The Onshore / Offshore ‘Customer Experience’ Cook Book
We completely understand the temptation for organisations to try and save money by moving work offshore. The potential labour cost savings and getting away from some of the inflexibility of our regulated workplaces, is a seductive mix. But unfortunately, customers are starting to associate offshore solutions with poor experiences. In some of our clients we also know that poorly managed offshore arrangements cause customer issues and problems for customer facing staff, who remain onshore. This is hardly surprising.
Shipping processes thousands of kilometres to a workforce who often do not have English as a first language and whose culture is very different from a country like Australia, was never going to be easy. Unfortunately, we find that many organisations have underestimated the complexity of the task.
The good news is that we find that the same disciplines and models that work onshore are even more applicable to offshore and that’s what we’ll explore here. What we have found is that doing this well takes some discipline. As we thought about it, we began to see that the analogy with a well-run restaurant or kitchen might help as well. After all, we have all become couch-based experts of on all things cooking, so here goes.
You Better Have a Recipe
When a chef sets up a large kitchen every recipe is well defined. This makes the food repeatable and predictable. It means the “master chef” can delegate out the work to his various cooking stations and sous chefs. We can’t emphasise how important that is in an offshore environment. Our rule is quite simple: if you haven’t defined the processes then you can’t offshore them. Developing some standard training packages and sending over some experienced staff to deliver it, or train the offshore trainer, is not enough. In one instance, we observed an offshore operation create their own process definitions to try and fill the gaps that existed. However, they did not have enough business and process knowledge to get it right and the result was a repeatable process but one that did not satisfy customer or business needs. In another notable example, they kept calling customers where it was inappropriate to do so. And, in another case, the outsourcer had such high turnover that each new person was trained within a team by another agent who’d learnt from another in classic ‘Chinese whisper’ scenario. The agents did not know why they were doing things, they just followed the process they’d been shown. There were detailed work instructions, but they were never referenced.
The mechanism we use to fix this (our recipe equivalent), is what we call “Best Practice Procedures” or BPP’s. That’s not quite the same as ‘work instructions’. Work instructions are the lowest level procedures that might explain how to fill out every field in a system (often those are needed too). BPP’s are different in that they guide the ‘operator’ through the best sequence for the work. This can be inbound calls or items of processing. In one example, a client had never really defined the best way to set up a new customer; how to have the overall conversation, present the options, discuss the variants of products and decide on the payment options. We worked with them to create a seamless repeatable process onshore.
The client soon worked out that we had made the process so repeatable that they could easily move it offshore – they promptly did so with immediate success. The offshore team became better at following the process than those onshore and they sensibly created an escalation mechanism for the rare instances of issues that fell outside the process, like a customer asking for a new ingredient. In this instance, offshore staff were so confident in the process that customers rarely noticed that they were handled elsewhere. The process met their needs and addressed all their issues, so the feedback was very positive.
Every Role in the Kitchen is Clear and has a Purpose
A well run kitchen is a carefully thought through operating model. For example, the menu balances dishes that can be pre-prepared with food cooked to order. The chefs have sauces and other ‘components’ ready to go, roles are very clear and the work is distributed around the kitchen to prevent competition for facilities. We see offshore operations of any kind needing to be dovetailed into an overall operating model in the same way. The operation needs to sit within an overall business blueprint, not just stand alone. Issues like how the operation will escalate problems, how they obtain support and how work or calls are routed around the whole business need to be considered and modelled in the optimal way.
In one organisation we were able to show that the boundary to the offshore centre had been drawn in the wrong place. In a rush to offshore, this company “dumped” a whole series of processes in Manilla and the outsource provider did their best to execute. But our diagnosis showed that the agents were really struggling with certain situations, causing excessive call lengths and poor experiences like holds and call backs. So we recommended bringing that process back onshore. We felt the “blue print” was wrong. We helped the client and their provider develop a triage process so that they could quickly spot these scenarios and get them to well qualified staff onshore. This is just one example of thinking through the whole operating model, rather than treating an offshore operation in isolation.
In another case, the outsource contract was driving the wrong behaviour. The contract was weighted towards hitting certain service levels and processing so many widgets a day. The outsourcer worked tirelessly to hit those targets but critical backlogs and key customer issues continued to grow despite this apparent productivity. The contract and measures were misaligned with true business and customer outcomes. One of our diagnostic studies highlighted this issue. It wasn’t so much a question of how many widgets, rather which widgets needed to be processed. Once again, the outsourcer did not have enough knowledge of the clients business to highlight the issue. We were able to broker some revisions that enabled the outsourcer to focus on the right outputs rather than all output.
The Menu and Dishes Need Careful Design and Planning
Every head chef understands the relationship of the dishes. They know that the steak takes 10 minutes to cook while another dish may only take 5 minutes. Effectively, the head chef understands the interrelationship of the work. Unfortunately, many of our clients have relied on their offshore provider to organise and run the work and in two instances this did not work well at all because the provider did not have enough understanding of the business, priorities or the best ways to organise the work.
In the first example, the provider had fractured the work into teams where each team completed only one task. It helped get people productive quickly but when we observed the work, we saw staff in some teams cycling through work lists and getting ‘stuck’ 70-80% of the time. The fundamental problem was that the organisation did not recognise the interconnected nature of some of these tasks. Tasks in one queue needed action in another but there was nothing to join them up. It was like having 100 discrete ‘production lines’ when really there were only 10 products and the production lines should have been interconnected. In a call centre environment we saw an offshore provider giving equal priority to both inbound and outbound work. It was obvious to us that the outbound work had a much lower financial return but the outsourcer hadn’t built in any ability to move staff between outbound and inbound work. Sometimes there were queues and abandoned callers on the inbound line, whilst the outbound still stuck doggedly to their work.
In both cases we fixed these issues with combination of structural and process change and created a model in which the work was organised differently. We did not leave it to the outsourcer to try and work it out. We played head chef and re-organised teams to do similar or related work. This made a huge difference and the model produced a 30% gain in efficiency. We did have to invest in some cross skilling but the returns were worth that investment.
Did all this cause massive conflict? Not surprisingly, the outsourcer was really pleased to be able to re implement a new design, even though the contract was perhaps not motivating them to change. They knew that bad
process and clunky customer experiences will ultimately degrade the client’s satisfaction with their service. Fixing it up and creating clarity meant working better together and has fostered greater reliance and work being allocated to the outsourcer.
Even a head chef in a restaurant needs to be replaceable and repeatable. It’s not greatness that gets the chef’s hat, its consistency. Every head chef needs a back-up. Head chefs can’t be in the kitchen 365 days of the year, so a good head chef will train at least one deputy to take control when he isn’t there and a have an organised, repeatable framework to manage the kitchen. An outsource provider will tell you they have great head chef capability and will manage the work appropriately. In both the examples we’ve just mentioned, the outsourcer claimed they knew how to manage the work but it was clear that they did not. In one case they handed out work to the team based on average performance every day. So the staff processed these items every day believing that was the expectation. Allocating fixed amounts of work in this way holds back productivity and this was no different. The same amount of work was handed out each day and got done each day. Yes, it was repeatable but it was clear to us that it wasn’t optimal.
In both cases we implemented our Operations Framework as a repeatable management solution. That included having a daily huddle or scrum to take decisions and create a plan for the day. This was backed up with a real time management process that managed the site through the day, reacting to inevitable changes in situation and managing work actively. In the call centre this would ensure that inbound calls got the priority they deserved. In the back office, it focused teams on the highest priority and more valuable work and took away the cap of fixed allocations.
The client onshore would also be involved in the process, helping set the direction at the start of the day. Strangely we rarely see intra-day cooperation and planning between outsourcer and client. However, as discussed previously, the models are not separate but dovetailed together. If a chef did not coordinate the delivery of supplies at the times needed, how could customer outcomes be achieved?
Perhaps the biggest break through was teaching the team leaders to coach. In both cases they were busy doing admin and taking escalations. Following our operations framework they spent time observing their staff and coaching them to best practice. The staff loved it! In both cases they really wanted to improve but for the first time they were given feedback at the right level of detail to help them improve. The improvement in performance wasn’t instant but it was a contributor to productivity rising over 20% in one of these examples.
We understand why companies go offshore but we think too many fail to understand how to manage this well, or have been involved in a pragmatic ‘lift and shift’ projects operating under tight timeframes. It may be someone else’s kitchen but even more reason why you need to write the recipes (like our Best Practice Procedures) and agree the best operating model for your business. It’s the onshore team’s job to explain how the work is interrelated and to make clear what matters most. Lastly, we think you’ll need to help them manage it using something like our Operations Framework.
If you believe that some of these symptoms and experiences also relate to your own business, don’t be too concerned – the effort required to remediate is probably less that you think and is not technology related. In all our examples, a short targeted programme, working with people and process within the existing technology, can re implement a meaningful, positive change within a matter of months.
We know this approach works, so if you aren’t happy with your outsourced outcomes, or you are thinking of offshoring in the near future, please don’t hesitate to get in touch.