Practical Perspectives with Bill Kuipers

Q: We had a great fourth quarter in terms of sales, but we got killed in operations. Our service levels deteriorated in every department. Should we consider a third-party call center for overflow, and what systems should we consider to replace our current one?

A: Congratulations on your tremendous sales. The operational challenges you described are a typical side effect of growth. You obviously have to tackle them aggressively to prevent a similar experience next year. You have to approach next year with a strategy of complete domination: Stack the deck in your favor every way you can. You can’t be overprepared or overequipped.

To that end, I would suggest tackling a review of your customer service and warehouse operations before the summer; if you wait until then, there may not be sufficient time to fully implement and stabilize any recommendations that may come up. There are often system changes to be made, layouts to adjust, equipment to order, and especially staff to hire and train, all of which can take several months to execute.

You should definitely make an arrangement with a third-party call center to handle your overflow and after-hours calls. This is an effective strategy that has made a very favorable improvement for many merchants with peak seasonal demands. Many direct marketers fear that a third party can never deliver the same quality of service that they can inhouse, but in reality they don’t do so well themselves in peak periods. You can’t afford to experience the kind of abandon rate and slow speed of answer that you did last year.

With proper communication and training, an overflow partner can make all the difference. You will get out of it what you put into it–don’t just pick a vendor and hope for the best. You need to keep the vendor current with volumes, product info, system skills, trends, etc. Most vendors are now able to enter orders directly into your own system (if you wish) and view inventory availability, and all are able to interactively increase or decrease the amount of calls they take.

We actually suggest giving a modest percentage of calls to the vendor all year round, even during slower periods, so that the vendor will always have staff that is experienced with your account. It is okay to be part of a small pool of other clients, but make sure the same CSR’s stay in that group and are fully trained on each account. The vendor won’t be perfect, and the service may seem expensive, but it is a great deal in the long run if it enables you to maintain service levels.

As far as your systems are concerned, you have reached the size and volume where there is increasing risk by going with a smaller or newer system. You should probably just focus on the established, top-tier direct-commerce systems. Don’t consider a system that does not specialize in direct commerce. It is important to make sure that 1) the vendor is stable and able to provide the level of support you need, 2) the system is proven for comparable volumes and clients, and 3) the system provides sufficient functionality to not only meet your needs but also bring something additional to the table.

Bill Kuipers is president of Haskell, NJ-based operational consultancy Spaide, Kuipers & Co. ( ) If you have a question for him, e-mail it to

And if you want more tips on how to manage your contact center, be sure to look for MULTICHANNEL MERCHANT/O+F’s new e-mail newsletter, the Contact Center Advisor, which launches Jan. 31.

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