Agency of the Year: Contact Centre Agency of the Year - Garlands

Garlands has achieved huge growth this year thanks to its dedication to customer satisfaction, training and retaining staff.

This year's Marketing Contact Centre Agency of the Year has achieved 75% growth, more than double its rate in 2003, and has seen revenues rise to £28m. Those achievements could see Garlands jump from 12 to seventh in Marketing's league table early next year.

In a market driven largely by technology, Garlands has always stood out for its focus on staff training and development. It holds that success comes as much from agents who are consistently helpful, friendly and informed as from state-of-art systems.

The agency has expanded its Hartlepool Marina headquarters and the Middlesbrough centre it opened in 2003, and is creating another centre at Stockton-on-Tees. That has been matched by an increase in staff by 1000 to 2600.

Remarkably, this growth has been achieved almost entirely by extending contracts with existing clients, such as Cable & Wireless, Virgin Mobile, Virgin.net and Wanadoo, having made a strategic decision to pursue this approach rather than pitch for new business.

An increasing number of companies ask for 'end-to-end' support, which Garlands provides in the form of outbound campaigns and cross- and upselling on inbound calls, as well as handling enquiries, registrations and back-office administration.

Virgin.net asked Garlands for a customer service centre to support its broadband service. Within six months, customer satisfaction levels had soared from 56% to 83%. An independent survey found that Virgin.net now boasts the highest level of satisfaction of the eight top consumer ISPs for product and service.

Cable & Wireless has increased the range of services handled by Garlands over the past four years. 'Customer satisfaction has always been inherent in its culture, and this has been demonstrated by improvements of 30% in our survey results,' says Jackie David, Cable & Wireless' head of outsource.

David praises the agency's ability to provide support at very short notice and to adapt to changed circumstances. When improved performance led to fewer service calls being made by Cable & Wireless customers, Garlands reassigned staff to chase non-payers. The client retrieved £2.2m, more than the cost of the annual contract.

The agency maintains that success follows from close attention to agent training and morale. Its groundbreaking Touch programme has won many accolades. Agents are encouraged to get involved in community work - mentoring in local schools, for example. Some present programmes on the company's in-house radio station.

By engaging in listening, public speaking and presentation, agents improve their telephone skills, making them more effective in sales and service. Their success helps reduce staff attrition, a big problem in the industry.

The agency has invested in HR and payroll systems this year, and has 'massively' beefed up its talent team, employing 16 development specialists and bringing all its training in-house.

Garlands has also kept staff morale high by providing a pleasant environment. In its new centre Garlands has provided subtle lighting, flowers and pictures, and relaxation areas equipped with pool tables, TVs and leather sofas.

Three years ago Garlands was one of the first to practise 'agent-matching', in which callers are connected to agents who have a similar age, background and accent. This greatly increases the effectiveness of telephone work and has been adopted by a number of outsourcers.

At Garlands the technique is being supported by technology. For a mobile phone client, it has invested in a system to identify the type of caller agents are most comfortable dealing with - older or single people, or those from a specific region, for instance.

The agency has been quick to benefit from developments in other areas. As an early adopter of Aspect's Contact Server, a system that alerts agents to customers details as they ring in, Garlands' agents can greet callers by their name and go straight in to discuss their preferences.

The priority for Garlands now is to take a step back and see where the company is going in 2005. To that end it has commissioned an independent survey of its clients to establish what it can do to improve its services still further.

PREVIOUS WINNERS

2003: MM Group

2002: BeCogent

2001: MM Group

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