How IoT Operations Leaders Can Decide Whether to Insource or Outsource Support

insource or outsource

To really scale your IoT business, your customer success and support infrastructure and processes are critical. We discussed this at length in our blog post The Guide to Growing Your IoT Business Through the Customer Journey Support Model.

Two of the main considerations for any operations leader, customer success or customer support manager at a consumer IoT firm (or any technology company for that matter), are:

  1. Cost: How can I scale support cost-effectively? Does it make more sense, from a cost perspective, to insource or to outsource?
  2. Speed: How can I grow my team, infrastructure and processes really fast (especially if your company is hitting its stride in the marketplace)? Does it make sense to hire an outsourced team, or can I do this more effectively in-house?

In this article, we discuss nine considerations you should take into account when deciding whether to insource or outsource your support and other customer journey services.

1. Location of customer base

We put location first because we think it’s the most important point to consider. Why? Mostly because of time zones, though language is also a consideration.

Having alert support personnel handle support issues on your clients’ time zones is crucial.  It impacts availability, response time, language, cultural affinity and even cost.  You should really consider where your main markets are or are going to be, and make support team decisions based on that.

If you’re a European or Asian company, but your major market is the United States, then consider having a support team in the western hemisphere. The same goes for the opposite situation: if you’re a U.S.-based company, and your major markets are either Europe or Asia, then consider basing teams over there.

That said, you can support customers in remote time zones from a central location, just make sure you account for extended or round-the-clock shifts and language issues if that’s the way you want to go.  Having a well managed central location handle it all can be highly efficient too.

2. Your Growth Stage

Is your company an early stage startup, or are you starting to see explosive growth with your customer base, maybe growing by the tens, hundreds or even thousands of customers every week?

If you’re early stage, you might not even have a customer success or support manager yet. It’s still probably all hands on deck, with people wearing many hats. In that case, it may be best to keep support in-house for a while.

But if you’re going through a serious growth spurt or approaching one, then you need to consider outsourcing as a way to scale faster and more flexibly, especially if the pace of your internal recruitment can’t keep pace with growth or if it’s just too cost-prohibitive to grow your support team in your main location.

Outsourcing is a great way to scale quickly.

One word of advice we give all clients, however: you should consider outsourcing once you have a manager in place on your end, and our recommendation is not to outsource your customer success or customer support manager role. This person should always be in-house and on location, as close as possible to the rest of the startup team.

It is completely feasible to have operational leaders at the remote location to support your manager with the day-to-day operations, as well as with training, workforce planning, handling escalations, managing to pre-established goals, and providing valuable customer feedback.

The more sophisticated vendors will also understand the dynamics of a technology company well, and be able to provide valuable metrics and analytics to support your customer success operation.

Your growth stage will determine which of those things are important and when, and help you drive the conversation with your partner to increase the value of the outsourced engagement.

3. A Basic Support Playbook

When you’re scaling support, you need to have in place a basic of support plays and knowledge base elements.

We discuss plays extensively in our article mentioned above. We define support plays as follows:

“Plays are a set of steps that you follow to do something, decide who (or what or how) will do it, and schedule when it will be done.

Think about football plays. Members of a football team memorize dozens or hundreds of plays they can use at any given moment to move the ball forward.

The same is true for supporting the customer throughout her journey. The plays you design across the various stages of the journey will move the product forward.”

When you put together your set of support plays into a defined process, we call this a Playbook.customer journey plays

When do you need support plays? The defining moment is usually when you hire your first customer success manager or customer support manager, as the case may be.  But you definitely need to have some plays in place if you’re going to outsource any part of your customer support operation.  Doing so without a clear map of what’s going to be done, by whom, how and when will complicate things, and will likely lead to micromanagement of your partner.

The support play concept is fairly new and we believe it is an essential part of modern, high-quality support operation that contributes to customer retention and the growth of the bottom line.

You will increase the chances of your outsourcing effort being successful if you have taken the time to figure out and document what your outsourced partner, as well as your own internal team, will do and how.

You may also turn to a support partner who understands the dynamics of technology product support in the context of customer success, and who can help you develop these plays.  At Infolink-exp, we work with our clients from a customer success perspective, to make sure that they have at least some level of customer journey support playbook in place that provides predictability and scalability to the operation.

4. Your E-commerce Platform

Whether you sell through an online store or not is another important consideration.

In a consumer IoT company, your support team will likely have to do some order support, maybe handle some warranties, shipments, or handle orders directly.  This may be part of the operation you need to scale.

If you outsource this part of your customer’s journey or even a part of it, be prepared to make the outsourced team part of your e-commerce process, which means giving them access to your platform and the needed visibility into your ordering process.

At the same time, consider putting together a play for order support escalations.

5. A Clear Escalation Process

In customer support, there should always be a clear escalation process. In other words, you should be clear as to what your partner does versus what you’re going to continue to do, and how escalations will work between your support and customer success team and vice versa.

Usually, this will require putting together a play on what and how to escalate.  Examples are a customer success manager escalating a case to support when the customer needs technical help beyond the scope of what the CSM can or should do.  The reverse is also true, the person that talks to your customer about her subscription and maybe her high-level requirements for a plan upgrade, should not be the customer support technician, in which case he will need to escalate to the CSM.  But these also applies to regular support ticket escalations between your L1, L2 an L3 support staff.

In the absence of a clear escalation process, any support operation may turn chaotic, but this is particularly important if you plan to outsource to a remote team.

6. Customer Support Tools

You should also have a good set of tools in place. You don’t want to run customer service on Outlook.

Ideally, you should have a customer service platform such as Salesforce, Desk.com, Zendesk, or any one of many other support platforms in the market.

These are built for customer service, and allow you to document new issues, follow up on them even if more than one agent or support level intervenes, keep track of customer responses, generate reports and metrics, and record frequent questions and solutions for your internal or customer-facing knowledge base, among other benefits.

Support tools can also enable you to provide service through multiple channels in an integrated fashion.  For a consumer IoT offerings, you should probably at least be doing email, and phone, and possibly chat.

Many companies we talk to don’t have those tools in place, so we offer to help them choose and set them up.  The point is that these are mandatory if you hope for your operation to be scalable, especially if you are going to be relying on an outsourcing partner to achieve that scalability.

You’re probably too early to think about outsourcing support if you haven’t considered, or are not yet willing to invest in the right set of tools.

7. Don’t Underinvest

Related to No. 6 above, in our experience, the best outsourcing projects are those where companies focus on user success and on customer service no matter what.

That means that they’re not focused on minimizing the cost of investing in licensing tools. They also don’t shortchange themselves on the size of the team required. They spend plenty of time training their representatives or agents, defining what the ideal customer experience should be, building their customer journey playbook, updating their knowledge base, and tracking the right set of metrics.

The most successful companies have a clear set of goals that they want to accomplish, and they are willing to invest in the tools and processes needed to achieve them.

By goals I mean:

  • What are your CSAT or customer experience goals?
  • What are your productivity goals? How many calls? How many sessions? How many emails do you want per agent per hour?
  • What are your quality goals?

Then there are other operational goals, such as:

  • What are the maximum number of abandoned calls that are acceptable to you?
  • What is your maximum average time to answer?
  • What is the maximum resolution time?

You need really clear goals. And the only way to track them is to invest in the right tools, and in the right team.

The good news is that you don’t have to do it all on day 1.  Support operations tend to start fairly basic and get more sophisticated with time and experience.  Whether you insource or outsource though, you want to make sure that you invest enough in the elements required for a scalable operation.

8. Trust Your Partner

A big no-no in outsourcing relationships is trying to micromanage your partner. It’s counter-productive to tell people what to do at every step and sours the relationship.

You hired an outsourced team for a reason.  What you want to do is train them and then trust them.

You want to trust your partner to actually be your partner, and trust that they have your best interest in mind.

For example in our case, we do workforce management for some of our customers. We do volume projections and are able to predict what their requirements will be for team size, so we can handle those volumes.

trust your partnerWe actually do the scheduling, and real-time monitoring of resource availability to ensure the resource schedule is the best that it can be at any given hour of the day.

The procedure I just described requires a high level of trust from our client.

If a company insists on not letting us make adjustments on the fly, it makes it way harder for us to optimize what we do for them.

Once a partner has proven it’s trustworthiness, you also want to trust them to grow your team, especially when this needs to be done quickly.  Requesting a resume for every candidate is not a great way to make an outsourced operation scalable.

As a segue to my next point, I would also mention trusting your partner (if they have the capabilities) to have access to the right platforms and data to help optimize what they touch, in whatever part of the customer journey that happens to be.  That may mean allowing access to your e-commerce platform to process a warranty, or access to customer data (such as subscription plans or purchase history) for analyzing patterns or producing customer journey analytics.

Micromanagement is not healthy in an outsourced relationship – and probably not in an in-sourced situation either- but mostly, it is not conducive to a scalable operation.

9. Identifying corner cases, frequent issues, trends, outliers, predictions

Lastly, consider how a partner can help you discover corner cases and other insights.

We were in a situation where we were assisting a company who had blind users. This is a classic corner case. What can we do to provide better service to these different customers in different situations?

Your outsourced partner can help you identify:

  • What are these corner cases?
  • What are the most frequent issues that come up?
  • What trends are we seeing in volumes, specific user pockets or hot issues at a given point in time (say after a product release)?
  • Are we seeing any outliers and other things we should tackle?

Data can help you with many of these issues and others. In our case, we’re proselytizing this to our customers: “Let us work with your data and we’ll be more effective in terms of what we can go back to you with”, since typically internal teams don’t have the bandwidth to do data discovery and ask enough questions.

So if you decide to outsource, find a partner that can provide a feedback channel to your team, and ideally has data analytics capabilities to enable it.

Want to know how to get started with IoT support so you can grow your business the right way? Read our complete guide on Growing Your IoT Business Through the Customer Journey Support Model.

How to Determine the Size of your Support Team

the-size-of-your-outsourced-team

When you’re launching a startup, especially if you’re in the exciting IoT space, one of the last things on your mind is support. It’s not as fun as the other stuff: developing breakthrough technologies. Getting press on Mashable. Getting your first 100 users.

But support? That’s boring, right?

Well, support is essential, as we discuss in this post. It means the difference between fast growth and faltering on the line.  It also must be scaled well if your goal is to significantly scale the number of users you have and do it in a way that provides the best customer experience possible.

So ok, you’re thinking about support, and you’re going to organize and staff your support team.

How do you know how to size your team? How do you know what level of support you need at your particular stage of growth? What type of support do you need? Should you have multilevel support?  Does it include other specific touch-points, such as product setup or new user onboarding?  The questions are many.

You may already have a support manager on staff with plenty of experience sizing support teams. She may have already taken the first stab at sizing your team, based on her experience and knowledge, and may just need to verify with a third party.

Or you may have an operations person who is not as experienced. They may need the help of a third party or a blog post like this.

Well if you’re confused as a lot of our initial customers were, read on. We’ve developed this succinct guide to help you with how to size and configure your initial support team.

1. Your Growth Stage

Where you’re at in your growth trajectory determines a lot. You may be at the beta stage, with a hundred or so beta users. The volume is low, so the need for a large team or a highly structured operation isn’t there yet. But you still need to professionalize your support.

Put some tools in place. Get some basic resources to support your first users. At this stage, you need to emphasize learning. Learn and document issues in your ticketing system.  Feed back to engineering.  This is also a great opportunity to build your knowledge base or an FAQ, or your core “how to” tutorial blog posts.

For an early stage company it’s not so much about the size of your team (a hundred users just requires a support person or two), or even volumes or coverage. Focus instead on taking the first steps to create a professional support infrastructure and process: evaluating and setting up some good tools, putting some basic processes in place (for example to watch the incoming queue and assign tickets to individuals), document issues and escalate them as needed, and operate with some basic service level commitments to your customers, e.g. 4-hour e-mail response time, for example.

Just because you’re small, that’s no excuse not to have professional support.

If you are at the stage where your user base is or will be growing fast, then you should really worry about a few important considerations to size your initial team and grow it.  So let’s move on to what those are, shall we?

2. Touch-points in the Customer Journey

We recommend thinking of support from a Customer Success perspective.  That is, accompanying your customer with services throughout the customer journey, from the time they order your product to the time they’re -hopefully- ready to upgrade.  That is what we call Customer Journey Support.

In the context of IoT DIY (Do-It-Yourself) products, this means that you have an opportunity to engage with your customer during certain key touch-points.  Will you be providing order support? Will you be helping customers setup the product and connect with other devices in their network?  Can you help provide an assisted or recorded walkthrough on the product’s features?  Will you help your customer figure out how/when you upgrade?

These questions raise the prospect of either having a multi-functional team, or if you’re a more mature company, possibly having different teams handle different services.

Consider which of these services make sense for your company, and as you go through the rest of this guide, apply the criteria to the various journey support services you want to make available.

For an in-depth guide on how to grow your IoT business through the Customer Journey Support Model, click here.

3. Volume and Coverage

The first thing you should consider to size a team are your current and projected support volumes, as well as the expected productivity of your support staff (we’ll get to the latter a little later).  Some questions to ask yourself and perhaps others in your team are:

  • What are our support volumes today?
  • Are they e-mails, phone calls, chat requests, scheduled on-boarding sessions, or others?
  • What is my average handle time for the various channels, 15, 30 minutes? more?
  • How do we expect these volumes to grow, based on our product launch plans, marketing plans, etc.?
  • Do we expect to automate some of the support through FAQs, online guides, in-product help or chatbots?
  • What do we need our daily/hourly coverage to be? Where are our customers, geographically?

The answer to these questions will allow you to do some fairly simple math to figure out the expected productivity of your agents and project some current and future capacity needs.  You should work with at least 12 months of data.

Regarding coverage, almost everybody neglects it, but it’s a really important consideration. Going back to the example of the company with only a hundred users. Suppose you chose to offer support from 8am to 5pm, five days a week. Fine. You just need two resources. Max.

But what if you’re product is being sold globally, an extended support schedule or even 24/7 support may be a necessity. Your coverage for the same 100 users is completely different. You need at least five resources.

Are things starting to get real now?

4. Your Support Channels and SLAs

volume-and-coverage

Ok, good. So we’ve covered coverage (see what I did there?). But what about channels? We referred to those briefly above with regards to handle times.  But the more basic question is, as you scale customer support, how are you going to deliver it?

If you’re diving straight into phone support, then you need somebody who’s going answer the phones within 15 or 20 seconds of the phone ringing. You also need agents that are trained in handling phone support, including great tone of voice, a great attitude, and other phone service skills.

If you’re starting out with email, you have a little leeway. The expected response times for email may be four hours or more. You’ve got some breathing room. The pressure isn’t too high.

If you’ve decided you’re going to provide social media support – or support via chat – then you pretty much need to respond instantaneously.

Different channels, different resource commitments.  The E-mail channel will allow you to use your resources more flexibly and still meet your response and resolution time commitments.  The more synchronous channels (namely phone, chat, social) will require that you provide for greater redundancy and provide more human resources at any given time.

5. Handle Times and Shrinkage

Going back to handle times, we’re not talking about response times – the time it takes for somebody to actually respond to your support request – we’re talking about the time it takes your reps to handle the support request until the effective resolution of it in your customer’s mind.

If your handle time is 10 minutes, then your support people can handle a lot more cases than if your handle time is an hour.  Obvious, right?

What about shrinkage? Not the grocery store shrinkage, but the productivity kind. When we say “support resources,” we’re talking about human beings. Nobody is “on” 8 hours a day. Maybe they’re productive 85% of the time. Or maybe only 80%. Know your numbers, and size your team accordingly.

If a dedicated support agent has 8 hours in the day and you assume some shrinkage, then again, some simple math will help you figure out how many cases they can handle per day.

6. Scheduling

Consider your scheduling too. You need some overlap. No resources should start and stop at 12 o’clock. Who would be manning the phones during that crucial 5 minute period between shift changes?  What if there’s a longer than 5-minute exchange?  What about issues that need to be handed off for the next agent to continue to handle?

Make sure that as you size your team and schedules, you build overlap into your shifts, which will also affect the amount of human resource you need to consider.

Conclusion – Your Next Steps

My best recommendation is to use a spreadsheet to figure out, based on average handle times, how many issues a resource can handle. And if you know your volumes, you know how many resources to assign.

For example, if a resource can handle 100 issues a month, and you have 1000 issues a month, just divide B by A, this will give you an idea of how many you need.  Go from there to factor in the rest of the considerations we have mentioned.

A good outsourcing partner will help you think through this process not only when you start, but also as your team scales both in terms of size and capabilities (new channels, new services, and new touch points).

Want to know how to get started with IoT support so you can grow your business the right way? Read our complete guide on Growing Your IoT Business Through the Customer Journey Support Model