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Outsource magazine: thought-leadership and outsourcing strategy | June 26, 2017

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Q&A: Stephanie Wilson, Firstsource

Q&A: Stephanie Wilson, Firstsource
Outsource Q&As

Stephanie Wilson is Executive Vice President, Operations at Firstsource Solutions Limited. We caught up with Stephanie to discuss trends in outsourcing (specifically from a customer contact perspective); the shifting on/offshore balance; the rise and rise of web chat and social media; and evolving hiring requirements in the customer service space…


Outsource: Let’s start with a general overview: from your perspective in the space, what do you see as being the biggest trends in outsourcing today?

Stephanie Wilson: I definitely see an appetite for cost reduction in many organisations, and that still translates itself into labour arbitrage in many cases, particularly back office processing in activities without customer contact: I definitely see a greater interest in placing those activities offshore.

I think we’ve seen over a period of time mixed reactions, mixed feelings, about the efficiency of offshoring, but more and more Firstsource is seeing clients look closely at what processes they place in which locations. So the onshore versus offshore debate continues. We’ve seen a huge increase in web chat across our business and this has been very successful in an offshore environment.

O: Obviously in some verticals and in some activities there’s less pressure on the buy side to get the location right because it’s “simply” a question of handing over things to the provider. Within the voice contact area certainly there are a lot of emotional issues around offshoring: how do you approach that when you’re working with clients? What are the things you have to bear in mind when you’re looking at the best place to source this work?

SW: It’s a mixture: some of it is the client’s preference actually. For some maybe they have been to a location previously and decided it’s not for them, so they want to try an alternative. It might be that they want to spread their risk, to have both contingency planning and different locations to complement what they already have offshore.

Price point is clearly a component in that discussion. India remains extremely cost-effective, the Philippines a little more expensive and SA a little more expensive again. We are focussing on English-language offshoring but in fact you could look at other things such as bilingual nearshoring – but then you’re talking about a completely different approach. You have all of the above, plus then you’re looking at language and skill sets that are available within a specific territory.

O: Where do you see as being the real up and coming delivery locations – are there any that you are particularly excited about?

SW: Everybody’s trying to get on the outsource bandwagon…  You go to all these outsourcing and customer services conferences and they’re full of people offering locations. I would say that, having worked in the industry for a lot of years, there isn’t actually any one perfect location. You’re really trying to match what the client wants from their business and what the outsourcer can offer. For me, the big scalable operations that are proven, and well established, are still in India which has proven facilities for English-language outsourcing.

O: What about closer to home? Do you see a real resurgence in onshore delivery?

SW: I would say there is. If I look at the mix of our business it’s still 70% onshore and 30% offshore. There are still a high proportion of clients’ visitors that would prefer to have their customer-facing contacts within the domestic market. For me it’s about providing a cost-effective efficient operation in whatever country is appropriate. It’s a standard of outsourcing: if the client wants it to go offshore and there are some benefits to them – whether it’s in terms of cost, skill set or expertise delivery – then there is a solution for that. If they don’t – if they would prefer to stay onshore in a domestic environment – there are many cost-effective places now around the UK where you can locate those operations.

O: Do you find customers coming to you for whom sourcing location strategies include an element of broader business strategy – for example, getting a footprint in a particular location, like China with all its attendant commercial potential?

SW: I currently don’t have any clients who are talking to me about China. Firstsource’s clients are primarily in the financial services and telecom & media space and we are delivering services for UK and US companies, so China doesn’t really enter into the mix. I think your question is relevant in that, yes, I have seen clients who do not want to take the risk themselves with moving to a new geography therefore they will work with an outsourcer particularly if you already have customers within that country or region. The other thing I have seen is a strategy from some clients whereby as they open up a new market they will work with an outsourcer to really provide the first entrance into that market in terms of customer support, and as their business grows then their strategy will be one of “in-house 50% outsource 50%”, something like that.

O: Let’s have a look at technology for a moment, and the impact of the digital revolution on outsourced customer services. How has the way that you work with clients been transformed?

SW: The introduction of alternative channels has been very successful with many clients that we work with. It provides a number of things: customer convenience; a greater choice of lower-cost locations with great industry skills; efficiency. I haven’t seen it particularly drive down overall contact because some people just make the channel switch from voice to web. In other cases it just becomes an alternative channel for the customer so they might start off online to get the information they need, think about it, then make a phone call to follow up or place an order for example. Web chat in particular is very, very effective in terms of customer satisfaction.

O: As well as it being instantaneous, what are the main advantages of web chat?

SW: It’s your choice; it fits the way you like to do things. For younger people who are less comfortable picking up the phone it’s standard behaviour: they chat online, they chat on Facebook, so it’s certainly a very comfortable channel for them to use. For a lot of customers I think it gives them time to think about things. I was recently doing chat sessions for a particular client and the way the customers worked on chat was very interesting: they were asking for information, it might be around cost or around available promotions or options for the customer, and they were taking their time to think – it wasn’t something that they had to be on the end of the phone for. I think it’s very satisfactory from that point of view. The other thing is, not everybody is in a position where it’s very easy to make a call, so it’s  extremely convenient.  I actually used it myself recently, with a telecommunications company and I thought the quality of the information I got back, the speed of response, and the help was absolutely excellent, so to me as a consumer it’s really efficient and effective.

O: What about social media? Obviously that’s another area where there’s a lot of investment going in tech-wise from the likes of yourselves. What are you doing to work with clients to make sure that their social media handling is optimal and evolving as fast as the space is generally?

SW: Do you really think that a lot of people are using social media to transact?  Because I have to say I don’t. We’ve done a consumer survey, with 2000 respondents, in which we asked “How do you prefer to communicate with your mobile phone service provider?” and only 2% said social media. If something goes wrong you tweet it, but in terms of customer engagement it’s not there. I think the first channel to have is the greater uptake, technical support, whereby the customer might go online first to try to self-serve, and then potentially they go into a forum where they ask the question. They try to do that themselves first; I can see that there might be a greater uptake on that level on social media. Actually what we see is that people, generally speaking, come through a chain of events – and they use social media at the end of that chain of events to express their dissatisfaction. So they call to complain or query their statement; they don’t get the answers they need; and they then go online to web chat; and then if they’re still confused or the product still won’t work, after a number of tries they go onto a forum or Facebook and complain about the experience that they’ve had.

O: With regard to that kind of complaint, then, are you engaging with your clients on damage limitation as well as response handling?

SW: We do monitoring of social media for some clients: manage forum discussions, those kinds of things. In terms of whether we engage with satisfied customers, this is one area that I find quite difficult with a number of clients because my perception is a number of companies are still struggling with where social media fits within their organisation – so is it operational delivery, customer service, customer care, marketing that should be managing this? Because it’s a one-to-many relationship and therefore it’s in the public domain and you really need to be careful about how you manage that. Is it a PR exercise? I see a real dilemma in a lot of companies about where this fits and how to manage this effectively. Certainly at an operational level it takes a completely different type of advisor to manage these types of discussions: somebody who is probably more experienced, probably better educated, probably has a marketing background and can write effectively for the public domain. We do some work – probably as much as any other company is doing at the moment in the outsource environment – and we have a piece of software to support us in doing that but while there’s a lot of noise about it I don’t see too much activity about it yet.

O: You mentioned it might be a different type of person that you need engaging in that work –when you’re hiring are you actively looking for a different type of person now?

SW: Somewhat: we are not hiring huge numbers of people for social media, and if you’re only hiring small numbers of people you can be very selective. You want people who specifically want to do that kind of work. In terms of hiring for programmes where you’re looking for a lot of flexibility – so can the advisor deliver chat as well as voice – that’s something we consider as we hire: are their written communication skills good as well as their verbal skills? Some of it is also around behaviour and attitude. Frankly you can teach people to have a lot of knowledge or be able to communicate to a customer about products or services, but actually the attitude and behaviour around wanting to serve and resolve problems, understand them from the customer’s point of view, look for ways to be more helpful, or which can identify problems, I think those are the things that we are most interested in – and honestly I don’t think that’s really changed over a number of years. I think most companies are trying to hire those kinds of people: you want people who can really support your customer. If you look at companies like Amazon where they have really focussed on the customer experience, it’s about introducing processes as well as technology into the business to support the advisor.

O: Just to wrap up: what’s coming up in the next business cycle that you are particularly excited by, that you think is going to keep transforming this business?

SW: My personal interest is about the customer experience, the customer journey. I think people need to do a better job of putting themselves in the place of the customer and the client and not just doing the operational delivery. I’m quite excited about how we work in a different way to understand, and become much closer to, the client in terms of that delivery – whether it’s by identifying areas of improvement in the customer journey, processing-type activities, identification of a customer… I’m very excited about finding ways to make things more efficient in terms of cost but also in terms of customer experience as well. I don’t think anybody wants to be on a call for ten minutes while you go through a basic order entry or transaction; what you really want to be able to do as a customer is phone up and get it, right first time, really really quickly. You want that level of efficiency in your business -and you particularly want to do it on the move as well. So anything we can do to improve that level of contact with a customer while they’re mobile is also something I’m excited about.

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