Life in the outbound fast lane

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Interview conducted and first published by Outbound Focus. Reproduced by kind permission.

This interview with one of the UK’s star outbound managers, Jo Simkins of BPS Teleperformance, was originally conducted for Outbound Focus. It provides a glimpse of life in the fast lane.

Q. How has the outbound market changed in the past three years?
A. Dramatically! Outbound calling is now being seen less as a sales tool in itself, more as a tool for acquiring and retaining a customer base. And this is especially true of blue chip companies. Some of this work is based on cold-calling, but in most cases involves affinity calling, where there is some kind of prior association or related interest on the part of those being called.

Q. What major changes do you expect in the next three?
A. I think more and more companies will look at outbound not only as a tool to acquire new customers, but also as a way of checking on the needs of existing customers and retaining their loyalty. And we are seeing an increasing use of ‘welcome calls’ to new customers to ensure a high level of satisfaction and also offer extra value and follow-up products and services.

Q. Anything likely to hinder the growth you see?
A. Technology is always an issue. Outbound centers like ours live on the cusp of change, and are quite demanding of our technology suppliers. The better the CRM solutions we can deploy, the better we are able to respond quickly to our own customers’ needs. Outbound centers who are controlling their technology, rather than being controlled by it, have a competitive edge, and that’s what we have today.

We don’t see legislation being much of a hindrance. But it could be if bad practices were widespread, and, touch wood, there’s no sign of that.

Quite a few companies are using blanket cold-calling to acquire business and customers. This can be successful, though if the volume of this activity gets too high, then I think that UK consumers will react adversely. I also wonder whether the marketing case for such activities is sound. It’s not cheap, and if the returns are not there, perhaps this kind of calling will fall off, being replaced by more targeted calling.

Q. Any secrets to share on outbound agent acquisition and retention?
A. The main thing is to get the right agent for the job; some agents can hard-sell, some are better at soft-selling, some are better suited to more demanding sales roles. We also try to give agents a view of the bigger picture; for example, the purpose of campaigns, how they relate to our clients’ core businesses and what the agents’ contributions are. We encourage career progression in terms of skills being acquired and levels of responsibility.

And it’s important to have fun! We try to loosen agents up using all the classic motivational techniques, from daily team debriefings to dancing the conga!

Q. There is a move in the US in some quarters from fixed revenue per agent hour to payment by results. What’s the trend in the UK and why?
A. The UK is a mix of the two. We always seek to cover our costs and achieve a profit contribution, but the best campaigns involve an element of risk on our part. If we take that risk and perform really well, we earn accordingly. To achieve this requires a strong relationship with our clients.

Q. ‘Call blending’ is an in buzz word. What are the real opportunities for this in an out-sourcing operation like yours?
A. We don’t use it for consumer calling, mainly because the opportunities to do so are strictly limited. Most CRM solutions seem to be ‘call-blending’ enabled these days. Well, that’s what the marketing literature normally says, but we have concerns anyway about agents doubling up - being inbound at one moment and outbound the next. It can work, when the calls are closely related in content, but otherwise agents just aren’t that ambidextrous. I have fewer reservations in a B2B environment.

Q. In Europe, a lot of inbound operations are working offshore. Some outbound is offshore, but not a lot. Do you see this as changing? What are the drivers?
A. It’s OK for some inbound, but not for outbound where there is a large trust element, and consumer confidence is the issue. It’s surely more difficult to sell to a consumer in the UK if he discovers he’s being called from a center in Malaysia. It’s also harder to manage people from a distance, especially with outbound being quite changeable and dynamic.

Q. How are you coping with the TPS?
A. The TPS is a fantastic benefit to us. We don’t want to waste time and money calling people who don’t want to be called. If they are called, then the call is often a difficult one, and we have the added problem of having to restore the agent’s morale. We encourage agents to give unwilling consumers the number for the TPS, because it benefits us, and also gains us some respect in the eyes of the consumer.

Q. You’ll know that we have focused a lot on excessive nuisance calls in the US, in Outbound Focus. Do you see this ever being a problem in the UK?
A. The number of nuisance calls will go up as a result of more predictive dialers being used, but as a percentage of all calls should go down, as call centers learn to manage their dialers better.

Q. As a successful outbound manager, do you want to share with us your key differentiators from other out-sourcing bureaux.
A. Overall is operational control. We are very hands-on, and rely greatly on personal experience in managing campaigns. We have developed a very strong sense of what the best practices are, and follow them.

Human resource management is an integral part. People are our lifeblood, so we strive to understand our agent base and put the right agents on the right campaigns.

We encourage a strong agency/client relationship, where everyone understands the needs and expectations of the relationship.

We have dedication. We put in long hours to ensure client success, because, in the bigger picture, it benefits us.

And we take things personally. Don’t believe the management books that tell you not to! Any failures reflect badly on us. We want to be successful, and we want our clients to be successful. If things aren’t working, we find out why and put them right.

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