Newsmaker: Mark Brown - Cautious optimist at Sitel UK helm

Outsourced UK telemarketing is no bed of roses these days, with downward pressure on pricing, overcapacity and a growing consumer rejection of unsolicited phone calls.

Sitel UK and Ireland, part of the global group and NYSE-quoted Sitel Corp, has had its share of woes. The company has recorded losses every year in the UK since 2001 (source: Key Note's Call Centres 2005 Business Ratio Report). Revenues shrank from £43 million in 2003 to £41.5 million in 2004 and there has been at least one management shake-up since, aimed at improving Sitel's fortunes in the UK.

The latest would-be Sitel saviour is Mark Brown, former managing director of Sitel Germany and Poland, appointed to head Sitel UK last May. Having spent the past 20 years in Germany, Brown is a virtual unknown in UK direct marketing circles. The press notes distributed when he was made managing director reveal a North Yorkshire background and a love of Burnley Football Club.

These aren't the credentials that interest Sitel, of course. The same press release describes a telemarketing veteran who is credited with increasing Sitel's revenues in Germany "by 500 per cent" and for opening contact centres in that country as well as in Poland. In the early 90s, Brown also launched contact centres for travel and leisure group RCI in Greece, Belgium and India.

Turning Sitel UK around, through retaining current clients such as Nectar and winning new ones, is a much bigger proposition, however.

"You could probably say the brief is to grow the UK operation," he says.

With an accent that's still discernibly Yorkshire, Brown is a cautious interviewee and only later does he sound excited as he describes his new sales and marketing director, Ken Wheeler.

Brown says Wheeler, who hails from Cap Gemini and Merchants, "is like me - passionate about football and about growing Sitel back to where it should be. In the past four years we've concentrated too much on operational issues and what we probably haven't done is concentrate on growth".

For the past year, however, Sitel UK has been in retreat. Its Watford facility will close at the end of this year, as will the 300-seat Irish operation, which once served clients such as Capital One and Bank of Scotland.

"We don't see that location (Ireland) offering competitive advantages anymore," he explains. "When we went there five years ago, the cost savings were substantial over the UK. That's no longer the case."

Brown stresses that the UK will remain a strong focus, along with the company's offshore operations in India, the Philippines and the Far East.

"The Philippines are very good at offering customer service-type calls, but the more complex stuff you would prefer to keep in the UK," he says.

Winning new UK business is now crucial for Brown, and two recent UK wins, one a travel client and the other in telecoms, have buoyed his optimism.

He refuses to be depressed by the number of registrations to the Telephone Preference Service tipping over the 10 million mark, but acknowledges that the volume of outbound calling in the UK "is going to drop".

Sitel UK's mix of business in Marketing Direct's 2005 Telemarketing League was listed as 60 per cent inbound, which includes customer service calls and DRTV-response handling. "Generally speaking, the number of inbound events is increasing as our clients are speaking more to their customers than ever before."

As for restoring the prominence of the Sitel brand, Brown cites the fact that the company returned to exhibit at Call Centre Expo in September, after an absence of several years, as the shape of things to come.

He also talks about boosting morale and career opportunities at Sitel UK. Was there anything in this regard that Brown learnt while in Germany?

He pauses. "The lesson is that in the outsourced market you need a good operational basis, more to do with people than with kit, because to a certain extent the kit is the same in all call centres."

It is this hill, as well as all the other market pressures besetting telemarketing, that Sitel UK and Brown have to climb.


- To rebuild the Sitel brand in the UK

- To win long-term outsourced call-handling business

- To stem management and call centre staff churn.


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