Interview: Teleperformance chief Alistair Niederer

Alistair Niederer believes social media is a vital part of a company's communications with its customers. Picture: Contributed
Alistair Niederer believes social media is a vital part of a company's communications with its customers. Picture: Contributed
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Overseeing a call centre operation that employs 8,000 people across two continents can’t be without its challenges, but Alistair Niederer insists the fundamentals of the business are rather basic.

“It’s not really that complicated,” says the UK and South Africa chief executive of Teleperformance. The Paris-based group has a global workforce of almost 140,000 – including 3,500 in Scotland – and annual revenues of more than €2.3 billion (£2bn). “Someone rings up, we answer the phone and tell them what they need to know. The tough bit is understanding what makes someone call in the first place, and how you can avoid them having to do that.”

Although they are an established feature of modern life, as anyone who has ever tried speaking to their bank or electricity supplier can attest, it seems fewer of us are using call centres – Tele­performance estimates that call volumes across the industry are falling more than 20 per cent year-on-year.

Part of that decline is because of the relentless rise in popularity of social media outlets such as Twitter, which enable customers to vent their frustrations quickly – and publicly.

“Nowadays, people know that if they want a response from a company, the best way to do it is to send a tweet,” says Niederer, who joined Teleperformance in January 2011.

“There will be a number of people continuously watching what is said about them, and it’s important that they engage straight away to resolve it.”

As with most areas of business, it seems that the internet presents one of the biggest challenges to the industry – and not only from disgruntled customers broadcasting their complaints – but Niederer believes it presents major opportunities too.

“I work an awful lot on what we call ‘customer experience transformation’, and there’s a massive gap between what companies supply as a communications channel and what the end consumer wants to use,” he says. “Today, anywhere between 25 and 50 per cent of voice calls should not be occurring, and our biggest challenge is to help our clients to work with multiple channels.”

The rise of social media has given companies a plethora of new ways to interact with their customers, but Niederer believes many firms are yet to catch up with what their customers want.

“All of the sexiness of social media tends to sit with marketing, while customer services look after the voice calls,” he says. “So the companies that are going to succeed the best in terms of increasing their customer satisfaction are those that bridge the gap. The multi-channel view of how they communicate must absolutely be owned by the customer service people.”

Phone calls, he believes, should be for “premium services” such as giving advice – which is less easy to do via an exchange of e-mails – rather than simple things like checking the status of an order. So, rather than being glued to the phones, Niederer says Teleperformance workers in the UK and South Africa may move between calls, tweets and web chats as they deal with a range of customer queries.

“The average age of our employees is about 30, and a lot of these are people who would typically never make a phone call themselves. If they’re using a Twitter support mechanism, or responding through Facebook or doing a web chat, they’re as comfortable with that as they are with the phone, so it makes their day nicer if they can move through the types of channel.”

Teleperformance made its mark in Scotland almost three years ago, when it paid an estimated £35 million for Be­Cogent, which had 3,000 staff across four centres in Airdrie, Erskine, Glasgow and Kilmarnock. Since that deal in August 2010, its headcount north of the Border has risen to 3,500 and Niederer expects to add a further 500 before the end of this year.

He says: “Last year we grew our revenues 17 per cent in Scotland, and in terms of employees we delivered 10 per cent growth. The reason for that disparity is that we now have more full-time employees, because we do a lot of retail business here and we also do a lot of seasonal government work, but we’ve managed to flatten out the peaks so we can have people moving between projects at different times, so we have less reliance on temporary labour.”

Teleperformance was founded in 1978 by Daniel Julien, who serves as chairman and chief executive. It employs about 1,500 people in Airdrie, where the group has teamed up with North Lanarkshire Council and the Job Centre to offer two-week training and support programmes to help young people find full-time work.

This initiative has attracted the attention of Scottish Secretary Michael Moore, who visited the site last week to meet some of those taking part. Airdrie and Shotts MP Pamela Nash says the partnership has made a “real difference” in enhancing job prospects in an area with high youth unemployment.

The industry has long been saddled with a “battery farm” image of workers chained to their desks, having to ask permission to go to the toilet, and Niederer acknowledges that working in a call centre “doesn’t have good connotations”. But he is quick to point out that it is far from a dead-end job.

He says: “There’s always plenty of room for skilled people who have good experience, so there are ample opportunities for agents answering the phones to move up and develop. We have a demand for people in all 55 of our countries, so if people want the opportunity they can come and grab it.”

When he tells people that he works in the call centre industry, Niederer finds the question of how many staff he has in India is often the first response.
“I don’t have any – most of my employees are in the UK because that’s what the market demands,” he says.

Having established its Scottish presence in August 2010 with the BeCogent deal, Niederer feels there are few acquisition opportunities left and the market became even more concentrated in February when Falkirk-based rival HEROtsc was snapped up by French group Webhelp in a €90m deal.

He puts it down to “pure coincidence” that two French firms now have such a strong position in Scotland, where outsourcing giants Capita and Serco have also swallowed up most of the smaller players over the years.

Niederer says Teleperformance might look at breaking out the chequebook if “something specialised” became available, “but my region grew 20 per cent last year and we’re looking at something similar this year”.

He adds: “Acquisitions would clearly boost us, but acquisitions often mean indigestion and we’re working on some large contract deals at the moment.”