Walk the walk – talk the talk

To offer a successful service telemarketers need a complete understanding if the brand they are representing, and the best way of achieving this is through on-the-job training. By Steve Hemsley.

Almost 9 million people in the UK have difficulty hearing, and the chances of developing a problem increase significantly with age.

The medical charity Deafness Research UK says hearing loss is the most common sensory disability in the developed world. Yet people are more likely to turn up their television or ignore conversations they struggle to hear rather than seek treatment.

It is a trend that hearing aids supplier Hidden Hearing is keen to reverse. It hopes a telemarketing campaign through call centre operator DataBase Factory will encourage sufferers to attend presentations where they can speak to one of its hearing experts.

Delicate Approach
Any telemarketing campaign carrying a medical message requires sensitivity, so Hidden Hearing’s head of marketing, Toby Beddoe, needed to be confident the call centre staff could empathise with potential sufferers.

“We used to employ call centre staff who matched the older demographic, but we believe it is more important call handlers understand exactly how hearing loss affects people’s lives,” he says.

Database Factory’s UK manager Peter Gale sent his telemarketers to one of the first presentations. He felt it was crucial the team saw for themselves what customers would experience, as for obvious reasons, telemarketing to people with hearing presents difficulties and it is vital handlers empathise with the people they are calling.

He says: “Handlers have to be patient, talk slowly and often do have to raise their voices. These calls are not cold calls and are following up on leads from events or direct mail and telemarketing is just one part of marketing strategy for Hidden Hearing.”

“We decided it was right to invest in training so our staff could talk people through exactly what would happen when they visited an exhibition and be sympathetic to their condition,” says Gale.

This type of added-value training where the agency and the client work in partnership can help brands improve their success rate from telemarketing. Indeed, for a campaign to work effectively it is vital the agency ensures its staff have a thorough understanding of the product or service, and the client sees its telemarketing operation as a profit centre rather than as a cost centre.

Honda is another brand making sure its call centre representatives are fully briefed. It uses agency CPM, and the car manufacturer invests in four weeks of training for handlers including factory visits, product demonstrations and brand presentations. Honda employees also sit next to CPM’s team members at the start of a campaign to help them tailor calls relating to test drive or dealership enquiries.

The Direct Marketing Association’s (DMA) Contact Centres and Telemarketing Council says it is the responsibility of the entire industry to ensure clients are getting the best service they can from call centres. A new DMA best practice guide will be finalised during the next few weeks. The aim of the document is to ensure that even the most poorly-targeted calls have a positive effect on whichever brand is being promoted.

Explain the Process
The guide will tell clients to ask telemarketing partners to explain what quality processes are in place, how these can be audited and how many calls are quality scored per agent. It also explains how important it is that clients can listen to calls and have confidence in the techniques being used.

One tool used by handlers to fill gaps in their product knowledge and improve their success rate can, however, become a barrier to the kind of service clients would like to see. The script can be an essential component in any telemarketing campaign, but handlers should not rely too heavily on this method.

Discarding the script is something The Telemarketing Company’s managing director Niall Habba believes passionately in. His company employs salaried agents at 185 workstations specialising in unscripted outbound B2B telemarketing.

Experience Counts
“Clients can be nervous but we use experienced people who can adopt their own approach and play to their strengths,” says Habba. “Their expertise is in product knowledge and in listening – two crucial skills when dealing with senior decision makers.”

One of The Telemarketing Company’s clients is mobile computing business Palm, which used the agency to promote its Treo Smartphone.

Martin Day, managing director of Palm, says he was initially surprised to find an agency working without a script.

He says: “We interviewed a number of agencies and most of them followed the route of using junior staff with scripts, but we felt handlers needed the right skill level for dealing with our senior level target customers. What we found was that the agents allocated to our project quickly understood our proposition after just one half-day training session and they could talk to prospects openly without being restricted by a script.”

V2 Communications is trying to improve its IT customer service by providing an internship scheme. The idea is that individuals who want to work in the sales and marketing teams of high-profile IT companies such as Microsoft or SunSystems gain product knowledge with V2 Communication.

Managing director Jamie Vaughan says this approach means V2 retains handlers for an average of 18 months, or until they become experienced enough to join a client’s internal team.

“Telemarketing is a people business and if the wrong people are making the calls a campaign can fail,” he says. “Our approach means our clients have ambitious and enthusiastic people who learn about new products and strategies quickly and can relay them to customers. It means organisations feel more confident about their lead-generation activity.”

Data Antagonism
Another reason why call centres can fail to deliver a high enough standard of service is inaccurate and out-of-date data which can antagonise businesses and consumers. DataFlux, a subsidiary of business intelligence provider SAS, has been helping directory enquiry business The Number 118 118 improve its error rates. The brand has since appointed a corporate data manager and standardised and integrated its data so it gets more value from the information it holds.

“This is an example where a successful above-the-line advertising campaign has worked to build a brand, but the brand was being damaged by the service it was sometimes providing. 118 118 has recognised the benefits of investing in better data quality,” says DataFlux managing director EMEA, Colin Rickard.

There is certainly not a shortage of technology to help call centres and their clients use data more effectively or to get a better understanding of how satisfied consumers are by their service.

Ian Ashby, ceo of software supplier Exony, says interactive voice response systems can tell a client how pleased a customer is with a product or service and how they rated their experience with the contact centre.

Trend Spotting
“This information can be married with data on which agent handled the call, how long someone had to wait in the queue and what action needs to be taken as a result,” says Ashby. “There are even technologies available that allow clients to record and categorise all calls, and then use datamining techniques to identify trends.”

Ultimately, how committed call handlers are to the brands they represent can depend on how they are motivated. Natalie Gunson, director of motivation house Archer Young, says as customer satisfaction levels have fallen and staff churn has increased, call centres have had to introduce loyalty and reward programmes to try and differentiate themselves.

“Centres are trying harder to retain good agents, improve absenteeism and retention which will in turn deliver better customer service,” she says.

Another company implementing incentive schemes at call centres is P&MM. Its executive director, John Sylvester, has implemented programmes for British Gas and the Automobile Association. He says there can be a conflict between the short-term culture of the call centre and the longer-term business objectives of the organisation. “This means any incentive scheme must be visible, exciting and take the tedium out of the job,” he says.

A report by marketing agency Connection reveals that being able to talk to friendly and knowledgeable staff is more important to consumers than initiatives such as loyalty schemes or celebrity endorsement. It is a finding that companies investing in telemarketing need to listen to.


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