Illustration by Lisa Engler

Small Business Customer Service Outsourcing: 4 Pitfalls to Avoid

These days it’s easier than ever to outsource customer support, even for small teams that prioritize customer experience and quality.

A new crop of companies that specialize in brand-forward customer experience outsourcing for small teams has emerged in the past five years. Gone are the days that outsourcing was only accessible to companies that have 25 or 50 seats to fill.

But that doesn’t mean that every outsourcing experience is a great one.

There’s a reason outsourcing has a bad reputation, and even though the industry has gotten more competitive, even the best business process outsourcing (BPO) company can produce subpar results if the right environment isn’t created.

The good news is that there are ways to set yourself up for success. A lot of it comes down to being sure there is a plan for crucial elements of your CX operations.

BPOs can help with a lot of systems that you might rather keep in house (like QA and training); the important thing is to have a clear conversation and plan so that as you bring on your new outsourced team, nothing falls through the cracks.

Let’s look at four pitfalls that are common to small business support leaders who are new to outsourcing and discuss how you can avoid them, with examples from CX leaders who have navigated the challenges and come out with an outsourced solution they are proud of.

Pitfall #1: Failing to take into account a solid management layer

A common mistake is to build a budget that accounts for the number of agents you need but doesn’t take into account management costs:

  • Agents need someone to go to when they have a question about how to answer a ticket.
  • Someone needs to manage scheduling and time off.
  • Someone needs to make sure the right agents are tackling the right channels at the right time.
  • Someone needs to manage QA to make sure agents are using the right saved replies and helping your customers the way you’d want them to be helped.

It’s easy to forget that as you add more agents, the management team needs to grow, too. Without a thoughtful approach to management, you can end up with a well-intentioned team that isn’t online at the right times, isn’t tackling the highest priority cases first, or is otherwise disappointing your customers.

Just like you have a manager (or managers) for your internal support team, you need a layer of management dedicated to your outsourced agents.

This person is in charge of making sure the team is happy and productive through coaching sessions and performance feedback. They can also manage schedules, QA tickets, and be the main point of contact for you.

The solution

Many outsourcing companies are flexible about the team management structure: It can come from you directly managing agents, or it can be provided by the outsourcing company.

The important thing is that there is management so agents are kept informed about product changes, are given updates to training and systems, and are generally happy and productive.

A system that works well for teams over four or five people is to have a team lead or manager from the BPO managing the day-to-day tasks of productivity metrics and one-on-ones, then have management on your side working closely with that person on things like product updates, new training, and macros updates.

For a really small team of three or fewer, it might not make sense to have management on the BPO side. If that is the case, just be sure you have someone on your team who is looking out for the success of these new teammates and interfacing regularly with your BPO contact.

Ben Dlugiewicz, Community Manager at YouCanBook.me, had scalability in mind as he was choosing an outsourcing partner. He knew he had to have a strong management layer as a foundation for growth:

“We hired a Team Lead through the outsourcing company to work with the agents and help them navigate things on the BPO’s side, as well as help with things like QA and coaching. The Team Lead also went through training and answered customer responses from the beginning so they really understand how our systems work.”

Pitfall #2: Failing to create onboarding and training plans

The initial training you provide to agents hired through the BPO is important to the future success of the program as the first agents added serve as the foundation for your team as it scales.

Those early team members often help train new folks who are added to the team and help newer agents deal with more complex tickets. If you don’t take the time to properly train those early hires, you may end up frustrated for weeks or even months into the relationship.

Just because your tool stack isn’t perfectly streamlined yet doesn’t mean you shouldn’t consider outsourcing. Often a project manager on the BPO side will walk you through what you need for a successful team launch.

That being said, it will be a much smoother transition if you already have a handle on your documentation and training going into the partnership.

The solution

Be prepared to spend a few days documenting the workflows for your highest volume conversation types and thinking about how you want to relay that information to your new team.

Many BPOs also have training specialists who can help you get your documents in order and into a learning management system. A basic level of help getting your training in order should be included in the cost of outsourcing; for more extensive help, there may be additional costs.

Susana de Sousa, Senior Manager of Support at Loom, wanted onboarding for her outsourced team to be similar to how she had trained her internal team:

“In order to set the new agents up for success, we want to make sure they feel part of the company: from the culture to the vision and mission. Most importantly, we wanted to make sure they understood Loom’s use cases and customer goals. We modeled the onboarding structure the same way as we would if we were onboarding an internal agent.”

De Sousa learned a lot from the initial onboarding and has made some adjustments as she continues to bring on new agents:

  • Training people across different time zones is challenging. Requiring agents to learn during the middle of the night is rarely effective. “We now have more asynchronous training content that is self-paced, which allows us to spend the time we do have together on shadowing and Q&A sessions,” de Sousa says.
  • It’s important to have up-to-date documentation in place that agents can refer to as they ramp up their work. “This was especially important for agents working in the Philippines as they had less available help in their time zone,” de Sousa says. “They relied heavily on our internal knowledge base and other documentation like example tickets and Slack messages.”
  • Maintain regular Q&A sessions after the initial onboarding. “We did it on a weekly basis at first and then moved to bi-weekly,” de Sousa says. “This helps agents learn from other agents’ questions.”

Pitfall #3: Not having a handle on key metrics

One major advantage of working with an outsourcing company is the ability to easily scale up and down your support as your volume ebbs and flows.

To accurately build an efficient team, you should have a rough idea of your average handle time and a sense of how many tickets are coming in throughout the day and year. These two pieces of information will help you build the right team from the get-go.

If this information is not regularly being evaluated, you may be overstaffed, leading to excessive cost, or understaffed, leading to backlog and quality problems — in some ways defeating the purpose of working with an outsourcing company in the first place.

Armed with these two pieces of data, any savvy BPO will be able to help you forecast your volume and model how your headcount may change throughout the day and year.

The solution

Dig into your help desk to look at trends from the last six months to a year. Check in with the marketing department to see what growth is predicted for the next six months. Once you have this information, share it with your BPO so they can help you plan.

Forecasting should be revisited on a monthly (or at least quarterly) basis to make sure you are meeting cost, SLA, and quality goals.

Pitfall #4: Failing to build a scalable quality assurance program

Understandably, a lot of companies want to keep QA in-house as they scale. But as volume grows, they have a hard time keeping up with the 5%-10% of tickets that need to be carefully reviewed each week to have a truly robust QA program.

When you bring on agents from outside your company through a BPO, it is especially important to monitor the quality of the work being done. Even the best agents make mistakes, and having a solid QA program in place allows you to identify gaps in training and take corrective action quickly.

Just as important, it allows you to understand who your top performers are and give praise to agents who are doing great work.

The solution

Regardless of whether you decide to keep QA in-house or lean on your BPO, be sure you have a scalable plan so that QA can grow with your team. A good BPO will have a team that you can connect with to discuss the best path forward and choose the right type of QA program for your business.

Dlugiewicz from YouCanBook.me has been planning how to scale QA with his outsourcing partner with the goal of keeping it simple:

“We’re leveraging the team lead at the BPO to help facilitate QA and will establish a scoring rubric with input from the rest of the team. The overall QA score, coupled with other metrics (CSAT, AHT, First Contact Resolution, etc.) will paint a nice picture as to how each agent is performing and where there might be opportunity for improvement.”

Use your outsourcing partner to level up your own business

Outsourcing is an excellent way to scale up your customer service, but they can do more than expand your coverage for you.

Many outsourcing companies have worked with hundreds of companies — and probably dozens in your industry — and they’ve seen endless ways that teams can be structured, manage processes, and deliver training.

PartnerHero’s training lead, for example, came from Airbnb where she helped scale their team to thousands of staff around the world. As you launch your outsourced team, make use of these resources to learn from their experiences.

Outsourcing may seem daunting, but with a thoughtful and intentional approach to setting the program up, you’ll be set up for success.

Once your program is established, you’ll find it is generally much easier than continuing to hire in-house. Instead of worrying about finding applicants and retaining good employees, you can shift your attention to higher-level projects while the BPO worries about scaling the team.

Josh Magsam
Josh Magsam

Josh Magsam is the VP of Partner Operations at PartnerHero, a fan of all things outdoors, and is passionate about leadership development. He lives in rural North Carolina with his wife, young son, and an ever-expanding pack of animals.

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