Monday Interview: John Devlin, Ascensos

The electronics engineer who shook up a complacent contact centre industry. Picture: Contributed

The electronics engineer who shook up a complacent contact centre industry. Picture: Contributed

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MOVING from electronic engineering to call centre management might not seem like an obvious career path, but for entrepreneur John Devlin it was a “constant evolution” that made perfect sense.

After working in the Silicon Glen heyday of Scotland’s electronics sector, Devlin got involved in outsourcing customer contact back when it was an emerging industry in the early 1990s.

“I gradually moved from engineering into sales and marketing for electronics businesses, and that evolved into software manufacturing, and customer service supporting software manufacturing,” he says.

As his second contact centre venture added another well-known client last week, adding 50 jobs to its Motherwell base, Devlin laughs at the question of whether an engineering background is useful in this now well established line of work. Apparently, technology is more important that ever, especially as his venture, Ascensos, is focused on social media.

“Our business is predicated on how the tech operates,” he explains. “You have to have an understanding on how it all hangs together and what the best innovation is. A lot of our contracts are quite detailed about how we use that technology, so the background in electronic engineering has served me well.”

Devlin founded Ascensos a little over a year ago alongside two former colleagues from call centre operator BeCogent – Dermot Jenkinson and Katrine Young.

The trio launched the venture with a £1.8 million regional selective assistance (RSA) grant from Scottish Enterprise, taking over the freehold on a Lloyds call centre that had closed earlier in 2013. Devlin is managing director, with Jenkinson as chairman and Young as finance chief.

All had been shareholders and senior executives at BeCogent, a Scottish success story that created 3,000 jobs and worked with clients including John Lewis, Sainsbury’s and Virgin Media.

It was sold for £35m in 2010 to French peer Teleperformance, although Devlin says that was down to other investors, who after more than a decade were keen to cash in their return on the business.

Far from being ready for a break, Devlin, who had been commercial and operations director at BeCogent, stayed on at Teleperformance as its managing director for operations in Scotland.

But despite a number of other directorships and his post as chairman of Albion Rovers Football Club, he was keen to return to business once a three-year contractual agreement with Teleperformance not to set up a venture in the industry expired.

He says: “We got the old band back together and decided to do something a bit different, and shake up what we see as a complacent contact centre industry.

“There’s been a lot of consolidation in the market over the last five years and its left a sea of averageness out there – there’s a one-size-fits-all approach from these big providers.”

Their approach was to pioneer a new outsourced service from its customer contact centres: management of social media customer service profiles. One of the offshoots of the rise of social media has been its use by customers – sometimes but not always disgruntled – to contact companies and brands over customer issues. This means that their queries and complaints are public, and dealing with them were generally the preserve of in-house marketing departments.

However, such is the growth in volumes, as vastly increased mobile connectivity makes electronic communication via social media the first choice for many, that it is becoming increasingly time consuming.

Devlin says: “Even in the later days at BeCogent that was starting to come through, although social media was used more on a person-to-person basis. You could see where the trends were going, that more and more brands were going to start using social media to communicate with their customers through these channels.

“That steadily increased over the three years we weren’t in this sector. When we thought of getting back together it was definitely a sweet spot for us and a gap in the market.”

The changing pattern gave a new entrant an advantage over established firms, as many had invested heavily in voice-related technology for their traditional call centres. Instead, Ascension’s founders put their resources into the software that allowed better analysis of electronic communications, and hired people who were social media savvy.

That also involved taking a different approach to the business, Devlin observes.

“Our focus really was on having that individual approach, being more personable with our employees and with our clients and having that agility that some of the bigger players just can’t compete with,” he says.

“It’s not just a call centre any more. We’ve become a healthy mix of a call centre and a creative digital agency.”

Ascensos gained contracts with B&Q and ScottishPower, as well as a number of well known retail brands it is not allowed to name.

The firm’s Motherwell base employs some 150 people, with recruitment on behalf of ScottishPower currently underway. It added Wickes as a client last week with a project set to create a further 50 jobs. Devlin says the set-up is “somewhat different” to the way call centres are generally perceived.

“We’ve got a lot of creative individuals working with us doing a lot of publishing of marketing campaigns as well as dealing with enquiries.”

In order to fill the vacancies, Ascensos has eschewed traditional recruitment methods and started to advertise its jobs on social media. It selects candidates through social media routes, testing their abilities and assessing how they use social media.

The firm has even created a course with New College Lanarkshire, “social media for business”.

30 SECOND CV

Born: 1968, Bellshill.

Education: When I left school, my first employer sponsored me through college studying electronic engineering. It has served me well.

Ambition while at school: I attended school in Airdrie but always wanted to travel. Finding a job that gave me that opportunity was always high on my list.

First Job: I didn’t get to travel too far with my first job however! Electronics engineering trainee, Burroughs Machines, Livingston.

Favourite mode of transport: For business travel I take the train wherever possible. Much preferable and bit more civilised than flying.

What car do you drive: BMW.

Favourite music: All-time favourite artist would have to be Paul Weller and The Jam in particular. Currently liking Future Islands.

Favourite place: London. I am drawn to the independent nature of the various “villages” in the London Boroughs.

Preferred social media: Twitter.

Business mantra: Hire well. Build the best team that you can attract and that you can afford. At Ascensos we call it our “A Team”.

Best thing about your job: Ascensos is a challenger brand. We take on the big established outsourcers and beat them at their own game. I like that. It suits my character.

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