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From inbound to outbound: TeleDirect rides call center wave

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Agents and advisors depend on qualified leads to maintain a steady flow of new business.

Notwithstanding veteran producers who’ve built referral-based practices, many of those “warm” and “hot” prospects come from affiliated life insurers, brokerage firms and independent marketing organizations.

These business partners aren’t doing all lead generation — nor a myriad of other activities needed to help close life insurance sales — on their own. Enter the call center: large, off-site facilities that manage in-bound and outbound voice, web and e-mail traffic for everything from lead-generation to appointment-setting.

Related: NAILBA: A bit player no more in the life insurance industry

Demand for these services is fueling a burgeoning market. According to a 2016 IBISWorld report, U.S. call center industry revenue now totals $22 billion, and is increasing at a 2.3 percent annual clip. More than 25,000 businesses operate in the space, and employ more than 484,000 people nationwide.

The industry anticipates further gains as new productivity-enhancing technologies are adopted. Among them: cloud-based computing systems, social media, voice recognition software and broadband-enabled technologies.

One outfit riding the industry’s continuing transformation, TeleDirect Call Centers, counts leadings players in insurance and financial services among its top customers. 

TeleDirect is one of more than 100 companies presenting at NAILBA 35 — the 2016 annual meeting of the National Association of Insurance and Life Brokerage Agencies, taking place in Dallas Nov. 17-19. To learn more about TeleDirect’s services, capabilities and market positioning, LifeHealthPro interviewed Jennifer Clemens, a TeleDirect business consultant. The following are excerpts:

LHP: What are you aiming to accomplish at this year’s NAILBA meeting?

Jennifer Clemens: We’re hoping to gain new business with carriers and life insurance brokerage firms. TeleDirect’s services include inbound and outbound call center services; reservation services for people organizing workshops and seminars; plus lead response management services, such as one-on-one appointment-setting. These solutions are much in demand among clients in insurance and financial services.

LHP: How is the TeleDirect call center staff organized? Do the agents cater to specific vertical markets?

Clemens: No. The agents — all are employees of TeleDirect — do either inbound or outbound calling. The center where I work is fully dedicated to inbound and services clients 24-7. The second center, about 15 minutes away by car, does mostly outbound, though about 30 percent of that facility’s phone traffic handles inbound.

Most of our 280-plus agents are dedicated to in-bound calling, our core business. In the insurance and financial services space, we have over 5,000 clients, the majority of them insurance brokerages.

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TeleDirect's Clemens says the call center does a lot of outbound business for life insurers, including lead-qualification for MassMutual. (Photo: iStock)

TeleDirect’s Jennifer Clemens says the call center does a lot of outbound business for life insurers, including lead-qualification for MassMutual. (Photo: iStock)

LHP: Can you provide an example of one customer and how specifically you’re handling their call center needs?

Clemens: Yes. We do a lot of outbound business for life insurers. In MassMutual’s case, we take leads that have gone cold and requalify them. Our outbound agents convert or “warm up” about 50 percent of these leads, then send them back to MassMutual.

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LHP: I imagine many of these were originally qualified via a response to an e-mail, TV ad or cold call. Are you also servicing qualified prospects through carrier or brokerage websites where prospects can apply for life insurance online?

Clemens: We have a special service for that. Nine times out of 10, we can connect with prospects within minutes — while they’re still exploring pages on the site — and invite them to set up an appointment with a life insurance agent.

LHP: We’ve been talking about agents acting in a customer service or telemarketing capacity. Could you also hire life insurance agents to work with policy applicants directly from the call center?

Clemens: We’re not opposed to offering this service. The biggest problem in moving forward is that we charge by the hour, not on commission, as is the industry’s practice. If a carrier or brokerage firm is prepared to pay by the hour, then we could definitely entertain such an arrangement.

LHP: What’s your hourly rate?

Clemens: We bill clients by the month, but it breaks down to about $27 per hour. This would be for a full-time person working 40 hours a week.

LHP: Let’s talk about expertise. What skill sets do you require of TeleDirect’s agents?

Clemens: We have a lot of agents like myself who have been with the company a long time and moved into different roles. I love where I’ve been for the last seven years — business development.

When we’re hiring new agents, we look for high school graduates who are professional, enthusiastic and empathetic. Many of our prospects and recruit have pursued higher education; there are a lot of colleges in our area. We can offer them a flexible work schedule while they’re in school.

When they come on board, we take them through training, including content related to our ethics, what we believe in and how we service clients. Thereafter, we start training for different levels of operators.

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TeleDirecect's E level operators are the compan's “experts” — people who can take just about any phone call, including those coming through a support line. (Photo: iStock)

TeleDirect’s E level operators are the company’s “experts” — people who can take just about any phone call, including those coming through a support line. (Photo: iStock)

LHP: And what are those different levels? How do they differ in function?

A-level operators are entry-level people who take donations for various non-profits organizations, including listener pledges to public radio stations. Higher-level operators do progressively more complex work as they move up the ladder.

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Thus, B-level operators take reservations, qualify leads and set appointments. C- and D-level operators take orders and handle customer service calls or requests for technical assistance.

E level operators are our “experts” — people who can take just about any phone call, including those coming through our support line. If, say, an agent is stuck on a call because of information missing from an account, he or she can transfer the caller to an E-class operator for addition support.

LHP: Do your operators use customer relationship management software to service callers?

Clemens: It depends on the client. For some, we use their own proprietary CRM software. In most cases, we use software developed in-house: a logic-based scripting tools that walks reps through exactly what they need to say. The app is really well-built for lead-qualification. We also offer clients real-time reporting on caller activity through a web-based dashboard.

LHP: I understand that many companies have outsourced customer service calls to an off-shore call center, including facilities based in the Philippines, India and the Caribbean. Will TeleDirect use off-shore agents?

Clemens: We don’t. We prefer to keep everybody in-house and under our watch. At one point, we did take some business overseas, but pulled back almost immediately because we couldn’t maintain the quality control we have in the U.S.

LHP: How would you distinguish TeleDirect from competitors in this market? 

Clemens: Three things set us apart:

    1. Our years in in the industry — we’ve been in business since 1961.
    2. We service many different industries, something we’ve always prided ourselves on.
    3. We’re ISO-certified, which means’ we have a data-secure facility.

We received our ISO certification just two weeks ago. This came after a long, drawn-out and expensive auditing process. It costs about $30,000 a year just to hold the certification. So it’s a big deal.

And not just for senior management. Our reps can’t have pencils, pens or other writing instruments at their stations. No cellphones can be brought on the operations floor. Women can’t carry purses in the facility. All of these restrictions are imposed to ensure a highly secure call center operation.

LHP: Finally, what changes are underway at TeleDirect? Are you looking to adapt the business new client demands?

Clemens: Our company rolls with the times. We’re always looking to accommodate new technologies, such as web chat.

We also keep our clients abreast of industry changes, such as laws or regulations specific to call centers, or new kinds of advertising, that might impact their businesses. The goal is to help them as much as we can so they can concentrate on closing sales. 


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