The outsourced contact centre industry has changed dramatically over the past few years, with many familiar names disappearing and a few determined agencies striding forward. None more so than LBM, which, within a decade, has established itself among the top 10 players.
The Cheshire agency is in demand by mobile operators, financial services groups and retailers, which are impressed by its expertise in both handling data and making calls. Its turnover was up 20% to more than £47m this year, and the firm is on course for £60m by the end of its financial year next June.
To keep up with demand, LBM has increased staffing by 43% to nearly 2000 full-time employees. As well as its centre in Altrincham, it manages operations in Stockport, Manchester and London, and recently opened a fourth in Belfast.
This spectacular growth has earned it a place in the Sunday Times Fast Track 100 - which rates Britain's top-performing private companies - two years running, and in 2005 it was the only direct marketing outsourcer to be distinguished this way.
This year, LBM is buoyant after winning business from major international brands. It now has 250 full-time employees working for BSkyB and has also picked up big wins from a mobile phone network operator and a high-street bank.
Its impressive incremental business is further testament to the company's success. Carphone Warehouse has been impressed by its work in helping to launch a dedicated B2B division, calling 5000 decision-makers each day. By introducing sophisticated data capture and analysis the agency has improved the success rate, achieving a 10% conversion rate on direct sales and making appointments with more than 20%.
As a result, Carphone Warehouse has increased this activity fivefold, and entrusted LBM with a number of consumer projects. About 100 agents work on inbound and outbound consumer activity for the TalkTalk broadband offer and other services.
To reinforce the partnership, Carphone Warehouse has introduced an incentive scheme for LBM agents working on its campaigns, rewarding top performers with luxury trips abroad, which has proved highly successful in retaining agents.
'LBM is an entrepreneurial firm with a "can-do" attitude,' says Peter Green, managing director of Carphone Warehouse Business Solutions. 'It balances those attributes with the professionalism and systems needed to work with big companies such as ours.'
LBM is also heavily involved with O2. Its work for the telecoms company has grown exponentially over the past five years, and now accounts for a significant slice of the brand's direct sales, according to O2's head of telemarketing Richard Hudson. Over the past 12 months, LBM has helped O2 Online to a 20% increase in post-pay connections.
Hudson regards LBM as a trusted partner. 'It understands what we are trying to achieve, knows our key business drivers, and works hard to get the best from a cost and volume point of view,' he says.
Most contact centre agencies will have effective recruitment and training programmes, and state-of-art technology. What sets LBM apart is its experience with data.
Chief executive Ben Dixon says: 'Many agencies give the diallers lists provided by the client and hope they hit the target. As a data owner and analysis expert, we offer insight into how the data should be used.'
The agency can segment mobile business lists, screening out firms unlikely to respond. By focusing its efforts in this way, it can get better results and keep costs down.
Agents also record call outcomes and feed the data to LBM's analysts, who can use it to help the client make intelligent data purchasing decisions for future campaigns.
As agencies grow they can become bureaucratic and slow to respond to clients' concerns. But Dixon is keen to avoid that trap. 'Sometimes the personal touch can diminish, but I am very clear that we won't let that happen to LBM,' he says.
2003 MM Group
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Contact centres are rarely out of the news and the industry was buzzing in October after Channel 4's Dispatches claimed that rogue agents in India were hawking sensitive customer details.
In reality, data security in all contact centres is very strict and the fraud was more likely a result of consumers being conned into revealing their bank details by phone and email.
Either way, such stories do the industry's image no favours, especially since its abuse of automatic diallers has led to more than half of UK households blocking commercial calls.
However, the telephone remains the preferred channel for customer contact, and outsourcers are benefiting from the continuing steady growth in contact activity. After a slow start to 2006, confidence levels are rising, boosted by a number of government tenders coming up for review.
'Clients' willingness to buy seems to be increasing, and we expect the outsourcing market to pick up over the next few months,' says Penny Bousfield, director of outsourcing at contact centre consultancy CM Insight.
Some agencies are thriving in this environment and MM Teleperformance has again been a strong contender for Agency of the Year, having already taken it twice, in 2001 and 2003. This dynamic agency is on course to meet an ambitious 10% growth target to £60m this year, having doubled its profits in the 12 months to June.
Major wins total £11.5m, and include outbound campaigns for Royal Bank of Scotland, Tesco Personal Finance and Peugeot. The agency has also been retained on NHS Blood and Transplant and Renault, and both have entrusted it with work previously handled by other agencies.
MM's work continues to score highly in independent surveys; its contact centre for the Identity and Passport Service has been ranked the highest-quality customer service in the UK for the third year running, and its Sainsbury's service was rated 10th this year, up from 23. The retailer credits it with helping increase its online sales by nearly a third, while cost per order has been reduced by half and customer satisfaction has improved by 14%.
A home-delivery service is a logistically challenging business, and if something goes wrong, a customer can easily switch to a competitor. 'To avoid this, we needed a relationship with a trusted partner, to ensure we could provide our customers with an efficient, professional and friendly service,' says Penny Forward, head of online customer care at Sainsbury's.
Another agency to prosper in 2006 is The Listening Company, which expects turnover to grow by 49% to £26m. Its new wins included Travelodge and Shell, and it has increased its work with existing clients such as RBS and Sky.
Chief executive Neville Upton says: 'It has been a great year because the market understands the benefits of a quality operation. We now have 900 workstations, up from 550, and consultancy revenues have doubled, a trend we expect to continue in 2007'.
Last year's agency of the year, CPM, has had another phenomenal 12 months, with turnover up by 35%. The agency also broke into the automotive market, winning business for Honda despite a lack of experience in this sector, and has further gained a B2B contract from eBay.
Fluctuations in the energy market have led to a busy time for utility customer services. CPM has increased its work in this area by about 30%, handling the British Gas price rise last winter and helping 655,000 customers switch to price-protected products.
Garlands has also continued to grow, achieving an estimated 22% rise in revenues to £45m. It recently beat off strong opposition to provide a customer service facility for easyJet from its Middlesborough centre. It has also been involved in Carphone Warehouse's TalkTalk free broadband offer.
Inkfish, too, has had a good year, pushing its turnover up by 10% to £32.4m, and boosting its staff by nearly two-thirds. It has expanded the successful warranty sales operation it has been carrying out for Sky, which is finding that customers are six times less likely to churn if they have invested in service insurance.
The death of outbound prospect calling has been predicted for some time, but that has not deterred The Telemarketing Company, which recorded record sales this year. It continues to be the UK's biggest 100% outbound B2B agency, generating revenue from about 3m telemarketing calls a year.
New wins included Serco, Western Union, NPower and TNT, but 85% of its turnover came from repeat business, with clients including Palm, Cadbury and Morgan Lovell.