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Customer Care Feature Article


December 30, 2005

AnswerNet: Almost Famous

By TMCnet Special Guest


When 'The Apprentice' needed a call center for one of its contests, the producers called AnswerNet. But this Inc. 500 company ended up on the cutting room floor.
 
By Gary Pudles
 
[Featured on http://inc.com/home/]
 
When you watch a popular TV program such as The Apprentice (is there an Inc. reader who doesn’t watch it?) there is a huge array of small businesses that make it happen behind the scenes, and sometimes even in front of the scenes. In a recent episode, we were one of those out in front.
 
Movie and TV production companies rely on vendors to supply vital services from construction to transportation. On occasion, they will want these outfits directly involved in the film or show. For a small firm, the experience of being involved pays dividends. Not only do you make money, but you get unprecedented exposure. You learn what goes on behind the scenes to create TV “magic.” It also opens the door for future opportunities.
 
If you’re fortunate enough, you get tremendous publicity dividends. Having your company’s name, storefront or operations featured or clearly shown on screen is truly priceless. Most enterprises can’t buy that kind of exposure.
 
Our Apprentice experience
 
My company, The AnswerNet Network was part of the Thanksgiving Apprentice episode. The show had asked our firm, which provides telephone-answering and contact-center services, to answer calls generated by the two competing teams, Capital Edge and Excel. The teams offered consumers on New York City streets free samples of a new product as long as they called the toll-free numbers we supplied to the show. The team with the most calls would win the task.
 
AnswerNet won the work the old-fashioned-way: referral. A consultant introduced us to a company associated with Mark Burnett Productions, producers of The Apprentice. One of our senior managers, Mitch Paul, talked to the show’s representative, and sold the deal. He mentioned our experience with other high-profile TV productions such as last January’s UNICEF’s Tsunami Relief fundraiser for the children victims of the South Asian tsunami. We had celebrities answering phones alongside our staff at our Manhattan contact center.
 
We offered the show the same Manhattan site for The Apprentice. To handle expected call volume we handled the work in five of our contact centers, but the Manhattan facility would be our lead.
 
We had a similar setup with Tsunami Relief, a fundraising event earlier in the year. While a majority of calls were answered by UNICEF’s Ohio contact center, the show’s producers wanted a New York-based venue for the telethon that could handle some of the volume. In part because we had a Manhattan site a short cab ride from the WNBC facilities in Rockefeller Center, UNICEF and NBC came to us for the broadcast.
 
The Excitement Builds
 
Once the Apprentice deal was in place, the excitement began to build. We brainstormed ways the show could choose to feature us. Our goal was simple: get our name or Web address on the screen -- and not annoy anyone during the process.
 
We were given two on-air promotion opportunities. First, the producers told us they wanted to film our contact-center agents taking calls during the task. We asked whether they would mind if our agents wore company shirts. When they agreed to the idea, we had special t-shirts made that would feature our company URL in a way most likely to be captured best by the cameras -- on the back. (This idea would have been brilliant if we hadn’t discovered after ordering that our New York center has high backed chairs that blocked the back graphic completely.)
 
We were also asked to produce an online system that showed the status of the competition in real time. Our programming team, led by Monica Young, came up with two graphic displays that featured Trump Tower with the team name below it. The team with the taller image of the building at any time was winning the competition. Our URL was placed between the title and the graphic to ensure maximum coverage.
 
Filming
 
The Apprentice crews took one day to shoot at our center, months before the airing. I joined the site’s general manager, Cecile Williams, to oversee our end. Not only was there a possibility that The Apprentice would want my face on the show, but I wanted to be there in case anything went wrong.
 
My primary role was to communicate to the other offices involved in the project and to act as a single point of contact for any member of the production company that needed something from us. Our biggest fear was having a contestant sitting in the boardroom with Mr. Trump blaming us for their loss.
 
Cecile and her staff assisted the production company with moving furniture, taking our pictures down, and rotating staff around to enhance the visuals. We bought pizza for the crew and for our employees. The production company filmed our agents. They loved Monica’s graphic idea and shot it all day. We put the graphic up on one of their laptops and they had a camera fixed on it. A couple of times they asked us to change the size and shapes of things so they could get a better contrast on the graphic.
 
And disappointments…
 
Alas we learned a few weeks before the show that none of the footage from our site was used. But that’s showbiz. The footage with our agents with the blocked URLs on their backs and the cool graphics had hit the cutting room floor, as did many scenes in this and countless other shows. Editing is always part of the story. When you get involved with any medium -- TV, film, radio, print, or online -- never be surprised to find your words and images cut, reworked, or omitted.
 
While having millions of viewers see us showing our capabilities on The Apprentice would have been wonderful, what is more important is the experience of playing a part in one of the best programs on television. It was a great opportunity and everyone involved had fun.
 

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