New clients help outsourcing firm ring the changes
HE owns a call centre, but this time last year Pat Keogh didn't even want to answer his own phones. "The first few months of 2009 were horrendous," he recalls. "The amount of people looking for a reduction or looking to cancel was phenomenal. It got to the stage in February where I didn't want to answer anyone's calls because I knew it would be bad news."
The onslaught came less than a year after Keogh's Call Management pitched up at shiny new offices in Cork's Blackrock, more than doubling the size of its premises.
The investment in those new offices, coupled with the loss of €150,000 worth of business over the first three months of the year, made for an ominous-looking start to 2009.
Yet, a year on, a smiling Keogh recalls the year as one of Call Management's best and busiest, with turnover growing by about 25pc in the year to June and expected to surge by the same amount this year.
The key to Call Management's enduring prosperity, he says, lies in the type of business it lost in those calamitous months and the type of business that's replaced it.
The ones who've left are mainly one-man bands like electricians, photographers and engineers -- people "who used us because they didn't want to answer their own phones" but who could save money by simply performing the task themselves.
The customers who've joined are mainly "companies who would never have looked at call centres before" but are doing it now because they "can't afford not to" outsource the traditional receptionist role. "It's a way of saving money," says Keogh.
"They don't have to pay a full-time person, they don't have to worry about PRSI and payroll and about the phone not being answered when the receptionist is on a break."
The newcomers also include some state contracts, such as one from the HSE, and some from county councils and colleges. "We started government contracts this year and it's made a big difference," says Keogh.
Keogh's so enamoured with government contracts he had "no issues" with getting "the letter" last year, when the Government demanded blanket 8pc reductions on most of its outsourced services.
"All our customers are looking for lower prices," he says. "Once they're reasonable, if they're looking for 10 or 15pc, we'll talk to them. If they start being unrealistic and looking for 30pc, 40pc, we'll walk."
With most contracts running for one-year terms, the hunt for new areas of business is a perpetual one. Call Management, however, has won far more than it's lost over the years with the headcount increasing from three at launch in 2001 to 25 now.
"We get everyone involved. We all brainstorm and ask ourselves where we go from here," says Keogh.
"We have someone doing research on a continuous basis to see where our next batch of customers is coming from." Keogh sees government contracts as being the "main focus" in 2010, but he's also aggressively targeting new commercial customers and the coming weeks will see an imaginative mail drop devised by a Cork marketing agency.
The idea is to deliver intriguing packages to PR companies in the hope of encouraging them to consider Call Management's service for clients who are looking for better ways of interacting with their customers. "We tried direct mails to customers but it didn't work," says Keogh.
"The receptionist is the one who opens the post. They see 'Call Management, reduce your receptionist needs' and it's thrown straight into the bin."
Call Management has also tried to broaden its base by adding market research to its core competencies. In the heady years of the Celtic Tiger as much as 40pc of Keogh's business was from out-bound calls for the big car companies.
"We were doing the after-sales calls, the after-service call, calls to customers who walked in the door but didn't buy and mystery-shopper calls to receptionists," says Keogh wistfully. "It was beautiful."
That car business has "dwindled to practically zero", but Call Management still gets about 20pc of its income from other market research activities.
As for the future, Call Management's 2,000sq ft offices could accommodate more than four times the business' current staff, and the technology is already there for significant upscaling.
Having funded the business without any debt -- "I just don't like owing people money" -- Keogh doesn't have to prepare traditional business plans, but the plan is definitely for growth.