Direct Wines is the world’s largest wine home delivery company, dispatching about 30 million bottles a year.
To cope with such volumes, the Reading-based company has an in-house call centre with 200 workstations, forming part of a 220-strong customer communications department.
Staffed by a mixture of permanent and temporary operators, the call centre has an annual staff turnover figure of about seven per cent, against an industry average of 20 to 30 per cent.
So how does Direct Wines achieve this?
“It’s all about getting the right ‘fit’ of personalities,” says customer communications manager Helene Wilde. “We are careful to recruit the right sort of people, but do so in a slightly unorthodox way.
“After preliminary interviews and a keyboard test, we invite prospective employees to an informal drinks party, where our trainers, team leaders and managers chat to 50 or 60 people for a few minutes each.”
This type of interviewing is designed to ensure potential employees are confident and have the right communication skills, and that they will fit in with the team. Company culture is all important.
Wilde claims the company has a low drop-out rate during training: “After the peak Christmas period in 1999, all 180 temps wanted to stay on, but there were only 90 permanent positions available.”
There are several major call centres in the Reading area, mainly serving the banking and IT communities, so competition for good people is fierce.
About 50 per cent Direct Wines’ call centre staff are graduates of (or students at) Reading University, so the recruitment of operators acts like a graduate training scheme. “A spell ‘at the coal face’ is good experience for a career with us,” she says.
At Direct Wines, training is ongoing, with new recruits handling simple telephone orders after just four days. They then go back to the training room for a period of weeks.
Operators can join the team of wine advisers (which answers wine-specific customer queries). For this, they must complete the Wine & Spirit Education Trust (WSET) Higher Certificate & Diploma course. Wilde adds: “In-house wine tastings and staff discounts are perks that can enhance operators’ knowledge and appreciation of wine.”
At peak times of year, there are more than 200 call centre staff, with about 140 on each shift. During quieter periods, there may be 120 people working 80 to a shift. The company needs the team to be flexible. On a busy day, it might have to answer more than 12,000 calls, but on a Bank Holiday this can drop to as few as 700, Wilde explains.
“One way we manage this is by ensuring staff are multiskilled.
“We can easily move people into the call centre to cope with increased demand, or take them out and put them into areas such as postal order processing.”
With the launch of e-commerce Websites, Direct Wines recently became the UK’s largest online wine retailer, with an eight-strong team dedicated to answering e-mail queries and taking orders.
Wilde comments: “With so much going on, we make a point of ensuring managers listen to the operators.
All of the team leaders started out as operators, so they understand the stresses the job can bring.
“We have regular feedback sessions for each team and make time to socialise outside the office so that members bond with each other.”
Preserving a fun and friendly atmosphere is vital to call centres, and their size has a major effect on this.
Wilde explains: “The positive working environment would be threatened if we had more than about 250 workstations at one site. If we continue to grow at this rate, I would prefer to see the call centre spread over different locations – centres of excellence if you like, rather than a frenetic hot-house.”
Before joining Direct Wines in 1991, Wilde was asked by managing director Greg Hodder to look at what was then the sales centre and make recommendations on how to modernise the system. At that stage, the company was based at different premises, and the 25 operators were in one small room, which expanded to several rooms.
Although the company culture was already in place, Wilde says the call handling was a little chaotic.
“I saw the potential and have tried to keep the positive atmosphere, while at the same time improving the system.
“Of course, there’s always room for improvement and, like any company, we’re keen to see how we measure up to the competition,” she says.
For many Direct Wines employees, the call centre is the first step on the ladder. With turnover growing at about 30 per cent a year, there are often opportunities to move to other departments or take on new roles in the customer communications team as the company expands. Former operators work in all areas of the business, including marketing, planning and the wine division.