This article orginally appeared in Support World, June 2008
What role can a centralised support centre play in delivering top service at the lowest cost? Guy Fraser has been swapping experiences with other specialists in this area
One of the major issues that service directors have to handle is delivering the best possible service at the lowest possible cost. This brings with it the question as to whether to centralise technical support help desks and, if so, where? With many companies wishing to ensure both global service consistency and save costs, the centralised unit does have a number of attractions.
But, first, what exactly does a ‘centralised support centre’ or CSC mean? Essentially, this is a service or help desk centre based in one place, serving a geographic area, such as EMEA, which was previously supported by a series of national support desks.
There are several benefits to having a centralised unit, including the following:
Consistency of service quality. The CSC needs to honour all existing, nationally specified service level agreements (SLAs), which are consistent with contracted service levels. Contracted service levels may differ from country to country, however the CSC must be able to work to the highest of these standards. This generally drives the whole team to work to such standards.
Economies of scale and cost reduction. Many local country units within a region are not 100% utilised, no organisation ever is or should be, otherwise there is no room for training, holidays, emergencies or occasional absences. The smaller the unit, the les efficient it is likely to be, because one with, say, four people is, by definition, going to be less efficient than one of 20 people. This is because, in the first unit, one person is 25% of the team, whereas in the second only 5%. This can be compensated to a certain extent at local level by staff multi-tasking. However, this can lead to staff being unavailable to do their core job, when SLAs have to be met. IT Perceptions, a leading IT consulting firm based in Surrey, offers an impressive business object -based system, which will calculate the cost benefits and other factors in relocating your support centre to anywhere from Lahore or Amsterdam. The resultant payback can vary from around 15% to more than 60%.
Where the service is to be delivered in several languages, this benefit still applies, because there are a surprising number of technical support and help desk people who speak two or three languages competently, which means that one person can then be part of two or three different language teams.
Staffing Models. Where the service demand is for several skills or languages, two key issues arise, in terms of staffing a centre: one relates to capacity, the other to coverage. For example, the number of German service calls may be large, with 10 German-speaking engineers required to cover it. On the other hand, the number of Norwegian service calls may only require two engineers to handle the work. However, there needs to be four or perhaps five Norwegian-speaking engineers on hand to ensure proper coverage. Norwegian-speaking engineers, therefore, need to have other languages, such as English, so that their time is fully utilised. Silicon Graphics (SGI) successfully used this model at its CSC in Reading a few years ago.
A well-run CSC can take advantage of the benefits that accrue from using a multi-lingual team to provide support at a very much lower cost to new markets. For example, a company may decide that, in 12 months’ time, it is going to enter the Portuguese market, which demands a minimum of five engineers speaking Portuguese. To begin with, the actual work volume may be low, but the language and skill cover must be provided. This can be addressed by replacing engineers who leave with others who speak French and Portuguese, for instance. The new engineers will mainly be handling French cases, but still be available to take Portuguese ones.
The CSC is, by definition, a large, multi-national team. Large teams often interchange and swap ideas. When these move across different business cultures, this can lead to a kind of ‘hybrid vigour’ within the organisation. Also, information tends to circulate regarding key accounts that are supported in several different markets. This can help to build a clearer profile of how major customers are thinking and planning. The team can contribute to key account management and directly improve the chances of generating repeat business.
Key Organisational Criteria. When organisations set up centralised support centres to cover an international region such as EMEA, the Far East or the Americas, there are two criteria that must be met. First, is a commonality of support requirements. It is essential that the customer base being served, whether external or internal, has a similar profile of hardware, software and service expectation. Secondly, a proper management structure needs to be in place. The region to be served by the centralised unit must report in to a common COO or CEO, who is effective in ensuring that the creation of the CSC has the full support of all regional managers.
Key Project Management Items. There is not room here to cover all the checklists involved in setting up a CSC. However, the first thing that needs to be created is a detailed model to establish the staff and system requirements necessary to meet customer service SLAs. Once that is in place, the three main areas that need to be brought to a state of readiness are the clients, the team and the system infrastructure.
Where some projects fall down is that a great deal of work goes into the infrastructure before the process and the model have been properly thought through. The second potential pitfall is that most of the effort goes into the infrastructure, with very little time taken to brief and sell the idea to clients, or to brief and prepare the service teams.
Timing & People. The CSC will use fewer people and is based in a different location to the local, in-country centres. Many staff will not want to relocate, so redeployment and redundancy are issues that need tackling honestly, early and upfront. Otherwise the existing teams are briefed via rumours that escalate with time, damaging morale, performance and service.
Who actually carries out the project? Some companies handle this in-house, which is fine, if there is someone in-house who has previous experience and can be spared for a significant period of time. However, there is obvious wisdom in using an outside company with the relevant expertise and that, above all, is prepared to start by constructing the right model for a company, rather than simply imposing a standard one.
There is also a host of software and hardware systems on the market, so selecting the right ones and implementing them successfully is a job for experienced professionals. My advice would be, ‘don’t try this at home’, but rather find an expert to carry out the implementation or at least oversee it.
One well established company in this field is CRMworks, which has successfully installed more than 500 service desk and CRM (customer relationship management) solutions for a diverse portfolio of national and global organisations, from The Tussauds Group to Nissan Motor Manufacturing.
A recent case in point is the new European-wide support centre at Newell Rubbermaid, the vast $5.7 billion global business that supports a variety of stationery products and is the name behind dozens of famous brands such as PaperMate and Waterman. The centre supports 30 sites across Europe, using a wide spread of languages, all of which turn to a data centre service desk powered by HEAT, which routes cases to the correct support desk.
One major challenge was communication. With some 250 cases a day in many languages, CRMworks, which project-managed the installation, developed a web page where users could write queries in their own language, which were then translated automatically to ensure correct routing.
While centre manager Glen Foster confirms that a good software package, in the form of HEAT, provided an excellent balance of functionality and flexibility, it is, he insists, the relationship with CRMworks that ensures “the early and continuing success of the project”.
Steven Pendleton, who has run support centres for SGI, Elsevier and Bureau Veritas, adds that, whoever manages the project, it is essential for the company that owns it to stay close to the core detail and not simply delegate the project to a company in, for example, India. This precaution is essential to stay in control of SLAs and service quality, and to prevent the company that has been hired from further subcontracting the work to a centre in, say, the Philippines.
Involving Internal Customers. Ultimately, communication and transparency are essential aspects of a centralised support centre. The customers and local country teams need to feel that the voices they are now talking to at the end of the phone are as much a part of the team as the locally based staff once were. Crucially, both the CSC and the country management need to be able to see the status of all the cases that are active at any one time (there are many case and call tracking systems on the market that can help, in this regard). Equally, there also needs to be regular conference calls, or VTC sessions, between country teams and their CSC counterparts.
Finally, where possible, the CSC teams should visit the countries they support at least once, soon after they come on stream, in order to establish good working relationships with their new colleagues and also to meet one or two key clients. All of this will help to ensure and underpin the effectiveness and success of the new operation.