German Call Center Follows Pan-European Course

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NUREMBERG, Germany - Sellbytel, a high-tech German call center operation in which BBDO has a 78 percent stake, is the first such German facility to develop a pan-European expansion program with centers in France and Switzerland.


Several others will follow this year with the focus on startups in the UK, Italy and Spain.


"Unlike Sitel and other international vendors we don't buy existing centers but start our own," founder and CEO Michael Raum said.


Since the mid-nineties the call center industry has boomed in Germany but the focus has been the German market with "foreign" expansion centered on the former German Democratic Republic.


Even the Walter Group that claims to be Germany's largest is pulling back from its one foreign location, Hungary, and at that the site was used to handle overflow calls from Germany rather than develop local clients.


Sellbytel first went to Switzerland three years ago and built a center in Lyon in two months last year to meet client demands. The company expects sales to hit 100 million Deutschmarks ($55 million) this year.


While Germany remains the company's major market and will account for DM 75 million, foreign operations already account for the remaining DM 25 million. That would bring Sellbytel on par with the Walter Group.


"What makes us different," Raum said, "is that we hire only highly qualified personnel and that we don't use part-time help. Some 60 percent of our employees are technically qualified college graduates.


"All of them can discuss technical issues with callers and we run the hotline for Hewlett-Packard, for example, so that every caller believes he is talking to someone from HP and that HP is solving his problem.


"We give our people a chance to grow into their jobs and to make a career out of them, with us or with one of our customers."


"Working for us with such clients is the best recommendation an agent can have," Raum said, "because the client has to say to himself, 'man, these guys have terrific people we can buy.'"


Personnel turnover is low, as a result, less than 20 percent, Raum said, compared to a rate in the US which he said can go as high as 70 to 90 percent.


The customer base backs up Raum's claim of technical competence. It includes HP, Compaq, Yahoo, Yello, a German power company, Grundig, a radio and TV manufacturer, and the Henkel chemical giant.


"We do things other call centers don't," Raum, whose company was cited in leading German magazines as enterprise of the year in 1999, said. "We do 30 to 40 percent of our business via the Internet or e-mail."


Indeed, Raum no longer calls his enterprise a call center but a communications center that handles queries no matter how they are delivered - phone, fax, internet or e-mail.


The company got the green light for its pan-European ambitions from BBDO and the parent Omnicon group who eased expansion by making some of its on-the-ground facilities available to Sellbytel.


"BBDO helps us find offices space and call center management but they also give us a sense of the dominant mentality in each market," he said. Technical personnel is recruited through targeted advertising in professional journals.


"We're looking for people with an IT education or a business school background when we need those skills."


Despite the rush job in France, Sellbytel usually takes six months to ready an operation abroad. "The UK is our first target, but we're also looking in Spain. We use head hunters."


New foreign hires are brought to Germany where the company has centers in Nuremberg, Munich and Schwerin for training. Training is in English "for all our technical people. Everybody in the company must have a perfect command of spoken and written English."
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