A phone call from a salesman is a part of daily life for consumers in the US, and is starting to become more common in the UK. But research by the Henley Centre shows that only 16% of us actually welcome this: the rest will greet the intrusion with anything from resignation to outright impatience.
To overcome this reluctance, outbound telemarketers have to grab the consumer's attention in the first few seconds of the call if they are to win a sale, and that requires specialist techniques.
'Telesales professionals need to understand that from the first word they utter, the person they are calling is forming a mental picture of their physical appearance, state of mind and even the level of their commitment,' says Colin Perriss, sales and marketing consultant at TeleDynamics. 'If these are not convincing they will hang up before the sales message is even delivered.'
That is particularly the case where the call is from someone the consumer will never have heard of. Outbound specialist Telegen UK makes calls on behalf of an insurance company that uses telemarketing as its sole marketing channel, posing a special challenge. The company recruited Nova Heather, a professional trainer, to provide coaching that resulted in a 15% uplift in sales.
According to Heather, the first few seconds of message delivery is more important than the content. The right tone and pitch are critical, and it is also important to sound energetic, she says. 'The caller can't see you so your whole personality is conveyed by your voice: if it normally contains a slight note of sarcasm this will come across much more strongly than it would face-to-face.'
Choice of words is also important: those with strong appeal such as 'genuine' and 'low-cost' can make people pay attention. Another ploy is to ask open questions such as, 'what do you think about the offer?' rather than 'do you like the offer?', since the former is less likely to elicit a negative response.
In most cases the effectiveness of the opening gambit will be determined long before the operator picks up the phone, both in the quality of training they receive and their understanding of the specific objective.
'If operators know what they want to achieve they will seem much more convincing to the consumer,' says Deb Tate, marketing manager at Kingston Call Centres, which carries out outbound calling for a number of new media companies.
'Make sure their product knowledge is updated on a daily basis,' she advises. 'We provide a pre-shift briefing, where operators are kept abreast of things they need to be aware of, such as changes in the product offering.'
The success of an outbound sales call is likely to be determined by the operator's attitude to the product or service they are selling, or the client they represent, says Stuart MacMillan Pratt, managing director of the Ops Room. 'If they are convinced the sales message is one they can convey with confidence and honesty, it will come across in their tone of voice.'
A congenial accent will also have a favourable impact on the consumer, claims MacMillan Pratt. For instance having a number of New Zealanders and South Africans among its agents helps to convey the image of ruggedness and broad appeal when the Ops Room makes calls on behalf of Landrover.
Building a rapport
A similar point is made by Tom Preece, managing director of CPM/Intelmark.
A northern or Irish accent is often felt to be friendly, he suggests, while the sound of a Scottish or Yorkshire voice might be associated with people who are careful with money, an attribute when selling financial services.
But any accent is acceptable as long as the caller can establish a rapport quickly. Roy White, management consultant at Sitel Consulting, says: 'You are trying to develop empathy, and at the beginning of the call you do that by being courteous, asking whether the call is convenient and making sure the person has time to listen.'
When calling businesses it is important for operators to sound as though they know what they are talking about. That principle is understood by Iveco Ford Trucks, which makes outbound calls to companies through telemarketing agency MBO.
'Transport and logistics managers are busy people, so when you do make contact you need a telemarketer who can intelligently discuss their requirements and how we can fulfil them,' says David Martin, marketing services manager for Iveco Ford Trucks. 'The operator has got to define rapidly what the customer needs.'
When it comes to evaluating performance, nothing speaks louder than the bottom-line sales figures. But softer measures are also used: trainers can monitor calls and provide one-to-one coaching where a caller appears to lack confidence, babbles, or fails to follow instructions.
Tools can also be used to analyse the content of calls, pinpointing the need for further training or using specific examples to identify best practice in coaching sessions.
With so much to remember it can sometimes seem that the operator has an impossible task. But ultimately the goal is to synthesise the skills taught in training into a fluent blend of courtesy, product knowledge and drive to win a sale. As Kingston's Tate says: 'Even if it is the 98th call of the day, it has to feel like this is the first person you are speaking to.'
SCOTTISH AND SOUTHERN ENERGY
Since the summer, MM Group has been running an outbound telemarketing campaign for Scottish and Southern Energy with a team of 23 operators.
The selling has been so effective that this number is likely to double over the next three months.
Having learned how much they normally pay, the operator can run a comparison in the database and come up with an exact figure. Where there are no savings, the operator will ask whether the consumer is satisfied with the quality of service.
The approach has been developed by the utility and the agency, according to Malcolm Holbrook, direct sales manager at Scottish and Southern Energy.
'It's not a hard sell, we're just telling consumers who we are and how we can save them some money,' says Holbrook.
'We have the best customer service record in the industry. However, when it comes to outbound calls we hope the telesales agency has more skills than we do,' he says. 'It is a difficult job and we believe they do it well.'
BEST PRACTICE TIPS
- Carefully focused training is a crucial part of the calling strategy to ensure operators feel both comfortable and confident.
- Operators should adopt a tone of voice that captures interest in the first few seconds, since this will have immediate impact irrespective of the words actually being spoken.
- Match the tone with the subject matter of the call: with leisure offers a chirpy approach comes over well, whereas a call that deals with life insurance requires a more sober mood.
- Choice of words remains a key part of the outbound strategy: a call guide is preferable to a script, since it gives operators the freedom to be conversational while keeping track of the overall objective.