Virtual Contact Centers for Tough Economic Times


By Monique Bozeman

The end of the year is a good time to catch up with friends and business contacts you haven't spoken to in a while.  I was lucky enough to catch up with Allen Heinen by phone recently to discuss his thoughts on managing big technology projects during financial tsunamis such as what we are experiencing now.  Heinen currently serves as director of business application solutions at healthcare benefits company Healthcare Services Corporation (HCSC).  

Prior to HCSC, he was he was manager of customer contact center systems at United Airlines,  which, in 2002, was in the  midst of filing for bankruptcy and Chapter 11 reorganization. Thus, he's no stranger to plowing  ahead with game-changing technology and business process reengineering projects during times of economic insecurity.  (Side bar: please note how I used the CORRECT date, unlike some online journalists who accidentally re-ran the six-year-old story about United's 2002 bankruptcy in early September of this year, causing United's stock to experience its own little financial roller coaster once the story spread and was mistaken for current news.)  But I digress.

During the airline's Chapter 11 reorganization in 2002, Heinen was part of an original team at United doing due diligence to outsource the appropriate call center work to various theaters around the world for four primary business areas of the airline: Reservations, Mileage Plus, Customer Relations and Sales Support.  At the risk of an oversimplifying summary, the group was tasked with taking the appropriate work out of their domestic call centers and transferring that work that "could go, needed to go and made sense to go" to selected outsourcing partners/providers across Asia and Eastern Europe.

How did the team go about such a daunting undertaking in such financial upheaval? By evaluating existing infrastructures and proprietary processes in an effort to reduce operating costs. And after much planning, United deployed one of largest, if not the largest in the world, speech-enabled customer self-service application and moved to a hybrid or virtual contact center model, linking both in-house and outsourced contact centers comprised of roughly 6,000 agents across the globe. The airline ended up with about 75 percent of its 17 plus centers outsourced, with three major centers remaining in-house in the U.S. 

"Cost savings was a definite driver as we were grappling with cash flow concerns and looking at where we could cut costs, says Heinen.  "But we took a long-term view, and a guiding principal was to ensure the technology, processes and quality of service would be at least as good as we were currently offering."

"The combination of in-house and outsourced centers, and linking them, made and still makes a lot of sense," says Heinen.  "There's a quote I like to use. ‘Work will be done where work is done best,' and that certainly applies to call center work.  So any piece of work that you are looking to outsource, you need to ask yourself the question, ‘Where is this work done best?  And it's not necessarily all cost-driven.  Cost is top of mind of executives thinking about moving things to offshore locations, but is certainly not the only attribute in the decision-making process."

Heinen says when deciding what work would go where and whom to choose as outsourcing partners, they looked at a myriad of factors. "We looked at language capability; the familiarity with U.S. business customs for the processes we were looking to shift to centers outside the U.S, and many other things. We could talk about our selection criteria alone for several hours; it was that important and extensive. "

We made sure any outsourcing partners had tight integration, not just compatibility but tight integration, with our in-house technology platforms and packaged applications. Heinen credits extensive planning enabling them to bring outsourcers online in a phased approach, getting outsourcers online and up and running within six weeks.  Ongoing monitoring and constant and consistent measuring revealed some providers were better than others, allowing them to dynamically shift work to better performing partners.  "The undertaking personally required a leap of faith given the economic uncertainty we were operating in and at times was mentally exhausting, but very rewarding."

Monique Bozeman is a contact center industry expert/analyst, marketing consultant, writer and speaker. She can be reached at