Garlands: Chey Garland

Her business started out in debt collection, it’s now the UK’s largest private sector call centre operator

Acres of newsprint’s been devoted to call centre jobs being relocated to India by businesses eager to slash overheads.

Critics have repeatedly claimed the migration of jobs overseas has sounded the death knell for true customer service. Scratch beneath the surface, however, and it’s clear UK call centres are in better shape than you might imagine.

Chey Garland is proof. The reigning Veuve Clicquot Business Woman of the Year founded Garlands call centres in 1997 and she’s never had it so good. Turnover hit £36.4m last year, alongside growth of 29% – most of it organic. Growth in 2004 was an even healthier 74%

So how is she managing to raise the bar when clients are offered foreign call centre staff with wage demands just a tenth of their UK counterparts?

It’s simple, she insists: “Happy customers are more receptive to finding out more about our clients’ products and services.” Ergo, sensible businesses with call centre requirements will do anything in their power to keep customer satisfaction levels high.

“If a business has got an agenda for just finding the lowest cost, that’s their prerogative, but the growth of our business speaks for itself. Our clients, without exception, feel customer retention is a big issue.” No wonder work for clients such as Vodafone, Cable & Wire- less and Virgin Mobile has increased in volume without exception over the past two years.

Focusing on staff development

Garland’s also been cute enough to strategically take on contracts with clients that are expanding rapidly or operating in fast-growing sectors, ensuring she can grow her client teams with their needs. This has meant investing heavily in staff training and development to allow employees to take on increasing amounts of her clients’ workload rather than taking on stop-gap employees who view their futures elsewhere.

Garlands staff can deal with an array of tasks, such as billing enquiries, credit control, technical diagnostics, pro-active retention work and outbound selling. This contrasts with many call centres where low-skilled workers merely read information from screens. It’s a commitment to quality that sets the business apart from many competitors.

Throughout the interview, Garland enthusiastically quotes a recent DTi report that paints a healthy picture of the domestic call centre industry. The sector is on course to employ more than one million people for the fi rst time in 2006, with outsourcing making up 28% of the growth.

She’s particularly keen to slay the perception of call centre jobs flooding overseas, pointing out that just 3% of calls are answered offshore. Although this obscures the fact the industry has been severely challenged by lower overheads enjoyed overseas, there has been a significant change in clients’ mindset. It appears customer frustrations over offshore call centres are beginning to infl uence outsourcing strategy.

“We temper a cost versus value argument – yes, it costs less to put in voice recognition software or go offshore, but ultimately it’s in the value,” argues Garland. “The industry’s changed hugely. When I started, everyone was obsessed with a grade of service, such as how long it took to answer the phone. While these measures still have their place, more organisations at board level are now interested in seeing the customer satisfaction score.”

Steve Morrell, a call centre analyst at Contact- Babel, feels the future for the likes of Garland is good. “There’s quite a lot of customer dissatisfaction surrounding offshore contact centres,” he says. “A few years ago, there were jobs fl owing out of Britain – that’s slowed to a trickle now and some of it is fl owing back. It’s a very political issue, both internally and externally because they can’t turn around and say ‘we were wrong about offshoring.'”

The dilemma for businesses over whether to offshore or not has been further complicated by a lack of tangible savings. Although salaries are meagre on the Indian sub-continent, staff turnover is huge, putting a strain on recruitment and training programmes. Businesses are also burdened with IT and telecoms costs similar to those in the UK, with the additional headache of hiring management and external consultants to build and run the centres.

Throw in the negative publicity over calls being answered outside the UK, and it’s clear to see why many boardrooms are starting to see offshoring as a tainted proposition. The switch of focus back to the domestic market may have slipped beneath the media’s radar, but Garland has seen her strategy vindicated.

Switching business models

In 1980, aged 23, Garland set the business up with just £600 – originally as a debt recovery agency. By 1993 it had become a strong player in credit collections and diversifi ed into the outsourced marketplace.

Multiple outsourced credit management partnerships resulted and in 1997 the business widened its offering to customer service. It represented a fundamental but commonsense diversification, retaining the skill-sets and credit services to enhance the call centre offering. Vodafone was immediately convinced by her value-added customer service proposition, becoming her first client.

Garland feels that her business’ progress can be traced back to the re-deployment of staff three years ago when an unnamed telecommunications client asked her to improve its processes. She initially reduced the 55-strong team working on the contract by 10 to save the client money, but then realised there was an opportunity to use the excess staff elsewhere.

“I told the client the extra staff should work on some of the debt queries they had,” she recalls. The client had written off a big pool of debt in query to the value of £7m. In an eight-week period, we’d collected £2.4m, which went straight to the bottom line and turned us into a profi t centre overnight. The bigger value was that it gave those customers the chance to re-open accounts and spend money, which was a good way to stem customer churn, re-activate spend and drive revenue.”

The 48-year old has followed a strategy of working solely with blue chip companies, rejecting alliances with smaller and start-up businesses that would do little to boost growth: “It would be like using a sledgehammer to crack a nut,” she insists. Garlands is now the second largest employer in the Tees Valley, with nearly 3,000 staff located onsite in Hartlepool, Middlesbrough and Stockton-on-Tees.

The impact on the area has been signifi cant. A relatively high unemployment rate in the North East, combined with the decline in traditional industries such as steel, provided Garland with the numbers, but not necessarily the skills or motivation. Her response was to set up a corporate social responsibility programme called Touch, an holistic scheme with three strands – education, community and communication. Participating Garlands staff, in salaried time, get involved in schemes ranging from reading and numeracy mentoring in schools to working with drug addicts and domestic violence groups.

Employees can also undertake a 12-week secondment to Radio Ga Ga, Garlands’ in-house radio station. The broadcasts are piped into each room of the multi-fl oored call centres, providing staff with a continuous soundtrack to their day.

Garland is keen to stress this unique programme is not an altruistic indulgence, rather a significant factor behind the business’ progress. Garlands’ absenteeism and staff turnover levels are well below industry averages. “Our payback is getting better-rounded people,” she insists. “We’ve found that people who went through the programme improved sales conversion by 20%, with cancellations falling signifi cantly too. Staff have a much better relationship with customers too.”

She further validates her approach by adding “several FTSE 100 companies” have visited to learn more and rejects the suggestion all call centres are low value, static entities. “The industry is muchmaligned as one where people come in and just plonk themselves in cubicles taking calls. I can’t think of an industry where the surroundings are as pleasant as ours. Looking at industry literature and competitors’ centres, I see a lot of good work going on elsewhere. Call centres have come of age – blue chips have successfully outsourced and made significant savings, without jeopardising quality.”

Making  outsorcing attractive

Often, a short-term burst of telemarketing develops into a longer, strategic alliance with Garlands following a value chain analysis of what outsourcing can provide in the long term. “Good partnerships are about having good service level agreements,” Garland says. “We then ensure there’s good change control in place – business is about change, and lots of it, usually.”

Slightly unusually for an outsourcer, Garlands staff are allocated to one client, which they do not switch from in order to maintain quality. This assimilation allows the client to heavily brand the area in which their telephony staff are based. In-house briefings are also supplemented with off-site training and workshops under the supervision of clients. Usually, there is one team manager to 11 advisors, but this is occasionally altered to mirror clients’ staff structures.

“We try to make the environment look and feel as much like the client’s own workplace as possible,” explains Garland. “It’s important for the people who work for a contract to understand what its strategy, value and culture is. We’ve never favoured aircraft hanger-style contact centres; we have more intimate suites where you get communities of people.”

Unlike others in the sector, Garlands doesn’t run its own CRM database to deal with customer interactions. Instead, staff are conversant with numerous client systems, such as Amdocs, Point, SAP and Remedy, and link up to them. Garlands has sought to add value for clients by investing in IP contact centre technology from Cisco to manage, report and analyse contacts.

She’s guarded when asked how the future will unfold, beyond intentions for continued growth and a turnover of £100m in fi ve years. However, she reveals that although this growth will be mainly organic, she has plans to expand into new sectors, specifi cally data analytics and an HR offering. “I’m interested in other people’s businesses and seeing how we can add value and make an overall difference to their strategy. We have very ambitious plans. There is plenty to do.”


Company: Garlands

Founded: Initially founded in 1980 as a debt collection agency. Switched business models in 1997

Proposition: Outsourced call centres

Turnover: ?36.4m in 2005


(will not be published)