Smooth operators

The telemarketing industry seems to be running fast just to stand still. The medium is growing at such a speed that, according to The Henley Centre, there will be a fivefold increase in call volume by the end of the decade. Can the industry cope with such loads, and what sort of equipment and recruitment programmes will be needed to meet the demand?

John Orsmond, chairman of Advertising Research Marketing (ARM), an independent consultant to the sector, is concerned that the speed of growth will overtake capacity.

“Because coverage is painting a ‘boom’ picture of the telemarketing sector, and direct marketing activity levels in theUK are generally rising, more client organisations are being encouraged to try telecoms as part of their direct marketing mix,” he says.

Industry reports estimate there has been up to a 58 per cent increase year-on-year in the medium’s use during the first quarter of 1995. But recruitment and training costs and capacity in the telebureau sector are not accelerating at remotely the same rate. “With a few exceptions, the problems of over-promising and under-delivering are now becoming severe,” adds Orsmond.

So are bureaux actually claiming to offer more than they can deliver? “It is a key issue that we have to address,” admits Glenn Hurley, acting chairman of the Direct Marketing Association Telephone Council, who is also marketing director of the bureau Decisions.

“The biggest problem is to do with communication and education. As an industry, we must ensure clients and advertising agencies understand the level of resources they’re likely to need for projects. The DMA is mak ing a big effort to address the problem and has just held a one-day seminar dedicated to the subject.”

Such lack of understanding by the client can severely hamper an entire project. It can start with insufficiently thorough briefs, which delay advertising schedules, which in turn mean inadequate staffing levels and poor anticipation of call volumes.

Ros Williams, operations director of bureau Readycall, gives an example: “We had a seed catalogue client which estimated a low response rate to a direct response television campaign for catalogues, but we were flooded with calls and it took a lot of speedy re-organisation and effort by us to get extra staff – calls were lost at the beginning of the campaign.

“We have learned from such experiences and now feel able to sit down with the client and offer our advice on what sort of volume we would expect a particular campaign to generate. We also insist on having a reasonable lead time to prepare for a campaign. Operators have to be properly trained and software written – bureaux must be firm about timescales because it

does nobody any favours to rush a job.”

There will always be occasions when campaigns generate a larger volume of calls than most agencies can handle. This is becoming more common with the growth in DRTV advertising, which can produce huge numbers of calls at peak times.

Under these circumstances, a bureau must look first to its own capacity. Can it take on new work without affecting the level of service existing clients receive? Where volumes are particularly high, this may mean working with other bureaux as an overflow. The client would have to agree to the proposed overflow arrangement whereby, ideally, the principal bureau would subcontract elements of the work, with outsourced bureaux reporting back to it rather than the client.

It is at the planning stage of a project that bureau staff must be at their most creative. The nature of the work means they are always dealing with unknown quantities – despite ever-expanding experience, it is still tricky to predict call volumes and plan resources.

“It’s difficult to compare one campaign with another,” says Gary Coville, managing consultant at telemarketing consultancy Co-Cam. “If, for example, a bureau has just handled a project for Ford, how is that going to give any indication of response volumes for, say, Microsoft?

Even in cases where the two companies are in the same business and the campaigns are similar, results can vary enormously. One company may have a more effective ad or its brand name might be better known.”

Coville suggests that a way round this problem is to build the strategy one step at a time. “If they start with a small-scale operation – advertising in local press – and then build up through regional press and TV, before using national press and TV campaigns, it is much easier to gauge response levels and meet them with resources.”

Technology can lend a big helping hand to overworked bureaux, and can even offer an alternative to outsourcing work. But is the industry exploiting such opportunities? Mark Osman, director of telemarketing training specialists and consultancy, CalCom, thinks not.

“No single bureau can deliver enough live operators for some of the big DRTV campaigns and the usual solution has been to overflow to another agency. One option, however, is to use automated voice systems, which can be interactive. There have been cases where this has succeeded and others where it’s failed. What’s needed is more research to establish the effectiveness of this method,” he says.

Such systems work in a variety of ways. They might ask the caller to leave a message so that a live operator can phone them back. This can save the client money, since the freephone lines customers call in on are more expensive to operate than return calls. But if the enquirer is simply after, say, a brochure, a name and address can be left without the need for a live operator. Alternatively, the automated system can be used to give out information in a more interactive form.

Peter Caplan, managing director of automated voice systems provider Telecom Express, explains: “A good example is the National Lottery claims line. Seventy per cent of callers simply want to check the winning numbers and the automated service will provide this. Most of the remaining 30 per cent want to know how to make a claim and again this can be done through the automated system. Finally, a very small percentage want to register a larger win or need a live operator to answer a query. Using the interactive system they can do so.”

Automated voice systems are part of the increasingly hi-tech approach used by bureaux. They rely heavily on sophisticated software and help operators to give a fast and efficient service – on-screen information can be called up instantly.

Operations director of bureau The Merchants Group Andy Whiteman says: “A wait of a few seconds represents a long time in telemarketing – it is annoying to the caller and is a waste of resources. If one of our operators cannot handle a query, our software has been designed to put the caller through to the right person very quickly. A display is presented to whoever handles the call, who can then see what the query is so that callers are not irritated by having to repeat themselves.”

But no amount of smart software can give the job real polish – that’s always down to the live operator. The growing use of helplines and carelines has enabled companies to forge direct relationships with consumers. Operators are always expected to be friendly and efficient in handling calls, but in addition, must understand both the product and company they are representing. The idea is to give the customer the impression that the call-handler works for the client company, and this is where clients have to be particularly careful when selecting a bureau.

“There might be operators juggling calls for perhaps 15 different clients,” says CalCom’s Osman. “It is very difficult for them to be able to switch from representing one company to another, however well-trained they are.”

Agencies are addressing this problem by restricting the number of clients each operator deals with and stepping up training and recruitment.

SSL, the telemarketing operation owned by the Post Office has a rigorous recruitment procedure in which prospective employees must first apply by telephone.

“If they do not come up to scratch when making this initial call, they will not be considered,” says marketing manager of client services Peter Champion. “A bureau is only as good as its worst operator. Our approach is to form a partnership with clients and we encourage them to come in and take an active role in the training of operators.”

With the telemarketing sector experiencing phenomenal growth, technological advancement is a key issue that needs to be addressed. But, as Simon Rines reports, technical wizardry is no substitute for a fully trained workforce

Premium lines to the music lovers

The introduction of freephone and lo-call numbers has transformed the telemarketing industry. Customers have readily embraced the concept of low-cost and free calls and this has led to the explosion in telemarketing. But at the opposite end of the tariff range there is a service which is enjoying equal success.

BT’s 0897 call service was launched just over a year ago with a basic charge of 1.50 a minute. It targets organisations selling information for which customers are prepared to pay the premium. One successful user is sheet music publisher Music Sales.

The company wanted to create an easy-to-use system that could deliver a song quickly at a cost that would make it an attractive alternative to a shopping trip.

The idea of using fax machines as the delivery medium was decided upon. BT research showed 2.5 million faxes were used in the UK – a fifth of which were in people’s homes. Music Sales identified this as a new opportunity to reach customers.

“Fax technology is not just a fad,” says Music Sales executive Chris Butler. “It represents a concrete lifestyle change and provides a way of getting information that is here to stay.”

The company wanted a system that would win over consumers, automate the financial transaction and deliver the product. The solution, Music By Fax, was unveiled in March last year, the same day that BT launched its 0897 service.

Potential customers were sent catalogues from which they could pick the code number of any music sheet from the 1,000 on offer.

By simply dialling the main number, an automated system prompts the caller to key in the code representing their choice on the touchtone pad. Song files are then retrieved from memory and transmitted straight to the customer’s fax.

Music Sales receives 97p of the 1.50 a minute tariff. The caller clocks up a per-second charge calculated from the moment of connection to the completion of the fax transmission, which is simply added to the quarterly phone bill. An average-length song, such as Mull of Kintyre, costs the caller around 4.50 – a competitive price for sheet music, according to Music Sales.

By the end of this year Music Sales expects the number of choices to have increased to 2,000. The catalogue is updated weekly, allowing the company to respond to demand for the latest hits or revivals.

Butler says: “Music By Fax is simply another way of distributing our printed music – one that is suited to a world where speed and convenience are paramount. Fifty years ago, sheet music was at the heart of our industry and this system returns printed product to the forefront of the market.

“It has taken us two years to put this service together and we have invested about 100,000 in the project. It is a venture which we feel will stimulate sheet music sales, but we also see it becoming standard for archiving, retrieving and distributing documents.”

A new guide book on customer care and its impact on loyalty and long-term customer relationships, edited by Professor Merlin Stone and co-sponsored by Marketing Week, is published this week by Merit Direct. A Guide to Customer Care is available free to those who call 0800 444 201.

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