More business is a good thing, but it creates challenges: A backlog of tasks, costly space and equipment demands and, frequently, a phone that won’t stop ringing. Many ecommerce business owners turn to customer call centers for help.
That was the case for Revival Animal Health of Orange City, Iowa, a supplier of small animal products. The 65-employee company’s growth meant more phone calls from its customer base of breeders and pet owners than its on-site call center could handle. Customers who called after hours and on weekends had to talk to the answering machine.
Tips To Engage A Call Center
Decide carefully. David Butler of the National Call Centers recommends you shop around and ask for a list of existing and former clients. “If they’re not willing to share names, that should raise red flags.”
Participate in the set-up process. “It was more overwhelming than I expected,” said Karen VanderBrink of Revival Animal Services. “It was worth it, but the beginning was a little rocky.” That getting-to-know-you stage “takes a lot of commitment,” said Sharon Rogers of Midco call center.
Don’t check out. Rogers, who describes call center and in-house customer service as a classic 80-20 split. “It’s good to have someone in-house for calls that escalate to a higher level of need.” Many business owners fail to take advantage of remote call monitoring. “We recommend, basically, that you be the mouse in the corner,” said Rogers.
Be aware of hidden costs. Some centers charge extra for orders that exceed a certain number of items, said Larry Maher of Data Management Associates. Be sure to ask. “We overlooked the licensing issue for our software,” said Debi Rauckhorst of Creative Irish Gifts. “Call center agents had to have a license — $1,500 each. I would have negotiated some kind of a split had I known.”
… and hidden benefits. Steve Bennett said some clients pay for the same phone call twice because they receive a call locally, then switch it to TMS in Oregon. Call centers offer expertise to clients “that are good entrepreneurs but maybe are not especially IT- or security-conscious.”
It was hard to find people in our community to work on Sundays,” said business analyst and accounting/IT manager Karen VandenBrink. It was time for Revival to consider an outside call center.
For most business owners, the switch to a call center is not so much a choice as something thrust upon them, said National Call Centers’ executive director David Butler.
“Suddenly every person seems to be spending all their time on the phone,” he said. “The whole staff becomes a mini call center. It stops people from dong their work.” That’s a poor use of time and expertise, said Sharon Rogers of Midco, an inbound customer call center based in Sioux Falls, S.D.
“Communicating with the consumer is our core business,” Rogers said. “The business owner’s core business has to do with the product and marketing.” Butler goes further, labeling multitasking “no-tasking.” The decisions an ecommerce owner faces, he noted, “require more than a nanosecond of thought.”
Three options for choosing a call center
Consider, for example, the process of selecting a call center. Business owners have three options: A traditional call center in the U.S., overseas operators or a combination of in-house and outside services. As with all shopping, the decision is often driven by price.
Most call centers charge by the minute, from 70 cents to $1. Others bill per order. Additional costs include set-up charges and monthly fees for account management, training, programming and reporting. It’s customary for a call center to specify a minimum volume. For example, at TMS call center of Oregon, clients average 1,000 calls a month, or 500 to 600 orders, said Steve Bennett of TMS. Anything smaller is “probably not a good fit, and I’ll happily refer them to a smaller agency.”
Finding the right option is worth the time it requires, said Butler, because “you’re basically hiring a partner for your business.” The virtual nature of ecommerce raises the stakes: The phone call handled by the center might be the only real-life contact with a customer.
Creative Irish Gifts tried all three methods before it found the right solution at the right price. The business, which operates a brick-and-mortar shop in Cleveland, a catalog and a website that generates 50 percent of its business, employs four people on site and 25 during Christmas. Hiring and training seasonal help was difficult — and expensive. So was the call center that handled overflow calls, said manager Debi Rauckhorst. Switching to one based in the Philippines cut costs nearly in half.
“It was not an easy decision,” Rauckhorst said, “but when the wolf is at the door, you have to look at what you can do.” Because another local business recommended the Filipino call center, “a huge amount of the homework was already done. Without that, we might not have made that choice,” Rauckhorst said.
Keep call center current on inventory, other matters
So far, it has worked well. The Cleveland location uploads information hourly to keep the call center current on inventory and other matters. The overseas call center has some benefits, noted Larry Maher, vice president of sales and marketing for Data Management Associates, maker of the Mach2K software Creative Irish Gifts uses.
“The best thing is that they’re not talking to you in the middle of their night; they’re talking to you in the middle of their workday,” he said, “and their English is nice-sounding. Creative Irish Gifts found an effective way to make sure that if I, as a customer get the overflow operator, she would have the same information I would get from someone in the building.”
That seamless flow between a business and its call center is the mark to aim for, according to Butler. It’s also what makes businesses wary of overseas centers. Not surprisingly, domestic call centers emphasize the neutral, accent-free speech of their employees. Regardless of location, a company must embed its corporate culture within the call center, Butler said; it’s probably more feasible to do so stateside.
“Operators need to know the people at your company, the product, the service, the style. Customers should not wonder who’s taking calls for you,” he said.
At Midco, Rogers said, “we focus on being a partner, not just a vendor.” Accordingly, “we do a lot of training on soft skills. Because we run on our own platform and build our own interface, we can quickly give customers answers to frequently asked questions with a sense of natural interaction.”
When Revival Animal Health customers call Midco, staffers have up-to-date information thanks to a daily automatic data feed set up between the two entities. More complex questions are forwarded to Iowa, and “the next morning, we have one sales rep who gives full attention to those contacts,” VandenBrink said. “For us, Midco is good because it’s in the Midwest and shares our philosophy.”
Achieving that sense of teamwork is priceless, said Butler, who described a call center that handled phone traffic for a California university.
“The employees were wearing sweatshirts and ball caps with the university logo, and they knew the scores of the most recent athletic events … it was like being at a pep rally,” he said. “That’s the ideal, really.”