Another move to value customer service: AT&T brings its call center in-house

* AT&T brings its DSL tech support in-house

It was just two weeks ago that I wrote about Frontier Airlines choosing to do its call center in-house for service delivery reasons. Now AT&T appears to be doing the same thing with the technical support desk for its DSL service. Well, AT&T did not directly say that service quality is the reason for the change from an outsourced call center, but others have speculated that it is for service delivery reasons.

AT&T currently uses an outsourcer with a mix of U.S. and India-based call center staff to provide technical support for its DSL service. This is a fairly complicated technical support task. It’s purpose is to help new customers do self setup of the DSL service. Complicated technical processes are not good candidates to be outsourced. Neither is outsourcing a process for brand new customers who haven't even used the service yet.

While AT&T did not specifically say it is bringing the call center function in-house for service delivery reasons, several articles have suggested that it is a factor. Both Information Week and Bit-tech believe that customer service improvement is the reason. Several posters to the Bit-tech forum agree.

I do not want to give the impression that I am anti-outsourcing or even anti-call center outsourcing. But outsourcing done poorly gives outsourcing in general a bad name, and doesn’t do much for your company either. Much of the angst about outsourcing has taken two forms - economic concerns for loss of jobs; and failure to achieve the stated goals (i.e., cost savings or poor customer service from call centers). Each company should address the economic concerns based on its own best interests. Customer service concerns, however, should receive a very different level of attention within each company.

There have been studies that the economic factors work themselves out, that more jobs are created from the cost savings and increased business opportunities for taking advantage of the labor rate arbitrage. And competitively, it is difficult for companies to ignore savings by competitors taking advantage of offshore resources. Also, the economic growth and development in the countries providing cheap offshore labor allow those countries to become markets for the products of many companies. I am not going to debate the economic factors, I am just going to say that competitive markets will work themselves out.

However, part of the market working things out is the impact on customer service and the competitive consequences. When most companies in a given competitive space choose to outsource and/or go offshore, all customers are affected equally, for better or worse. However, those who will buck the trend, incorporate higher costs, but win anyway because they provide a better product or service, can truly differentiate themselves. I said it almost a year ago, I said it two weeks ago, and I will keep saying it. Customers will see the difference and will choose better service if it is offered and promoted as such. We will see more and more companies putting customers first and changing how they deliver call center-based customer service.

I will also restate this thought…offshore and outsourced call centers are going to be a major factor and a successful strategy for a long time, even as some companies change their call center operations. Done right and integrated properly with in-house staff, there is a place for offshore call center resources. The key phrase being, “done right.” That means solid integration with interactive voice responses and other internal resources, good training, flexible scripts and pathways for customers to talk with company employees when necessary. Customer support effectiveness needs to stop being measured by how much expense is taken out of the process through offshore resources or by how short we can keep customer call times. It should be measured by customer satisfaction, even if it costs a bit more. Companies who take this approach will be the winners in the coming years.


Copyright © 2006 IDG Communications, Inc.

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