For Charity, Flexible Inbound Service Computes

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Per Scholas, a New York nonprofit that sells refurbished computers to low-income families at a deep discount, is expanding into two new markets using direct mail and the support of teleservices provider AnswerNet.

Setting its sights on Chicago and Detroit, Per Scholas is using a direct mail formula that has brought success in New York. The charity sends packages of brochures to teachers at schools in low-income areas, and those teachers pass the brochures onto their students.

When it launched in 1994, Per Scholas handled teleservices in-house, but its market was different then, said Matt Littlefield, the charity's director of marketing. Per Scholas originally sold computers directly to schools, and computer prices were much higher, around $600 per machine.

Since then, prices have declined to where Per Scholas can offer a PC for $245, letting the group market directly to families. The change in strategy increased inbound call volume, more than Per Scholas could handle in-house, Littlefield said.

Three years ago, Per Scholas hired Signius, a division of AnswerNet, Princeton, NJ, to handle its inbound orders. Signius provides bilingual call support from a center in Miami. Per Scholas occasionally gets call spikes from positive press coverage or mail campaigns. The Miami call center can roll overflow calls to other centers in AnswerNet's network.

"I let them know as much as I can in advance when we're going to have a new campaign launching," Littlefield said. "If there are major script changes, we go over that. It's great because they have rollover built in."

AnswerNet operates a series of small, networked call centers, letting it respond flexibly to changing volumes, said Gary Pudles, CEO/founder of AnswerNet. Rather than have a dedicated team of agents, AnswerNet scales its workforce, taking calls for Per Scholas based on demand, he said.

Currently, up to 20 agents at the Miami center are working at any time for Per Scholas, depending on call volume, Pudles said. AnswerNet will watch traffic and use historical data to forecast call volumes when Per Scholas completes its expansion into the new markets, he said.

Per Scholas sends about 8,000 direct mail packages yearly. Each package contains about 25 brochures that go to students to take home.

"If it comes from the school, it has that much more credibility," Littlefield said. "Plus, it saves on postage."

That volume is expected to rise when Per Scholas makes its full entry into Chicago and Detroit, Littlefield said. Per Scholas has conducted testing and plans full campaigns to those cities during the upcoming back-to-school shopping season.

AnswerNet's call agents must be prepared to answer in-depth questions, because for many of Per Scholas' customers it's their first experience buying a PC, Littlefield said.

About 10 percent of the inbound orders are in Spanish, and Pudles said about 95 percent of the agents at the Miami call center are bilingual. In case of overflow at the Miami center, AnswerNet's El Paso, TX, call center -- which has a similar percentage of bilingual agents -- would pick up the traffic.

Scott Hovanyetz covers telemarketing, production and printing and direct response TV marketing for DM News and To keep up with the latest developments in these areas, subscribe to our daily and weekly e-mail newsletters by visiting


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