NERVOUS tension spread among the staff at Response headquarters last Monday as the clock ticked past 9am, writes Terry Murden.
The first call came in at 9.15am and was to herald the start of a busy day as the team handling enquiries for a new blue chip client worked their way through a thousand more.
The £20 million contract from ScottishPower is the biggest the Glasgow-based contact centre company has won. Understandably, managing director Brian Bannatyne and his army of advisers were keen to make a good first impression.
“It was very daunting. ScottishPower told us to expect 700 calls on the first day and we exceeded that,” he says. “But the company had just announced a price increase that morning, so we were thrown in at the deep end.”
In a tough environment, Bannatyne is delighted to have picked up the contract from a big utility and believes that with other work on the horizon the company is building momentum.
It’s a tough and demanding business and, he argues, hugely undervalued and misunderstood. It prefers the designation “contact” centres, to the negative connotations associated with “call centres”, but the latter remains the label of choice in the public’s mind and Bannatyne believes the industry has to work on its image if it wants to improve trust and confidence as well as the morale of those who work in it.
He is a chartered accountant who has worked in the automotive industry, financial services and IT, but is enjoying every minute of the contact centre industry. Since becoming part of the sector four years ago he has set himself a personal mission to change perceptions and allow the 90,000 it employs in Scotland to be proud and fulfilled in what they do.
He carries with him an A4 laminated card which colleagues call his “20 minute vision statement” outlining his goals for the business. He shows it to clients and anyone else whom he feels would benefit from knowing how he wants things to change.
Fundamentally, he would like staff to feel valued and engaged and he is determined to see that reflected in better pay and conditions. Temporary contracts at Response have been replaced by full-time deals and pay scales have been introduced.
He is almost apologetic for some of the practices that have given the industry a bad name: apart from low pay and a reputation for “sweatshop” working conditions it has suffered from high staff churn rates, from migrating work overseas and cold calling.
He admits that Response had been replacing more than the equivalent of its entire staff every year. That has fallen to below 30 per cent which he regards as still too high and some of this slowdown will be because of the current employment climate. Two years ago Response stopped cold calling, or ringing customers to sell products. after taking the decision to cancel contracts it had for a practice that continues to cause irritation and alarm.
“It’s a maligned industry. When I came in everyone was paid minimum wage,” he says. “But conditions are improving and work is coming back from overseas.”
He says that it is not just the public’s perception that needs to alter; attitudes among clients also need to improve. “It is a master-servant relationship and we are working to change that,” he says, explaining that clients too often regard outsourcing as a means to cut costs rather than as a valued enhancement of customer service.
“We need to be seen as experts in managing customers; we have scale and technology to help us and we share best practice.”
He says the benefits that a good contact centre can bring are evident in the added value brought to Hiscox, the insurer. Response provides a broad range of services from handling policies to managing data. It requires regulatory approval and expertise among a team of 50 who work on the account.
Bannatyne says Response has turned around the Hiscox business and grown it by 40 per cent in the last year. He is expecting the contract to be renewed for another three years.
Other contract renewals will help boost turnover by 25 per cent this year though margins remain tight in a competitive sector and Bannatyne insists that he puts value to clients ahead of higher returns. The company lost work with Sky when the satellite broadcaster consolidated its nine centres into two, so winning ScottishPower was particularly rewarding and will allow the firm to recruit up to 400 staff this year.
Response was set up in 1991 to sell football tickets and is still wholly-owned by former Rangers chairman Sir David Murray who has no day-to-day involvement in the company. Murray interviewed Bannatyne and was only really interested in his background, growing up in the Gorbals, and on the things that had shaped his career.
He jokes that despite being a Celtic supporter he was taken on, joining as chief operating officer and taking up his current role in February 2009. He immediately set about implementing his mission, though he admits he is no more than 20 per cent through it.
“Have we created thousands of jobs? No. An employee ownership model? No. There is work to do yet,” he says. “But staff engagement has improved, people feel more empowered.”
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Saturday 18 May 2013
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