Talk, as they say, is cheap and it is fair to say that in the past such a virtuous approach to telemarketing has been paid little more than lip service.
Customer apathy toward telemarketing is now rocking the boat sufficiently to push agencies into finally putting this strategic change into action.
With the financial pressures of the recent bear market and new consumers so thin on the ground, clients and agencies alike have become much more aware of ensuring the continuation of the existing customer bases by improving the quality of service.
'In the past, there has been a dominant focus on price in our contracts, but we are now finding that clients are much more interested in the quality of calls,' says Caroline Worboys, managing director of Broadsystem. 'The difference between now and last year is the move toward brand management.
To create value there needs to be a seamless replication of the brand on the part of the outsourcing agency. Saying it and making it happen are two different things and clients need constant reassurance that this investment in a brand-centric strategy will work as a long-term proposition.'
Concern from clients as to how their brands are represented when the public perception of telemarketing is at a low is certainly helping to create a more responsible approach from outsourcing agencies. Ensuring that the contact centre agents live and breathe the products and brands about which they are communicating is the first step as agencies evolve their offering to make the experience more appealing for consumers.
'The worth of the brand at any of the points where it meets the consumer is central to the success of the contact centre proposition,' explains Jeff Smith, chairman of MM Group. 'The real added value for the client comes in finding the most sensitive way to appropriately deliver the brand values to consumers through these touch points.
'It is difficult to inject these values into the mind of someone who sits outside the brand,' he adds. 'It is all about the currency of understanding and the ability of contact centre agents to do more than simply handle a call. They have to be able to deliver the underlying brand message outside the specifics of any particular conversation.'
Integrating customer views
Many outsourcing agencies are filling their contact centres with the brand logos and products of their clients to immerse their agents in the propositions they are representing. Merchants is 12 months into a four-year telemarketing contract with Unilever, working across the FMCG giant's array of products, including brands such as Flora, Birds Eye and Persil.
The aim is to create a single view of each consumer's attitude to all Unilever products, as well as consolidate care lines across all brands - a task for which it was imperative that the agents fully understood the products they were responsible for.
The Merchants contact centre in Milton Keynes is full of Unilever brands and product placement, including a large mural across one wall displaying the company's full range. In addition, a kitchen was built in the contact centre to enable teams to research and investigate consumer queries on a case-by-case basis and even sample new products. The site also has with a washing machine for agents to test Persil products.
'It is difficult to get the balance right. Merchants employees are effectively working for two companies - us and Unilever,' says Andrew Briggs, chief executive of Merchants. 'We wanted a visual experience for our staff when they walked into the Unilever contact centre. In their surroundings and throughout their training, there is a heavy emphasis on the brands they work with day in and day out.'
The importance of using the contact centre as a branding tool was clear in Unilever's marketing vision during the agency selection process. 'Our criteria for selecting our outsourcing agency was fourfold: ability to deliver the solution, cost, reputation and service expertise, and the quality of staff,' explains Sam Walker, Unilever consumer link business manager. 'Staff quality was far and away the most important aspect because the agents had to be able to communicate the brand. We didn't want a telemarketing agency. We wanted a branded contact centre with agents who believed they worked for Unilever, not an outsourcer.
'Merchants won the contract because it could deliver a contact centre that we could use as a customer relationship marketing and research tool,' adds Walker. 'The communication line between the agents and our brand marketers and creative teams is very strong. Barely a day goes by without a member of our brand team visiting the call centre in Milton Keynes.
The regularity of this contact enables the marketers to listen directly to the customers they are targeting, as well as allowing the agents to understand the exact manner in which the brands need to be communicated.'
Furnishing the contact centres with brand images is only the tip of the iceberg for some agencies in ensuring their agents are up to speed with the attributes of their client's brands. Staff at Inkfish Call Centres were encouraged to test drive Renault cars and take British Airways flights to help them get a feel for their clients. At Garlands Call Centres in Scotland, agents working on the Freeserve account were even entertained by a gospel choir to better understand one of the internet service provider's recent marketing campaigns.
MM Group has been working with direct marketing agency EHS Brann on the agency's Volvo account to establish a greater emphasis on brand in the car marque's contact centre activity. All inbound enquiries to the Volvo hotline come into eight dedicated agents who reside within a branded Volvo area at MM Group's Bristol contact centre. This environment features displays for the various cars, specific logos, advertising straplines and the unique selling points of each model. Additionally, each agent is encouraged to personalise their desk space with Volvo merchandise such as pens, stress balls and mouse mats - all designed, according to MM Group, to encourage the agents to 'live the brand'.
A focus was also placed on a seamless two-way flow of information between the agents and the car dealerships to further strengthen the idea of them being colleagues and to ensure that there was a deep understanding of the importance of both parties' roles. All of the agents spent a day during their initial training programme test-driving all available models - a procedure that continues when models are added to the line.
Since the beginning of this customer relationship contract with Volvo, which was conceived in 1995, EHS Brann claims that 40% of potential customers are more likely to purchase than they were previously. MM Group's figures show that the Bristol contact centre delivered 152% more leads in 2003 than in the previous year.
Such investment in staff training is an important part of the brand-centric approach and something that is only just beginning to pervade the market, according to Phil Crossley, sales and marketing director at Arvato Services UK. 'Training is vital and we do more than just standard product training,' he says. 'We include corporate training on the values and working practices of both ourselves and our clients. Agents need to adopt the corporate culture of the client and merge it with their own values of best practice.
Training agents to do this is one of the most valuable sales tools an agency has at its disposal.'
The need for stronger training links between client and agency is central to the idea of a branded approach and there is a growing willingness to invest more heavily in this side of the telemarketing proposition.
CPM encourages client Britvic Soft Drinks to be heavily involved in the training process so it can see the impact of its increased expenditure. 'We always ensure that the link between the client and the communicator is very strong,' says CPM managing director Mike Hughes. 'Our call-handlers are ambassadors for the brand, so it is crucial that we deliver the best service possible to consumers.
'For example, with the Britvic contract our communicators attend factories and laboratories to gain a thorough understanding of Britvic's safety and quality measures. We ask our clients to deliver training on the company background and brand portfolio.
'The CPM team also takes part in regular competitor analysis and benchmarking to keep abreast of market changes - crucial to ensuring we have the knowledge and insight to add value. Clients understand the importance of customer interaction on the value of the brand far more than they did five years ago. There is more acceptance for quality and value-focused outsourcers in the market. Those that embrace dialogue with consumers can differentiate themselves from rivals.'
Use of customer data is vital to ensuring that such dialogue is passed all the way along the communication line between brand and consumer - an area of expertise that agencies are still generally not up to speed with. 'There remains a general failure among contact centres to glean useful nuggets of information,' says Chris Hollamby, managing director of Sitel UK. 'The industry is still immature and consequently management issues are immature.
'Revenue opportunities are limited to certain relationships with the brand so it is important to identify them and provide strategic feedback on that relationship. Having quality control is a recent development. Unfortunately, contact centres are still typically managed metrically.'
While there are very few on either side of the client-agency divide who would deny the obvious advantages of an approach based on brand values, the actual change in adopting this process is still slower than many would like.
'The industry is recognising the importance of portraying the brand and developing an intimacy with customers, but this recognition is not yet a physical act,' says Mike Purvis, enterprise service director at Vertex.
'Firms in certain sectors, such as telecommunications, are very good at emphasising brand communication, but 90% of contracts are based on price.'
David Ewing, client services director at Garlands, concurs. 'Lots of people talk about instilling brand values into agents but few are actually doing it,' he says. 'Many simply don't have the contractual structure to be able to do it. It is a simple fact that you cannot do it if the emphasis of the client relationship is on the short-term bottom line.'
With the telemarketing industry enduring one of the most pressured periods in its history, it is clear to many that a change of approach is necessary.
The adoption of a greater emphasis on brand values is one method that deserves consideration, according to Dr Guy Fielding, head of research and development at independent consultancy CM Insight.
'Customers will draw conclusions about a company and its personality based on their conversations with its represen-tatives,' he concludes.
'For any company, the call centre is part of the brand image. All too frequently, however, it is an unmanaged, random and rogue one. At best, it generates the equivalent of white noise. At worst, it delivers a distinctly 'off-message' signal that damages and may even destroy brand value. Brands could reap the financial benefits of having a brand 'voice' as well as a brand image.'
Clearly, if this viewpoint holds true, there are lessons to be learned - and fast.
TOP 15 STRATEGIC CONSULTANCIES
Agency Turnover Strategic Strategic
2003 (pounds) (%) (pounds)
1 Vertex 323,100,000 70 226,170,000
2 Ventura 112,000,000 90 100,800,000
3 Sitel UK* n/a 88 41,945,200
4 Merchants 23,505,000 81 19,039,050
5 Prolog Connect 32,200,000 58 18,676,000
6 MM Group 45,199,000 39 17,627,610
7 Inkfish Call Centres 25,100,000 60 15,060,000
8 CPM* n/a 70 14,290,500
9 HCL Technologies 13,770,000 80 11,016,000
10 The Listening Co 14,120,000 75 10,590,000
11 Arvato Services 12,300,000 80 9,840,000
12 BeCogent 13,584,000 70 9,508,800
13 Thus 24,600,000 33 8,118,000
14 iSKY Europe 10,000,000 78 7,800,000
15 Broadsystem 38,863,000 20 7,772,600
*Companies House financial data provided by Willott Kingston Smith on
agencies affected by the Sarbanes-Oxley Act