Embody - representing a client

When people become ambassadors

Customer service and contact centre partnerships represent one of the longest-standing and most mature areas in outsourcing; according to industry analysts NelsonHall these services accounted for £256m worth of outsourcing deals in 2013, and a 9 per cent share of the total UK Business Process Outsourcing (BPO) market. Brands, as well as public sector organisations, outsource their customer service function to provide a better customer experience, protect their reputation, increase loyalty or drive sales – all while keeping costs down and driving efficiencies with the support of a partner.

Regardless of whether partnerships are formed in the private or public sector, it’s the people on the frontline who can make a real difference – through the way they answer the phone, solve a problem or deal with complaints. Being an ambassador for a brand or organisation means the individual needs to share the client’s values, be passionate about its business, understand every detail of the products and services, and work as an extension of the client’s organisation.

Open Outsourcing explores how two partnerships that might look different from the outset – one from the private and one from the public sector – focus on the same principles to enable people to deliver a great customer service and tackle challenges such as geographical distances and dual identities. Two seasoned contact centre industry experts provide further commentary on how to get it right.

Fashionably passionate about a brand

Arvato UK’s partnership with global online fashion retailer Zara.com began in 2013 to provide inbound customer service via telephone and email, now covering eight European markets and Russia, in eight languages.

With fashion lines changing regularly and a constant stream of brand promotionsacross social media and magazines,the volume and nature of customer enquiries can change on an hourly basis.

A key objective for the partnership from the outset was to co-ordinate these peaks and troughs through close communication and seamless knowledge transfer between Arvato’s team in Slough, UK, and Zara.com’s head office in La Coruna, Spain.

Living and understanding the brand is crucial for Arvato’s customer service advisors as they work with Zara.com to deliver an excellent customer experience. The UK team has to understand the finer details of all products and be able to talk about them with the same passion and expertise as the in-house customer service teams in Spain.

One innovation that helped overcome geographical distance and increase team communication was the introduction of an ‘always-on’ video conference link between Arvato’s contact centre in Slough and the team in La Coruna. It is used for everything from training, to demonstrations of new ranges, to team meetings.

Anyone can walk right up to the screen and talk to the people on the other side. For example, advisors can ask something about a product and be shown the garment by someone in Spain. It is an easy way to communicate – open, direct, instant, and personal – which empowers people, fosters team spirit and creates a sense of integration, even if the teams are thousands of kilometres apart.

On-going training is an essential part of empowering the Arvato team to really live Zara.com’s brand values and ways of working. Arvato delivers training for new hires and constant refreshers for existing customer service representatives, and Zara.com product managers in La Coruna carry out briefings on new trends for the latest campaigns via the video conference link. The brand operates in an incredibly fast paced environment, so it’s an ideal tool to carry out ‘buzz sessions’ on a new feature due to be released on its website. 

Working across a variety of countries, languages and time zones increases the need for a single and unifying objective for Arvato and Zara.com’s partnership. While campaigns and web fronts may differ from region to region, the common goal remains the same for all teams. Each partner is absolutely focused on delivering a great customer experience, and, in doing so, Arvato’s customer service representatives play one of the most important roles in promoting the Zara.com brand and products.

Proudly wearing a public sector hat

In 2010 Chesterfield Borough Council formed a ten-year partnership with Arvato UK, covering a range of key functions including revenues and benefits, human resources and customer services. With the public-facing team among those transferring over to Arvato, the partnership was tasked with transforming how customers use council service while also reducing the costs and meeting residents' high expectations for customer care.

"Our customers were used to traditional face-to-face contact with the council, which meant our cost-per-contact was high,” explains Huw Bowen, chief executive of Chesterfield Borough Council.

"To be more efficient we needed to encourage citizens to use more self-service channels, without sacrificing the human element which was clearly so valued. At the same time new welfare reforms were placing pressures on the team in terms of the volume and complexity of enquiries."

The partnership’s response was to consolidate the council’s multiple customer-facing offices into one modern customer service centre, backed by a telephone contact centre. A programme of retraining and empowering staff to devise new approaches – including a system that manages the flow of customers in the customer service centre – has created a more adaptable and flexible team.

The new facility has been equipped with self-service payment kiosks, allowing employees who were previously carrying out cashier roles to take on more wide-ranging work, such as providing citizens with hands-on training to use the new channels.

"Many members of our customer services team have been with us for a long time, so we knew they had the vital skills required for local government customer services, like a high level of empathy, patience and the ability to walk citizens through complex issues,” explains Huw. “What we needed was Arvato’s external perspective on how to introduce positive change."

The results have included the council achieving the government’s coveted Customer Service Excellence accreditation, and the team consistently hitting its target of seeing over 80 per cent of people within 10 minutes of their arrival in the centre - all while handling an additional 6,000 annual customer interactions due to the welfare changes.

Employees have also noticed a positive shift in customer sentiment in the centre. Huw puts this down to the close partnership between Arvato and the council, which ensures that its values continue to be shared with the now Arvato-employed team.

"Of course, we were mindful of the risks of handing over responsibility for a critical function - that our reputation depends on - to a third party. One concern was that the team would cease to act and feel like council employees. It’s a true measure of success that, four years into the partnership, our customer service team will tell you that, while their work has changed, they still feel like council employees and are proud to continue to serve the residents of Chesterfield."

Read what our industry experts have to say on the topic

Ann-Marie Stagg

Chief Executive of the Call Centre Management Association (CCMA) in the UK and President of the European Confederation of Contact Centre Organisations (ECCCO)


Jo Causon

Chief executive of the Institute of Customer Service (ICS) since March 2009 and Director of Marketing and Corporate Affairs at the Chartered Management Institute since July 2005