Teleservices Firms See Call Volumes Begin to Bounce Back

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Teleservices operators watched phone lines light up again this week as inbound call volumes crept toward normal a week after terrorist attacks shocked the nation and led to a sharp decline in response.


Most direct marketing firms saw telephone response fall to nearly zero in the immediate wake of the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11 and remain at less than half of expected inbound call volumes for most businesses in the following few days. However, with President Bush and others calling for the nation to resume normal business, response has been improving, although teleservices firms said inbound call volumes are still below normal levels.


"Throughout last week we saw a reasonable and expected decrease in inbound call volume across our client base with the greatest impact on Tuesday and Wednesday," said Vicky Walz, vice president, core/shared services for Convergys Corp., Cincinnati. "Since then, we are seeing a return to volumes approaching normal forecasts, and we expect to be at normal call volumes within the next few weeks."


In a white paper to the DM industry analyzing the effects of the disaster, the Direct Marketing Association urged firms to desist from outbound telemarketing until the business climate indicates that a return to outbound calling is warranted.


The DMA also directed nonprofit association members yesterday to conduct outbound telephone fundraising only to people with whom it already has a relationship. The DMA advised members to cease prospecting for new donors via telemarketing until at least the end of the month and suggested that nonmember charities do the same.


"In this time of national tragedy, this is simply the right thing to do," said H. Robert Wientzen, president/CEO of the DMA.


Al Haeger, president of Ascent Marketing, Boulder, CO, a creative and advertising firm for the natural products industry, said he was offended by several sales calls he received on Friday.


"I received three or four cold direct sales calls on Friday. I don't know which companies they were: I cut them off too quickly," Haeger said. "Obviously, Friday was a day of mourning, and everybody was still in an advanced state of shock. There was no real reason for bothering people with sales calls on a day like that. I thought it was extremely rude and politically incorrect and economically unadvisable. It sets up a bad taste in your mouth with those companies."


Many teleservices firms said they had resumed outbound telemarketing on a very limited basis.


Sitel has restarted outbound telemarketing at the request of some clients, said Kim Hysko, director of global marketing for Sitel, Baltimore. However, some clients have yet to make the decision to begin outbound sales calls again.


An international company with operations in North America, Europe and Asia/Pacific, Sitel is still trying to retrieve many of its executives who were stranded overseas because of the moratorium on U.S. air travel after the attacks.


Inbound call volumes are coming back to normal gradually, Hysko said, but the company has yet to assess the disaster's overall impact on its business.


"Everything's coming back up to speed," he said. "How that's going to affect us, we're still trying to determine."


Catalog marketer Fingerhut ceased all outbound calling after the disaster but resumed on Monday. Fingerhut is avoiding calls to areas affected directly by the disaster, a company spokesman said.


The spokesman said he had no information on consumer feedback or on whether inbound call volumes had returned to normal.


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