Barely three years old, BeCogent is one of the fastest growing telemarketing and customer service agencies in the country, and more than doubled in size to £13m in the year to June. Among eight new contracts, worth an annual £6m, are the provision of acquisition services for Scottish Power, and making international business appointments for Genesis Labs.
Managing director and founder Ron Peerenboom combined the latest technology and several years of experience building call centres to create a state-of-art installation at Airdrie near Glasgow. Since then the agency has been praised as a successful operation tightly focused on productivity and people skills.
That was recognised this year when Peerenboom took a prize in the Ernst & Young Entrepreneur of the Year Awards, while the company itself won the Grand Prix in the National Business Awards of Scotland. It was also a finalist in two categories at the Call Centre Awards of Europe.
A key principle has been only to get involved with projects where the company can add value. "We don't mind persuading clients to change their plans if what they want to do is not viable, or even walk away from business we don't want to spend time and money on," Peerenboom says.
One particularly successful project this year was for a major broadcaster, persuading subscribers to add a new channel to their viewing package.
BeCogent operators have been calling 90,000 customers a month, using a database segmented to ensure that the A1 and B1 market is maximised.
The agency has been achieving three sales and 15 contacts per hour, against a target of 1.5 sales and 12 contacts, with a conversion rate of 20%.
Companies are turning their attention to inbound traffic as a channel for cross- and up-selling. For one of the world's largest internet providers, BeCogent managed to reduce the amount of lost business simply by calling to find out why the subscriber wanted to cancel. In many cases the problems were found to be easily fixed - for instance, by providing a number that would enable easier access - and that helped reduce subscriber cancellations by around 45%.
For another client, a major catalogue company, 12% of inbound calls now result in further sales, earning twice the cost of handling the call.
In such cases, suitable rewards can make all the difference in incentivising operators, Peerenboom says.
Contact centre work is geared toward high volumes, but BeCogent also offers an incubator service for companies that want to start small.
Traveline Scotland, a joint venture between government and tour operators that provides free travel information, started with four seats and has now grown to 15. From day one this service outperformed all 23 similar call centres in the UK. Around 80% of calls are answered within 30 seconds, and average call handling time is two minutes, while mystery shopping shows a strong performance on qualitative measures.
For the moment the new company has grown as fast as it needs to, says Peerenboom, and the coming year will be a period of consolidation. But there are plans to expand with smaller contact centres situated near to client locations, the first of which will open in January.
Such centres will be simple to build, since the technology is piped through from the headquarters rather than having to be installed separately.
Another big advantage will be to facilitate recruitment and retention.
"You need people with the skill to sell, and they are hard to find," Peerenboom says. "It will be much easier if we go to where they are, instead of having to bring them to us."
Last year's agency of the year, MM Group continues to show a strong performance in 2002, predicting an increase in turnover of 40% in the current period.
The agency more than trebled its revenue from outbound calling, leading with a campaign for Capital One that it says generated some of the highest conversion rates ever seen in a telemarketing campaign.
This success paved the way for a series of major wins from other financial services companies, including Royal Bank of Scotland/NatWest, Royal&Sun Alliance and Royal London and Ulster Bank.
The agency won the response handling and fulfilment contract for Nectar, the customer loyalty scheme launched by Loyalty Management UK. And it also undertook a number of innovative DRTV campaigns, for Reader's Digest, Time Life and Cancer Research.
By the end of 2003 MM Group will have invested £8m over three years in a network of new centres. It has hired a further 500 people for its Bangor site in Northern Ireland and is also recruiting for a purpose-built installation in Ashby de la Zouch in Leicestershire.
ISky has won a series of new contracts over the past 12 months, including customer care for Honda and Virgin Energy, and multi-lingual outreach programmes for American Express. During the year the agency has added a further 250 seats of capacity in Tannochside, near Glasgow, as well as expanding its Bristol headquarters. A loyalty specialist, iSky is a good advertisement for itself, having a staff turnover rate of 10%, which is one of the lowest in the industry.
As part of its attempts to push down customer churn, iSky recently asked its operators to record what telephone callers actually say about products and services, instead of simply checking boxes. Insights from these verbatim comments have proved invaluable for clients in revealing faults or inconsistencies that can then be quickly addressed.
ISky was a finalist in the public service category in Marketing Direct's Intelligence Awards 2002.
It has also been commended for its work marketing Solvay Healthcare's flu vaccine, achieving high levels of customer satisfaction and overcoming serious delays in supply to boost orders by 22%.
THE LISTENING COMPANY
This was a big year for the Listening Company, which grew by 66% and is 50% ahead of budget in the current period. More than 20 new wins included O2, Oxfam, Volkswagen, Peugeot and Sky, growing the agency's client base by half.
For Volkswagen the agency provides inbound and outbound services, building relationships with customers and VW dealers. For Peugeot it supports prospects throughout their buying process. The firm also has a new contract with BUPA, with an outbound campaign to raise awareness of the benefits of private health insurance.
One project this year was to encourage Oxfam donors to take advantage of government tax breaks that entitle charities to recover 28p in the pound on donations. Operators called nearly 22,000 people, winning consent in principle from 14% and actual pledges from a further 10%.
That is estimated to create additional revenue of £1m this year, and up to £7m over the next ten years, showing a return on investment of 17:1 on the cost of calls.
Ventura, an outsourcing behemoth with a £101m turnover, is also often praised for best practice. This year it walked away with four major prizes, including Best Outsource Contact Centre of the Year in the European Call Centre Awards 2002, and Support Manager of the Year in the Call Centre Management Association Awards 2002.
New wins include Sainsbury's and AXA Sunlife, with an extension of the personal loans contract with Northern Rock bank for a further three years, and the agency is recruiting 300 new staff for its Leeds and Dearne Valley sites.
Ventura recently celebrated ten years of its partnership with O2 (formerly BT Cellnet), a longevity rare in the call centre outsourcing market, and now manages 800,000 customers on the mobile communications company's behalf. This year it stepped up its retention activity for the company, combining sales skills and flexible IT systems to provide a single view of the customer.
In retention activity for Freeserve, Ventura has exceeded targets by up to half, defending the customer base against very aggressive competition in the ISP market.
Garlands is highly regarded for its people-oriented culture, important in an industry dependent upon the quality of staff. Managing director Chey Garland won major awards in 2002, as Sage National business leader and Ernst & Young business services entrepreneur of the year.
The Hartlepool-based agency has been consolidating after more than doubling in size in 2001, but has new wins with a major broadcaster and a financial services company, and continuing contracts with Vodafone, Cable & Wireless and NTL.
For Powergen, the firm employed a creative use of data that won a Marketing Direct award. It matched customer segments to operators who had shown the greatest propensity to sell to each. This helped exceed targets by 26% in sales per hour, and cut dissatisfaction by 43%.
Garlands has also showed innovation in its Touch development programme, involving staff with local schools and launching its own radio station.
The aim is to help operators relate more successfully to callers of different ages and backgrounds.
After major restructuring, Sitel is back on track with wins worth up to £20m a year. These include Prudential, Eurotunnel, British Bakeries and Inland Revenue, and will create up to 1000 jobs by the end of 2003.
Ranked third in Marketing's league tables, the company won the European Call Centre of the Year award in the 'under 50 seats' category for its work with RBS Card Services. It also won the Direct Response Smart Award for best in-house training by a supplier, and was a finalist in several categories in the National Customer Service Awards.
One project involved training 2000 Inland Revenue employees to handle public enquiries about the new tax credits scheme. This led to 80% of advisers becoming more customer focused, and a significant change in perceptions of the Inland Revenue itself.
A helpline for the Disability Rights Commission posed a particular challenge, involving a variety of channels, languages, and alternative formats such as Braille and audiotapes. Key measurements show that 80% of all calls are answered by a live agent immediately, while 90% are answered within 15 seconds.
TOP 20 TELEMARKETING AGENCIES
Rank Agency Turnover 2001
1 Vertex 159,400,000
2 Ventura 101,250,000
3 Sitel 53,200,000
4 7C 45,000,000
5 Merchants 42,404,000
6 Broadsystem 37,558,000
7 Prolog 32,132,000
8 Thus 27,519,000
9 Contact 24 26,800,000
10 Telecom Service Centres 26,176,000
11 MM Group 20,500,000
12 CPM 20,015,000
13 Voice Media 16,634,000
14 Serco Online Services 14,501,000
15 ICT Group 14,000,000
16 BPS Teleperformance 12,719,000
17 Garlands Call Centres 12,300,000
18 iSky Europe 12,050,000
19 Telecom Express 9,953,000
20 Ant Marketing 9,000,000
Source: Marketing League Tables