Marines Take Aim at Bolstering Call Center Operations

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The U.S. Marine Corps switched its inbound call center services provider as it prepares for responses to its ongoing advertising and direct marketing campaigns.


Under a new multiyear contract, Inktel Direct, Miami Lakes, FL, will take English- and Spanish-language calls made to 1-800-MARINES, the military branch's national recruiting telephone number. It replaces Donnelly Communications, Atlanta, which handled calls for four years.


"The Marine Corps was seeking a firm offering a higher level of technology as well as offering bilingual support," said Eddy Arriola, executive vice president at Inktel. "They're interested in surpassing recruitment goals."


Merkle Direct Marketing Inc., Lanham, MD, tapped Inktel on the Marine Corps' behalf, reviewing 10 firms and narrowing to three finalists. Merkle for four years has handled the corps' mail and database marketing programs. WPP Group PLC's J. Walter Thompson, Atlanta, is the agency of record.


Since assuming charge late last month, Inktel has received 125 calls a day, matching the volume of recent years. Prospects, typically ages 17-24, usually call from 10 a.m. to 10 p.m. Eastern time.


Inktel hired 12 people to handle calls in both languages, round the clock and all days of the week. Another 12 agents were cross-trained to handle overflow.


Agents have one or all of three goals for incoming calls. One, connect the caller to his or her nearest recruiter. Two, understand what materials the caller needs. Finally, handle calls with courtesy, knowledgeably and with pertinent referrals.


"The public may perceive the Marine Corps as a slow-moving military organization but, in fact, they've got a large appetite to stay abreast of best practices and to adopt them," said Michael Mathias, senior vice president of client management services at Merkle.


"So the most recent move in changing call centers was to increase their level of overall customer service, both through better use of technology and higher integration," he said. "And, in an effort to better serve one of their larger market segments -- the Hispanic community -- we feel that Inktel's capabilities match up."


But like the Army, Navy and Air Force, the Marine Corps is constantly replenishing its forces. It is here that advertising plays a central role in attracting recruits.


According to Advertising Age, the corps' media ad spend was down 19.4 percent to $15.85 million in 2002, the latest year for which figures are available. The figure excludes mail, special events, sponsorships and online marketing expenditure. It is not known publicly whether spends for last year and 2004 are up or by what margin.


Whatever the current budget, all channels are harnessed to generate response. Television, radio, print, mail, collateral, events, online, e-mails and billboards all point to the toll-free number and the site at www.marines.com.


Merkle oversees the database marketing infrastructure, including lead management and mail fulfillment support to more than 2,000 Marines recruiters nationwide.


As for acquisition mailings from rented lists, prospects are touched more in the fall and spring when high school and college students are making lifestyle and career decisions.


The Marine Corps' ad messages expectedly are highly patriotic. But they also sell a lifestyle -- the idea that a Marine is part of an elite force. This exceptionality is not so upfront in ads for the other branches of the military.


"The guys are not buying an appliance or insurance policy," Mathias said. "They're making a decision about their life."


Consider the Marine Corps tagline: "The few. The proud." Such motivating messages help the Marine Corps replenish its ranks by almost 25 percent yearly. Merkle and Inktel are expected to handle about 500,000 leads annually.


"The Marine Corps recruit approximately 40,000 signees annually," said Capt. Tobei Arai of the Marine Corps. "The ultimate goal is to have a U.S. Marine recruiter actually facilitate recruitment."


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