More companies are being forced to outsource their after care service. Steve Hemsley explains why these carelines are so important.

A dust-covered telephone rings continuously in a room that has been unused for months until finally a surprised passer-by decides to answer it, only to discover that the caller has dialled the wrong number.

Cast your mind back a few years and you probably remember the occasion. The room was the fictional complaints department for Carlsberg, and part of an advertising campaign designed to illustrate ultimate customer satisfaction with the brand.

Of course in reality, consumers do complain, and companies must sometimes work hard to protect their brand’s reputation.

While the United States has thrived on its commitment to customer service, the UK, and Europe in general, has tended to lag behind. Nevertheless, more companies are investing in customer carelines to appease irate customers or provide product information.

Whether it is a crisis management helpline set up following a damning report on BBC’s WatchDog, a reaction to a slating article in the Consumers’ Association’s magazine Which?, or information lines providing details about a promotion, brand managers know it is cheaper to keep existing consumers happy than to attract new ones.

However, most companies lack the time and resources to operate carelines in-house, which is why the number of telemarketing companies willing to operate services on their behalf continues to grow. The agencies, in effect, become extensions of the marketing and sales teams.

Figures from market research company Datamonitor reveal that the European call centre market is growing at 40 per cent a year, and that the UK is the largest sector, with more than half of its 123,000 agency staff working on carelines. Separate studies by the Henley Centre confirm that satisfied complainants are more likely to purchase a product again than those who never complain, while 66 per cent of consumers are impressed by the availability of a freephone service, even if they never use it.

When contacting a customer careline, consumers are convinced they are contacting the company that produces the brand. The agency’s staff will have been extensively trained to answer virtually every query, and if a problem cannot be solved, the caller will unknowingly be transferred to the appropriate department at the client’s offices maybe hundreds of miles away, where more technical and in-depth advice is available.

Such a service is not cheap, however, and costs companies thousands of pounds a year. Yet Peter McCarthy, managing director of Telecom Potential, says running a careline must be seen as an investment and not a cost.

“What price can you put on protecting your brand? Customers just want satisfaction,” he says.

Maidstone-based TeleDynamics spent more than 1m training its operators last year, and also launched Foqus, a brand management programme which assesses the performance of its staff and customer satisfaction.

Director Peter Dray says telemarketing agencies must be able to show that they understand their clients’ products. “We are the guardians of their reputation and they want reassurance that we can cope. We provide them with commercial references, and they come and talk with the staff who will handle their calls,” he says.

Esso is one of TeleDynamics clients, and in February 1996 when the petrol giant stopped its Tiger Tokens promotion and replaced it with the Pricewatch campaign, the agency was inundated with calls from concerned customers. An Esso spokeswoman says TeleDynamic’s staff were well briefed: “They were given answers to the questions we expected would be asked, such as how long customers had to redeem them.”

Friends Provident is another client using a careline at regular intervals to support the TV campaign for its Guaranteed Lifetime Plan for the over 50s. Operations manager Sandra Goodman says the line is a vital information link. “The agency knows the advertising schedule and its staff are prepared for a flood of calls immediately after a commercial has run. We do our own mystery shopper survey to check the service,” she says.

While information lines require a high level of product knowledge among careline operators, dealing with customer complaints demands a different temperament altogether. The call-centre market is renowned for its high turnover of staff, a trend perhaps understandable in an environment where people are expected to placate angry consumers for hours at a time.

Earlier this year, recruitment specialists Austin Knight and telebusiness training company the Calcom Group funded a survey of call centre managers and staff to assess motivation levels in the industry. The study of 1,000 employees at 25 companies revealed that although most were content with their training in customer service and product knowledge, many were unhappy with the amount of guidance they receive to deal with complaints. The report also discovered that most staff tend to be female and under 30. Also, 75 per cent of firms have difficulty recruiting suitable staff.

One reason why training in complaint handling may not be as extensive as some staff would like could be the agencies’ reluctance to frighten new recruits.

Calcom’s client services director, Matthew Taylor, says the difficulty in recruiting and keeping staff can be blamed as much on the changing careline market as the calls the staff have to take.

“Training in complaint handling is vital to ensure staff get job satisfaction from reassuring and calming down an initially irate caller. Yet operators must not just be good on the phone, but also computer literate to input information as they are talking,” he says.

Careline Services operates a complaint handling scheme for retailers, hotel chains and restaurants, and an analysis of calls to its own ServiceCare system discovered that 95 per cent of customers who complain will buy a brand again if they are satisfied their complaint has been taken seriously. Its survey also revealed that it is virtually impossible not to upset someone, as 20 per cent of consumers will always have a problem with a service. Careline Services commercial director David Jackson says complaints must be managed effectively. “It is vital consumers get through to a human being rather than an automated system, which will make them even more angry. We measure how many staff we will need on a careline by judging how many complaints a client usually receives through comment cards – and multiplying that number by around 15,” he says.

Deciding how much a company should spend setting up and operating a customer careline can be tricky because the nature of the service will ultimately determine the budget. Agencies usually offer companies a choice of how they are charged. Some will bill by the second or the minute and part minute, while some clients will prefer to pay per call. The likely number of calls dictates which method is most cost effective. A charge of 1p per second is preferable if the calls are short, whereas 1.50 per call will save a client money if lengthy enquiries are expected. Another option is to pay for each operator allocated to the service.

There is also the decision of whether a company can absorb the full cost of running the careline with an 0800 number or whether customers should meet some of the cost with an 0345 local call rate. Some companies even choose an 0990 national rate number if they are providing particularly useful information.

Sally Penn, director of ADS Telemarketing, says: “Many of our contracts are long term, and we operate on a retainer basis, switching lines on and off as clients need them.”

The on-going cost of operating a careline means clients are demanding a maximum return from their investment. As well as using a careline to portray the friendly and caring face of a brand, they will also employ the agency as a profit centre. Each caller is asked for information about themselves and where they bought the product, and the data is stored for future direct marketing campaigns.

The Sitel Corporation in Stratford operated the Boots Pollen Line which gave the retailer’s consumers daily access to the pollen count using a freephone number. The campaign raised the profile of Boots as a supplier of hayfever remedies and enabled the multiple to construct accurate customer profiles for future marketing and promotional activity. During the 12-week campaign, 106,792 calls were received.

The Calcom Group’s managing director, Natalie Calvert, says the privatised utility companies regularly use customer helplines to access and maintain accurate data. “Telephone agents who were previously handling billing, appliances, services and emergencies are now identifying a customer’s potential requirements and identifying leads to sell a new product from a whole range of utilities – whether it is from a water, gas or an electricity company,” she says.

The lines used by call centres are provided by BT, Mercury or AT&T, but these suppliers also operate their own customer careline divisions. Connections In Business is BT’s telemarketing arm and one of its clients is Nestlé which uses carelines for most of its products.

It has just launched a helpline for its Build-Up range of fortified nutritional-flavoured milk drinks and savoury soups sold through pharmacies and health food shops.

Brand manager Charlotte David says the office-hours-only careline reassures consumers who may be worried about the ingredients. “Build-Up is a complex product and not all consumers understand about minerals and vitamins. The careline is also a useful tool for nutritionalists and stores who can advise their customers,” she says.

Body & Soul is another health company to employ an agency-run careline. It supplies up-market herbal bath oils to spa bath customers, and Telecom Potential is often asked to take the pressure off the company’s own switchboard following a direct mail campaign.

Body & Soul’s marketing director, Suzanne Olden, says: “At first we were concerned that another company could not possibly understand our business as well as we do. But we trained the agency’s staff and the service means our high-spending consumers do not get an infuriating engaged signal when they call us.”

As for Carlsberg – now Carlsberg-Tetley – it has actually operated a customer service line for years. It has a careline for its stockists, who are asked to complain if they do not get deliveries within 48 hours and if surpluses are not collected within seven days. And yes, the phone is answered promptly.

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