The Clamor for Inbound Grows

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It is no surprise that the Holy Grail in telemarketing these days is inbound sales and customer service. With federal and state regulations growing in breadth and intensity, and consumer acceptance of outbound telemarketing plummeting, companies industry-wide are looking to replace outbound revenue streams with the more reliable and accepted inbound alternatives.


The implications of this mass migration are many. I will focus on two.


First, as more companies abandon outbound initiatives, there will be fewer legitimate companies to divide the shrinking pie. Telemarketing's effect on the national economy is staggering. Despite roadblocks and barriers to success being erected by the Federal Trade Commission, Federal Communications Commission and state authorities, the economy will not allow the extinction of live-agent sales calling.


In fact, the states that are imposing the most stringent anti-telemarketing policies are offering call center companies juicy incentives for moving their centers within state borders. Makes you scratch your head, doesn't it?


It shouldn't. Telemarketing is an easy target for politicians seeking a way to solidify their reputation among constituencies. Of course we consumers are tired of having our dinner hour interrupted by the phone. Reality will hit when 2 million or more Americans can't afford to put food on the table to enjoy during their newly uninterrupted dinner hours. That is how many jobs likely will be lost, according to the American Teleservices Association, as a direct result of the recent tidal wave of regulations aimed at outbound telemarketing companies.


Supporting regulations is a very positive public display for politicians. What is happening behind closed doors, doors our public servants wish to keep closed, is a mad scramble to court the companies whose backsides they are spanking publicly. One call center can support more jobs than 30 McDonalds. One call center can supply as many jobs as a Wal-Mart Super Center, without putting other local businesses into bankruptcy.


Your public servants might be two-faced, but they're not stupid. (Did I mention that those regulations that seek to stifle the programs that add dollars and jobs to our economy impose no limits on calls made to promote politicians?) Outbound telemarketing is not dead, nor will it be any time soon. Therefore, companies with a strong track record that invest in the technology and labor to operate within the new rules will prosper.


The second implication of the mass migration is that many companies that have not specialized in the culture and technological framework unique to inbound teleservices are jumping into the arena with visions of sugar plums dancing in their heads. One can picture boardrooms around the country as the impending regulations neared. One director says, "I have an idea. Let's just do inbound!" Meanwhile, as the IT designee scours the marketplace for the latest and greatest switch, the sales team is meeting in a dark cave realizing they are about to be given a pellet gun with which they are expected to kill an army brandishing bazookas.


I'm speaking to you as a salesman. All I know is what happens on the frontlines. My perception is limited to what the decision makers and service buyers tell me. And what they say sounds a lot like what recent college graduates hear daily on their first real job search: "Come talk to me when you have some experience." But, how can I get experience if no one will hire me? "Kid, that's not my problem. Why would I take a risk on you when there's a virtual ocean of candidates with experience on their resumes?"


Some new graduates get lucky and land that dream job without the experience. Most work their way up by settling for a tolerable position that gives them the experience they need down the road when they are part of that ocean of qualified candidates.


All is not lost. With patience, realistic expectations and a strategy for developing an inbound platform, companies looking to fundamentally transform their portfolio favoring inbound applications will succeed. Let me suggest some strategies:


· Strive to maintain a profitable outbound platform while you build an inbound clientele. Focus on areas of lesser regulation like political calling, consumer calling with current clients who have existing business relationships with their customers and business-to-business projects. Also, be discriminating in your selection of programs that pay per-sale, but realize that the industry is moving in that direction and you will need to be on board. You are going to need the revenue to absorb the inevitable negative revenue of your inbound program as it grows.


· Begin discussing incentives with current outbound clients for giving a portion of inbound work or referring you to companies in their network that source inbound work. You will need the recommendations of clients that have a history with you.


· Develop an incentive structure for your sales team to bring in reference-able clients across industry verticals. Understand that many of the programs that come in will be small and might need to be aggressively priced. The idea is not to make money on your initial inbound clients as much as it is to build a diverse client base that can be leveraged in RFPs and collateral marketing materials. Remember, at this point nobody knows who you are in the inbound world.


· Right from the start, offer a shared-agent environment with per-minute pricing. It is unrealistic to expect a company to pay you hourly rates for inbound work when you are not yet proven and a multitude of proven providers are available.


· Keep it simple. Elaborate inbound programs can turn into elaborate failures when you are just getting your feet wet. Word travels fast and with great efficiency in the world of outsourced teleservices. Shoot for simple data-entry, sales, brochure-request and other single-task programs. Eventually you will work the kinks out of your processes to a point where you can excel at complex programs. One big failure can shut many doors for years.


· Finally, give it time. Even with a marketable name it often takes 12 to 18 months to land a long-term inbound client. Unlike outbound clients, it is time-consuming and expensive to change vendors for inbound programs. Worthwhile inbound partnerships require an extended period of courting and cultivating, but are worth the time and effort.


A lot of industries were blindsided by the terrorist attacks of 9/11. Many still feel the effects. Travel-related services have yet to bounce back. The major airlines have not even begun to recover from their economic Waterloo. Many less-obvious industries also had the profits kicked out from under them by the recession that was exacerbated and prolonged by the attacks. The past three years have been difficult for telemarketing companies because historically active outsourcers have tightened their spending. Many companies pulled all of their work in-house.


Things will get better. The U.S. economy is showing signs of a comeback, companies that focused on cutting costs are in a better position to expand their business again and outsourcing certain business functions is again stimulating activity in the marketplace. We may never return to the glory days of the '80s and early '90s, but neither will we continue endlessly in this state of famine.


Now is the time to begin building your inbound platform. A little pain and belt tightening mixed with a lot of patience will produce solid revenue down the road and better leverage against future downturns.


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