How’s this for a challenge? You hire a new outsourcer to take over your existing call center. The outsourcer has to train its staff on your complicated product. You also ask the supplier to write an interface to your ordering system. And then you ask them to help launch a new version of your product. And oh, by the way, you need this done in 30 days.
That’s exactly what ACS did for Hughes Network Systems. “ACS really dug in and made it happen,” says Peter Gulla, Vice President of Direct Sales and Marketing for Hughes.
The Hughes executive says he’s heard dozens of sales presentations where the pursuing company promises they can do anything. “But when it comes down to really doing it, they can’t. ACS actually delivered.”
Hughes is the 15th largest Internet service provider in America, offering high-speed Internet via satellite. The company pioneered offering high-speed Internet access to people who can’t get access through cable or DSL.
Originally, Hughes used its technical call center to answer its inbound sales calls. Gulla notes the original supplier did a good job of getting the inbound center off the ground. “But eventually we found they didn’t have the skill set, experience, or technical support to move to the next level,” he says.
One challenge was that its infrastructure revolved around providing top-notch technical support. But it didn’t have the necessary sales skills. “The sales function was just not part of their core culture. Their IT infrastructure wasn’t designed to monitor sales quality or provide online reports on sales results in real time,” says Gulla.
The other challenge was integrating Hughes’s ordering system with the call center’s agent interface. “Agents had to open multiple screens in order to place customers’ orders. We needed to improve agent productivity and make the most efficient use of their time,” he says.
Hughes hired Wonderman, a direct-marketing company in New York City, to help find the right supplier. Wonderman created the Request for Proposal and evaluated the original responses based on their technical capabilities.
Wonderman narrowed the list to two candidates. Both had done a good job of integrating their IP systems, a hot button for Hughes. It selected Livebridge, a company that ACS subsequently purchased. “What made them stand out was their high level of technical integration. They could tie a phone line to a call, a sale, an agent, or a promotion and then display the results online in real time,” says Gulla.
ACS’s product is a portal from the customer’s help desk. “We offer a real-time look at call statistics. We also have an agent-monitoring system that scores for quality,” says John Bartholomew, Vice President, Sales and Marketing, Customer Care, at ACS. “Hughes’s incumbent supplier didn’t have these capabilities, so that’s why we were a good match.”
Another reason Hughes selected ACS is the supplier had the ability to create an interface that worked directly with the Hughes ordering system. “We wanted someone with the technical capability and software to make the interface work seamlessly,” says Gulla. The original supplier, for example, was only able to track the individual performance of the agents manually. “We wanted this process automated,” he explains.
Hughes also wanted a supplier with extensive sales experience. ACS uses metrics for sales productivity. “They know which employees to keep on the phone and which ones to remove because they aren’t selling,” he says. Gulla noted that ACS agents received immediate feedback on the call quality. “If an employee is having trouble, ACS will coach them so they can improve.
In addition, the corporate cultures of the two companies were closely aligned to one another. “We both have sales cultures that out great emphasis on an entrepreneurial attitude,” says Wayne Rowe, Director of Marketing for ACS.
Gulla notes the success of the roll-out was even more “amazing” because ACS was in the midst of its Livebridge acquisition during the transition. “Being purchased can be disruptive,” notes Gulla. “But it didn’t distract Livebridge from getting the job done. The fact that they delivered in such a short timeframe while being acquired is hitting a home run in my book,” he says.
Hughes signed its first contract in May 2005 for a 40-seat call center. Today the call center is up to 70 seats.
The Transition Period
ACS “stepped up to the plate” since Hughes gave the supplier only 30 days to launch the new call center. By the time the two parties dotted the i’s in the contract, it was time for Hughes to launch a new version of its product. “Our management had some concerns about giving such a big challenge to a new supplier. They asked me if we could have all new people on the phones, have an integration of IT with our ordering system that’s never been done before, and have it ready in 30 days to launch the new product?”
Gulla says “he had faith in ACS” and assured his management that ACS would come through. Fortunately for him, his trust was not misplaced. “One of the most impressive things about this relationship is ACS’s ability to step up and make things happen exactly as promised,” he notes.
Rowe says ACS “spent a lot of time up front understanding their business needs” and the Hughes executives were “clear about their objectives.” Rowe says the two parties discussed sales techniques to insure both were on the same page.
Sometimes outsourcing engagements don’t work because scope creep invades a typical 12-month sales cycle. “That leads to misunderstandings. We make sure through the launch that items we discussed six months ago are going to happen today. We want to create an exceptional alignment at the outset so we can deliver,” explains the ACS executive.
ACS, which has experienced managers and a tested on-boarding process, started with just one-third of the Hughes volume. The next step was to add another 50 percent and then absorb the remaining volume.
Today the call center gets approximately 100,000 calls a month. ACS has increased yield over 50 percent compared to the previous supplier, according to Bartholomew. About half of Hughes’s direct sales come from this outsourced relationship.
ACS’s scripts ensure its employees mention all the important points. “Now I know our customers are better informed,” says Gulla. In fact, customers say sales is one of the most highly-ranked experiences when dealing with Hughes.
ACS’s reporting system provides better information, so Hughes can make better media buys, which make the phone ring. “Increasing the conversion rate allows Hughes to do more with the same dollars,” Bartholomew says.
Gulla appreciates the more accurate data he receives. “Better reporting is crucial. It’s hard to make business decisions when the data is suspect. Better data leads to better decision-making. And better pricing leads to cost savings; our costs have dropped dramatically. Savings are between 23-30 percent,” says Gulla.
“It took ACS four months to exceed the performance of the past supplier,” says Gulla. “They have the willingness to add real value,” he insists. Adds Rowe, “The best relationships we have are when both parties work together for ‘the cause.’ In this case, ‘the cause’ is making Hughes happy by selling its products and its customers happy by giving them a good buying experience. Both of us are working equally hard to make that happen.”
ACS’s 10 Keys to a successful outsourced relationship
- Communicate honestly. Honesty is always the best policy.
Realize issues are going to arise; this is a collaborative effort. A key measurement of a successful partnership is how everyone reacts in the face of a challenge.
- Trust each other as experts.
Nobody knows your business like you. Likewise, you have hired an outsourcer for their expertise. Trust them.
- Adhere to timelines, but remain flexible.
Both buyer and outsourcer should follow timelines strictly. But be flexible when unforeseen challenges arise.
Don’t shoot the messenger. Your account manager is your ally and bridge to executives and resources needed to develop a solution.
- Set realistic expectations early and agree on metrics.
Know what services will incur extra costs and understand the limitations of your partner.
- Remain loyal.
With honesty comes loyalty. An outsourcer that performs and adds value to your organization deserves your loyalty.
- Limit the number of exceptions.
Give too many inches, and miles will be coming your way for both parties.
- Familiarize yourself with the solution you are buying.
Decide if you are comfortable with your customers speaking to someone offshore. If not, discuss your options with your outsourcer.
- Set a fair price and contract and insist on an easily accessible change-management process.
You get what you pay for. Be confident in the level of service that you agree to. Both parties must clearly understand how contract changes are managed.
- Match your needs with the right outsourcer.
Carefully evaluate the competitors and choose the outsourcer with the best solution and cultural fit.