Over the years, we’ve written many articles singing the praises of on-site visits with potential customer care outsourcers. We firmly believe that shaking hands with leadership and frontline agents, seeing capabilities in action, and experiencing the corporate culture first-hand are the intangible, immeasurable, yet essential final steps in evaluating and comparing potential partners. Do I like these people, can I work with them?

But COVID-19 turned that possibility on its head. We’re barely getting within six feet of our family members, let alone shaking hands with strangers. Many of us are rethinking the idea of non-essential travel. And most outsourced customer care companies are leveraging wide-spread work-from-home models with facilities operating at a fraction of their previous capacity.

In this new world, how will you go about getting your hands on the intangible pieces of the evaluation process? How do you step out of the pages of the RFP and really see customer care programs in action?

“Can You See Yourself Working Here?”

That’s one of the key questions to ask when you walk in the door to a potential outsourcer. It’s a subjective question, but the answer reveals a lot about the cultural alignment between your company and your partner. When that door is temporarily shut, we need to find other ways to assess cultural fit.

The right outsourcer gets it. And ideally they’ll already have some existing elements in place as they build a virtual experience. Perhaps they have a video tour of their offices – yes, to some extent it’s curated, perhaps with production lighting and fewer people milling around, but it’s a glance nonetheless at the physical workspace that, one day, your outsourced team will be operating within. Is it well-lit with natural lighting and open office space? Does it feel like somewhere you’d be comfortable working every day if you were an agent?

What’s the Employee Experience Really Like?

A video tour gives you at least a virtual window into the physical space, but what about the people?

Ask to set up video chats with a group of agents instead of an in-person roundtable. If the potential partner gets anxious and insists on having a manager present, well, that tells you something. If you’re given a half-hour to talk freely with a group of agents, well, that tells you something too. That’s a partner that trusts their people, that’s confident in their employee experience, that is committed to transparency with their clients.

If video roundtables are out of the question, and let’s face it coordinating agent roundtables while supporting client service levels is tough enough in the real world, it may be legitimately challenging to coordinate remotely. So, your next best option is to ask for employee video testimonials. Yes, these will be curated and edited but the collective, cohesive subtext of these videos should tell you something. Do the agents seem fully engaged? Do the agents feel the company is concerned with their health and safety? Is diversity a priority? Are employees relaxed and at ease? Are they speaking to things that are a priority for you like relationship with brand and with their specific clients? Does the group include both tenured and newer employees? Are they coached or are they speaking from the heart (#trustissues)? If these videos are current – i.e. created during the shelter-at-home period – it may be possible to get a sense of how these employees have been taken care of by the organization.

Can You See Yourself Working with the Leadership Team?

Site visits in person are always jam-packed agendas. We want to roll up our sleeves together with leaders from relevant functional areas (from IT to Workforce to Operations to Finance to HR ) so our clients get to know and understand how we will work together across the board – this is where a deep cultural alignment check comes from. And we always encourage potential clients to leave enough time in the site visit schedule to share a meal together outside of the office setting. How do the leaders in your potential partner’s organization interact with each other? Is there trust and transparency on their own team? Would you want to work with them as a group? In the virtual setting, creating this kind of dynamic is obviously a challenge. It’s going to take careful collaboration with the leaders of your potential partner – plenty of video-based conversations, both formal and informal, are essential. Go beyond the sales team – make sure you’ve got access to the senior leadership team. Set up group sessions and schedule small group sessions with a mix of functional area leaders as well as one-on-ones with the VP and Project Manager who will likely be your executive sponsor and your daily point of contact.

What Are They Clients Saying About Them?

Reference checks are a key part of any outsourced customer care selection process. In today’s world, you’re going to get an even clearer picture of how your prospective partner supports their clients. After all, crisis reveals character – and the corporate character of every outsourcer on earth has been tested in the past six months. When you ask for references, consider talking to their newest and their longest-standing clients. They will have different but equally valuable perspectives of what the prospective partner brings to the table. Our advice is that you set aside at least an hour for your reference conversations. Allow yourself time to talk about both the pre-COVID steady state of the relationship and the pivot during the peak of the pandemic as well as the new normal. There’s a lot of ground to cover especially since we don’t know what the next two years will bring.

In all transparency, we know that a “behind the scenes” look at a potential outsourced partner isn’t going to be quite as complete as it would if you could jet over to the offices and walk through the halls. Adjusting expectations and getting creative is the only way forward at this time. Of course, the other value of site visits is being able to step out of the pages of the RFP and really see customer care programs in action. The people component is essential, but you also need the opportunity to assess innovation, technical complexities, workforce management processes, and other things you may not have even thought to ask. Do your prep work, get input from your finance team, your marketing team, your tech team – what would they want to know if they were on a site visit?

Finally, if you’re choosing to pump the brakes on your outsourcing plan, ask your prospective partner if they have experience bringing new clients on during the pandemic? How did it go? What lessons were learned? In addition, a virtual site visit might actually be an efficient step to add sooner into your process. It will help you narrow down your list of vendors in ways that the RFP alone couldn’t do – and once the doors do open up again, a real in-person visit with the finalists will help you make a confident decision.