that have a little dedicated area to their home for their office, don’t have the room to bring a dozen vacuum cleaners into it, in addition to their desk and everything else. So, certain things can’t be replicated. But when, to me, you’re listening to agents, and that would be the thing that I’d recommend be the next step after your introductions and your opportunity to get to know each other a little bit, is to start to listen and view to live calls, chats, email, social media interactions. Listen to tone, and if the culture’s right, and from the top down, the company’s treating their folks properly, giving them the tools to be successful, giving them the proper training. You’re going to hear an agent with a certain type of disposition. You want them to be friendly and engaging, sympathetic, empathetic, particularly in a customer care environment. In a sales environment, you look for them to be a go-getter and a well trained one at that. But as you listen to different people, and you try to draw lines of consistency between them, if you hear it there, you can assume that’s coming as a result of the culture of the company. That’s my perspective on it.

 

Doug:

I agree with that. And I think that’s a big help. I think the trickiest part of the migration from brick and mortar to either work from home or hybrid environment is, and Brian, you’ve seen this a million times and we’ve walked into a million centers, and when we walk into a center, you can almost palpably taste the culture within the first few minutes. If you have a virtual center, that’s a little bit more difficult. So, what you have to kind of vet with your partners is, how are you still connecting your team together? I don’t just mean connecting in terms of, I’m still doing my coaching of my agents, and I’m still up-training folks, and I’m still identifying my career path for my folks and things like that, because I think that those are really important, but are there other things outside of that that you do with your agents to keep them engaged, to make things fun? Do you have any sort of- Are you still continuing with incentives? What do those incentives look like? I think it’s always good for me to be able to build competition, so I can see where do I stack up against other guys on my team? And do I have something in front of me that’s a carrot to- And then just making it fun. Not making it cutthroat, but trying to maintain some of those cultural things that you can do in a brick and mortar in a virtual environment. And there’s a lot out the box type of solutions for that these days. And I think they’ll only get better and more sophisticated as you move on. And I’m sure that guys that have been doing work from home for a while are better at it than guys that made the transition two years ago. But that’s just a part of the vetting process. But to Jeff’s point, you still got to listen to calls, listen to agents, talk to supervisors, and understand if you are listening to a call and you’re feeling like, “Wow, that’s a great customer experience, and that agent’s doing a good job,” there’s probably something to that they’ve got a pretty good culture within that center. And the more you hear that, the better chance that culture is pretty strong.

 

Jeff:

Agreed. I think that, again, the pandemic has forced the progression of technology in certain ways that’s benefiting the programs and the agents too. If you think back to the days where everything was done in an office environment, we were dependent on reader boards, right? So, if I wanted to know how Doug and Brian were doing on the same job as me, I’d have to get out of my seat and go walk over to this old dry erase board and see what the numbers look like. Where right now, I just click on a button and there’s up to the moment data available on how I’m doing, how everybody on my team is doing. So, that human element of having to take information and transcribe it somewhere, and then hope that agents go and look at, it in the world we live in now, with instant gratification, our clients want to know what we’re doing real time, and our agents want to know what they’re doing real time. Especially, and this, I think, gets back to the culture and the buy-in, that will part of their job. If you have agents that want to do well, no matter what the reasons are, and that’s on incumbent on management to give them the reasons to want to do well, but when they want to do well, and they are applying themselves, they want to see how they’re doing. Just like we wanted to get our report cards, for the most part, when we were younger, and now they have instant access to it. And so that’s particularly important in outbound campaigns, say, where you’re doing lead generation, appointment setting, sales, and you’re changing the direction of the program through testing or introducing new offers or different entry points to the program. You want to see those results and you want to see them quickly, so you’re not spending a lot of your clients’ money spinning your wheels. And that technology advancement, I think, has happened. You mentioned, for example, trying to get everybody together in a room, in an office environment, now with Zoom or other forms of virtual conferences, you can bring 20/30 people together. And like you said, if you’re trying to see whether or not the messaging is consistent across the executive team, the middle management team, and the frontline staff, everybody can be on that call together. So, there isn’t an opportunity for somebody to be feeding somebody what to say with little post-it notes, because you would see it. So, I think some of those things help you to look at that culture still.

 

Brian:

Let me throw another question, and I appreciate that, Jeff, that’s great. One thing that’s changed precipitously over the last two years relative to the entire contact center industry, whether you’re outsourcing or you’re you’re running a captive site, is the relationship with the employees, both on the recruiting side, but also, once they join the organization and so forth. So, as far as the vetting or due diligence process is concerned, relatives and outsource partner, it seems like that as a potential client, you have to also look at that outsource partner’s ability to effectively manage and/or recruit for today’s employee. They’ve got different expectations of what work is and so forth. So, again, customer view, outsource partner view, can you guys talk a little bit about that from a post pandemic world? When you’re performing due diligence, how do you perform that due diligence on an outsource partner, relative to how they’re recruiting and managing their employees in today’s environment? I will tell you from our side, as an outsourcer, that our practices haven’t changed at all with the pandemic. What we do in the way of background checks, what we do in the way of vetting of our potential staff is all the same. We haven’t been forced to change that. And in part, the fact that we were about 60% virtual before the pandemic hit, speaks to some of why that’s the case. I think the companies that have had the most pain from the pandemic were the companies that were 100% premise based when the pandemic hit, because they didn’t have policies in place. They didn’t have technology in place to let people work from home. There are steps that you have to take to do that effectively and remain compliant across the various standards, whether those be PCI, HIPAA, or anything else for that matter. But for companies that were already virtual, it was a relatively seamless transition for us. And we haven’t changed our hiring practices. I would say that the one thing that we did do, and many other companies have done it as well, is we’ve expanded the scope of the reach of our staff. So, we’ve expanded into other states since the pandemic hit. You have limiting when you’re physically bound by a 30 or 45 mile diameter radius to hire from. So, when the pandemic hit, a lot of people stopped working. And then when people started coming back to work, they started finding that companies were looking to hire people. And call center agents were one of those groups of people that found other careers and other job opportunities. Some of them just took the quick money grab and moved into another area, but it forced call centers to look at their hiring practices and where they’re doing business. So, for us, we expanded into other states to be able to tap into other labor pools.

Doug:

I think, towards the end there, you hit on a lot of what my expectations are for sort of post pandemic, virtual strategy. So, I think we’ve all been in this business long enough to know that when you have a brick and mortar and you’re in a certain town or city, at some point, we get saturated. And we’re bringing in guys that, maybe three years later, that are, “This guy’s already been through the center,” before we start to get a little bit- It gets tougher and tougher to recruit. And then there’s also stigma, or whatever you want to say, associated with walking into and working at a call center. Or you may not get a certain profile of agent to walk through that door, or at least not in the numbers that you would want. And I think what virtual has done is, and you pointed this out, it’s allowed you to recruit outside of that 15 or 30 mile radius within where your brick and mortar is. And the guys that are taking advantage of that and going to expanding the pool, the recruiting pool, beyond just the town or the cities that they have a brick and mortar presence in, have started to see some benefits to that. And obviously, there’s various parts of the country that may not have been particularly accessible in the past, that now it’s like, “Oh, well, I can bring those guys in. I might even be able to bring them in for a better price point,” and it’s to fresh market. Some of what we’re also seeing is folks taking advantage of the gig economy. Where I’m not necessarily hiring you as a 40 hour a week block scheduled agent, but now I might be satisfied with bringing you in on more of a 15 to 25 hour schedule with some upside, if you want to work longer hours, and then offering schedules along the bell curve of when the call arrival pattern hits, so that I can fit, “Hey, here’s what I’m offering hours. You guys sign up for the hours that you want to work.” And by the way, you may be getting some guys in that demographic that you wouldn’t have otherwise have gotten that walked into a brick and mortar site. So, there’s definitely some things that we’re seeing emerge in the marketplace and how well they continue to, I guess, be successful going forward remains to be seen, but there’s definitely various strategies that I’m seeing, from a recruiting perspective, that are working to a greater or lesser degree. But I do think that this is another opportunity that virtual has either forced or for the people that, like you guys, Jeff, that have already been doing virtual, enhanced. I think that’s what I’m seeing, Brian, from a customer side of things.

 

Brian:

Yeah, that makes a lot of sense. And per our conversation last week at the expo, the demographic has changed. Expectations of the agents, as far as how they want to work, has changed, where they want to work. So, an important part of that due diligence process, if you’re a client, is to see how those outsource partners that you’re looking at and have adapted to that, because to Jeff’s point earlier, some haven’t. Many haven’t adapted very well. Others have adapted very, very well both in approach, basic management tactics, and so forth. So, Doug and I have, over the course of the last 12 months, we’ve uncovered and discovered a ton of creative technology and also people of solutions that address the recruiting challenges that companies all, not just call center companies, but companies all over the world or all over the United States have had problem in hiring, and certainly, driving employee engagement in a remote environment. So, there’s a lot of ways to skin a cat out there, from an employee engagement perspective. You just have to be engaged to repeat the word and find the right technology solutions and people to do it. Well, I’ll tell you guys, this has been a great podcast. As Doug and I said in our talk last week, we could probably do a masterclass, a two day masterclass on vetting outsource partners. I’m not sure that anybody would want to listen to a 16 hour podcast. Maybe there’s some that would, and that’d be great.

 

Jeff:

The sleep deprived.

 

Brian:

Exactly. And for those listeners out there, if there are, hit us on our website, maybe we’ll record a 16 hour masterclass. But anyway, so this has been a great discussion, Jeff. We really appreciate you joining us today, and I’ve been looking forward to this conversation for quite a while. I think the mix of you and Doug, with y’all’s experience on both sides of the equation, adds a lot of value to the discussion. So, definitely appreciate it.

 

Doug:

Jeff, we appreciate our partnership with Telecom. Appreciate you guys being a great partner for us, and we look forward to continuing to send clients your way, and continue to do good work with you guys and partner, hopefully, many years into the future. And we also, obviously, appreciate the friendship.

 

Jeff:

Likewise, thank you, gentlemen. Couldn’t agree more, and wish you all the best. Stay happy, healthy out there.

 

Brian:

Appreciate that. And for the listeners, as with all of our podcasts, you can log in and hear us on Spotify, or you can go to callcenterpower.com. We posted all of our podcasts there for your enjoyment. If you have any questions, please feel free to reach out to myself or Doug at callcenterpower.com or via email. Thanks again for listening. Have a great day.

 

Visit callcenterpower.com/call-center-corner-a-podcast-series to listen to the full podcast episode.

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