Who are customer relations managers and how do they perform their roles? For answers, we look to IT and call center outsourcing. The roles of customer relations managers have been made more complex by both globalization and the virtualization of organizations, as described in Part 1 of this series.
Clients initially encounter customer relations managers during the sales cycle. The roles and career paths of client relations managers at the beginning of the project lifecycle are detailed in Part 2 of this series.
“In the Indian call center industry, client relations managers were initially called business development managers,” said Panchali Dhar of eBusiness India. Priya, as she is known in the industry, said that in that role they initially negotiate with clients and then confer with the client service manager to help prepare bid proposals.
In some outsourcing firms, the chief executive officer is also the main client relations manager. This is most commonly found at operations with less than 300 seats.
Who Has Customer Relations Responsibilities?
Since 2001, when the Indian call center outsourcing boom began in earnest, the role of customer relations managers has been expanded to include other client-facing positions, including:
- Facility operations manager
- Client services manager
- Program manager
- Team leader
Once a client is engaged at a merchant call center, the traditional approach is for the facility operations manager and the client services manager (if one exists) to take over client relations duties. At small facilities, one person may hold both positions. The facility operations manager commonly takes charge of everything in a call center, including operations, people management, human resources management, admin, and revenue and business development. This was Priya’s last position before launching eBusiness India.
Beneath the operations manager is the program manager, who works on the call center floor and who is in charge of supervisors and team leaders. The program manger may be responsible for more than one outsourcing program, particularly at large facilities.
Priya believes that client relations manager roles need to be merged or at least shared, except at large facilities. In essence, this means bringing the operations and program managers into discussions with potential clients early on, so that clients have the opportunity to build confidence with the managers who will be responsible for the success or failure of their outsourcing programs.
Speaking before heading off to South Africa on a two-month project to manage the construction and launch of a new call center, Priya summarized her philosophy for client relations as: “Regardless of job title, everyone in a call center needs to be able to be client facing.” Everyone needs to be able to communicate well, she said, and to be able to take input and directions from clients and act on that input appropriately.
As pioneered by the managers of WorldBridge Connect when they launched the first U.S. owned commercial call center in India in 1999, the business development manager can (and should) stay involved with each outsourcing project throughout the project lifecycle. “Our clients are provided with the contact information of the relevant people in various departments as well as the department heads. I encourage customers to call me whenever they want to, so there is a continuous bridge of communication between us,” said Imran Aftab, WorldBridge Connect’s Virginia-based head of business development.
Multiple points of contact with call center managers authorized to take quick decisions helps ensure that problems that a decision maker will always be available to work with clients as soon as a problem appears or a program needs to be modified. Speed is vital in making program adjustments. Once call center programs go off track it is easy for them to break down totally. A broken program is much harder to correct than one that been well managed and well monitored throughout.
Span of Control Issues and Responsiveness
Vasant Subramanyan, who runs the Last Peak call center in Kolkata, said: “Large call centers are often unable to respond quickly or appropriately to client requests for program changes.” He said, “At centers with more than 500 to 800 seats, the span of control for operations managers becomes too large.”
Subramanyan added, “Since most requests for program changes have to be approved by operations managers, if the person holding that position becomes overwhelmed then client requests may never be acted upon.”
The clients who receive the quickest response from offshore call center mangers are usually those that are filling the most number of seats, or that have come through brokers who have placed several programs together at the same facility. Consequently, programs of 100-200 seats or more may best be handled at large facilities. But smaller programs often receive better service at smaller facilities.
To keep a manageable span of control, Imran Aftab said that the size of WorldBridge Connect’s new facility in Lahore, Pakistan will be capped at 500 seats. The 300 seats planned on top of the first 500 will be located at a separate facility.
The question of who to be responsive to comes up often for client relations managers, particularly at the facility level. While a client relations manager at a facility in India, InternationalStaff.net consultant Tara Bradford found that her role was often to be a facilitator and advocate for both sides in outsourcing relationships.
“There is a line you have to walk,” Bradford said, “because a client relations manager for a call center has to serve their employer.” She said that client relations managers have to understand their clients, the issues that clients face, and need to be the client’s advocate within outsourcing facilities. “Otherwise managers will use their own processes and not fulfill client expectations,” she said.
“Sometimes client relations managers need to be the bad boy within their own companies,” Bradford said. On the flip side, Bradford urges client relations managers to make sure that the needs of the outsourcing facilities are also met. This includes the need to collect enough information from clients to set outsourcing process up successfully and to provide agents with sufficient training.
How Can Their Role Be Changed?
The role of client relations managers can be simplified by keeping interactions with them at more macro, higher-end level, e.g., in negotiations. They do not need to be involved in all the minute details of implementing outsourcing programs.
If there are performance issues with particular agents, clients can bring those issues up with the operations person that they deal closest with on a daily level. If an issue is not addressed satisfactorily at that level, then it can be brought to the attention of the outsourcing firm’s top client relations manager.
“Client relations managers need to have close relationships with everyone who may be client facing within the top management of an outsourcing service firm,” Bradford said. This includes operations managers, the legal advisors, and the financial decision-makers. Good internal coordination helps keep communications and negotiations with clients consistent.
Be ready for clients to closely monitor an outsourcing program, Bradford urges. For example, clients’ CEOs can and should call in and play the role of secret shoppers.
Anthony Mitchell , an E-Commerce Times columnist, has beeninvolved with the Indian IT industry since 1987, specializing through InternationalStaff.net in offshore process migration, call center program management, turnkey software development and help desk management.