Like everyone else, contact center BPOs (business process outsourcers) are emerging from more than a year of drastic and unforeseen upheaval. How have BPOs weathered this challenging period? How are they navigating this still-changing landscape and a “new normal?” And, what does the future look like in the world of BPOs?
Guest author Tom Laird, CEO of Expivia Interaction Marketing Group, takes a deep dive into all this and more, as he looks at the ups and downs of the last year and how client preferences are evolving in response to changing customer habits. Ever the optimist, Tom even finds some silver linings in the trying times of the past year-and-a-half—and also ponders what may lie ahead for Expivia and the BPO industry.
Lessons learned: insights for BPOs and others
Of course, BPOs, including us at Expivia, experienced challenges over the past year—the highs and lows of figuring out how to do business and meet our customers’ needs during a worldwide pandemic. No small feat, to be sure. But like many others in many different sectors, we also learned some valuable things that we’re now taking forward and incorporating into our business. Would we want to do it all again? Absolutely not! But we’re seeing some evolution in the contact center BPO business—and yes, we’ve definitely seen some silver linings.
Working from home does workObviously, there were some work-from-home BPOs, pre-COVID. A few utilized a kind of hybrid, where working from home was a reward earned by good performers. For the most part, though, BPOs were primarily brick and mortar, as we were. But that’s totally changed now. I confess that I was the most anti-work-from-home guy you could imagine! But only because my early BPO experience involved financial-services—Bank of American, Citi, Chase, GE—where the reality was security audits, a clean desk policy, and PCI compliance. That’s the kind of stuff that always kept me up at night and made me believe that we couldn’t maintain that same kind of integrity off-site. Something simple like a roommate walking through the room and picking up something off the [agent’s] desk could compromise everything.
So we kept everything in the office until about a year ago when we knew COVID was for real. Today, we still have 99.9% of all our associates working from home. On the NICE inContact [now NICE CXone] platform we had zero issues when it comes to getting agents up and running at home.
And that’s really the point: Organizations that were prepared, that were more flexible and already in the cloud, had a much easier, quicker time moving things home and staying up and running. We were never down, not even for one day. We were able to be totally seamless from the transition from brick-and-mortar to work-from-home.
Where do I stand now? I think the new emphasis will be if you’ve always been a brick-and-mortar person, you're never not going to be a brick-and-mortar person. But it will be different. For people like me, there will be a hybrid. Particularly for sectors like financial services, we’re going to come back in-house. But for more general customer service—questions, information, those types of things—we'll continue to work from home.
Silver linings—in a pandemic?
‘Necessity is the mother of invention,’ right? One huge thing we learned was using Studio to collect credit card information using the IVR. So basically if a customer calls in and says, ‘I want to purchase this,’ we send them into the IVR, which prompts them for their credit card information and then fills back into our screen. That’s just one of so many things I probably wouldn’t have thought about before. But it’s great. We just had to figure certain things out.
More communication, more spontaneity, more fun
Another huge benefit has been how we're communicating with our reps. While I can't walk on the call center floor and high-five Janie for a great QA score like I would before, I find myself communicating more—we use Slack for all of it. There’s a channel for each client in each team. And then we have an overall company channel, and I'm communicating on that much more. I think the communication culture in the organization is so much better now. That's a benefit I would never have imagined going into it.
And then there are what I think of as little stupid things, but they really aren’t stupid at all! We had a doodle competition on Slack. I said, ‘You have 30 seconds. Draw something, send it, we'll give the winner—whoever we all like best—$50. It was fun. We can do little things like that, in the spur of the moment, and it’s fun. Partly because of our size, we can be spontaneous and just do some silly things. And it makes a difference. Crazy as it is, this whole way of working (remote, working from home) has really opened up some new possibilities for how we communicate, which is so important in any contact center.
Customers are seeing the light—and it's digital
We see clients moving to more digital or are thinking about it, and they know they’ll need to have a full-capability partner. Voice isn’t going away, but customers are increasingly going digital omnichannel or multichannel. Some of this began before the pandemic but probably accelerated during it.
One of the biggest changes I’m seeing is in the RFPs we get, especially regarding channel preference. Voice is still alive and well, for sure. But now we’re doing voice, chat, and email at a minimum—and a lot more of the whole digital aspect. And even if prospective clients don't have a need right this second to outsource on the digital side of things, they want to make sure that their partner has that capability—technology and services—that they’re going to need in the future.
Clients are reading the tea leaves, the writing on the wall. They’re seeing digital volumes grow, and they’re seeing that everybody has digital outreach. At the same time, they’re really starting to see that if your company is not in the contact center business, you’re probably going to have to go purchase something separate when the volume reaches a certain point.
So companies are concerned—and I would say maybe even a little scared. They want to make sure that moving forward, they’re prepared. We’re seeing the real beginnings of what may well be permanent changes in how people are talking with one another and communicating. That’s definitely the way things are going.
Why go BPO?
Different companies turn to BPOS for different reasons and use them differently. While everybody’s a little bit different, the majority of companies are looking to outsource pretty much everything. A lot of times we have clients who have been operating their own call centers, even though it’s not their core strength or capability. But now, the company’s growing like crazy, and they need 25 or 30 reps. They’re faced with, How do we scale that—and quickly? But they probably don't have the technology for that. And that’s often the point of reckoning when the company says ‘We just don’t want to be in the contact center business—and we’re not very good at it. We just want to sell our widget, which is what we’re good at.’
That’s often where we come in. On the other hand, some companies do keep their contact center and reps and hire a BPO to take on the overflow volume. But usually for that to work for both us and the client, the overflow needs to be pretty hefty—probably 20 seats or so.
But…some BPO myths persist
There have always been myths and misconceptions around hiring BPOs, even when companies really need them. And it’s not just contact center BPOs, it’s the whole broader notion of outsourcing that can hold companies back from going in that direction. But what we see is the more experience—good, positive experiences—companies have with BPOs, the misconceptions tend to disappear. But— there are still a bunch of them out there, and three specific ones come to mind.
Misconception #1: You’re going to lose control, that you’re giving up everything to a third party. The great thing is that we counter that with total transparency. Every client can log in to their dashboard and see the reps, the same exact real-time reports that we see. They can double click on an agent and monitor any time. All our clients get Excel sheets every day with KPIs from the day before and can also access historical reports themselves. All their information is really at their fingertips. It’s just like if it were their own contact center—and that’s how we position it to clients upfront.
Misconception #2: We can’t outsource because our system is just too difficult.
Every client thinks that theirs is the hardest, most complicated system to learn and integrate with. But the truth is, we’ve never had a proprietary CRM or a Zendesk, Zoho, Salesforce, or anything else they may have created on their own that we could not integrate with and learn. Amazing, isn’t it?
Connecting is also usually a quick process to connect through APIs, which we’ve always been able to do and have never had an issue. Connecting with anything in the cloud is super easy, and NICE inContact [now NICE CXone] has pre-built integrations for nearly everything. Even if someone has a proprietary system, it might take a bit of time to connect through APIs to get the data we need to do screen pops or something like that. But that’s still not a major undertaking.
Misconception #3: BPOs can’t deliver the quality we need.
This is based on thinking of BPOs only as offshore, where maybe language issues. But overall—speaking for just the U.S. and onshore partners—the reality is that their quality will not take a hit from outsourcing to a BPO. We do this every day and have all the tools for it. We hear things like, ‘Wow, this is really good!’ Guys, we’ve been telling you that we're pretty good at this!
The key: finding the right BPO partner
Some believe that internal call centers are always better than outsourced partners. Sometimes that’s true, but it all depends on the BPO partner you go with. If you choose the right BPO, you're never going to be behind when it comes to technology, because this is all we do.
Being on the NICE inContact [now NICE CXone] platform is huge for us and for our clients. I'm able to give a client roadmap and say, ‘Listen, NICE inContact is going to be doing this, this and this. In the next 12 months, we're going to be able to integrate this. We're going to add real-time transcription. We'll be able to add analytics.’ It’s nice to be able to pick and choose from the technology platform. If I have even one client that wants this, you know, we can do it. We have never had to say no to anything, not once.
Even with on-premises systems, we can basically say yes—we can take your calls and instantly move them to the cloud. At the same time, we can show them that they really don’t need the premises-based solution at all. That saves licenses, upkeep, maintenance, the warranty, a server going out. It’s an easy sell now, where just five or six years ago it wasn’t. Now people know if you’re not in the cloud, you’re behind. They know they need to just go ahead and do it, and it’s not difficult to do at all.
Deciding between onshore versus offshore depends on what you’re looking to do, what your culture is. There can be cost savings in offshoring—honestly, I cannot compete with contact centers in the Middle East, in the Philippines, and in India. But their prices are coming up, and it’s not as inexpensive as it once was. So you must have the conversation in your company: From a cultural standpoint, does the cost savings match the C-SAT hit we’re probably going to take? There are some awesome offshore partners out there, really good ones. But it all depends on what kind of product you have, what your customers will deal with, whether it is worth it for your company—it’s more than just a financial choice.
Cost vs. value
Prospective clients approach us, expecting to compare our hourly cost with what they’re paying their reps. But they quickly realize that it's also their CRM licensing, the telephony cost, the building they're in, the taxes—all of it adds up. So when we do a staffing calculator or a call center calculator that basically adds in all the other costs, it's surprising to see what you're actually paying for a rep compared to what you would be getting with us…I guarantee you, when we add up everything, it's going to be equal or maybe a little less.
Finding the fit as an SMB
If your company is smaller, an SMB (small-medium-sized business), it’s especially important to find the right fit culturally, too, but in a different way. If the BPO has a dedicated client services manager, meaning they may have five or six clients, you’re going to have one point of contact to call—this is big! You don’t want to be calling individual departments for different issues, or as a smaller player, having to put a ticket in and waiting for a day or whatever it is to have your problem fixed.
With us, we're very hands-on, with responsive client service people, weekly client meetings, quarterly business reviews, etc. What do you want out of the partner? I suggest writing down five or six traits that are really important to you and then finding somebody that's going to match that.
This is how partnerships work, and our best clients enable us to form partnerships with them. And when things get tough, we bend over backward. When COVID-19 happened, we didn't take on any new clients, even though I was getting phone calls every single day, because we had to prioritize our current clients.
If you’re a client and think of a BPO as only a vendor, most of the time that relationship will not work. So you have to really think of them as just an offshoot of your business, somebody who's working with you instead of kind of working for you. These are the relationships that really work.
Growth and new horizons for Expivia
When I think about our selling points and for BPOs generally, the first is trust. And that goes with transparency—clients have eyes and ears into everything we do on a day-to-day basis. You can see the SLA, the actual reps on your program, how we’re handling everything from a technology standpoint. In fact, clients have the ability in CXone to simply click on an agent and be instantly listening/monitoring.
Every client gets a roadmap of the next year for the new technology: These are the things we’re going to be able to offer you as we grow together. This is a major piece of our relationships—making sure that all our clients are staying ahead of the technology curve—and this is something as a client, you aren’t paying for. If you have an internal contact center, on the other hand. there’s a constant investment needed to get up to where you need to be. And then there’s the quality aspect—how we can basically guarantee you—with the technology now, with analytics, and with what you see in the way we’re handling your customers—from CSAT to NPS to sentiment analytics, you will feel comfortable with the scores we’ll provide you.
Thinking back, I don’t know if we could have started without NICE inContact [now NICE Cxone]. I came from a premises-based inContact competitor, paying exorbitant quarterly costs to upgrade. It was crazy. We came in when the cloud was emerging, 2010-2011. It was still an outlier but becoming more mainstream. We could have never started Expivia without that model. It's been literally a lifesaver for us.
Today we're doing everything from financial services to retail—companies like Melissa and Doug, the toy company—and we’re seeing a growing mix of channels. Companies don't want to miss out on somebody who wants to talk to them on Twitter or Facebook or chat. Self-service has become very big. Client companies continue to look for the balance: How do we pay attention to the bottom line and still provide a unique customer experience?
We do outbound for a couple of clients that run social campaigns. They'll generate 10,000 Facebook leads a day, and we’ll make follow-up calls to all of those, explaining the product and collecting payment with a credit card or debit card.
We have a couple of hospitals that we are working for, including a large children's hospital—everything from if your child is sick to working with donors—and we work for the largest childcare certification company.
We also work with 211-LA County, 211 and United Way of Oregon, and United Way of Connecticut. We were initially handling just COVID-related emergency and informational calls. But that’s shifted to vaccine schedules for all three states. They are all on NICE inContact and wanted us on their platform, so we can support them with employees without necessarily the seats. We’ve worked through a number of things like that with them.
This started in the very beginning taking overflow calls for 211 LA County. Then about a year ago, about a week after everything more or less shut down, [Executive Director Amy Latzer] called and requested 10 agents…the next day it was 20…then 50. Just like that, it ballooned—at our peak, we were at 125 reps on the COVID calls. Things slowed down but escalated again when the vaccine hit.
Candidly, I am really proud of the job we’ve done. Both LA County and Connecticut will keep us on, even when all this is done - some number of reps as a kind of overflow. Everyone’s learned to always be prepared even as we hope this never happens again. But if anything crazy does happen, we’re there, ready to go.
Connecting with Expivia has made these organizations agile and adaptable for whatever’s around the corner but has also helped them in other ways, too. The labor laws for overtime pay are different in California than here in Pennsylvania, so this has added some financial flexibility for them. Also, we're East Coast, so we can handle calls that would be 5 a.m. or 6 a.m. Pacific time – it’s just not that easy to get 70 reps in at 5 a.m.!
Looking ahead: The future is here
For one of our newest, larger clients, next year's roadmap includes natural language processing (NLP) and getting an IVR with some AI, which may involve harnessing the expertise of NICE inContact partners. Which is another really great thing about NICE inContact [now NICE CXone]—the whole partner universe that we can go out to that integrates really seamlessly. We can do one-off projects and meet the client’s needs.
Our clients are really into speech analytics and like to constantly know our agent sentiment scores. That's another part of transparency. We're going to actually be able to show you improvement by a number that we're being nice to your customers.
But we’re also moving more and more toward customer sentiment and trending keywords. I’ll be able to send a monthly report that shows the agent sentiment scores, and here's how you're your customer sentiment score is rising because we've done this and this. And then we look at the trending keywords, and now we’ve got a picture of the whole customer journey.
We’re able to point out things like that process you have in your IVR or that website that you have that is causing problems, and it’s going to bump up your sentiment score probably another 5-7% because we see it in the keywords. For example, with one client, we were seeing the trending keyword ‘elevator.’ Or we may see ‘too expensive’ for a promotion. We can move beyond just the call center with analytics and talk to people about their overall processes that they have in place for their entire customer experience. We can advise them that they need to look at the whole universe of what they’re doing to make sure the whole customer experience is seamless throughout. We’re hearing these kinds of things more and more, things involving business decisions to be made, not just customer service decisions. That’s another reason to have the right BPO partner and technology.
Real-time transcription is something else we’re really interested in. So basically that's going to be having the system kind of add on what comes with that, prompting the associate for certain things. So if I hear is that this is a good opportunity for an upsell or cross-sell, the script may include prompts that say, ‘Make sure you're asking this.’
But I think in analytics and in real-time transcription—assisting supervisors and reps, not replacing them—is really where how AI is going to be used, at least in the foreseeable future. I don't think we're going to have the robots taking calls in the next five years. But AI is going to be a valuable assist, making the experience better for both the customer and the agent by kind of prompting and telling and kind of hoping that they're looking at some things that maybe they wouldn't be seeing on their own.
Learn more about how NICE inContact, now NICE CXone, was instrumental in helping Tom build Expivia into the thriving BPO it is today.