Outsourcing Helps Start-up Regional Airline ExpressJet Take Off and Fly High | Article

travel agentHow does a start-up airline offer classy customer service and save well over a million dollars in up-front capital? Easy–outsource the function to a provider that offers a twenty-first-century customer relationship management (CRM) solution that now all but eclipses the twentieth-century centralized work center.

Faced with starting its own signature airline, Houston, Texas-based ExpressJet took a hard look at how it wanted to develop as a brand. The firm was not without deep experience in the industry. For many years ExpressJet has, and continues to serve, as an outsourced regional subcarrier for Continental Airlines and, starting this month, for Delta. In 2006, it flew 8.9 billion revenue passenger miles and had a passenger load factor of 78 percent, operating as Continental Express.

As 2006 became 2007, and after planning its entry for most of last year, ExpressJet hit the highly competitive air travel market with more than 220 daily flights to 24 cities in the West, Midwest, and Southeast United States. And though it has an employee base of over 7,000, one portion of ExpressJet’s operations, CRM, was something that company executives knew had to be outsourced from the beginning, according to Trish Winebrenner, Vice President, Marketing.

“We needed a highly efficient and responsive group of professionals to handle inbound customer service and reservation calls,” she says. “We had to ramp up in six months. And it came down to ‘do we build a call center or buy one?’ The former was simply out of the question once all the evidence was in, especially the cost, easily a million dollars and climbing. We had to find an outsourcing partner.”

Enter Alpine Access, a provider of home-based employee CRM agents since its inception ten years ago. In only a few weeks, Alpine Access recruited, screened, and hired ExpressJet’s agents through a diligent process that identifies unique skills, passions, and experience. Alpine’s over 7,000 outsourced CRM employees are usually assigned to a single client, based on the compatibilities learned through its diligent intake process.

“A lot of companies that manage their own centralized call centers would be better served if they were outsourcing buyers because most aren’t very good at them on their own,” notes Dr. Jon Anton, PhD and Director of Benchmark Research at the Center for Customer-Driven Quality at Purdue University, who notes that his center’s research continues to bear out that fact.

“But they should outsource with a purpose other than merely cost savings. And that purpose should include a commitment to develop customer success metrics from the outset.”

Anton adds that in service industries, customer satisfaction is elemental. He also notes that in many ways, the remotely distributed at-home professional is the predominant option of choice to the firms that “walk the walk” by acknowledging that true customer satisfaction is their fiscal lifeblood.

Customer Care Partners Identify Needs, Solutions Together

Having worked in the airline industry for over 20 years, most recently on the sales side and starting as a reservation agent, Winebrenner’s personal experience told her that ExpressJet needed to outsource its CRM operation. But it was more than just the money to her.

“The fact that we had to be up and running in a few months had a tremendous influence on our decision,” she notes. “Operationally, we run an airline well. But we’ve never sold tickets nor had much direct exposure to customer service past that of a few individuals.”

“When considering the outsourced, home-based call-center solution, companies need to find a partner that will work with them to adapt their processes to a remote situation,” says Chris Carrington, CEO of Alpine Access. “A lot goes into that voice on the line. And though all are unique in their own way, our partners find after a while that they’re not just getting a customer care solution but also a human resources (HR) solution as well.”

Winebrenner echoes Carrington’s views and adds that because ExpressJet built its CRM solution from the ground up, she didn’t have to concern herself with traditional baggage that continues to haunt many such centralized operations.

“The whole decision surrounds the fact that we don’t have to be like everyone else. We want our agents to have top level skill-sets and ethics, to be educated, and willing to treat customers the way they want to be treated.”

Yet with her distant background in a traditional centralized call center, Winebrenner needed convincing that the “portable worker” model would be one that she not only could influence at all levels but also monitor and communicate with CRM personnel in traditionally accepted centralized ways, thanks to technology.

“It’s a control thing,” she adds. “And it didn’t take long for the people at Alpine to show me that I could have virtually all the control benefits of a centralized call center, and even more when it comes to worker quality itself. This includes monitoring individual contacts, or groups, or the ability to communicate with them all at once if that’s what I want–this from a provider that has its employees spread across many miles and several time zones.”

As they moved forward in building ExpressJet’s call center, Winebrenner and the managers at Alpine together established an initial set of training protocols based on customer-satisfaction metrics that continue to be adjusted, based on customer and agent experiences. “We adjust what we do in response to customer wishes,” notes Winebrenner. “And we began that on day one.”

“Our experience in the travel and aviation industry is certainly an aid in working with customers to refine these points on which they base what they want from agents,” notes Carrington.

“There you have a good example of ‘need outsourcing’ that benefits both the buyer’s customer and the buyer,” notes Anton. “Both partners work together to retain the buyer’s customers via consistent service review and improvement.”

Today Outsourcing is About the “What”–Not the “Where”

Anton says business success is not so much about where workers are these days, as it is about results–especially in CRM. But he notes that other firms look to outsource providers of remote workers in other business verticals.

“More industries, not just call centers, discover that where your worker works is not as important as the fact that they are productive. And firms that outsource human capital services, without considering the human capital metrics of satisfaction with their service, ask for trouble,” he laments.

“The fact that ExpressJet or any service provider has empathetic professionals willing to take ownership of the customer’s problem and produce a ‘one-call-and-done’ resolution is a highly attractive provider asset,” says Anton.

He adds that centralized CRM centers, by their very nature can’t offer such driven, high-quality service workers, especially if those bricks-and-mortar centers are managed by those who don’t belong in the call-center business to begin with. “Technology and motivated workers together are unmasking the historical resistance to the outsourced distributed worker for what it is–horse-and-buggy thinking,” he concludes.

Winebrenner notes there’s still room for growth as Alpine will soon be specifically helping her develop a portion of her call center to corporate flights, also a market that ExpressJet serves–yet wishes to better penetrate. “This is an even more specific subset of our CRM because the needs and desires of corporate jet travel are even more discriminating.”

She adds why outsourcing made such sense for her in the beginning. “ExpressJet has been outsourcing aircraft, crews, maintenance, dispatch, and ground service handling to Continental for over 20 years. Maybe because we’ve been a successful provider for so long, it was time for us to become a successful outsourcing buyer.”

Lessons from The Outsourcing Journal:

  • When outsourcing customer relationship management (CRM) to a provider, buyers are best served by developing customer-satisfaction metrics from the beginning, and then adjusting their services and procedures in response to the conclusions those metrics offer.
  • According to Dr. Jon Anton of Purdue University’s Benchmark Research Center, technology and motivated remote professionals make the outsourced distributed worker more attractive to the business community in more areas than just CRM.
  • An outsourced, responsive CRM solution based on the “portable workforce” is proving to be the answer for not only business start-ups but firms that are ready to get rid of their old, underperforming internal call centers.

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