The essentials Call centres: Calling in the contractors

For many charities, providing information lines or processing telephone donations in-house can be an expensive business. Alexandra Coxon looks at the benefits of outsourcing such functions - and some of the leading providers.

Call centres are a vital resource for many UK charities, supplying everything from help and information lines to handling donations, fundraising and donor support. Some organisations prefer to run their telephone activity through dedicated in-house teams, but many have found benefits in commissioning a third party to manage both their incoming and outgoing calls.

With more call centre providers vying for charity business, and some starting to provide additional services, such as online fundraising, consultancy and fulfilment, deciding which to use is becoming increasingly difficult.

Here we profile some of the best-known providers, from traditional helpline companies to non-profit call centres that work exclusively with charities.

Before rushing headlong into a third-party contract, however, there are a few things to bear in mind.

Voluntary organisations should first think about exactly what services they want to outsource and whether those functions would be better run in-house. Outsourcing a helpline that requires staff to undertake ongoing training, for example, might prove too difficult or expensive to manage externally.

However, for organisations with specific needs that cannot be fulfilled cost-effectively internally, outsourcing can be a great option. Take the trading arm of the RNIB, which used to rely on temps to answer calls relating to the charity's Christmas catalogue. Since outsourcing the contract to Remploy Offiscope, the charity has experienced a 10 per cent increase in customers and a 20 per cent rise in order value.

"Because ours is a seasonal operation, we wanted a call centre that could cope with a sudden increase in sales, then scale down accordingly and keep our costs reasonable," says Claire Bagnall-Hunt, marketing manager at the RNIB. "The cost of operating in-house was between 20 and 25 per cent of my total expenditure. Remploy is currently coming in at about 14 per cent."

For Bagnall-Hunt, working with an organisation that could provide a single point of management contact and a strong reporting system was crucial. She also wanted to work with a company that understood the sector - Remploy is a not-for-profit body in its own right, as well as the UK's largest employer of people with disabilities.

Karl Holweger, chief executive at the telemarketing agency Pell & Bales, agrees. "Look for organisations that have experience of serving charities," he says. "And match that experience with their ability to handle the programme of work you need to outsource.

"Also consider your potential partner's ability to provide insight into the marketplace. The past three or four years have seen increasing consumer dissatisfaction with telephone contact. Charities need to work with organisations that don't perpetuate dissatisfaction, but focus on customer engagement rather than simply getting through the calls."

Naturally, responsibility is not all down to the service provider. Charities should also ensure they give the call centre the information and autonomy they need to do the job properly.

For Neil Stephens, UK business manager at Tearfund, which uses an outsourced call centre to assist its trading arm, this means providing the outsourcer with an understanding of what the charity expects call centre agents to be able to answer, and empowering it to make decisions on how to deal with unusual requests.

"Charity and call centre should consider whether situations are likely to recur and need scripted responses," he says. "Any potential risk or cost will be outweighed by the resultant increase in customer satisfaction."

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