CX Insight Magazine

January 2022

Staying Ahead of the Curve with Remote Site Audits

Measuring, Monitoring, and Managing to High Performance

by Francisco Toledo, Director, Global Vendor Management & Instructional Design

Nowadays, vendor managers are expected to wear many hats. They act as contract experts, ruthless negotiators, spend managers, stakeholder managers, and even operational managers. Of these many roles, the one that has been most disrupted during the pandemic is the role of operations auditor.

In the BPO industry, site audits (also known as site visits) help vendor managers better understand the performance drivers behind a contact center’s qualitative output, process adherence, and/or efficiency expectations. They are also leveraged as a way of building relationships with the team that sits on the frontline.

This is the way it usually works: Vendor managers travel to the location and perform a series of actions that include interviewing operational managers, team leaders and agents, shadowing agents on-the-job, and reviewing evidence of process and reporting implementation — all with the ultimate goal of understanding the “how” behind a specific output.

However, the efficacy of such an audit will really depend on how well vendor managers are able (and willing) to dive in to perform this list of actions. One of the common mistakes that can be made with site audits is being shepherded by the BPO into a conference room with a pre-established agenda that relies heavily on their senior management flying in to impress the group, despite not really having been a part of the site’s operation. The only method of site audits we’ve seen work well are the ones where vendor managers really dive into the operation and, increasingly, choose to execute surprise visits rather than a planned-in-advance trip, though these no longer need be in person. This often means leaving the social dinners and pre-planned free side trips as potential relationship building activities for another time.

Maximizing Returns

The industry has also shown that while the costs tied to a site audits are relatively similar from company to company (ticket airfare, transportation, accommodation, etc.), returns can vary enormously. Ultimately, it’s fair to assume these costs should be tied to some level of return. In a sales-driven environment, this can be realized as higher topline performance by the sales representatives, while in a service environment, this can mean a more efficient operation that either surfaces a cost-reduction opportunity or improves customer-facing key performance indicators (KPIs).

Some organizations are still at the beginning of the curve when it comes to executing site audits that achieve this return, as opposed to just adding costs. That doesn’t mean they can’t get there, but unlocking the full potential of their vendor managers by developing them into root cause analysis experts will require several future iterations and a large amount of investment.

But, what happens when Vendor Managers are no longer allowed to visit sites? Or, more important, what happens when the slightest attempt to visit a site creates a tangible health risk to everyone involved?

Enter the Pandemic

With a lockdown and stay-at-home orders that have, in some cases, lasted more than one-and-a-half years, many vendor management organizations (VMOs) that heavily relied on site audits have been forced to come up with creative ideas to understand more fully what is happening (or not happening) in their outsourced operations.

Those businesses that were behind the curve, however, found themselves in an insurmountable situation. And, not surprisingly, if an organization is already yielding little tangible value from site audits, how can they expect a successful transformation toward an approach that now has become fully remote?

At Groupon, our VMO was in the middle of the curve when the pandemic hit. Our group of vendor managers had recently completed COPC Standards Certification and our partners were in the process of doing the same for their key operational leads. This meant that we were all speaking the same language, and some vendor managers had already traveled to a few of our locations following COPC Standards Certification for root cause analysis and performance improvement. This meant visits without warning and heavy shadowing of frontline staff, among other hands-on initiatives. We were happy about the results and felt increasing the number of visits might be a good thing to do in the near term as a way of accelerating the vendor’s performance improvements.

As soon as we realized these actions would not be an option in the short- and mid-term, the group quickly regrouped and started thinking of ways to continue the success of the audits — only this time, in a remote environment.

Going Remote with “Surprise Visits”

The remote audit implementation wasn’t difficult, since the pandemic accelerated everyone’s access to one or more chat and conference call tools. The VMO started meeting in virtual rooms with frontline agents, and shadowed them through screensharing. The first iterations were bumpy … agent internet connections were not always the best, and managers would often “shadow the shadowing” which, naturally, inhibited agents being able to be forthcoming. In addition, and because we were relying on management to set up the connection initially, the business process outsourcing (BPOs) partners would also cherry pick the best performers for shadowing sessions.

After bringing this up to our partners, they quickly enhanced their workforce internet accessibility beyond our contact management tools requirements. Vendor managers took a more proactive approach on setting up these sessions; they owned agent selection based on data analysis (executed prior to the site audit) and no longer allowed management to decide who and when. This was particularly effective, thanks to the fact that our Workforce Management (WFM) team owned the schedules and, thus, the data around who would be working and when. We immediately noticed that agents were more relaxed, naturally engaged (as opposed to over-engaged) and more eager to share evidence around their struggles. We felt this was a natural consequence of them not feeling panicked due to the anticipation and

“direction” given by their team leads, as well as the fact that the frequency of shadows had increased substantially, turning the activity into something routine and familiar for them.

As these shadow sessions became more and more revealing, we noticed that the actions taken by our partners (as a consequence of the evidence gathered by vendor managers) were not just fixing operational defects, but were also driving up ESAT as the real concerns and challenges of working in a remote environment were being effectively addressed.

However, with a higher inventory of findings every week, vendor managers also faced their first challenge: time management.

The way a physical site audit was prepared in the past involved silent research around our full sets of data. We would then compile a block of potential improvement areas to investigate, limited to what the duration of the on-site audit would allow, as time on-site determined what vendor managers would be able to dig into. The onsite audit would then facilitate a deep dive exercise into those areas — a way of ensuring that our partner was doing things the way we needed them to. Once VMs were back home, they’d allocate one to four weeks to debrief on their findings and coordinate the execution of actions aimed at driving improvements with relevant stakeholders, including the BPO partner. While doing this, they’d clean their calendars, deprioritize non-critical events, and level expectations around their availability with stakeholders that were not involved.

Turning Remote Site Audits Into Actions

With the remote audits/shadowing sessions moving from a schedule of specific points in the year to a scattered approach occurring weekly, vendor managers quickly ended up with a large list of items they felt were critical for the business. This forced vendor managers to take a step back and build a plan around prioritizing items based on their potential impact.

Weekly meetings with stakeholders and leadership were set up to support the new approach. These helped enormously, as the business was exposed to these findings in real time, resulting in natural, collaborative prioritization led by the VMO.

After a few months, the long initial list of findings was cleared, and vendor managers were able to get into a rhythm in which they would be able to tackle some of the new discoveries right away (sometimes even on the same day) and leave room for the next priority. In the same way, time invested in preparing these shadowing sessions dropped from weeks to one or two days, and sessions started happening as part of their daily tasks. We were no longer compiling lists of reasons why things were not happening, but instead, a list of issues we had not even imagined were there. We were exploring uncharted territory.

The overarching feeling in our current group of vendor managers is that they’re not just equipped to see through our partners’ data and pinpoint potential improvement opportunities, they are also ready to follow those hunches and see them through with a lean approach that either 1) quickly reveals areas of work or 2) leaves enough space to move on and focus on the next lead.

I like to think that, as Aristotle said, “We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act, but a habit.” In that sense, the biggest learning our VMO unlocked from facing a challenge like COVID-19 was to never lose focus on what matters the most: Our partners’ ability to deliver. By focusing heavily on this one thing, we allowed ourselves to get creative and come up with ideas to keep the operations running. This is true for many other organizations that were already yielding positive results from their visits when the pandemic first struck. For them, relationships between vendor managers and a location’s leadership were heavily based on performance rather than client satisfaction. This took direct and well-established communication between the VMO and those who were on-site managing and leading the frontline staff.

Keeping these efforts within the operations as a regular habit (versus being a part of a one-time transformative initiative) is probably the best way to empower the team to be able to quickly pivot and adapt in the face of an unforeseen challenge, especially one as big as a worldwide pandemic.


Francisco Toledo
Director, Global Vendor Management & Instructional Design


About the Author:

Francisco is the Director of Global Vendor Management and Instructional Design for Groupon, in Chicago, U.S. He has dedicated the past 10+ years to driving Customer and Merchant experience through Operational Excellence and Content Marketing across Latin America, Europe, and North America with multiple global assignments. He earned an Executive MBA from IE Business School in Madrid, Spain, and is a certified CX Implementation Leader from COPC®.


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