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BT to spend pounds 30m on telemarketing centres

British Telecom's 21 million customers can expect to hear from its army of marketing staff at least four times a year, it emerged yesterday, as the company signalled a new phase in the increasingly tough battle with the cable companies.

BT announced plans to spend pounds 30m building two call centres, with the creation of 2,000 jobs. Each building will house 650 telemarketing terminals arranged on a single floor the size of one-and-a-half football pitches.

The first will open on a greenfield site in Doncaster in October, just as Cable & Wireless's pounds 5bn merged cable group launches a national brand to compete with BT and BSkyB. The second centre, north of Newcastle, opens in November. The investment follows the opening of the first huge telemarketing operation in Warrington last December.

BT also said it aimed to double the size of an older telemarketing operation in Glasgow, adding another 330 seats, and refurbish another centre in Bristol. The investment in the programme, which is the brainchild of BT's chief executive, Sir Peter Bonfield, comes on top of an estimated advertising budget this year of up to pounds 200m.

Most of the 2,000 jobs are part-time, with employees working on average 25 hours a week. BT said with commission payments they could double their basic pay of pounds 4.50 an hour.

Each member of staff will be graded in detailed league tables measuring everything from the length of calls to the take-up rate of product offerings.

Alan Cunningham, BT's general manager for telemarketing, said the staff would call only BT customers to follow up quarterly marketing mail-shots.

During each conversation, lasting an average of seven minutes, the staff will tell customers about BT pricing and discount packages. Mr Cunningham said homes would still get a call even if they had already signed up for the Friends and Family and Premier Line discount schemes.

"It's like a friend calling to make sure people are getting the best deal. The overwhelming majority of customers like it and our calls are well received. This is all about building relationships," he said.

So far the awareness strategy seems to be paying off. Over the past year the number of homes taking up the Friends and Family offer has risen from 2.5 million to 11 million, out of BT's total customer base of 21 million. Of these, about 3 million are members of the light user scheme and would not be eligible to join other discount packages.

Yet in recent months the cable companies have scored significant success, raising the number of BT customers poached from 60,000 a month to more than 75,000 a month. Some 2.3 million homes now take cable telephone services, though this remains a disappointingly small figure compared with the 8.5 million houses which could take the service. BT has meanwhile managed to stabilise last year's dip in residential phone lines, largely because the overall market is growing faster than the rate at which customers go elsewhere.