Customer Support Sourcing: Do It Right for the Results You Need

Six steps to balancing customer experience with shareholder results through a sourcing strategy that recognizes the needs — and value — of individual customers


Combining the value of the customer to your business along with the customer's expectations for support will define the appropriate support experience and cost base. A high-end customer with complex support needs, for example, may require a dedicated team of flexible and highly skilled agents that are likely onshore. A customer who buys a relatively inexpensive product may be supported from a lower-cost, offshore source capable of addressing more basic needs.

For all customers, today's technology can often facilitate resolution of many simple, repetitive issues through self-help Web tools. Certainly lower cost, mass-market products need to capitalize on this capability while minimizing the cost of assisted support.

Support Types and the Impact on Customer Relationship

Not all support is created equal in the ability to impact the customer relationship and create competitive differentiation. Understanding how the impact can vary across the range of contact types that comprise the support portfolio is the next step in constructing the sourcing management strategy.

As an example, resolving a simple customer service billing inquiry is not likely to drive a high level of overall customer satisfaction. Conversely, how well complex technical support contacts are handled can be a significant factor in customers' views regarding the quality of the overall product experience.

Many companies have learned this lesson the hard way after outsourcing complex technical support work for high-value customers to low-cost suppliers lacking sufficient skills and infrastructure. Relationships with those customers often suffered as a result, leading to a damaged reputation in the market and the need to rethink the support strategy. For some, this has resulted in "insourcing" support to their own operations, where control over support quality and the customer relationship is the highest.

The key to success is to channel investment in customer support proportionate to the value of that support to the customer relationship and its impact on competitive differentiation. Simply put, as Figure 1 depicts, spend the most where it makes the biggest difference to your business.

Defining the Right Supplier Profile

Determining the profile and location of the supplier capable of providing support at the targeted intersection of cost and customer experience is the next step in the development of the sourcing strategy. The outcome should be support provided by the right supplier who is located in the right geography and is capable of delivering the right customer experience at the right cost.

For contacts of low complexity and low impact on competitive differentiation, the main consideration should be to minimize the cost of delivering support. Doing so will free up resources that can be invested in more complex technical support contacts to higher value customers. The result is to drive sourcing toward a supplier whose main focus is on providing a low-cost service, located in a lower-cost geography. Within reason, agents at this type of supplier can have a lower level of cultural familiarity and accent alignment, along with a lower skills requirement profile. An important caveat is whatever sourcing strategy is followed, the suppliers must have the capability to deliver an acceptable customer experience.

For contacts with a strong influence on competitive differentiation, the focus shifts away from cost and toward providing a high-value customer experience. Here the sourcing strategy will be oriented toward geographies that can provide agents with a strong educational and skill base, familiar with American culture and with limited speech differences so that they can "connect" easily with the customer. Usually this also implies higher cost factors, but this extra cost should be easily justified through better retention of current customers and improved ability to attract new customers.

Supplier Evaluation and Selection

The most important consideration when evaluating and selecting suppliers is how well the potential suppliers align with the values, culture and strategic emphasis of your business. Choosing a partner with a similar mindset will pay enormous dividends over time, especially for complex contact types that require a very close working relationship to continually improve the customer experience.

In many cases, the most appropriate supplier may be your own company. Contacts that are critical to building strong relationships with valuable customers are strong candidates for internal support.

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