End of the line

The quality of response a call centre yields largely depends on the quality of the brief it originally receives from the client. Yet telemarketers find that clients and advertising agencies still regard call centre selection and briefing as a simple job to be carried out by their most junior staff and at the last possible moment.

Account director at TeleDynamics Sue Randall believes that clients underestimate the complexity of briefs – both those given to select the telemarketing agency and the campaign briefings once the selection has been made.

“Clients and agencies often ask their most junior staff to brief telemarketing consultancies on the nature of the campaign. The perception seems to be that it can be done quickly and off the cuff. But campaigns are becoming increasingly complex and people are more aware of the pitfalls of giving a costing over the telephone, without knowing the details of the campaign.

“A junior person expects to pick up the phone and get a fairly standard quote from a telemarketing consultancy. But when we ask awkward questions, they start to squirm. You ask, has your target list got telephone numbers? Tell me a bit about the data – when was it last cleaned, where have you bought it from, has it got names on? Tell me about your time scales… And there’s this pregnant pause.”

The basis on which the campaign is targeted often turns out to be “a whim or a desire or a budget consideration”, says Randall. It is not unusual for callers to neglect any mention of whether the job is for inbound or outbound calls.

“Some clients don’t even tell us that we’re following on from a direct mail programme. People say: ‘Didn’t I get a letter from your company just the other day?’ When we ring the client they say: ‘Oh, yes, we did a mailing’.”

Helen Mackenzie, managing director of The Business Extension, agrees that clients often underestimate the complexity of telemarketing. “They will tell you that there are 3,500 people that need to be rung and the calls will take about three minutes each. But it’s not how many questions you have or how many things you want to get across to prospects that matters.

“If you’re managing a telemarketing campaign on behalf of a large, well-known UK organisation, prospects may be happy to take the call. If you’re calling on behalf of a business start-up, the call could indeed be two minutes. However, you may also spend an hour getting hold of anybody who will let you talk to them for two minutes.”

Successful telemarketing, in Mackenzie’s view, is based on a clear idea of the overall brand image of the client.

“If it has a poor image, or an image that requires a boost among the target market, that must be taken into account at the outset and obviously affects the cost of the campaign.

“Clients should be prepared to answer questions that allow the agency to give them the benefit of their experience.”

The trend towards getting a large number of tenders for telemarketing projects encourages clients to delegate to the lowest level, says Mackenzie.

“A junior member of staff is given a list from the marketing press and told to go and get some quotes. Nobody seems to think to ask ten of these companies to send in their brochures and have a quick chat about their experience of the type of campaign which our client or we wish to do.”

The result? A situation in which, as she ruefully points out, “the brief can be so vague that you respond by saying: ‘thank you for your outline brief, here are our outline costs’. These clients are limiting the ability of an agency to add value to what could be done.”

Neil Perring, joint managing director of BPS Teleperformance, is not quite as harsh. “There has always been a tendency to undervalue telemarketing, but that’s simply because it comes at the end of the communication chain.

“Because of the way the industry’s growing, I think people are paying slightly more attention and are valuing what we do a bit more. For certain companies it’s so crucial to their way of doing business that you could be the most important outside third-party to them.

“Companies that are big users of bureaux are generally very professional. They would normally employ a person from a bureau background to do the job of briefing, training and monitoring agencies. Companies that are going into it for the first time may well go about it in the wrong way. They won’t know how to brief and they’ll be very reliant on the bureau’s guidance. If you are dealing with a junior person in the client’s office, it can be difficult,” says Perring.

Advertising agencies are more likely to use junior staff because the work may not be seen as high priority, he adds.

“It is not something that ad agencies normally make much money out of and so they aren’t likely to sug-gest telephone work. The pressure comes from the client to get some leads by including a telephone number on their advertising.”

Michelle Young, marketing manager of Readycall, points out that poorly informed staff exist at all levels of client companies.

“Often you find out that the people on the other end of the line don’t really know what they’re dealing with or the costs associated with it – even if they are senior.

“When a new client comes on board, we have to provide our own operators with a lot of training so that they can answer any queries satisfactorily.

“When it’s a new campaign, the client often doesn’t know what kinds of questions are going to be presented. So it’s essential to build the help-screen during the first three months of the campaign,” says Young.

Tony Collins, chief executive of The Customer Contact Company, believes that more frequent and better quality communication is the solution to many briefing problems.

“Agencies need to wake up to the role that response handling has in supporting the advertised message. We have demonstrated the benefits of bringing the agency and the call centre closer together, not just at the briefing stage but during and after the campaign.

“The benefits include delivering the personality of the brand over the telephone, gaining immediate feedback from callers and tweaking the original message to improve audience understanding.”

John Orsmond, chief executive of marketing communications consultancy ARM, says the telemarketing sector’s briefing difficulties are at their worst when companies initiate telemarketing for the first time and decide to outsource the work.

“Operations, marketing systems and media buyers run into co-ordination problems. Then they say, uh oh, it didn’t work. But this is quite contrary to the number of people they could reach, for the same price, if they did it correctly.”

Briefing difficulties filter through to consumers, who witness a gulf between expectation and experience, says Orsmond.

“Most teleoperators fail to convey brand values over the phone. Most operators fail even to qualify the purpose of the call. In all the cases we’ve looked at, bad briefing was the cause.”

Arieh Shemesh is UK operations director of Nice Systems, which has developed a call monitoring and training tool that can pick up on problems traceable to poorly briefed staff.

“Our systems can be pre-programmed to record specific calls at specific times. This is used afterwards for training and coaching. The information is collected into a database and the supervisor can see the weak areas of each individual agent and introduce very focused training.”

The quality of briefing can be assessed because the system recalls the screen used in the conversation.

“The supervisor produces a multimedia playback of what was on the telephone line and what was on the screen. So the performance of each individual is gauged and mistakes can be corrected,” explains Shemesh.

Technical tools may help solve dilemmas caused by poor briefings, but what can be done by both clients and telemarketers to prevent problems arising in the first place?

Randall advises asking the clients what they consider most important in their total marketing plan.

“If clients just give me their telemarketing objectives, those may not complement their overall marketing strategy.

“The key is: don’t just tell me about the job – tell me what you’re trying to achieve.”

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