Cracking the Hispanic Market

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By all accounts, Hispanics are one of the fastest growing demographic segments of the American economy. According to one estimate, this ethnic group will account for almost 20 percent of the nation's households in 2000, up from 11 percent in 1995. This is a market that is affluent, well-educated and diverse. It is also a market that's underserved by the teleservices industry. But that is changing.


DraftWorldwide estimates that the typical American Hispanic household receives just 35 pieces of direct mail a year, contrasted with more than 300 for the rest of the US population. Although there are few, if any, statistics on the penetration of inbound and outbound telemarketing (especially based on ethnicity), it's a safe bet that the spread is somewhat similar.


It might even be more pronounced. According to Pat Acosta, spokesperson for State of the Art -- The Hispanic Call Center, 89 percent of Hispanic Americans speak Spanish at home.


Clearly, teleservices companies that aim to reach this large market have to factor in language skills when they plan sales or service programs.


State of the Art (SOTA) is in an interesting position: It operates a niche call center that outsources Spanish language services to companies that want to reach Hispanics through either telemarketing or inbound direct response programs. And while it's not the only way to reach Hispanics, the company provides some insight into ethnic marketing.


"It's not just a matter of language," said Acosta. "These are not just Americans who speak Spanish; we represent a distinct culture, with distinct values. You have to absolutely understand that effective direct marketing to this community is more than just changing the language from English to Spanish."


Like many smaller outsourcers of teleservices, SOTA emerged from within a business that used direct response to sell its own products. In this case, it was language instructional materials aimed at Hispanics in the Los Angeles area. The call center that was set up internally to handle these sales led to a dual expertise that's common in the call center industry -- it knew about its target market, and it knew about running teleservices centers.


"It's highly important that all TSRs and staff be fully bilingual in both the language and the culture," said Acosta. SOTA uses predominantly native Spanish speakers to achieve a comfort zone between the customer and the rep. Its reps could be called up to switch between English and Spanish from one phone call to the next, depending on the preference of the person on the line; because of that, its agent desktop software can swap between the two languages instantly -- "totally customized," said Acosta. "Bilingual means being able to read and write culturally, as well as speak," she said.


For a company that needs to reach a niche market like Hispanics, there are distinct advantages to outsourcing. For one thing, such call centers tend to have slightly lower rep turnover rates -- reps at SOTA have an average of three to five years' experience. Agents are more experienced not just with the niche market, but with phone work in general.


Also, a specialty outsourcer is more likely to be able to point an inexperienced company in the direction of other resources that complement the teleservice: things like program creation, direct mail and direct response creative, fulfillment, and other elements likely to help a company create a unique message for that community. It rarely makes sense for a company, large or small, to take its existing message and simply translate it into Spanish and expect it to connect.


The complexity of the Hispanic market must also be considered -- in the US alone, it's broken into regions, with concentrations in the west, southwest, south and northeast, and subdivided by country of origin: Cuban-Americans, Mexican-Americans and Puerto Ricans. Each are different culturally and economically. They speak in varying accents. It's a mirror of the diversity of the larger US market in general, on a smaller scale. But because of the widespread use of the Spanish language, marketers often mistakenly use that as a tag to lump the community together.


In the face of this complexity, going to an expert (from either inside or outside that community) can help. Outsourcing, itself a specialty, has numerous subspecialties that have grown up over the years: political polling, surveying, fundraising, collections, and, more recently, ethnic marketing services. It's safe to assume that if there's a list out there for it, there's a call center for hire that's making a run at the market.


There are some specific things a prospective consumer should look for when hiring an outsourcer to go after a niche market like Hispanics.


First, verify the outsourcer's expertise in the market. Talk to some of its clients and see what kind of relationship it has with the target community and with the ancillary service suppliers you might have to call on. Is it a "one-stop-shop" for reaching the market? Will it help you find lists and coordinate direct marketing and telemarketing?


Know if the outsourcer is local or national. The advantage of being local is it may have an extraordinary feel for the pulse of its market. On the downside, it may not be able to command the resources needed to handle a program that grows from a single city to a region, or a national rollout. Handling a direct response program that generates calls from a local TV or radio station is different by orders of magnitude from one that generates calls on a national (or international) Spanish-language network. Keep this in mind when selecting a service provider -- how fast will they be able to handle your growth?


Examine the level of technology and call center expertise the outsourcer exhibits. Are callers prompted with a choice of available languages when they first dial in? (I've seen centers in California that offer callers as many as five non-English languages.) That takes strong IVR integration with the switch, and smart call center management that can deal with overlapping groups, skills-based routing and complicated workforce management issues.


Other things to look for are: an automated quality assurance program that includes call recording and "screen scrape" (recording the progress of a transaction through an agent's screen changes); good reporting on transactions and interactions; and tools that incorporate the latest CTI technologies -- so you know the center will be ready to grow when you are.


The Hispanic market is so large it's unlikely to remain untapped and underserved for very long. When choosing an outsourcer to guide your way through the market, it's important to find one with a strong combination of market expertise and call center know-how. Skimping on either can be a big mistake.


<I>Keith Dawson is a technology writer and editor of the Call Center News Service (www.callcenternews.com).<I>
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