Telemarketing bureaux could do wonders if they were called in sooner – but they’ll have to prove it.

By Paul Gander

Spend on direct response advertising leapt 15 per cent between 1994 and 1995, according to the Direct Marketing Association, while the spend in DRTV rose by a massive 68 per cent in the same period. And if the UK follows the pattern set by the US, further growth can be expected.

Such remarkable expansion has meant that some of the small to medium-sized bureaux have found themselves grappling with business volume growth – in DRTV particularly – of up to 500 per cent during those two years.

But as a result, many clients and media buyers are relatively inexperienced about how best to use the telebureaux’ skills, even though it is the bureau that gains most in the accumulated wisdom from each campaign.

Those managing the telemarketing operation are often the last to be consulted about a campaign and frequently the last to know about it. All too often, say the bureaux, consultation happens far too late to maximise the effectiveness of a campaign.

“People shouldn’t underestimate the importance of the telemarketing agency. In fact it’s the front door to the client. Poorly trained operators come across very quickly,” says Stewart Baird, operations manager at Readycall. He says callers are unlikely to make any distinction between the number they are calling and the client whose advertising they are responding to, and adequate preparation time benefits the client as much as the bureau.

Telebureaux say many of the advertising agencies they work with have themselves developed expertise in this area.

Many have set up departments or even separate companies with a far clearer understanding of audience response and the needs of the telebureaux.

But Readycall says many other media buyers have little idea about what they are buying in this respect and cannot advise the client or accurately predict response for a given spot.

Baird sees the relationships that lead to a successful campaign as a circle linking the client, media owner, advertising agency and the telebureau. “The advertising agency should control and bring this circle together. It needs to say, ‘Yes, we’re going to stand up and take responsibility for the response we’re going to get’,” he says.

To some extent, the media owner can help smooth the process by giving more information, updating it regularly and dealing directly with the telebureau. Channel 4 is recognised as giving above-average support in this respect and recently held a course for telemarketing companies and making it easier for those dealing with the channel to check the timing of spots and the expected response.

But media owners in general could do more to involve buyers and give them a better understanding of working with direct response, say the telebureaux. Owners could work harder to establish actual responses retrospectively by checking with the agencies that handled them. This data could then be used to educate media buyers through courses and updates.

The greatest potential headaches for telebureaux are clearly in DRTV, where there are more opportunities for last-minute schedule changes, even less predictability, and cut-price deals negotiated by the media buyer, which are not communicated to the telebureau.

Of course, the client is saved money, but all those benefits are lost when the first thing the telebureau knows about it is the hundreds of incoming calls stacked – and then lost – on its lines.

But similar complications are possible with press and poster campaigns. Lead-times are longer and response more diffuse, even where space has been snapped up at short notice in a national newspaper. But business can be lost when different branches of multinational agencies publish numbers locally without informing their head office – nor the telebureau.

The telebureau’s experience is often pitted against the media buyers’ instinct to be seen to be saving the client money rather than investing in the quality of the campaign.

But the telebureau’s own insights can be used to much more telling effect if a telemarketing campaign is planned in advance. The sooner the bureau is involved, and able to contribute its own expertise, the better for all concerned.

As Baird points out, operator training is crucial if a campaign is going to yield the best results, and this is again dependent on the amount of time allowed. Thorough preparation can turn a straightforward brochure campaign into a sales operation, he says.

One company that has taken this on board is the Decisions Group, which recently carried out a two-week training programme for operators handling inbound response for a financial services company. According to the agency’s telemedia consultant, Robin Warboys, the company is increasingly being involved in direct sales, which can be a single or two-stage process.

And direct marketing services company Mailcom has gone so far as to provide a multimedia training facility where clients themselves can brief the operators.

Supported by video, CD-Rom, A/V and the Internet, the client can show operators the TV, press and Internet ads, play the radio promotions and view the contents of promotional literature. The operators, under the client’s watchful eye, can then field dummy calls.

Mailcom group marketing manager Neil Shotton says: “Telemarketing companies should stop blaming the client and get to grips with the problem. These face-to-face-with-the-client training sessions allow us to be more helpful and creative in the way we cope with queries.”

As a consultant and major user of UK telebureaux on behalf of clients, chairman of Advertising Research Marketing (ARM) John Orsmond is able to put the great potential of UK telemarketing into an international context while sharing many of the bureaux’ concerns about consultation and lead-times.

But it is precisely the leap in the volume of direct response business in the UK that, according to Orsmond, is creating huge problems for those bureaux that stand to benefit most from this upsurge in interest. Just as clients have taken their first tentative steps into direct response, many of the telebureaux they have been working with have proved incapable of coping with the response, resulting in large numbers of lost calls.

Consequently, says Orsmond, possible users are either being put off the approach altogether, or are shifting from bureau to bureau. “Because they are growing like hell, these agencies can’t get used to the idea of saying ‘No’. But they also have a real concern that their clients are here today and gone tomorrow,” he says. With each new piece of business, an agency’s ability to maintain levels of service to existing clients is compromised.

It was in response to increasing dissatisfaction among UK bureau users in the first half of 1995 that the Telemarketing Action Group (TAG) was set up. TAG aims to inform clients about the realistic capabilities of bureaux, and to represent user interests with the regulatory bodies. TAG’s own research from early 1995 shows that 47 per cent of DRTV clients questioned changed bureau between six and nine times in the space of a single year.

Orsmond fears that business for telebureaux will be undermined from two different directions unless the industry equips itself for faster, more efficient response. With markets such as the US far better able to handle high-call volumes, satellite technology makes it possible for work to be siphoned away from the UK.

Another alternative for clients is the setting up of internal direct response organisations, using proprietary 0800 numbers from BT.

This trend towards internal solutions is already happening, and will continue for as long as supply lags behind demand, says Orsmond. In-house structures are often among the most sophisticated, with one major UK company using a “cascade” technology linking 18 different locations. Calls are auto- matically diverted as each centre reaches capacity, reducing lost calls to just over one per cent, says ARM.

Sally Penn, business development director at bureau ADS, agrees that some telebureaux have acted as their own worst enemies by taking on too much of the wrong kind of business. “The onus is on us to accept responsibility and only go after the business we know and can do well. At ADS we try to say that we only have a finite capacity, and that what we are good at is the added value campaign,” she says.

The next 18 months will see burgeoning numbers of satellite TV stations reducing the price base, greater ISDN capacity and continued growth in consumer interest. The introduction of alpha dialling by BT will stimulate response still further, and bureaux point to underdeveloped areas such as direct response radio.

“An awful lot of people phone into radio stations anyway, so you are simply moving this one step further. It is also a very immediate medium,” says Warboys.

But to reap the best results, and not lose out to poaching from overseas or in-house alternatives, telebureaux will have to actively demonstrate not only that they can handle audience response, but that they can give vital guidance about the presentation of a campaign if they are brought into the creative process at an early enough stage.

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