By Ruth Goldenberg
In 1983, ATSI (then ATAE) commissioned a market research study to assess the future of our business. It was the era of cordboards and traditional TAS accounts. Computerized equipment was just on the horizon. We were all worried that with the advent of voice mail and call forwarding, we would be put out of business. The study recommended several strategic responses:
- Reduce costs of operations.
- Attract and retain more live TAS subscribers.
- Expand geographically.
- Offer additional services.
Well, it’s 15 years later and it is pretty obvious to most of us that have been around for awhile, that new market development and offering additional services is the key to the survival and growth of our industry.
Having experienced some of the growing pains myself over the past six years, here are ten suggestion that might help you get started moving your TAS business into the future of Call Center inbound telemarketing.
1. Recognize that you are entering a new line of business: Inbound telemarketing, though related to TAS, is a different business. It has different clients with different expectations, different call traffic, and different billing methods. Even the callers are different: they are actually happy to reach you! Therefore, you need to approach it as such. This means the first step is plan, plan, plan. I can’t emphasize enough the importance of the old axiom, “make a plan and work it.” So step one, make (write) a business plan. There are many sources for a format and what should be included in a good, professional business plan: books, computer programs, seminars, university level courses. Find one you are comfortable with and do it. Make sure you have the resources and that it will make a profit.
2. Learn more about the telemarketing business that exists outside our industry: Subscribe to some of the call center publications: Call Center Magazine, Tele professional Magazine and others. Get some new perspectives on issues facing the traditional large telemarketing companies that might be adapted for your use.
3. Define the product: What services will you be offering? We figured we had telereceptionists already at computer stations taking calls; these were just another kind of in-bound call . So as long as we could create a screen format to gather the data the client needed, we were in business. Our first clients were selling products (limited number of items), needed reservations taken for an event, or needed information gathered that was more extensive than could fit on our Startel message screen. The information was generally faxed to the client via our TAS system, or downloaded using a BBS pickup that worked with a separate computer program. Spend some time identifying your market potential so you can target potential clients for whom you can be successful. Their referrals are worth a lot.
4. Educate yourself on telephony requirements: Determine how your clients’ calls will get to you. Can you use your existing phone lines, or do you need some of the new service offerings, such as ISDN lines, T-1 carriers, and the like? Your local telco is a great source for information, as is ATSI and other user and trade groups. We started using our existing DID trunks and phone numbers to which clients’ toll free numbers were pointed and therefore rang in like our other clients.
Your client needs to have an 800-number that they use in their advertising. This is programmed by the carrier to “point to” or ring in on your equipment. We have opted for ease of billing to have the client procure his own 800-number that is then pointed to an assigned DID. Toll free numbers are available from a variety of carriers: Cable and Wireless, AT&T, LDDS, etc., even your local phone company can provide them nationwide. Check on rates so you can recommend the best rates for your prospect.
Another option is for you to own the 800-numbers and have them pre-set and ready to go. You would then be responsible for the phone charges and need to bill that to the client along with your service charges. We have taken the conservative approach so as not to get stuck with a big phone bill, and have stayed out of the 800-number service loop.
5. Plan a Marketing Strategy: Order Entry (OE) opens up your market beyond your local calling area. Most of us started with our traditional geographical area, then expanded as we assessed the potential of other areas. For no additional expense, we started out by prominently featuring inbound order-taking and call-response services in our regular answering service yellow pages ad. For a nominal additional expense, we then added a small display ad in the telemarketing classification. Amazing, but true, the phone book still works, at least in the beginning, to get your feet wet.
Look at your own client base. Your current clients are fertile ground for your new expanded service offering. Tell them in a newsletter or special notice; contact them to see if they may have an application for OE. Some of our first OE clients were converted from long cumbersome message slips. The expanded capability of our PI system served them better and made more money for us.
Networking and referrals, important for TAS, are vital for OE. We joined several more groups relating to catalogs, telemarketing, etc. Check your local area for what’s happening near you, as well as some that are nationwide. Get the word out through the usual chamber of commerce, leads clubs and other networking opportunities, such as the Internet.. Don’t forget PR releases to announce your new service offering.
6. Start with your current equipment, if possible, while exploring the specialized equipment available: We started using our Startel OE program that we had lying dormant for years, very cumbersome, but it did work and allowed us to begin the process of tapping the OE market.
After about two years, we upgraded our stations to PCs and installed a PI2000 system. There are several vendors who provide programs that work very well for the purpose. Some are integrated with your TAS system, some can be stand-alone and used either in conjunction with it or separately. Check with your TAS vendor to see what they offer. Two of the more widely used stand-alone systems that I know of are Professional Tele data and Telemarketing Services (formerly Doyle Logan).
Getting started means evaluating the offerings. I cannot recommend one system over the other. Much depends on what you are doing for TAS, however, most use PC stations. Look at not only how the various systems handle information taken by your TSRs (Telephone Service Receptionists), but also the delivery method. Faxing messages worked fine for us at first, but soon clients expected electronic delivery through BBS, and now email is preferred.
Attend your equipment user group’s meetings, ATSI and/or regional meetings. Vendors will be on display and other users will be there to pick their brains. Read voraciously; see what’s out there. Perhaps for a small investment you can add on some software to get started. Remember, the goal is to match equipment with your business plan, starting small at first, with room for expansion as your client base grows.
7. Analyze your physical plant capacity: Most of us started by integrating OE calls with our regular TAS calls; therefore, we used the existing stations. The jury is still out, but many who have been doing this for a while plan to split off their OE business as its own profit center. Part of your marketing plan needs to include an analysis of growth potential and “seat” capacity. Clients will want to know “how many seats” you have; that is, how many TSRs will be available to take their incoming calls.
Strategic alliances with other users open the opportunity to “network,” so that call volume can be shared with other TASs. This allows you to provide sufficient “seats” if the volume exceeds your physical limitations. As your business grows, perhaps you might convert some unused or under utilized space to add more stations. Don’t forget to include administrative space required to support your new line of business.
8. Evaluate your current ” operators” and see if they would make good “TSRs.” Call center staffing, as in the TAS business, is the biggest challenge. Getting started with your current staff worked for most of us. Make sure you implement some new systems for special training and periodic review, not only of general methods and procedures, but also the specifics of each account. We have regular (at least two times per month) briefings on new and on going trouble spots with our staff.
Often clients are invited in to make presentations, and we video tape it for those not able to attend. Depending on your quality and needs evaluation, you may need to consider new sources and salary plans for your TSRs. The going pay rates for the level of performance your clients expect may be higher, especially if you need agencies to help with recruiting and hiring.
9. Look at scheduling in a new way: TAS scheduling was based on the fairly predictable ebb and flow of office openings and closings. Call center scheduling depends more on accurate prediction of call traffic (hopefully provided by the client that is based on advertising), and your ability to staff based on expected activity. The potential for large volumes of calls in short periods of time is sometimes scary. Call traffic analysis, either by computer or by educated “feel,” will be vital to avoiding crazy “hits” or overstaffing.
10. Set a goal for success: Determine what success will look like to you, something specific to indicate you have achieved it: dollar volume, numbers of accounts, profit percentage of your total business revenue, whatever is meaningful to your business. Incorporate this into your business plan to evaluate the success of your new enterprise.
Many of us in the TAS industry have taken 15-year-old advice and adapted it for the ’90s. Now it’s your turn to move into the new millennium of teleservices and call center opportunities.
Ruth Goldenberg is president of Direct Line Telemessaging Services in Berkeley, California (established in 1979), and earned an MBA in 1991.
[From Connection Magazine – July 1998]