As we close out a year filled with disruption, uncertainty, dark clouds, and silver linings, Outsource Consultants President and Founder Corey Kotlarz reflects on 2020’s challenges and successes, and his thoughts as we usher in a new year.
What surprised you the most about how the call center industry responded to uncertainty in 2020?
I was absolutely blown away by how quickly the industry adapted to the changes forced upon it by the pandemic. In a matter of days, it seemed that nearly everyone had managed to pivot to an at-home agent model. We were regularly surveying our outsource call center partners about their operations, and just a few days after governments worldwide implemented restrictions, 80% of their collective agents had fully transitioned to remote work. As a result, Outsource Consultants was able to help clients find BPO partners to support their customers – often with no service gaps whatsoever.
Early on, it became clear that there were two distinct approaches to the disruption within the industry: embrace any modification that can contribute to optimizing success, or minimize change wherever possible.
One thing that surprised all of us was how resistant some organizations were to making any major changes. Even at the height of uncertainty, we spoke with (and heard about) major organizations that seemed to be content with a “wait and see” approach. They did the bare minimum to keep operations afloat and essentially hunkered down to ride out the storm.
These organizations, however, were the outliers. Most of the organizations we spoke with were quick to adapt to change. They quickly moved their agents home, and enthusiastically implemented new cloud contact center technology that kept their data secure and made the transition as easy as possible on their agents. They refused to accept anything less than excellence, and were flexible enough to accomplish it in a matter of days. An industry that has traditionally been wary of change ended up being one that rapidly adopted new strategies and technologies.
Where do you believe the industry has changed forever?
At-home work is here to stay, at least in some form. Even before this year, interest in call centers using remote agents was growing, and the BPOs that had this model in place were producing impressive results. But I think a lot of people were skeptical about whether at-home agents would perform as well without the structure and oversight a physical call center provides. But what we’re seeing is that even under less than ideal circumstances, where agents had to quickly move home without much time to prepare, the model works. I certainly don’t expect traditional call centers to disappear, but I think that the remote agent model has managed to shake its negative stigma and will always be in the mix.
I also think the days of offshore dominance – particularly demand in the Philippines – will decline over the next few years. Certainly, offshore outsourcing will remain an excellent option, but its lead has evaporated. It’s a more level playing field now, and there’s every indication that will continue. Central and South America were already growing in popularity, and when the Philippines was unable to react as quickly to the pandemic, nearshore outsourcing gained even more ground. Additionally, there are several African countries like Egypt and South Africa that are emerging as players on the global outsourcing scene. Throw remote work into the mix, and I believe the physical location of an outsource call center will continue to become less important. With pricing and agent skills becoming more consistent across global markets, organizations will be able to focus more on experience and specialization when selecting a BPO partner.
What do you predict will be the main challenges for the customer service industry in 2021?
2020 illuminated the importance of technology. Again, this has been an area where the industry hasn’t taken advantage of everything that’s available. But that tide is turning, and turning rapidly.
Staying competitive in 2021 means considering any and all contact center technology options that can provide value. Both brands and BPOs need to start being more proactive and seek out the tools that can boost agent engagement and improve communication to drive enhanced customer service.
There’s no question that security is the most critical aspect of contact center technology. It should be the primary concern under any circumstance, but the rise in remote work has upped the ante on what’s acceptable. Traditionally, outsource call centers often relied on environmental control, like prohibiting personal devices and writing utensils at work stations, to enforce security measures. That’s clearly not possible in an at-home environment, but there is ample available technology to mitigate those risks in other ways. And while this added layer of protection is table stakes for remote workers, it’s something that can and should be used regardless of where the agents are logging in.
Technology can also have enormous cost-saving implications through call deflection. Artificial Intelligence has many applications in this area, from allowing chatbots to resolve inquiries without the need for human involvement to smart call routing that rapidly and efficiently brings customers to the right destination.
And, of course, the growth of remote work has added demand for robust, cloud-based training programs that are as effective (if not more effective) than in-person sessions. If call center leaders want to set their at-home agents up for success, they need to invest in Learning Management Systems and collaboration tools to replicate the benefits that an office environment provides.
What were some of Outsource Consultants’ greatest achievements in 2020?
Like every other organization in the world, we had to throw out our existing playbook in March. I’ve come to expect impressive things from the team at Outsource Consultants, but I have to say I was almost overwhelmed at how quickly and effectively everyone pitched in to set the course for what had become a very different future. We had to completely pivot our approach and strategies as the need for traditional outsource call centers disappeared and was replaced with a demand for remote agents and cloud technology. Our clients needed fast action, and we were able to provide it.
It also quickly became clear that the fact that we had something to pivot to was an achievement in and of itself. We’ve always felt that our unique position within the industry allowed us to provide a wide range of services, and we’ve prided ourselves on being able to help our clients in many different ways. But this year showed how important that was to our company’s success as well. When demand for some services declined, we were able to fill the gaps with other offerings. In a year where many organizations suffered dramatic losses, we were very fortunate to experience growth.
We also ended up receiving two great honors: Making the Inc. 5000 List for the second year in a row, and being named #12 on the Minneapolis/St. Paul Business Journal’s list of fastest-growing companies in the area. In a year filled with uncertainty, these were tangible reminders of our team’s success.
In general, what is your outlook for the BPO industry?
2020 was, to say the least, a turbulent year for customer service. Most organizations had to rewrite their playbooks in Q1, scrambling to maintain support for their customers amid shutdowns and then putting any other decisions on hold due to uncertainty. There was a very “hurry up and wait” feel to the year, and we saw it first hand from clients in nearly every industry.
But we are starting to see a light at the end of the tunnel in terms of global stability. As the world gains access to a vaccine, it will be once again possible to make long term plans rooted in strategy, not necessity. Many industries such as food & grocery delivery, as well as gaming companies, that saw massive growth in 2020 will need to make sustainable plans to retain their new customers by delivering stellar customer service. The industries that suffered will need to find new and creative ways to reduce costs without sacrificing high-quality service, as customer retention is more important than ever.
Outsourcing has always been a key strategy to keep up with growth, reduce costs, and improve customer service, but it will be more critical than ever in 2021 to reduce risk through geo-diversification of a company’s global outsourcing footprint. As organizations are able to finally catch their breath and start planning for the future, they will undoubtedly rely on outsourcing more than ever before. Due to pent up demand, and the need to recalibrate their global strategy, I foresee more of a shift from the Philippines to nearshore markets. I believe the outsourcing industry is on the verge of a major growth period and a reallocation to new markets, and I’m excited to see what the future holds.