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Major strategic changes are under way in the telemarketing sector, with contact centres ditching the scatter-gun approach in favour of targeted, customer-friendly methods. Paul Gander reports

Times are hard for outbound telemarketing. Last December, the Information Commissioner’s Office served enforcement notices on five companies making persistent calls to consumers without their consent, and January saw four companies fined a total of more than £150,000 for repeated silent calls.

Call centre managers will confirm that consumer opt-outs via the Telephone Preference Service (TPS) have had a significant impact on this branch of marketing. The 2.5 million consumers signed up in 2002 has risen to more than 14.4 million, according to the Direct Marketing Association, and the trend is still upwards.

Stephen Jacobs, general manager at call centre performance consultancy Directexcellence, sees this as a cause for celebration. "Outbound has had to face all sorts of pressures, and the usefulness of cold-calling as a tool has become more limited," he explains. "People have been using cold calling as a machine gun, when all along it should have been a sniper’s bullet."

Telemarketing teams and contact centre service suppliers may not see the distinction in such stark (or homicidal) terms, but certainly, major strategic changes are certainly under way.

Answer machine detect (AMD) technology has been blamed for much of the silent-call furore in recent years, and is also responsible for the tell-tale pause at the beginning of outbound calls as the line is routed to an agent. Excell Contact Centres, Scotland, recently announced it was turning off AMD on all outbound campaigns.

System supplier Amcat says this customer has seen no loss in productivity. Excell general manager of IT and telecoms Charles Vincent explains/ "Although numbers of connected calls per hour have declined without AMD, the success of those calls is proportionately much higher."

While much of the technology may be new, other aspects of this strategic rethink in the industry are not.

Jacobs at Directexcellence refers back to a Henley Centre paper from 1998 which called for adherence to the "three Rs" – relevance, relationship and respect for the consumer. If you are not combining either clear relevance or an existing relationship with a respectful approach, then it is best not to make the call, he suggests.

As he puts it: "Before you even pick up the phone, having the right message for the right person is the foundation stone on which everything rests."

Structured dialogue
So plenty can be done, in terms of technology and targeting, to maximise the likelihood of a positive outcome. Telemarketing teams then need to decide to what extent the call is going to be structured, and how much freedom agents have to vary the message.

The past few years have seen a distinct trend in UK outbound calling away from a rigidly-structured script or call guide. The Telemarketing Company specialises in business-to-business (B2B) campaigns, and says that the tendency has been particularly evident in this sector. In fact, the only occasions when scripting or partial scripting is used, says managing director Niall Habba, is when financial services or pharmaceuticals regulations make it necessary.

For the bulk of the B2B sector, says Habba, the objective is first to get past the gatekeeper to the decision-maker, and then to draw that decision-maker into a conversation. That means having a genuine dialogue, listening and above all adopting a fluid call structure. This is not always the case with companies handling business-to-consumer (B2C) campaigns.

Apart from regulatory reasons, there are other considerations which may favour tighter scripting, especially in B2C telemarketing. Daniel Handforth, sales director at outbound and inbound provider Chorus Direct, says: "Where the outsourcer is paid largely or purely on results, tighter call structures may be required. Otherwise, there may be issues of mis-selling. An agent may be trying to hit a target and step out of line."

Clients themselves may be reassured by reliance on a script – and may even demand it. This seems to be more a part of North American telemarketing culture. Indeed, Converso Contact Centres director Dino Forte says: "A good few US companies live and die by the script."

Call centres that take an unscripted approach will also have to convince the client to accept some additional costs. Handforth admits: "It’s not cheap. It takes a lot of training and preparation time to get it right."

Ultimately, the aim is for a call centre supplier to encourage its agent to think as if they were a part of the client’s organisation. But the freer the structure for the agent, the more likely the consumer is to take the conversation off at a tangent. In these circumstances, agents will need to have digested, or have easy access to, larger amounts of information.

Development meeting
According to Forte at Converso, once the initial development meeting has taken place with the client, it is important to select the right individuals for a campaign. "Every campaign is different. Some may require soft-selling, almost consultation, and some may need a lot more empathy," he says.

Most call centres will want the client to visit and present the brand and the product. Some of the team may also visit the client’s site.

Training itself may take two days or two weeks, says Forte, and will culminate in role plays and recorded calls. In sectors such as financial services, there is likely to be a final knowledge test.

Forte explains some of the benefits of a thorough training from the agent’s perspective. "Once they have a high level of knowledge, they are likely to feel more confident about the brand, and will feel more comfortable moving away from a script."

Working with rigid scripts, and without substantial preparation, can contribute to high staff turnover in those call centres that tend to work this way, argues Habba at The Telemarketing Company.

On the other hand, a more flexible approach, especially when accompanied by a slow build-up of knowledge about a brand, allows each agent to personalise their calls. "You get a much better result, and you retain a much higher calibre of agent," he says.

The current emphasis on a disciplined approach to outbound calling has drawn attention away from its many strengths, says Jacobs at Directexcellence.

He complains: "So much telemarketing is treated like a mailshot to be read out over the phone."

He says it has some distinct advantages over direct mail. "You can change a script instantly."

Handforth at Chorus agrees that the script or guide is likely to evolve during a campaign. Even if the quality team does not monitor all or the majority of conversations, the agent will give each call a disposition code indicating consumer interest. "If you keep an eye on that information, you’ll see what people respond to," he says. "One particular agent may latch on to a way of talking to consumers which works well."

Set in stone
While The Telemarketing Company does not use scripts as such, there is likely to be some sort of loose guide for the agent. This will rarely be set in stone. "Twenty or 30 hours into a campaign, a new structure or set of cues is likely to be introduced," says Habba.

Many consumer call centre providers would like their clients to show similar flexibility, and grasp the benefits of using more knowledgeable, confident and fluent agents in their outbound campaigns.

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