Business Essentials: 'A call centre would be handy but would it be unhealthy?'

Its products clean your colon and it gets more enquiries than it can handle. But to outsource carries risks, says Kate Hilpern
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The Independent Online

In 1991, Christina Barton nearly died from a tropical virus contracted on her honeymoon in Indonesia. After a prolonged and convoluted journey through medical science and back to health, she now specialises in nutrition - and her business is going from strength to strength.

In 1991, Christina Barton nearly died from a tropical virus contracted on her honeymoon in Indonesia. After a prolonged and convoluted journey through medical science and back to health, she now specialises in nutrition - and her business is going from strength to strength.

In fact, Chrisbar, a provider of natural health supplements, has become a victim of its own success. "We have recently had a major increase in business, partly due to better communication of our products," explains Ms Barton. In particular, an oral supplement called Oxy-Powder is growing in popularity as an alternative to colonic irrigation in promoting digestive health and body cleansing.

The result is that the four staff at Chrisbar are having to handle hundreds of phone calls and online orders day after day.

"It's completely manic and we can't cope any more," Ms Barton admits. "One morning, by 11am, we'd had 150 phone calls and 100 orders online, and we just don't have the software or manpower to handle it. As soon as we start ringing people back, others start leaving messages."

The obvious solution is to farm out work to a call centre. But Ms Barton doesn't know how to go about it. "There are so many out there. How am I supposed to know which one to opt for? What exactly should I base my decision on?"

Not surprisingly, she is keen to land the most cost-effective deal, but not at any price. Indeed, she is concerned that she could lose the kindness and sincerity for which her company has become known.

"There are a proportion of callers who just want to place an order and are not really interested in any discussion," she says. "But there are others who want further information or to talk about their ailments, and sometimes that involves quite sensitive issues. The call centre staff would need to be really gentle and kind when certain customers need to talk about bowels, for example.

"They'd also need to be aware that, sometimes, people can't really talk about things like being constipated when they're in the office," adds Ms Barton. "Then there are the people who are really grumpy or burst into tears when we're out of stock of something because they've left it too late to order. After all, some of our customers are really ill."

In addition, the call centre staff would need to be taught about each of the products. "I would still expect to talk to some callers, particularly the complex cases. But I'd want the call centre people to be able to deal with most of them," says Ms Barton.

Her main concern, of course, is losing her customer base. "I suppose my worst nightmare would be for our customers to say, 'Oh gosh, Christina used to be lovely and her staff were so great, but now she's fobbed us off to a call centre and we can hardly ever get through to her.' "

www.chrisbar.com

WHAT THE EXPERTS SAY

Pete Ferns, director, NatWest Business Banking

"You are right to examine the potential impact of outsourcing, as I am sure the reassurance and support provided by your team is one of the reasons why your customers regularly return.

"You should therefore look at the initial remit of the call centre. For example, you might publish its number as a fast-track order line, while your own team's number is dedicated to guidance and customer service. This would help reduce the calls that your team are taking but should limit any damage to your hard-won reputation.

"In terms of which call centre provider to choose, I would suggest you look at the websites of a number of them and consider the following:

* Where will your calls be handled - by a small local team or a larger team abroad?

* The call centre staff will be your public face. How will the company ensure they are professional and well briefed? Will it 'mystery shop' and replace people who are not maintaining your standards?

* What accreditation does the company hold?"

Stewart Masterton, business adviser, Business Link for London

"The risks of outsourcing need to be considered carefully to ensure it will not have a detrimental impact on the core operation.

"Chrisbar is promoting and selling products that require detailed knowledge to be communicated to potential customers. It is therefore important that call handling is an integral part of the business to ensure that the service is seamless and the correct advice is given.

"Call centres usually offer a bespoke service to clients, and what is required should be set out in a comprehensive agreement encompassing the standards and targets required for training and product knowledge. It is also recommended that a manager oversees the outsourcing relationship - and in particular the setting-up of processes and systems to integrate the service into the client business.

"The Call Centre Association website, www.cca.org.uk, and the National Outsourcing Association, www.noa.co.uk, have information on providers."

Ollie Omotosho, vice-president of marketing, CommonTime (software firm)

"Chrisbar could use IP [internet protocol] telephony to create a virtual call centre, whereby remote staff take calls and process online orders as if working in the office.

"We used IP telephony when we wanted to grow CommonTime's software sales and expand the business both nationally and internationally. We wanted to offer 24/7 customer service without increasing the size of our office or setting up a traditional call centre.

"We installed a Mitel IP network and Teleworker solution. This reduces phone call costs by enabling us to connect with remote staff using broadband data networks instead of standard voice ones. It means all our employees are able to work from home or remote offices worldwide, providing 'follow the sun' coverage. A phone headset runs off the PC or laptop, allowing us to make and receive calls as if we were in the office."

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