The maxim “Location, location, location” does not just apply to retail and real estate. When determining who to partner with for outsourcing, many firms leave site selection to their outsourcing providers. This may be a mistake, as the location may play a critical role in the success that your operation and your Contact Center Outsourcing (CCO) partnership enjoys.
AT&T is a good example of a company that carefully considers CCO locations, taking an active role in site selection and not just leaving it up to providers. AT&T still runs vast call center operations supporting over 180 languages in-house with AT&T employees, but peaks and surges require more flexibility than can be staffed in-house long term.
“We have always had a long legacy and taken a lot of pride in what we have done from a call center operator perspective and we still have a very robust call center operation internally. A big driver for us is customer demand and needing to have more flexibility in how we serve our customer segments, so as the customer experience demanded more round the clock opportunities to be able to interface with AT&T, that began to be a catalyst,” says Jody Garcia, AT&T’s Vice President of Consumer Sales & Services.
“There has a been a tremendous amount of sensitivity for any decision we make to take work outside of a union represented employee environment, so we really look to balance that as much as we possibly can. But the customer experience and the competitive environment are natural drivers for outsourcing.”
Language and Cultural Considerations
As it turns out, AT&T only needs to outsource their peak traffic in English and Spanish. In all other languages, the capacity remains in-house. “We are not at capacity where we need to ask for extra support; Spanish is the one language that we do … And we have all that nearsourced to—I would say the vast majority of that work is done out of Colombia with a number of different vendors. That’s not to [detract from] our own internal operations, we have a very big base serving our customers in Spanish, and our employees come from all around the world so we mirror our customer base as best we can,” says Garcia.
When it comes to where to source that excess customer care, AT&T uses between nine and ten CCO partners at any given time. AT&T is able to get results from every location in which it operates, but clearly different countries present different challenges. Interestingly, much of that challenge is based on the double-edged sword of cultural affinity.
This trend of call center employees having experience living in the United States is affecting delivery across the nearshore environment, but especially in Mexico and the Caribbean. Says Garcia: “Right now for example, in countries like Jamaica and the Dominican Republic, a lot of their populations that are working in call centers are employees that have worked in the States and now have come back; they have a different approach now and not necessarily what would have been seen in prior generations. They bring a cultural affinity from the US back with them, so I see some shifts that have taken place in that regard.
These young folks are acting more American, with a mindset that is more Americanized, and it is butting up against some of that cultural tradition that we have kind of kept and held as unique. We might have entered in with one expectation but now have to balance it with a different cultural environment that has come about as a mix of so many having lived in both countries.”
A Global Perspective
As a global operator, AT&T thinks globally. Part of Garcia’s expertise is monitoring the global contact center environment, looking for regions that may offer unique advantages in servicing AT&T’s diverse and geographically cosmopolitan client base. She has some surprising insights when it comes to countries that may be up and comers in the CCO sphere.
“You know, I had my eyes on Ghana. I had my eyes focused on Kenya but that’s dicier right now. Those are two countries both in Africa. We had to pull out of Egypt, which I really thought three or four years ago—we were at the forefront of getting into Egypt, even before the vendors. I keep looking at Asia. I feel there could be some opportunity in a place like Vietnam where there isn’t much call center support today, but there’s kind of a robust building right now of their economy. There is something there I haven’t got my finger on yet,” opines Garcia. “I keep waiting for something to shake out with a little better price point in Eastern Europe, and I always had thought; up until about six months ago I really was looking at Turkey.”
Jamaica and El Salvador have potential, but there is room for improvement. Still, Garcia’s preferred region for serving the US market remains the nearshore. “We have done quite a bit of work in Jamaica recently and we have a good feel. I really believe they have a lot going for them but in terms of delivering, they are really struggling. I expected them to be stronger on sales; their customer service is really holding them back, their ability to operate with a sense of urgency. They are going to struggle if they don’t get their arms around that. They have real talent there, with the people they have access to, and even call center oversight is strong. I don’t think they have put all the pieces together there yet,” says Garcia.
“El Salvador has not raised the bar enough on what they need to do to serve businesses from the US. If you just need middle of the road results, you can count on that from El Salvador. But taking it to the next level, for sales and customer experience, they need to raise the bar on themselves, that’s my take. I think they have the potential to do that, I just don’t think they have had enough people really expect that from them. If they did I think they could really set themselves apart there.”
Colombia, A Better Pick
Pressed hard to pick a favorite, Garcia describes it thus: “Colombia has been a really good country to serve customers in Spanish because the accent is more neutral, and because we have so many Spanish-speaking customers coming to us from a variety of different backgrounds, whether that be Mexico, or the Caribbean, Central America or South America, they seem to be more positively disposed to that accent. There is that premium that is placed on real respect and politeness. In some instances where we have looked at certain Caribbean locations there is a heavier self emphasis—I think it kind of depends on what you are looking to drive out of a particular portfolio or campaign.”
“I believe Colombia stands heads above any other nearshore country. I see real potential [in other places] but based on my experience, no other country is yet on par with Colombia.”
“I would say that the other thing that I have found as a real positive for those call centers and vendors we are working with in Colombia, is that there is a very heavy emphasis on education .There are a number of individuals with a very strong English capability … even if they are primarily serving our customer in Spanish, if they have to transfer our customer to a different department that is English speaking in our organization, they are strong enough and capable of doing that. I also have English language programs [in Colombia] as well as across a variety of different countries in the Caribbean and South America, but for the Spanish speaking programs, I have found that we have been very successful there. I have found the Colombians extremely customer service focused and that has served a number of our programs very well where we have a heavy emphasis on the customer experience; say before you’re transitioning into sales.”