As your brand grows, maintaining great customer service is challenging. At a certain point, you can’t obsess over every customer’s experience yourself — even small businesses have to delegate. But you can’t trust just anyone: CX is far too important for your brand’s reputation and bottom line.
Outsourcing customer service is one way to scale up. But that might conjure an image of underpaid, contracted agents alienating your customer base with poor service. These horror stories should make you very nervous: 55% of customers won’t return to your brand after a bad experience, so you should be picky about who can access your customers.
But outsourcing customer service can work — with a particular approach. The trick is an in-house/outsourced hybrid model. One that leverages outsourced knowledge and human power without losing sight of your brand’s unique business needs, voice, and processes.
That’s the model we use at HelpFlow, where we’ve hired and managed customer service teams as a Gorgias Premier Partner for over 100 brands for nearly a decade. Clients who outsource support to our services have reached chat response times of 10s, email response times of < 4 hours, and CSAT scores of 90+.
Drawing from first-hand experience, I’ll share common landmines brands typically encounter with outsourcing customer support and how to choose an outsourcing solution to help your brand grow. Last, I’ll tell you what customer service outsourcing companies — like the one I run — need from you to be successful.
Customer service outsourcing involves hiring external agents to help you handle customer service tickets.
While outsourced call center service used to be the primary way to get help with customer support, most modern services are omnichannel. That means they can help you keep up with customer interactions on email, live chat support, social media, SMS, WhatsApp, and phone calls.
Outsourced agents can be individual agents you hire directly (through a freelancing service like Fiverr) or employees of customer service outsourcing companies. These customer service outsourcing companies are business process outsourcing (or BPO).
Let’s dive more into these differences (and why they matter):
There are three main models of outsourced customer support, each with a unique way of supporting your team. You’ll still find a wide range of pricing and quality within each model. But before looking for solutions, you’ll want to decide which general model would work best for your team.
Customer service agencies are businesses that help you recruit, hire, train, and manage agents.
Great agencies have tried-and-tested processes for hiring and training, close-knit teams of high-performing agents, and a public roster of past clients to help you make an informed choice when evaluating solutions.
However, that’s not always the case. Some agencies — especially the ones with too-good-to-be-true pricing — hire the cheapest agents available, don’t provide training, and will degrade the quality of your support. As with all things, you get what you pay for.
Agencies are the best solution for brands that want an outsourcing solution that’s flexible, long-term, and quick to ramp up.
You can also hire external customer service agents individually as contractors.
Like an agency, this saves costs compared to hiring a full-time employee. And compared to an agency, hiring individual agents gives you more direct control over the quality of service since you manage the hiring process yourself.
However, you’ll have to hire, train, and manage the agent(s) yourself. Plus, guaranteeing 24/7 coverage and scaling up and down throughout the year will be more challenging than with an agency.
Individual agents are the best solution for small businesses that only need one or two more part-time customer support agents and are willing to invest significant time in hiring and training those agents.
In recent years, there has been an influx of pay-per-ticket services for customer service. These providers offer a scalable plan, where you only pay for the number of tickets in your inbox instead of contracting agents for a set number of hours.
While the pay-per-ticket model can sound attractive, hidden feed and steep minimums make these contact centers less cost-effective than advertised.
Generally, it’s best to hire contract agents directly or use a higher-quality agency.
Customer service outsourcing isn’t the right customer care solution for every company. Sometimes, hiring full-time agents or using customer service automation to stretch your current team’s time further is the right choice.
Here’s a snapshot of the pros and cons of outsourcing:
The most significant benefit of customer service outsourcing is that it provides your company with additional help. Some other benefits of bringing on an external customer service provide include:
Before getting into how to succeed with customer support outsourcing, let’s dig deeper into the typical traps that cause outsourcing to fail.
When hiring directly, brand operators get enamored with the cost savings of outsourcing and try to put together a cheap solution that optimizes cost — but not quality.
For example, if a service can get a customer service agent in the Philippines for $8/hour and takes that great deal regardless of the applicant’s quality or experience, they’re missing the point. Hire a more senior-level Filipino person for $9/hour, and they’ll run circles around brands that hire based solely on price.
Startups in the space pitch a “just pay for each ticket we handle” model, which is a variation of the cheap issue above. Per ticket sounds nice until you realize it means the agents handle 10-20+ brands with little to no training and (sometimes) churning ticket volume to drive up the cost.
$/ticket models become a way more expensive solution than managing CS in-house.
Often, customer service managers don’t manage the external team closely enough — think integration into the team, coaching, etc. This leads to agents operating a bit like customer service robots and eventually leads to turnover.
Nearly all the situations where “outsourcing didn’t work” come down to one of these — or a combination.
A hybrid structure for your customer service operation offers the best of both worlds: you maintain quality by keeping your in-house closely aligned, and scale impact with the humanpower of an outsourcing partner.
One note: Before you get started, your in-house Customer Service Manager builds an initial effective customer service process. While an excellent outsourcing agency should help you improve your process, an outsourced partner can’t build a customer support program from scratch. Always start in-house, then bring on outsourced help to scale.
Once that’s done, a customer service outsourcing partner offers additional agents and helps optimize your operation. They can handle tickets, suggest process improvements, implement more robust reporting, and assist with special projects like capacity planning and forecasting.
The key to this process is hiring agents who work exclusively with your brand (either directly or through an agency) and working closely with them. That’s the only way to balance quantity, scale, and flexibility.
We use this model at HelpFlow with a wide range of brands. Here’s what Sam Menleshon at Sivana Spirit said about the process:
“I have hired a lot of agencies and service providers over the past ten years. Some great, some decent, and a lot terrible. Helpflow has been the best experience I have ever had with an outside service provider. Their team analyzed our customer communication, streamlined it, and built processes. After 2-4 weeks of training, three agents went live. It was like having in-house employees appear out of thin air.”
— Sam Menleshon, Owner, Sivana Spirit
One of our clients — an ecommerce brand in the apparel industry — came to us after a growth boom. They had a 4-day response time and 9-day resolution time, a serious threat to any brand’s customer retention.
While they ended as a success story (we helped reduce response time to 6 hours and resolution time to 30 hours), they should have sought support earlier.
Here are three key metrics indicating when your customer support team may need extra help.
If your first response time and average handle time start to increase, it could be a sign that your agents are hitting their capacity with the ticket volume they can handle.
These metrics can be helpful to benchmark, but you should track your own metrics over time and watch for changes in the wrong direction.
If resolution time is consistent, but customer satisfaction is down, it could be a sign that your agents are not giving each ticket the same amount of thought and attention, potentially from overwork.
Lastly, if your response times and customer satisfaction are consistent, but some agents handle tons more tickets per day than others, take note. It could be a sign that specific agents are handling the excess volume that will eventually become difficult for the team.
Note: Be sure to filter out social media comment-related tickets if you are routing them all into the same helpdesk. Combining these with normal tickets can massively skew your insights since they usually require a like or simple response.
There are a lot of different factors that make outsourcing work (or not), some of which could be entire posts. For example, hiring agents, setting up helpdesk workflow, etc. But this post will provide a mid-level guide to each step so you can see the big picture and build an effective outsourced structure.
It’s much easier to scale up the human side of customer service if your infrastructure, workflow, and management routine are dialed in. It doesn’t need to be perfect, but here are the main areas to solidify with your in-house team before outsourcing.
Set up your helpdesk to properly intake and route inbound calls and tickets. For example, in Gorgias, you can set up specific views to organize certain types of tickets in real-time.
This allows your team to divide and conquer based on ticket type and prioritize certain types of tickets to drive more revenue (or save customer risk situations).
You should have basic KPI tracking in place before outsourcing. For example, the most important customer service metrics are first response time, resolution time, customer satisfaction, and volume of tickets per agent.
These should be tracked by default with most helpdesks, but make sure the data is clean as soon as possible.
Then, establish a weekly cadence to review these, (re)set targets for each one, and notice when the numbers start to get out of whack.
A robust knowledge base and templates may not be needed for your initial team, but they’re the best method of proactive quality assurance for external support reps. Gorgias has Macros, or dynamic templates, so that you can build a library of on-brand and in-policy responses.
At HelpFlow, we’ve offered outsourced support for nearly a decade. We’ve seen competitors come and go because agencies are very easy to start but difficult to sustain long-term. They can handle a few clients easily but start cutting corners once they grow past about 15.
Here are the key ways to dodge many agencies that can’t back up what they’re selling.
Many agencies hire any agent they can find at the cheapest rates possible to juice their margins. To make sure you’re getting A Player agents, ask the following:
For context, we created a post with Gorgias on hiring customer service agents. It goes deep into the recruitment and screening process. Most agencies you encounter won’t have this intense of a process refined over a decade. But it’s a good example of how methodical a hiring process should be.
It’s common for customer service agencies to have internal management issues that lead to poor retention of agents, with 20-30% or more of front-line agents turning over each year.
This can create a tough situation for your brand, as you’ll constantly be training new agents instead of reaping the rewards of long-term outsourcing services.
Great agencies regularly poach the best agents from competitors that mistreat their agents with low pay, poor benefits, and long hours. If you choose a cheap agency, any high-quality agents on your account may get snatched by an agency that treats them better.
It’s common to have customer service teams operate in The Philippines or other countries overseas. However, if most middle and senior-level management is not in the same country as the support reps, it can lead to a major disconnect and poor quality.
If you’re talking to a Sales Executive in California who brings in a Team Leader from New Jersey who talks about their great team in The Philippines (that you haven’t met), that’s a major red flag.
Ask how often the team meets in person for get-togethers. Remote support teams are great, but the culture is usually pretty weak if they’re not getting together in person.
At HelpFlow, our entire team is in the Philippines. It includes the Client Success Manager, Sales, and all other team members. This enables us to hire middle to senior-level people for all roles while keeping costs to our clients low even as we scale.
Competitors with US-based management or sales experience communication and management breakdown as the company grows. This leads to clients paying more than they should for cheaper and less experienced agents, which shows up as agent and client retention problems.
The “sales process” you go through with the right agency should feel like a powerful customer service strategy consultation. For example, the agency should dig into your helpdesk, ask questions about processes, and analyze your current customer experience to suggest solutions.
For instance, they could look at your tagging to suggest auto-tags that would make your helpdesk more organized.
Or, if your team already uses Gorgias, the agency should suggest ways to improve your team’s speed and create a great customer experience with self-service.
If the agency doesn’t drive the sales process and make you feel like they’re experts who have done this exact dance many times over, that’s another red flag.
Once you’ve found an excellent customer support service to work with, the real work begins. On both ends! The training and onboarding process is the most critical part of the process and a place where things either fall off the rails or start to accelerate and make you realize the power of the team you just hired.
There are a few key things that should happen during onboarding:
The sales team you worked with should have a smooth handoff process with the account management team.
The agency should ask about the project's specifics, timelines, quirks of your tools, and details of who’s involved. This process should give the account management team everything they need to know before you start working with agents.
The agency should have a robust intake process to access your systems and gather many details about your customer service process (but efficiently!). On top of the kick-off call, expect a well-designed questionnaire, an analysis of your tickets, and then a call to discuss their findings.
The agency should be able to create and drive through a robust training process for their agents, regardless of your current training process.
Even if you have little to no documentation, the agency should be able to use the accesses provided and intake information to create a robust knowledge base for the agents to use.
Once training is complete and agents are up and running, it’s crucial to maintain a management cadence of the team. This should include monitoring the key metrics we shared above to gauge the quality and capacity of the operation.
In addition, set up recurring working meetings where your team and the agency discuss specific customer service challenges and initiatives that can improve the process.
Many brands operate daily without intentionally flagging and pursuing longer-term opportunities within teams (especially outsourced teams).
But ongoing management and hybrid structure help your agency up-level your team even further — like expanding your multichannel operation, exploring outbound calls and messages, and more.
Looking for a customer service outsourcing provider that can meet your needs? Start with these recommendations as you explore your options:
Scaling past your initial core team is challenging, and outsourcing can be scary. If you get it wrong, it can bring down the brand you built by creating an army of angry customers in the market.
But if you get outsourcing right, you can continue to scale up revenue while keeping customer service great — and improving it significantly over time.
HelpFlow is a Gorgias Premier Partner with experience setting up customer service teams for 100+ brands over nearly a decade. At the start of any project, we get deep in the weeds with the brand’s team to audit the customer service process. We share a roadmap that calls out issues and how to resolve them, along with initiatives to improve the customer service operation.
You can get a lot of value by going through this process with us, and we’d be happy to do it with any member of the Gorgias community. We include a proposal to work together, but even if you don’t work with us, you’ll get a ton of ideas you can implement with your team.