The direct to customer industry (catalog and Internet) finds itself at a cross roads in terms of shipping & handling policies and charges.
Today’s call center mantra is, “Do more with what you have.” In this uncertain economy there is even more pressure to perform miracles by increasing productivity while lowering costs, yet still continuing to provide expected customer service levels. In our consulting engagements with direct call centers and through our F. Curtis Barry & Company Best Practice ShareGroups, we’ve been able to observe the latest call center trends and how managers are dealing with them. Here are some of the major issues that direct customer call centers face, as they examine their costs and try to reduce them without major disruptions to customer service.
Having managed a call center, I have always been a proponent of in-house call centers, but times are tough and they are changing. Every company today is looking for ways to save money without hurting sales and customer service. As the pressure on businesses to dramatically reduce costs intensifies, you need to look at domestic or off-shore outsourcing of some or all call center and data entry functions as a way to improve your bottom line. Companies are also outsourcing these functions more because they can avoid using capital for new order management and telephone systems.Read More >
I’m with a firm that spends much of its time helping clients improve productivity and reduce costs. We are ever mindful of the negative side—the “dark side”—of productivity projects. What is the dark side? It’s what happens if we don’t take the human factor into account. As someone with 30 years of experience in industrial engineering, I can tell you that there is no way to achieve long-term success in a re-engineering project without considering the effect it will have on people.
Many multichannel merchants focus on how they can lower operating costs when they consider outsourcing certain tasks. But when you outsource operations, you also outsource the investment. Sounds obvious, but maybe the magnitude isn’t all that clear until you’re faced with replacing an order-management system, moving into a new fulfillment space or upgrading your Web site.
When outsourcing your investment, you don’t have to invest in those upgrades as your business grows and changes. Let’s look at some examples that show the size of these investments.
* Order-management systems. Software as a service (SaaS) can free up a potential investment of $25,000 for an emerging company. If you’re a $500 million company — with several hundred users adopting a SaaS model — it eliminates an $8 million to $10 million investment. For a $20 million cataloger, the spend runs $280,000 to $400,000 to license and buy hardware. Then you implement an order-management system with call center and warehousing functions.
* Specialized forecasting and inventory management system (working in conjunction with your fulfillment system). Here, investment and implementation costs for a 10-user system will cost, on the low end, $150,000. Larger companies invest several million dollars.
* Replacing an e-commerce site. SaaS business models can eliminate an investment of $750,000 to $1.2 million for a multichannel cataloger with sales in excess of $100 million. With the e-commerce that growing companies experience, there’s also often a need for an e-mail management or chat-system investment.
* Call-center operations. Outsourcing eliminates investment in the required space, telecom terminals, headsets, ACD, scheduling software, call-monitoring hardware and software, e-mail management, chat systems, etc.
* Fulfillment center. You avoid investing in the construction and/or build-out costs, as well as the racking, conveyors, material handling, warehouse management systems, shipping systems, furniture and fixtures. Plus, you avoid a long-term lease.
It should be pointed out that when looking at these investments on a five- to seven-year basis, many would have been amortized and depreciated over that time. But many companies are struggling to make the initial and ongoing investments because of the competition for financial resources.
Here are some of the questions you need to answer as you look at outsourcing and the business investment:
1. Are you keeping pace with investment in the infrastructure required?
2. What alternatives for capital use does your business have rather than investing in physical assets?
3. Does the outsource provider have the finances to grow and expand? What’s its track record of doing this for clients?
4. How will those costs be passed onto your business as it grows and changes?
5. Can a major activity be outsourced and not result in a total loss of control (e.g., call-center overflow, peaks and weekends)?
6. Which provider best understands your category of product (e.g., apparel with its high SKU storage needs, returns, etc.) and mode of operation (e.g., e-commerce, catalog management systems, etc.)?
7. Which provider will be the best long-term partner?
8. How vulnerable will this leave you if the provider’s performance isn’t up to par?
9. If you wish to sell your business and don’t own major assets, does this help you (the prospective owners aren’t paying for assets) or hurt you (you may need to remain operationally independent of the other businesses a prospective owner has invested in)?
The Issue of Control
Most of the direct world uses internal fulfillment. This is a mistake many companies make because they don’t think high-quality service levels can be achieved and maintained using third party fulfillment (3PF). The truth is that many companies want to manage their own operations and they are dubious about turning over control to a third party. And yet fulfillment and operations distractions often do not let companies concentrate on marketing and merchandising their businesses which is vital to profitable growth.
In many areas of the country, the labor costs for CSRs are increasing quickly, and these rates are not going to decrease. Additionally, the quality of the labor pool to draw from is not ideal due to low unemployment rates in many markets. And the direct-to-customer industry is in competition for CSRs with other sectors such as financial services.
The direct industry has a difficult balancing act to perform. On the one hand, we want to provide a high level of customer service—and that's getting tougher each year. On the other hand, the cost of direct labor per hour has increased from less than $7 to more than $11 per hour during the last five years. In some markets rates are well over that, as high as $14 an hour. Benefit costs have also increased, and now average 15% to 20% of pay.
A: Most of the direct world uses internal fulfillment. Many companies don’t think that they can achieve and maintain high service levels using third-party fulfillment (3PF), or they fear that outsourcing will cost more per order. And, of course, many are dubious about turning over control.
But in reality, fulfillment and operations distractions often do not let companies concentrate on marketing and merchandising, which are vital to profitable growth.
Dozens of nonprofit businesses use outsourcing because they recognize that fulfillment is not a core competency. Many seasonal merchants don’t want to recruit and train the auxiliary staff needed during their brief peak season. Outsourcing can enable a multiwarehouse fulfillment strategy, which may reduce inbound and outbound freight costs. Start-ups should seriously consider outsourcing to limit their capital expenditures.
If you’re considering outsourcing your fulfillment, follow these steps:
1) Define your requirements. Start out by understanding your current costs. For the contact center analyze your internal cost per contact, call, and order. For back-end fulfillment try to analyze the various departments’ functions and their costs. Many vendors invoice at a function level (order processing, returns, backorders, prep time, receiving), so breaking out your current costs this way will enable you to compare vendors’ pricing fairly.
2) Determine the business parameters, metrics, and customer service levels that will be used by the vendors for pricing. Business parameters include average call length, call and order volumes per month, call-to-order ratio, split rate of multibox shipments, historical backorder rates, returns percentages, and number of units to be received. You should develop a three- to five-year order projection to use with the vendors.
In terms of customer service levels and standards, what do you expect of your 3PF? For the contact center you need to define an acceptable abandonment rate, average time to answer, call length, and e-mail turnaround time, among other metrics. For fulfillment you need to specific receiving and quality-assurance standards, picking error rates, inbound shipment receipt to put away times, returns processing times, and percent of orders shipped same day.
3) Determine the processing functions you expect the 3PF to deliver. In the contact center, do you expect services other than order-taking and customer service—online chat, for instance, or e-mail handling? Likewise, in the fulfillment center, do you expect the 3PF to handle gift wrapping and personalization, receiving, returns processing, and prep work as well as picking, packing, and shipping?
4) Assess your current and future information systems needs. Remember that the outsource service also becomes your IT department for many functions. Identify your systems needs including order management system , Website development and integration, real-time inventory, inventory purchasing, forecasting, data warehousing, circulation analysis, product category and item analysis of results, and financial reporting. Is their data warehousing robust enough to allow you to extract and analyze your data easily? You need to be sure the vendor’s systems are proper for your business. You don’t want to customize systems unless absolutely imperative.
5) Develop the request for proposal (RFP). One of the gravest mistakes you can make is to try to select a vendor without a detailed RFP and competitive bidding. The vendor responses and costs become the standards content for the contract of the finalist. For example, there will be a significant cost difference for contact center service levels (e.g. 80% calls answered in 20 seconds vs. 70% in 30 seconds). The RFP levels the playing field among vendors and sets forth your expectations.
When developing the RFP, spell out your operations environment as well as the system functions and reports you expect. Ask the vendor for references, who ideally would be in businesses similar to yours. Have the vendor spell out its implementation methodology and timeframe. Get a sample contract. And don’t forget to identify who in your company is responsible for this project and to provide the vendor with a deadline for when the RFP response is due.
6) Develop a short list of qualified vendors. Use industry resource guides, conferences, networking, and Web searches to identify potential vendors. Call 3PF providers, talk with them about your requirements, the types of business they handle (hard goods, collateral, apparel), the number of active clients they have, and the locations of their facilities. You generally don’t want to send an RFP to more than five vendors or fewer than three. So do your qualifying and homework up front.
7) Distribute the final RFP. Before you send the RFP off to the vendors on your short list, get a sign-off internally that the RFP represents your business’s requirements. Once you send out the RFP, allow the vendor two to three weeks to respond. During this time the vendor will likely need to call or e-mail you to clarify certain specifications so that it can provide you with an accurate and realistic response.
8) Set up a decision-and-cost matrix spreadsheet. This should allow you to prepare a detailed side-by-side comparison of the short list of vendors. If vendors respond in an incomplete manner, after several tries you should disqualify them. The decision-and-cost matrix should compare pricing, service levels and standards, functions expected, implementation methodology, and systems required to be provided by each vendor. Use a weighting factor to prioritize the functions and features that are most important to your business decision.
9) Select the finalists. Select the best two choices after you have validated the responses as best you can over the phone or in person. This should obviously be made based on cost, standards agreed to, system and account management support, transition plan, and the “trust” factor.
10) Check references and make a site visit. Work up a standard list of questions you can ask each reference. The vendor will give you its best references, obviously. Ask each vendor for its total client list, and take the time to follow up. Call as many references as you can for your type of business. For the site visit, plan on spending a day at each finalist’s facility. Take your matrix and study materials so that you can ask any necessary questions and validate responses.
11) Make the final selection. After the reference calls and the site visit, make sure that you have the finalist respond to any open questions and pricing changes.
12) Negotiate the contract. Proposals and verbal representations must be written down and reflected in the contract. Be sure to clearly identify the functions and standards that you expect the provider to perform. Use an attorney who is experienced in this type of law.
Every smart business manager is constantly looking for ways to reduce costs and make the operation more productive. In today’s challenging economic climate, such efforts become even more crucial. Small steps that can help to save money may make a big difference. Our experience in the fulfillment and call center has been that often the same process improvements used to reduce costs also result in better service—and greater customer satisfaction. These are some of our top tips in four of the key areas.