Ulster Business caught up with Sean Canning, UK Head of Operations at outsourcing firm Firstsource Solutions to discuss the contribution it has made to the Northern Ireland economy over the past five years
Sean Canning is well aware that some people look down their noses at contact centre companies.
When a recommendation was made in the Barnett Report that Northern Ireland look to bring in more call centre jobs to provide a short-term economic boost, the idea was derided in the local press as lacking vision.
And yet, from a standing start in 2006, Firstsource Solutions has grown to become one of the province's largest employers, with 2,000 staff spread across its two sites in Derry and Belfast.
UK Head of Operations Canning, a 25 year veteran of the call centre industry who is based in Derry, is proud of the contribution the company has made to the region since setting up with just 150 people.
"Call centres are not the career of choice for everyone, but having said that it works for some people – I've been in this industry 25 years," he said.
"What we offer is training and skills to people who are just coming out of school, college and university. We're giving them development opportunities to get their first or second leg on the career ladder. They may stay with us for a year or five years before moving on to a job with a better salary," he adds.
"It feels like we are doing something for this economy. As I look at it today there are 2,000 people who are not on the dole, who are working with us and hopefully building their careers on the basis of what they do with them. Some of them do see customer service and call centres as their career."
After bumper years in 2008 and 2009, when client companies were looking to outsourcing as a means of taking cost out of their business during the recession, 2010 was a relatively quiet year for Firstsource in terms of new client growth.
But activity among customers in the key telecoms and financial services sectors has begun to pick up again as these companies increasingly look to more in house functions to a managed service model.
"As long as that interest turns into firm orders 2011 is looking great," says Canning.
"But it is very competitive. The challenge that Firstsource have is that some clients approach customer service and call centre buying as a commodity service, so it becomes about answering so many calls or buying so many man hours, what is your best price. Our challenge is to educate customers not to look at the lowest price but the value we can bring to their business. How much revenue can we bring to you, how can we improve your processes to take cost out."
Canning describes Firstsource as specialists in "end to end customer lifecycle management", which essentially means any process from acquiring the customer to selling and managing services such as billing, payments, complaint management, underwriting, etc.
To meet this need Canning says staff are dedicated to one client. For example those who work for Sky buy into its brand and deal with clients as though they are Sky employees, meaning the customer never knows they are speaking to Firstsource.
The company last year increased its UK reach by purchasing a Barclaycard processing centre in Stockton-on-Tees. It retained 700 staff and now provides the same services back to Barclaycard. The company is keeping an eye open for similar acquisitions in the knowledge that there is an appetite among banks and financial firms to outsource certain functions.
"The people we work for are typically FTSE 100 companies and brands. We have been able to prove that we are customer management experts and I believe we can more often than not deal with the end customer better than the client can. Their core business is provision of telecoms or financial services products. But I know how to manage the psychology of the client and to get what we need from them," says the Firstsource boss.
With a number of "relatively safe" contracts that typically last between one and five years, he adds that the company has enough forward visibility to plan for seasonal peaks and troughs, and to make long terms plans for its Derry and Belfast operations.
"Over a four year period we grew to 2000 people. So the first few years was about how you deal with that volume and the challenges of recruitment, getting people in, getting them trained," he says.
"Now it feels like we are a mature business and the challenge is how we stabilise the business, how we improve our in house operation, and how do we prepare for that next level of growth."