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February 1999

Maine: Out Of The Woods And Into The Call Center


Islands floating in the gray morning fog across the water, which slowly swirls about and breaks on the rocks and laps against the boats that rise and fall with its swells, a fog horn is lowering its doleful tune in the distance: Morning in Maine, quiet on the shore or in the deep woods. But there is another Maine, beyond the peaceful retreat of the tourist postcard: ever-greater numbers of the people of Maine heading off to work.

One of the main forces in getting more people in Maine back to work is Governor Angus King Jr. (until the recent event in Minnesota spotlighted the disquieting influence of pop culture on politics, the only independent governor in the nation). Speak with Governor King, and you will quickly notice that he cannot conceal his pride in the virtues of the people of Maine. "People distinguish Maine," he espouses. Among the many assets of the people of Maine he cites is the loyalty of Maine's workforce. "The average industry worker in Maine has been with the same company for 16 years," he said.

As governor, King has been intensely interested in both education and business. As a parent, he can personally attest to the quality of Maine's school system, which produces students who recently ranked first in the nation in math and science among fourth and eighth graders and ranked at the top of a Forbes "Education Bang for the Buck" listing. The school system is also wired for the future, as Maine was the first state in the country to have all of its schools wired to the Internet through frame relay service. This is not surprising, as Maine was also the first state to have a 100 percent digital switching network and statewide ATM fiber-optic-based network.

As a former business owner, King understands the challenges of operating a business. Since he was first elected in 1995, King has worked hard to make Maine a state more attractive to businesses. He has worked with the state legislature to pass measures to reduce the state's workers' compensation costs, virtually eliminate property taxes on new machinery and equipment, streamline project approval and permitting processes and develop low-interest loan programs.

Governor King explained that traditional employers, like those in the wood products industry, have become more efficient in their production methods, thus reducing labor needs. To address these workforce changes, Maine is targeting software and other high-tech industries and nongeographic-centric companies such as call centers. He said the biggest challenge Maine faces is an uneven distribution of wealth. Most jobs are located in southern Maine, where unemployment runs to only 2� percent; in the north, it runs between 6 and 9 percent.

King said his most emotional moment as governor came when he was at the opening of a new call center in Brunswick by MBNA America Bank, and saw former classmates of his children had been hired in junior management positions. (MBNA, the world's largest issuer of the Gold MasterCard and the second largest lender through bank credit cards, now has six customer service and telemarketing centers in Maine and employs nearly 3,000 people in Maine.)

Working closely with Governor King in attracting new business to Maine is the Department of Economic and Community Development. Its commissioner, Steven H. Levesque, reported that companies such as G.E. and Pratt & Whitney say the best workforce in their companies is in Maine. He also pointed out that one of the best telecommunications infrastructures in the Northeast and a relatively low overall cost of living also make Maine attractive for business expansion.

Levesque outlined some of the mechanisms the state has put in place for business development. The Quality Centers Program was developed to allow a company to customize its workforce. Under the program, the state trains the people for a company and the company has to hire from this program. Levesque said the state also offers other business incentives such as a jobs investment tax program, reimbursement to companies for local taxes on equipment, a Small Enterprise Growth Fund and special incentives for locating in areas of higher unemployment. While Maine is a large state geographically, it retains a small-town atmosphere. Levesque stressed that government officials are accessible to companies. The Department of Economic and Community Development has established a call center, Business Answers, as a one-stop shop to help expedite the process for businesses locating in Maine.

A growing number of large teleservices agencies are taking advantage of the resources of Maine. Among them are SITEL Corporation, which opened call centers in northern Maine, TeleMark, Inc., which opened a center in the Lewiston/Auburn area, and ICT Group, Inc., which in the past year has opened facilities in Oxford, Pittsfield, Wilton and Lewiston with the total number of employees reaching 1,400.

Auto Europe's call center in Portland is in a massive brick and exposed-beam former warehouse in Portland's dockside area. Auto Europe, part of Travel Services International, which contains 15 different companies, was founded in 1955 and moved its call center operations to Portland in 1993. Stephen Grant, vice president, MIS and telecommunications at Auto Europe, said the Portland call center fields calls for car rental reservations and the agents there, whose average age is 23, would make around 300,000 reservations in 1998.

Grant explained that Auto Europe negotiates rates and markets its services mainly to U.S. and Canadian travel agents, but that it now also has 60 toll-free international numbers, the bulk of which are for calls from Europe, but also for Auto Europe partners in South America and the Caribbean.

Handling these calls are 156 agents, whom Grant said, "answer 97 percent of all calls within five seconds. Auto Europe also dedicates five agents to taking Internet reservations and has a group of agents who constantly research rates so Auto Europe can beat the rates of the competition." Part of the work going on at Auto Europe's Portland center is putting all of Auto Europe's database information into HTML format so that all Travel Services International companies can have easy access to that information.

Auto Europe routes calls based on automatic number identification (ANI), and CTI technology provides screen pops containing data about the caller when the call reaches the agent. The ANI is particularly helpful in routing Canadian calls to agents who are fluent in French. (Maine has a large pool of persons of French-Canadian descent upon which to draw.) Grant said in a typical transaction, the travel agent calls in, and an Auto Europe agent takes the credit card information and collects the balance. But agents also field customer service calls that may involve planning routes and giving general travel advice. To help the agents on such calls, Auto Europe has CD-ROM-based training to quickly educate agents about Europe. Bolstering this online training is a program put in place that recently sent 50 agents to Europe for both educational purposes and as reward for their hard work.

As well as attracting outside companies, Maine has provided fertile ground for homegrown businesses. By far the best known of these is L.L. Bean, whose year-round workforce of 4,000 swells to over 11,000 during the holiday season. Bean received 14 million toll-free catalog and customer calls in 1997 and during the peak holiday season employed over 3,600 TSRs.

Portland is home town to Talk America, whose president, Rob Graham, started Talk America in 1991 answering calls for direct response radio ads. Until 1993, he used outsourced service agencies, then in August of that year he put in eight workstations, and his business has now grown to nearly 400 workstations.

Talk America, whose agents receive around 2 million calls per year, most generated by infomercials for home-study-type products, has grown into a $100 million business. Graham credits a large portion of Talk America's success to its agents, whom he said Talk America "pays, treats and trains as salespeople." While the average agent earns around $18 per hour, Graham said a good salesperson can earn upward of $40 an hour at Talk America. Talk America has developed a proprietary training program that teaches the agents to control the point of sale. Graham said these training methods have given his agents the skills to convert 3 out of 10 people they talk to, including wrong numbers and customer service calls.

"I want to place my call centers where people have roots in the community." This sense of community and the fact that "the communities here are well-wired" make Maine a "fantastic place for call centers," said Graham.

Mike and Sonia Messer, both former employees of Talk America, saw the opportunities present for call centers in Maine, so they started Sky Media in their basement in 1996. From these humble beginnings, they have expanded into two locations, one in Portland and a second in Waterville, and a total of 340 employees, the bulk of whom are inbound agents for calls generated by radio ads and half-hour infomercials. Sonia Messer added that a lot of Sky Media's business comes through word-of-mouth from clients. Messer explained that Sky Media is also developing its own beauty-aid and weight-loss products.

Maine's changing business climate proved a factor in Sky Media's opening a call center in Waterville. When Kimberly Clarke closed a paper mill there in 1997, it opened up a large labor pool from which to draw agents. Messer also praised the work ethic of her employees, saying that during the terrible ice storm of January 1998 they found diesel generators and got the phone system running. "They even brought in flashlights to work by," she said.

This "can-do" attitude exemplified by the workforce, a topnotch telecommunications infrastructure and flexible government programs make Maine a site well worth investigating when deciding to locate your call center.

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