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Don't Outsource Your Reputation

Outsourcing customer service can be an effective way to reduce costs. It also can be an effective way to damage your most valuable asset—your brand's reputation. The learning organization should show the way to successful service outsourcing.

Of all the risks associated with outsourcing customer contact operations, none is more potentially damaging than the risk to the brand's reputation. A company lives or dies on the strength of that reputation and the expectations associated with the brand by its customers.

When calculating cost savings associated with outsourcing customer service, one important calculation should be potential losses in sales and good will from poorly managed and poorly performed customer contact. Acknowledgment and assurances regarding acquisition of product knowledge and project management should be just the starting point of a rigorous vetting process.

Your Brand Is Not a Product

Product knowledge typically is defined as a practical understanding of features and associated benefits. But the ineffable quality brought to the product by the brand is a crucial intangible that also must be considered. The transfer of product knowledge is a straightforward training process. Transfer of the aura of the brand is a more subtle and complex process.
Sensitivity to brand values and the ability to fully represent them in direct contact with the customer requires assimilation of the qualities of the brand. Product is about features; Brand is about style, values, and emotional associations.

The Brand Care Concept

At Global Response, a leading contact center company (and, in the interests of full disclosure, one of my clients), the importance of instilling brand awareness and sensitivity to the nuances of brand identification on the part of customers is reflected in the title worn by their customer contact representatives who are formally known as Brand Care Specialists. Indeed, Global Response has positioned itself in the contact center world as the Brand Care Company.

Conceptually, Brand Care means focusing on how perception of the brand is influenced by customer contact with brand representatives. Everything the Brand Care Specialist says, and the way he or she says it, affects the way the customer feels about the brand. Brand Care Specialists take their cue from Hippocrates and learn to "first, do no harm." Protecting the reputation of the brand is their most essential function.
But Brand Care goes beyond protecting the downside. An effective Brand Care Specialist can be a powerful force in the marketing of the brand. Customers feel a real connection with a knowledgeable and empathetic Brand Care Specialist who engages with them as someone who shares their affection for the brand. That feeling has value. It brings customers back. Customer service in the Brand Care setting is not a cost but a valuable asset.

Matching the Contact Rep with the Brand and the Customer

Some brands appeal to wide audiences; others to a narrow band of aficionados. Wide appeal means that recruitment and selection for representatives of the brand will be relatively easy, albeit no less important. The more exclusive the brand and the more selective the customer, the more rigorous must be the process of matching representatives to the brand.

All the ordinary standards of customer contact apply to both brands with wide appeal and those with more exclusivity. Both sets of customers want courteous, competent, and helpful representatives who respond promptly and directly to their needs. But the more exclusive the brand, the more customer service also includes an increasingly distinct identification with the brand on the part of the customer contact representative.

Eliminating the Distinction Between In-House and Outsource

A brand is a set of expectations on the part of the customer. Those expectations include not only the performance and quality of the products on which the brand logo appears, but also the way in which the company behind the brand treats its customers. The customer experience is not only with the branded products or services but also in every contact with brand representatives.

It follows that brand management must include careful vetting of the qualifications of those chosen to represent the brand. These qualifications should not be compromised when call center or contact center services are outsourced. The same recruitment, selection, training, orientation, coaching, brand identification, and cultural assimilation should be required whether the representatives are in-house or outsourced. Done properly the effect will be that the location where the customer contact takes place will be irrelevant—the result will be the same.

The Campaign and the Team

Responsibility for achieving this objective falls squarely on senior management within the learning discipline. But just as clearly, the facilitation of the learning process must include brand managers, marketing, advertising, customer service, and sales expertise. It should be the responsibility of creative learning designers (whether formally recognized as such or not) to capture the essence of the brand and transfer that essence into a learning process that makes the customer experience with outsourced representatives transparent and indistinguishable from that with in-house representatives.

On the other side of the table, the company to which customer service is being outsourced should be staffed with counterparts to the major learning and marketing disciplines. The culture of the potential outside resource should reflect their own understanding of the importance of brand issues. The collaborative process of establishing a customer contact environment that both protects and enhances the brand should engage not only the intellect but the emotions of the team. The process can be thought of as a hybrid internal marketing/learning campaign that includes the best of all the disciplines involved.

The cost savings associated with outsourcing are real, but the ultimate responsibility for protecting and enhancing the brand through customer service always remains in-house. If the learning process is well-conceived, designed, and implemented, the reputation of the brand will remain secure wherever customer contact takes place.


Jim Boring is a marketing communications and learning consultant based in Fort Lauderdale, FL. He has extensive experience with customer contact organizations both within and outside the client company. His client engagements have included Motorola, CDW, Baxter, Ameritech, and Blue Cross/Blue Shield.