Digital Dilemma | Article

Most Flexible

2001 Editor’s Choice Award
Spherion and Thomson multimedia, inc.

From the CEO:

Everything changes very quickly in today’s environment, making it crucial that buyers select suppliers that demonstrate a willingness to be flexible in challenging, unanticipated situations. The relationship between Thomson multimedia inc. and its outsourcing supplier, Spherion, is an excellent example of flexibility. Learn how Spherion adapts quickly to provide services in Thomson’s customer care center for brand-new, leading-edge products.

Phone Receiver Without a doubt, today’s competitive forces have pushed the role and importance of customer relationship management up to the top rung of the ladder to success for organizations. As it is so vital, it has become a specialized area and an industry in itself. Thomson multimedia inc., which manufactures electronic products for the well-known brands of RCA, GE and Proscan, came to understand in the mid 1990s that customer care is a separate skill and a trade apart from manufacturing. “We are in the manufacturing business. We wanted to develop a partnership with a company that had expertise in managing a customer care center and call center,” recalls Scott Medawar, Manager of Customer Care Operations for Thomson.

They began outsourcing these strategic functions to Spherion in 1997. Prior to their agreement, Thomson had operated its own call center and had a relationship with Norell to staff the center (Norell later became Spherion). Thomson soon learned that Spherion could run a customer care call center with far more expertise. Medawar says they also checked other vendors, but Spherion’s proposal definitely indicated more expertise and the capability to perform the services in a more cost-effective manner.

“I believe very strongly that if you are going to outsource,” Medawar advises, “be sure you get a vendor that is really committed to meeting your needs. Make sure the company is flexible also, because everything changes very quickly in today’s environment.” That plan led to the beginnings of a very successful relationship, but even Medawar would not have predicted the surprises and unexpected value that have occurred during their relationship.

Grappling with Challenges

Thomson’s goals have not changed since the outset of the relationship, but the scope has changed. The manufacturer wanted to provide world-class service for its customers. The center handles over five million calls a year from customers who need product support and have questions about the electronics products. Spherion provides the management resources, call center expertise and labor force; Thomson supplies the desktop and technology, as well as the policy and procedural information. The scope of Spherion services will soon include an email and chat segment. “We tell them — and it’s true,” comments Medawar, “that they are the soul of our business. They are what our customers see.”

The two companies work well together in approaching problems and new issues. One of their biggest success stories is how they handled a digital dilemma. Medawar explains that Thomson is moving into the digital age very, very quickly. Its products are leading edge. This became a challenge because it put pressure on the customer care center staff to be able to respond to consumer needs about brand-new products, which no one knew anything about. “An example would be digital still cameras,” Medawar says. “We came out to market with those very quickly, and we didn’t have a lot of knowledge about the types of problems customers would encounter.”

They solved the dilemma, thanks to Spherion. They put together a fast-action team of experts from both companies to study the new products and stay on top of developments so they would be able to answer customer calls. The team is now called the New Technology Group. Their team approach has worked so well that the Spherion people who answer the new product calls are able to assist customers even though there is no time to develop scripting. “These guys and ladies are pretty fast on their feet, and they understand digital technology and computers, so they can help us deliver answers to customers very quickly,” says Medawar.

Manufacturing Value

Thomson is not alone in manufacturing something of value for a customer. Spherion brings a great deal of added value to its customer, Thomson. “They recently came to me and said they wanted to get better at the way they deal with our customers who want to buy something,” recalls Medawar. “This is not really an outbound sales center, but we do allow customers to buy things from us if they want to. And the Spherion people said they thought that process could be improved if we get an automated credit card validation process in our center. That gave us some ideas and sent us in a direction that will help us out tremendously and improve our profits.”

For Thomson, the wisdom of their choice of vendor has been reconfirmed over and over through the years. Spherion must be able to deliver excellent customer service in a very fast-changing environment, and that requires a willingness to be flexible — sometimes hour by hour. “I’ve worked with vendors before where we say ‘We’re coming out with a product next month and wish we had more lead time, but we don’t.’ And those vendors would respond with ‘Well this is what it will cost you.’ Spherion has never done that. They say, ‘This is what we can do to help you meet your goals.’ Usually it doesn’t even cost me anything, and it’s done within the process that we have.”

Spherion’s expertise and services have already enabled Thomson’s cost per customer contact to decrease, even though there has been a tremendous productivity increase. Medawar says the cost has decreased three times more than they had anticipated. The original contract has already been renewed.

Lessons from the Outsourcing Primer

  • Because everything changes very quickly in today’s environment, a supplier’s willingness to be flexible is a primary characteristic for a buyer to seek in an outsourcing relationship.
  • Often, the best approach to handling a challenge is to use a team with members from both the supplier and buyer organizations.
  • Successful suppliers have an attitude toward their customers that says, “This is what we can do to help you.”


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