A Purr-fect Outsourcing Relationship | Article

woman and barcodeThe Dallas Morning News printed a shocking story on toxic waste dumps in town. At the end of the story was a bar code. Worried homeowners could rub a mouse like device (that looks like a cat) over the striped lines. Instantly their PCs (the device connects them to the Internet if their computers are on but not online) brought up a Web site listing all the toxic waste sites in their zip code.

On any given Sunday, the Dallas newspaper has up to 40 difference cues for the digital cat. This feline is the product of Digital Convergence Corporation, a Dallas, Texas-based technology company. Currently the company has 1 million “cats” installed.

The idea came from an Internet talk show. In 1998 Internet America, a Dallas-based Internet service provider (ISP), hosted a talk show to introduce the world to the wonders of this new thing called the Internet. The hosts found the “kewl” Web sites and discussed them on their program. However, if the hosts discussed a page located deep into the Web site, the listeners got confused and could never find their way there. Even when the show’s Web site had the correct link, the hosts discovered their audience found the home page, then left in frustration.

So, the existential question was: How do you get the end user to the Web site, especially when they are reading or hearing about a Web site when they are away from their computer? They came up with an answer: have a device send a signal to the end user’s PC to fetch the Web page. And they decided the ubiquitous UPC (Universal Product Codes) bar codes were the easiest way to get them there.

Doug Davis was the chief technology officer of Internet America. He joined with other co-workers from the ISP to form Digital Convergence. By the end of 1998 his group had written software that allows a scanning device to scan a printed URL in a magazine or hear a link on TV or the radio and have the PC retrieve the correct Web site. Forbes magazine printed Digital Convergence’s first bar cod in its September 2000 issue.

Searching for an Outsourcing Provider

As the cat’s popularity leaped, Digital Convergence decided to add a help function for its users. Deciding to outsource that function was easy since it was an entirely different animal. “We are a small company whose mission is to deliver our technology. We have to maintain our management focus,” says Davis. He felt running a call center would “rob” the company of precious resources. Having run call centers before, Davis remembered that significant traffic can place a considerable load on an organization.

Offering email support helps the company as well as the consumer. It winnows out difficulties that don’t belong to the cat. “If the user can’t get online, that’s not our problem,” he explains.

Davis spoke to 12 different outsourcing suppliers, distributing a detailed Request for Proposal to every call center company he found on Lycos and Yahoo. “We used a shotgun approach,” says Davis. The research determined the company needed to divide up its call center workload.

The company selected Service911, a Dallas-based provider, for the email portion, which is free to users. It chose Seattle-based USI to handle the phone calls, which the customer must pay for. In October USI fielded 1,200 phone calls. Service911 handed 11,000 emails.

The prospective buyer called its vendors’ current customers to measure their level of satisfaction with their suppliers before signing a contract.

Service 911’s deployment took three weeks. Time to market was a deciding criterion in selecting a vendor, Davis says. So was price. Davis says Service 911’s fees “were less expensive than I could do it myself by an order of magnitude,” calculates the executive.

Tracking Trends and Performance

Service911 personnel can answer up to 100 messages per hour. Davis likes the monthly management reports which highlight developing trends in the kinds of questions asked. If† cat users ask the same questions again and again, Digital Convergence knows there’s a problem. Digital Convergence can then issue an update to its software or rework its Web site to solve the problem once it spots the trend.

In the beginning, consumers were confused about how to install their cats. Service911 noticed the problem and brought it to its buyer’s attention. “We explained things better and that allowed us to solve the problem early on,” says Davis. This was a useful observation because Digital Convergence beta tested its products when there were only 100 users. “There’s a lot you learn” when the user base multiplies, he notes.

Davis adds that it would have been near impossible to gather user feedback and launch a new technology simultaneously. Because it chose to outsource the feedback piece, he estimates the company was able to make significant changes like revamping the install piece of its Web site “several weeks in advance of what we would have been able to do ourselves.”

For this reason, the executives at Digital Convergence prowl over their reports from Service911, some of which they receive daily. They also do spot audits of the email exchanges. The buyer has assigned one employee to gather information necessary to track its service level agreements (SLA).

Managing the Outsourcing Relationship

When the outsourcing relationship began, Digital Convergence didn’t assign a particular employee to manage the outsourcing relationship. “It was more of a full time job then we anticipated, especially during the launch,” recalls Davis.

“Outsourcing has helped us quite a bit,” says Davis. His vendors made sure there were no 911 emergencies during its launch.

Lessons from the Outsourcing Primer:

  • Outsourcing helps a company launch a new technology.
  • Call your prospective vendor’s current customers to check their satisfaction levels.
  • Managing an outsourcing relationship is a full time job.
  • Outsourcing vendors can spot trends and provide invaluable feedback.

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