It seems so long ago now that Lockdown Life has faded into some barely-remembered bad dream, but the global changes it triggered are still top of mind, especially the ongoing dialogue/debate about the relative merits of work-at-home versus work-in-office.
In our world of outsourced customer care solutions, one of the big challenges we continue to wrestle with on the sales side of things is the significant change in the contact center RFP process. Where once, there would have been most likely one, if not two, in-person sessions before a client and new partner inked a deal, these days, organizations are leaning more and more on virtual presentations and leaving in-person meetings until the absolute end of the process or foregoing them altogether.
Pre-pandemic, the RFP journey always included at least one of these in-person elements:
Since 2020, though, the process looks more like one of these scenarios:
Let’s explore when and how it makes good business sense to connect with your prospective partners at each stage of the RFP process.
Best Format: Virtual. Vendor kick-off meetings are a procurement best practice in our world. In the olden days (pre-2020,) vendor meetings frequently involved calling into a conference line. Today, the ease of meeting virtually in a setting where the facilitator can see raised hands, and read body language, is a step forward.
Best Timing: After your bidders have submitted their questions and received your answers.
Best Use of Time: Clear up any confusion that became apparent through the question/answer process. Establish the Rules of Engagement: parameters around communication, expectation on timelines and what slippage/remediation might look like. Handle any follow-up questions from bidders who have seen the answers to their questions. In the RFP process, it is very typical that everyone can benefit from clarity on definitions and standards – and conversation with all hands often leads to clarity.
Pro Tips: Remember, the folks on the call are in competition with each other. Each bid team will have a strategy in place around what, if any, questions they want to ask. They will be strategic about what information they reveal or hold back in the session, including who they send to be on the call. Some bidders may choose just to “lurk” on the call while others may want to dominate the session. Understand that none of it has anything to do with you or your team – it’s just strategy relative to the competition.
Best Format: Virtual. Get everyone on camera, on your side and theirs. Be sure to set an agenda and share that with everyone who plans to be on the call. Your bidders need to know what you want them to address in the pitch, so set expectations ahead of time.
Best Timing: After you’ve assessed the initial pool of bidders for the basics—do they meet minimum expectations, are they free of any apparent deal-breakers, and are they in your price range? With these factors out of the way, you can focus on the meat of their solution.
Best Use of Time: Get your technology troubleshooting out of the way before the meeting starts – or build in five minutes at the front of the agenda for things to go wrong. Nothing is worse than spending the first 10 minutes troubleshooting issues with access, video, sound, screensharing, or chat – for the bidder, their clock is ticking and lost time can impact their ability to compete at their best.
Pro Tips: Act like this is an in-person meeting. Expect that everyone stays focused and engaged. Since 2020, we’ve seen it all—the good, the bad, and the ugly: buyers yawning and falling asleep, stakeholders answering their phones while on video, mute button issues, and more. The commonplace rules of respect and participation still hold, even when it’s virtual.
Best Format: In-person, your place or theirs. Yes, it’s more time-consuming and potentially more costly. Yes, there’ll be travel and calendars to coordinate. But this the very best way to evaluate your top bidders for long-term strategic partnership. This is your opportunity to assess cultural compatibility—something that’s next to impossible to do virtually (though we’ve certainly tried to replicate it during the height of the pandemic).
You want to be able to see your vendor’s offices, meet their entire leadership team, chat with frontline agents and coaches, and get a sense of the team dynamic and overall company culture. Does it align with your own? Could you see yourself working there?
Best Timing: Once you’ve gotten your shortlist down to three potential outsourced partners, take the time to invite them to your office and let them pitch in person – or hit the road to see theirs. They may appear to measure up on paper and through a screen, but the differentiators will really present themselves through face-to-face interaction.
Best Use of Time: If the proposed contact center solution includes any ratio of agents working on-site, then be sure to get in the midst of the hustle and bustle, y-cord with agents on the production floor, and evaluate the little details that add up, like workstation setups, interior design choices, and visible employee engagement tactics.
Pro Tips: Make sure everyone on your buying team understands why in-person matters. From a purely selfish perspective as a sales exec: pitching via Zoom or Teams is tough. It’s tough to engage your audience and keep them engaged. Natural dialogue is harder. Side conversations happen (the curse or blessing of the mute button). Technology almost always causes at least a minor problem or delay. And, for the most part, procurement professionals are giving bidders 60-90 minutes to pitch online where they would normally have given bidders at least two hours to pitch in-person.
Assuming you don’t want to go through the same old RFP process every couple of years, in-person vendor pitch sessions provide the needed time and interaction to build trust, get to know each other, and more intimately understand each other’s business model, brand, and culture. The best contact center partnerships are mutually beneficial, a catalyst for ongoing quality improvement (on both sides), seamless cultural alignment, and long-term value optimization.
The benefits of virtual vendor short-listing are obvious. Running your procurement process with a virtual approach saves you on travel expenses or the cost of hosting. It’s also much easier to schedule. When you’re already in a crunch to get through the RFP process and make a final decision, scheduling a Zoom call is exponentially faster than arranging travel and meetings. This is especially true if your team of stakeholders is large and/or tied up in other functions. Simply put, it’s convenient and cost-effective.
Virtual does also give you a snapshot of how a vendor performs at a distance. After all, when you’re outsourcing your contact center, your partner’s relationship with your customers will be virtual too—whether it’s through the phone, live chat, email, social, etc. With this in mind, it can be helpful to assess how organized, prepared, and engaged a vendor is in a virtual setting.
Additionally, if your organization is itself 100% remote with stakeholders in your process dispersed across diverse regions, it seems like a no-brainer that the process should be fully remote. After all, getting together on-site to welcome your bidders to your HQ might be just as challenging as travelling to meet bidders on site at their location.
The important element of the virtual-first approach to bear in mind is this: things have indeed changed. Many (maybe most?) bidders are probably putting forward a bid that is either 100% work-at-home or a hybrid model. Prior to the pandemic, when you made a site visit to your short-listed bidder’s location, you would get to see all of the action firsthand. Today, though, many, if not most, contact centers have more employees working at home than in an office, so the culture assessment may not be on par with the experience pre-2020.
We are all in the same boat, multi-tasking today is a way of life and even the most committed of us rarely listen to a virtual presentation with 100% of our attention anymore. Sidebar chats are the norm, and for some folks, staying dialed in for more than an hour is almost impossible without taking a phone call while they mute themselves in the meeting, or having a text convo with their partner trying to figure out what to pick up for supper later. But that’s kind of our point. In-person gives everyone the opportunity to be the best version of themselves and to dedicate their time and attention to a single purpose in a way that is almost impossible via Zoom or Teams.
The RFP and procurement processes have evolved. But the basics of human interaction have not. Virtual meetings have their place in the process, but if you’re not making a final outsourcing decision based on in-person meetings, you’re likely looking at a repeated process for a new vendor within just a few short years. On-site pitching and negotiations are critical to establishing long-term strategic partnership with your customer care outsourcer.