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Interview: Carol Borghesi, BT

13th Jul 2005
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"The call centre industry has been done no favours by the dark satanic mills image," laughs Carol Borghesi,managing director of BT’s Customer Contact Centre organisation, where she leads over 17,500 people in handling more than a million calls a day from over 20 million customers.

One of six children, Borghesi was born in Vancouver and, after leaving home at 16, put herself through high school. She then worked in restaurants, first as a waitress; by the time she was 18, she was a manager. In 1981, she enrolled at British Columbia Institute of Technology where she studied international marketing. On graduation, she worked for BCTel (now Telus), and began a meteoric rise, progressing in just five years from sales and marketing roles to Vice President & General Manager of a mobility and paging business with full P&L responsibility for $40 million.

In August 1997,Borghesi was headhunted by BT to lead a newly-created telemarketing operation with 7,500 people and a budget of £170m. In her first year she achieved £5 billion in protected revenue and £0.5 billion in incremental revenue. In 2000 she was appointed as Director, Call Centre Management.

A year later, Borghesi embarked upon the biggest ever transformation programme of its kind in the history of BT, and created a true step change in the largest in-house call centre operation in Europe. The task was to lead a five year programme to create a network of 33 next generation contact centres from 104 existing sites, reduce costs by £150m, improve customer satisfaction and maintain employee satisfaction.

"I was headhunted to come and join BT in 1997," she recalls. "That was on the back of a fairly comprehensive search in the UK and Europe to find a general manager for outbound contact centres. The company had built three outbound operations in Warrington, Newcastle and Doncaster, adding to operations in Glasgow and Bristol. In the late 1990s, in the UK there was a scarcity of experience of building outbound capabilities. I’d had that experience in Canada since 1981.I originally intended to stay three years; eight years later I’m still here."

"For BT, customer contact is all the operation associated with the mass market customer base, which is 20 million customers. Customer contact is now housed under the one operation which we cleverly refer to as the Customer Contact Centre. In an outbreak of common sense we organised it that way. It’s a far cry from four years ago when we had a dire situation. We were spending £50 million a year on call centres. We had four different business units. Our customer satisfaction rates were less than great.

"What we did was to develop a strategy to resolve this. We had six people drawn from the four business units and we put together a structured transformation programme. This mean identifying the areas we needed to address. In the end, rationalisation of the call centres was only part of the wider transformation. We found that we had 150 call centre operations in 104 sites which I think is God’s way of telling you that you’ve lost control somewhere. Even that was a slimmer version that had previously been seen at BT when there was a call centre for every exchange.

"Basically there was clearly a huge opportunity to reduce the number of sites. At the time, we had 16,000 workstations across all our sites, but there was a very low workstation utilisation rate. What we did was to develop a strategy which managed the various functions across the business and matched this with the balance of geography that a UK firm would want to have. We wanted to have 30 multi functional next generation contact centres.

"At the same time we had proposed to the board of BT Retail that we could deliver savings of $125 million if we centralised on a centre of excellence. At the time the board didn’t agree to this as an immediate action, but they did agree to go to a shared infrastructure.We had permission to reduce the number of sites and introduce shared support for the functions that you’d find in any call centre, be it 2 people or 2000 people strong, such as recruitment, training, communications and so on. That only represented £90 million of cost reduction efficiencies, but it presented us with the challenge of how much more we could achieve. The target was rounded up to £150 million - how I fell for that, I don’t know...

"Managing transformation of this size and scale in a company like BT is about bringing people with you. We started with shared support, we needed a centre of excellence. This past year we’ve delivered north of £200 million in cost savings, which is a significant chunk of the BT Retail cost base. But it’s not just about taking money out. Sometimes business seems to be all about cost reduction. A lot of very bad outsourcing decisions have been made after worshipping at the altar of cost reduction. We also managed to reduce customer dissatisfaction by 20 per cent and increase employee satisfaction.

"We worked very closely with the unions and built a very strong and successful relationship with them. They provided us with somevery good input. Our site closure programme was supported by no compulsary redundancies. There was a lot of people movement that occured without redundancies. You do it one person at a time. We built a skills base for managing and moving people."

"Much still needs to be done around changing the nature of customer management in the UK. We have achieved a lot in transforming customer contact centres, but superior customer management is still some way out. The UK has some challenges in relation to offshore competition. We need to change the rules about costs. I fundamentally believe that if companies make myopic decisions based around cost alone, they will get what is coming to them in terms of disgruntled customers."

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