Ringing Support

Choosing the right call center

Andy Mills and Kelly Bishop hoped they would be fielding plenty of customer calls when they started BuyItNowUS.com in September. But it turned out to be a bit more complicated. The Charlotte (N.C.) seller of home electronics and collectibles would get a flurry of calls. Then the phones would go silent for hours. "How do you staff for that?" asks Mills, co-founder of the 12-employee company, which had $600,000 in revenue in its first six months. "To have support 24 hours a day, we might be paying four or five people to sit around and drink coffee most of the time."

Instead, Bishop and Mills hired Your Way Communications in November. The Durham (N.C.) call center charges $1.50 to $2.50 a call. There's a minimum fee of $500 to set up an 800 number, record menu options, and train staff. Bishop and Mills are now paying about $600 a month -- just 10% of what they would otherwise pay full-time operators.

Shunting all those customer calls to outsiders carries its share of risks. Operators who are rude or inefficient can turn off buyers. Even if phone representatives are scrupulously professional, you can miss valuable customer feedback.

To find the right call center for your business, start with your basic requirements. Do you need round-the-clock availability or service only during business hours? Will your customer contacts mostly be short and simple, or will operators need to be trained for lengthy, complicated interactions? Do you need Web site support?

The Web sites of two industry groups -- the Incoming Calls Management Institute (www.icmi.com/smallcallcenters) and the Call Center Network Group (www.ccng.com) -- can help you find companies that meet your criteria. Another site, VendorSeek.com, lets you post and receive bids from call centers. Check them carefully: It's not uncommon for vendors to lowball to get your business, then come back with additional charges later. If your call volume isn't huge, or if it's unpredictable or seasonal, you'll probably do better paying per call rather than paying a flat rate.

Cost isn't the only factor. Some vendors will report back with the types of questions customers are asking; others only divulge the number and duration of calls. Find out how the center trains its staff and what information and materials you'll need to provide. And ask if operators will be dedicated to your customers' calls or if they'll be working for several companies at once.

Then comes the most important step: visiting the centers on your short list. "Sit in on a training session or two and meet some of the operators. Sit next to an agent and listen to him answer calls for a few hours," says Brad Cleveland, CEO of the ICMI. Bishop and Mills even did a little mystery dialing. They collected clients' names from various call centers and rang customer service, noting wait times and the operators' attitude and knowledge. "Some of them sounded sleazy, like my call was being answered in a boiler room," Mills says. The call center they chose provides monthly reports that include customer feedback, along with information such as how quickly calls are answered and how many callers hang up before reaching someone. Outsourced, after all, shouldn't mean out of touch.

By Karen E. Klein

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