Should you Outsource your Helpdesk?

To Oursource or not to outsource ... while not exactly a question that plagued William Shakespeare (hence the lack of any really good quality plays about it!), is a very valid question for the small and medium size business!

While my natural inclination is generally to urge businesses to support and service their customers directly - after all the only one who can really tell you what you are doing wrong and right are the people paying for your service - there are sometimes very valid reasons to outsource your helpdesk and support operations.

As you helpdesk is your primary and first point of contact with customers, they are the people that your customers will most likely work with whenever they are having a problem.  The question to ask yourself though - especially if you are a smaller business - is ... is this the business you are a specialist in?  If your skills are in manufacturing or cooking, perhaps picking up a phone and troubleshooting a customers service issue is really not your forte!

You must remember, that to the customer calling in, the person on the other end of the line IS your company.  If your support staff are not well trained with the appropriate tools and resources available to them, then they are not going to be able to provide the answer that your customer is looking for.  If they are not knowledgeable and helpful, chances are good that your customers is going to feel the same way about your business too!

Now I think its self evident that many companies just don't have the resources for a high-quality helpdesk.  As companies focus on efficiences and turnover the mandate for these businesses is generally getting through as many calls or emails as possible in the shortest amount of time.  While being responsive is an admirable goal, you NEVER want your staff rushing to get the customers off the line without providing the correct answer - this is a slippery slope and will only lead to unhappy customers and as I've been mentioned before you'll lose more business in the long run with unhappy customers than you can afford to.  When companies do not provide the helpdesk team with the appropriate resources, training or tools you have a recipe for failure. 

Helpdesk and Customer Service positions while generally entry level should still be staffed with people that have ambition and can grow to other roles within your company.  If you are not hiring for this type of person, you are not getting the right person you need.  In addition, in some environments, the helpdesk itself is very stressful leading to significant churn and retention problems.  In addition to the staff themselves, you generally need to have a supervisor and manager to ensure that they are performing to standards and that you have the resources in place to cover sick days, vacations and other gaps in the schedule.  Finally you want to think about growth ... as your business grows, will the size of your helpdesk?  How many extra resources will you need for 10 customers, how about 100 or 1000?  What is your projection with regards to your growth prospects?  Are you going to staff your team before you get the sales (costly but allows you to ensure that they are trained properly) or after the sales come in (financially in the short term you're saving money, but are you providing all of your existing customers with the appropriate level of service?  what are your new customers going to think about not being able to get through to your call center because of long hold times?). 

With all of the above mentioned (the details in my last post), the cost of a "good" helpdesk is not inconsiderable and you never just want to offer your customers "good" service ... you should be aiming for "great" service at all times!!!

So with everything I have said - I completely understand the justification and reasoning for those companies that have decided this is NOT their skillset and they'd rather focus on making their customers happy with and through their product and not by offering superlative service only when it is broken.  However, if you are still on the fence and are trying to decide whether or not to oursource, there are a couple of things you should consider.

1. Location & Scale -  Despite the urge to keep your outsourced staff in-house (where you can keep your eyes on them and make sure that they're doing a good job!) its actually better to have them in another facility.  If you choose an outsourcer that is supplying multiple other businesses this is obviously self evident, but even for a smaller operation, by keeping your outsourcer "in house" you mitigate any potential cost savings that you could see.  By choosing to have your calls with a larger outsourcer, you are also able to take advantage of "scale".  As these companies have to keep staff for other clients anyways, you will be able to utilize these resources when your business is busy and when other businesses aren't.  Working with larger organizations in this fashion ensures allows you to provide your customers with around the clock coverage at a fraction of the price you would have to pay if you did it yourself.

Taking the outsourcing model to its logical conclusion implies Overseas outsourcing.  There are obvious cost savings to be had by utilizing resources in another country at an advantageous rate of exchange to yourself, however these savings must be weighed up against the infrastructure costs required to setup a center in this region (not relevant if you are approaching an established company), the training required for staff without the necessary local knowledge required for your customers and the potential negative backlash from your customers. 

2. Access & Tool - If you are going to do this right, the company that you are outsourcing to must have the same level of access to your systems and resources that an in-house department would have.  Putting aside the obvious legal ramifications based on sharing sensitive customer information with an outside group, without this level of access, this team just will not be able to deliver the solution that you are looking for.

NDAs and Disclaimers must be in place to protect your client's information, but whether you enable the outsourcer to have access to your network through a VPN or otherwise it is absolutely mandatory that this level of access is granted.  The worst thing from a customers point of view is speaking to an "order taker" vs. a qualified helpdesk analyst that can resolve their problem.

3. Training - Talking about qualified ... train the outsourcer to the same level that you would an internal employee.  If you have an existing helpdesk, use staff from that team to assist in your training.  At the very least you must ensure that you cover off the following:

* Top 20 Customer Questions and appropriate Solutions
* Finding Customer Information
* Logging and Reporting Customer Information
* Escalations & Escalation Matrixes
* Basic Troubleshooting methodologies
* Product Knowledge (specific to your company)
* Products and Services (specific to your company)
* Types of Customers
* Technical Training (specific to your service): you can (& should) specify that staff supporting your product are trained to a specific standard or certification.

4. Reporting & Oversight - Now one important thing is you cannot forget about the outsourcer once you've established a relationship with them.  Monthly (at a minimum ... in the beginning you probably want to have weekly) meetings are required to ensure that they are meeting your SLAs and reporting appropriately to you.  What reports and KPIs are you monitoring to ensure that customer service is not being missed?  Make sure that you document fully what you are expecting to receive from the Outsourcer and that you receive it at the agreed upon intervals.  However, you cannot take the information that they provide to you at "face value".  You are going to still have to conduct some sort of internal audit to ensure that they are actually providing you with relevant and accurate information - a good way of doing this is selecting a random sampling of the clients they have stated to have worked on and performing a customer satisfaction survey on them.  You will then be able to determine if the customer was satisfied with the wait time, the level of knowledge of the helpdesk representative and other factors!

Outsourcing the helpdesk can offer signficant cost savings and enable companies to deliver a high level of service to their clients.  With the right vendor, you could see some significant cost savings from outsourcing as your outsourced service department enables you to better focus on your core competencies.  Done wrong however, and you could lose your customers or face significant backlash as well as a loss of faith in your products and services as a whole.  Its a fine line to balance and I hope that this series of posts has given you some things to consider that might be of use in your decision.

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