Call centers are becoming increasingly popular as businesses seek to protect their bottom line. However, what may seem like a straightforward strategy can become confusing when business owners realize how competitive the call center industry is with providers offering a dizzying menu of services. To simplify the procurement process, it is helpful to start with one of the fundamental differences between call centers: whether they perform an inbound process or an outbound process.
Thinking of inbound and outbound processes as a ratio is more accurate than labeling a call center as either inbound or outbound because modern call centers tend to be very adaptable, setting themselves up differently depending on the needs of the client. However, call centers do tend to be weighted towards either inbound or outbound processes.
What is outbound process and who would need it?
A call center that is predominantly focused on the outbound process makes more calls than it receives. Two of the main business functions utilizing the outbound process are telesales/telemarketing and market research.
Although some people draw a distinction between the two, telesales and telemarketing are both focused on bringing a product or service to the attention of potential buyers or users and facilitating a sale. This may be directly, whereby the sales executive uses a data sheet to promote the product or service and then closes the sale, or indirectly, whereby executives are tasked with generating leads.
Market research involves calling members of a chosen demographic and presenting them with a survey or poll. The data is then recorded and either sent raw to the outsourcing business or processed beforehand depending on the service level agreement.
Although the majority of outbound processes fall under one of these categories, there are many other business functions that can be handled as outbound processes. These include parcel collection notifications, appointment reminders, mystery shopping calls, product recalls and event registrations.
To those outside of the telecommunications industry there may seem to be little difference between making a call (outbound process) and taking a call (inbound process), but operationally the demands in terms of staffing and technology are markedly different as will be explained below.
What is an inbound process?
In contrast to the above, a call center that is predominantly focused on inbound
processes take more calls than it makes. Three of the most commonly performed functions in such a call center are order processing, customer service and helpdesk provision. Executives working on inbound processes might be required to take details of an incoming order, process payment and orchestrate product dispatch. Alternatively, they may need to assist customers with any post-sales queries or complaints they might have. On a helpdesk, the executive will usually be trained to provide technical support or to co-ordinate a physical response such as an engineer callout.
More specialized inbound processes include medical and emergency answering services. These kind of roles usually require a standard response which fulfills strict legal requirements. Nevertheless, an increasing number of businesses are outsourcing this type of inbound process to a call center.
Other areas in which a call center specializing in inbound processes may be useful include cell phone answering; appointment management; fielding overflow/out of hours calls; hotlines; virtual reception provision and short-term Direct Response marketing cover. Inbound processes are often outsourced when a business is struggling to retain customers due to poor customer service or post-sales support.
Making a decision: which call center should you choose?
In essence there are two decisions that the outsourcing business needs to make: First, do they need to focus on a call center specializing in an inbound process or outbound process?
Next, which call center will provide all of the necessary functions to the standard expected and within budget.
As mentioned above, the technology and staff requirements are very different for a call center specializing in an outbound process when compared with one specializing in an inbound process. This is particularly the case with physical call centers where executives and technology are more fixed; virtual call centers have much more flexibility in this area. An outbound process is usually very target driven with executives required to meet sales quota and trained to overcome customer objections to close a deal. In terms of technology, a dialler will be important in this environment as it is imperative to get moving quickly on to the next lead. If you have tough sales targets to meet or need to collect the opinions of a large sample of people in a survey, you will want to focus on a call center set up for an outbound process.
In contrast, an inbound process requires a softer and more empathetic approach as well as problem-solving skills. Executives need to be able to calm and reassure customers and to efficiently deal with their issues whether that is a question about how a service works, a complaint about a faulty product or a request for an emergency callout. If an outbound process is mainly about the quantity of calls, inbound process is mainly about their quality.
Once you have decided between the two types of processes, it is time to work out which specific call center to work with. Some pertinent questions you should think about asking are:
- How long have you been established?
- Which companies currently outsource with you?
- Is most of your experience with B2B or B2C?
- Do you operate a physical or virtual call center?
- Is there a minimum call limit (these can be uneconomical for low volume businesses)?
- Do you offer any automated services?
As call centers compete with one another for business, there has been a surge in the number of automated services that are being offered from email and fax management to call monitoring tools, routing services and Interactive Voice Response (IVR) technology. While these are all very useful in their own right it is important that the outsourcing business balances functionality with cost.