With telephone sales and services on offer from India at a fraction of the UK price, it might seem remarkable that contact centre outsourcers are surviving. To compete in the global market, they have to provide a superior result with margins cut to the bone.
Yet some agencies are flourishing under the pressure, none more so than CPM, which this year has impressed with the quality of its phone services over and above the field marketing for which it is also known.
The agency has won contact work from new clients including Gallagher, Pfizer and the Electoral Commission, accounting for more than £4m of extra business and generating double-digit growth on its contact centre activity.
CPM has also expanded its work for existing clients, notably British Gas, which this year rated it the most successful of its seven contact centre agencies. Despite the utility giant's recent price hike, CPM exceeded its outbound sales targets so convincingly that these have more than doubled over the past 12 months, yielding a cost per sale 7% below the client's expectation.
Its agents also handled hundreds of thousands of inbound calls and mail applications from customers wanting to sign up to British Gas' price protection offer - a crucial plank in British Gas' client-retention strategy. CPM beat its target by two-thirds.
Business-to-business represents a growth area for the agency, and managing director Mike Hughes identifies telephone management of retail accounts as having great potential. The agency is well-placed to benefit by offering it as an alternative to field marketing. 'Clients want the same level of sales for less cost, and using the phone is cheaper than sending staff to shops,' Hughes says. 'We are winning new clients in that area.'
The latest example is Pfizer, seeking telephone orders from high-street pharmacies. CPM gained three times its original sales target in a pilot campaign, and continued to beat upgraded targets by 150%.
Another is GlaxoSmithKline, for which the agency claims an eye-catching call-to-sale conversion rate of 60%-70%, delivering significant return on investment. The work was highly commended in the Customer Service Team of the Year category at this year's National Customer Service Awards.
CPM was commended in this year's European Call Centre Awards for its work with Cancer Research UK, taking calls from people wishing to participate in the women-only fundraising event Race for Life. These calls required an ability to connect emotionally with callers, as it was the first step in turning them into long-term fundraisers.
Different skills were required for a project that involved fielding responses to an Electoral Commission campaign to raise awareness of the 2004 referendum on a North East regional assembly. Here the priority was to give accurate information, even if this clashed with voters' political inclinations.
The agency was then asked to handle voter enquiries for the General Election in May. 'We are astounded by CPM's level of professionalism in what can be an extremely difficult job,' says Lisa Howse, public information officer at the Electoral Commission.
CPM is often in the front line of handling the public response to emergencies.
It moved fast to help Oxfam handle donations after the East Asian tsunami nearly a year ago, and quickly ramped up its response to callers to the Network Rail helpline after the London bombings in July, which led to a 300% increase in call volumes.
Contact centres are not widely noted for their emphasis on return on investment, but CPM strives to demonstrate to clients that carelines add value. Third parties carry out regular post-call surveys and benchmark its service against that of client competitors'. Hughes claims the results have helped the agency win new business.
This year the quality of its carelines has been improved by investment in new technology from Aspect that gives agents more complete information about customers regardless of the channel they come through.
There is no doubt that CPM has satisfied clients, but perhaps its staff should have the last word. Attrition among its contact centre agents is running at just 2.5%, and in a recent survey 96% said they would recommend it as a place to work. In an industry excoriated for poor working conditions and low staff morale, that says a lot.
PREVIOUS WINNERS 2004: Garlands 2003: MM Group 2002: BeCogent
BEST OF THE REST
Several agencies are proving that commitment to quality and return on investment gets results. One strong contender for Contact Centre Agency of the Year was BeCogent, which experienced a 25% rise in turnover to £21m for the year to June.
The agency won £4m of new business, including a telephone and internet support line for a leading bank, as well as contracts from John Lewis Direct and Argos. It also won work for an ISP that had previously outsourced to India - proof that the cheapest options are not necessarily the best.
A campaign handling in- and outbound calls for Telewest was so successful the agency had to increase the number of staff assigned to it from 70 to nearly 300. It achieved a first-time resolution rate of more than 91% and answered almost 98% of its potential calls, well ahead of its target.
Another BeCogent customer is catalogue firm JD Williams, for which it is the sole supplier of customer contact services. 'BeCogent has increased our incremental sales and demonstrated the flexibility that makes it the ideal business partner,' says JD Williams head of sales Sally Stansfield.
In August BeCogent hired a new managing director, Charles Breslin, as part of its plan to become a £30m business within the next three years.
He arrived from Churchill Insurance, where he headed its Contact Centre Strategy group.
MM Teleperformance has been one of the fastest-growing outsourced contact centres in recent years, and is now the UK's third-biggest behind Vertex and Ventura. New business wins this year totalled £5.4m and includes a model office test programme for BSkyB and an acquisition campaign for Carphone Warehouse.
Following the London bombings in July its agents handled offers from the public of blood donations on behalf of the NHS Blood and Transplant Service. At peak times calls were coming in at a rate of 200 every three minutes.
'MM Teleperformance has maintained world-class caller satisfaction survey results, which is why it was able to cope so well in a crisis,' says NHS Blood and Transplant Service national call centre manager Ian Hamerton.
Last year's Contact Agency of the Year Garlands continues to fare well, with revenues leaping by almost 30% to more than £36m, almost entirely by growing business with existing clients such as Virgin and Vodafone.
In September the agency opened premises in Stockton that will cater for a range of multichannel customer contacts.
Garlands has continued to do well on the awards front, being named North East Contact Centre of the Year. Chief executive Chey Garland was also honoured by Veuve Clicquot as UK Business Woman of the Year.
Demand for Broadsystem's data analysis expertise continues, with new projects for clients such as The Times, Vodafone and MasterCard. One successful acquisition campaign was for Cornhill Direct General Insurance, where it used profiling techniques to find prospects that best matched existing customers. This produced a rise of 40% in conversion rates compared with previous campaigns run without data integration. Costs per sale were reduced by 50% and access to decision-makers increased by 25%.
'If you can't beat them, join them' is a good maxim for agencies threatened by offshore competition. One is Merchants, which has satisfied some clients' yearning for cheaper options by setting up contact centres abroad.
The agency has been running a large-scale customer service operation for AOL in South Africa, and this year switched its customer service activities for a major UK retailer there from Milton Keynes, reducing costs while maintaining a seamless service.
Customer service depends greatly on quality training. Here Navigator Customer Management has shown a particular aptitude for innovation, training new recruits in cognitive behavioural language patterns.
As well as the shift of work offshore, contact centres have also had to deal with the rise of the Telephone Preference Service (TPS), which allows consumers to block marketing calls. TPS registrations hit 10m in September, and consultancy CM Insight predicts that 90% of all consumers will have signed up within two years, effectively putting an end to prospect calling.
But it is not all bad news. The industry continues to grow at an 'astonishing' rate, notes Penny Bousfield, director of outsourcing operations at CM Insight, as more consumers use the phone to talk to companies.
And agencies are persuading more companies that they can do a better job than in-house centres. Datamonitor reckons they could account for up to 14% of the market within two years, up from 10% in 2000.