Dino Forte created a thriving contact centre business from nothing. Here, he explains where it nearly went wrong and how he avoided common traps.
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Dino Forte, managing director at outsourced customer management specialist, Ventrica, explains how he initially underestimated the job of building his contact centre business; how he keeps employees interested in an industry that's notorious for churn and why it's vital to track new modes of communication.
What's the business in a nutshell?
We provide outsourced customer service and sales management for well-known global brands and fast-growth businesses. Our 500+ staff work predominantly on behalf of brands with an online presence, to provide 24/7 contact over multiple channels, from the phone through to social media.
The organisations we represent all recognise that investing in customer experience can provide a major differentiator and has a direct correlation with long-term consumer loyalty and bottom line profits.
Why did you start it?
I’ve always had a passion for good customer service. Nothing is quite as fulfilling as when you have a grievance or problem, you speak with someone and are then left feeling better than when you started, especially if you are then willing to recommend that product or company to a friend.
Timing was also a factor, as we started the business during the height of the recession in 2010, when there was a clear gap in the market for a medium sized customer contact centre. Many boutique outsourcers were being swallowed up by massive global outsourcers.
We identified a demand for highly personalised customer interactions, something that larger players were struggling to provide. With the right technical infrastructure, process expertise, middle management experience and of course people, we knew we could offer something that was clearly missing in the market.
How did the business develop?
At the beginning, it was very much a ‘build it and they will come’ philosophy, but we always had a vision of where the business was headed. We took a site in Southend, we invested in all the latest technology and designed a fantastic environment where people would be happy and inspired to come to work every day.
Our first big break was winning a contract to provide customer care for a global software company. This acted as the catalyst, as once we were successfully providing customer support across several European countries with different languages; we were able to attract other global names.
The first couple of years were slow, but after winning further clients in the fashion and property sector, our reputation began to build and it started to snowball.
We now work with some of the UK and World’s biggest brands including the likes of McDonald’s, New Look, Jimmy Choo, UGG Australia, Barratt Homes and McCarthy & Stone PLC.
We have just launched our second site ‘Ven2’ which has capacity for an additional 240 + seats and we have won two UKCCF awards and have just won ‘Best Outsourced Contact Centre’ and ‘Highly Commended’ for ‘Employer of the Year’ in the European Contact Centre & Customer Service Awards 2017
Ventrica opened a penthouse suite with sea views
Tell us about the market conditions
Winning new business is still tough, as you often have to go through an extensive tender process which is quite time-consuming, and the lead times can run over several months or even years. What has changed though, compared to when we started is that social media has taken off and there is a greater need and understanding by brands that they need a voice online.
Analysts such as Gartner recently put customer experience as one of the top issues for the C-suite. At one time, the contact centre was simply seen as a cost-centre, but now it’s seen as a profit generator because keeping your customers happy means you will secure a lifetime of loyalty and on-going sales.
One of the biggest challenges is that the retail industry is going through a process of belt-tightening at the moment, especially as there is more pressure over margins and pricing. However, this plays to our advantage in many ways as outsourcing reduces your fixed costs and helps to nurture sales.
We are also seeing more and more brands following in the footsteps of giants such as Google and Apple, in choosing the UK as a preferred European HQ.
In turn, many of the companies we work for are centralising all of their multi-lingual customer service right here in Southend, because it can cut out the duplication, management and costs of having subsidiaries and staff in various countries.
What’s the biggest challenge?
Keeping up with technology and social media trends is a full-time job, as the pace at which both are changing is phenomenal. Once you’ve embedded one IT system, along comes another that will give you an even greater edge, so you always need to keep ahead of the technology curve, whether it’s Virtual Reality, Artificial Intelligence or Big Data.
Likewise, new social platforms are popping up all the time, so it’s our role to advise our clients on whether Snapchat, Facebook or Twitter is more relevant to their target audiences. Finding multi-lingual speakers, particularly German can also be tricky, but we are lucky that we are so close to London, where there is a rich pool of talent.
We are currently piloting homeworkers, so we can spread the net even further, as demand for languages such as Mandarin increases as brands begin to target markets in the Far East. Governance, compliance and data protection are also an on-going concern, but by putting in place the right technologies and processes, we can mitigate any potential risks.
Ventrica's new reception area
What’s your biggest mistake?
In the beginning, I totally underestimated how tough it would be and the amount of work involved to get the business rolling. In hindsight, we should have hired an HR Director sooner to cope with the sheer volume of on-boarding and training.
Today we have a robust senior management team in place, where everyone is a specialist in what they do best whether it’s IT, sales, training, personnel or operations. Engaging sooner with our local bank would have helped in the early days, as they have been amazing and have offered us invaluable support, advice and vital funding.
What have been the major bumps in the road and how have you overcome them?
Cash flow during the early stages was incredibly tight and we had to be quite creative with our finance strategy. We knew that it was critical to pay our suppliers on-time, so we took advantage of invoice financing which mean we could release 80% of monies owed immediately.
There was obviously a cost to doing this, but at the time, we didn’t have the luxury of a healthy bank balance, so it was all about building our liquidity for the future.
What sets your business apart from the rest and how have you nurtured that point of difference?
We have what you would describe as a ‘one team mentality’ that is completely non-hierarchical and focused on the needs of our clients and their customers. Everyone works together, regardless of their position and this creates a really positive vibe that is reflected in all our many interactions with customers, whether it’s over a webchat, email or responding to tweet.
Often, when we are down to the last two suppliers in a bid, the reason they say they choose us is simply down to our culture and people. Brands comment on how they want us to represent them and feel that we have the same values and ideals.
Outsourcing is all about building partnerships and it’s our ‘one team mentality’ that allows them to put their trust in us and feel that we are a true extension of their internal operation.
I don’t believe there are many other outsourcers that have the same sense of community and ethos that we’ve built. The staff themselves have even come up with their own identity, referring to themselves as Ventricans.
It’s that sense of belonging and being part of a big family, that however cheesy it may sound, actually is the lifeblood of our business, reaching out to people and making a connection, so they will ultimately become brand ambassadors.
How do you attract and retain good people?
We are one of the major employers in Southend and I’m proud to say that we have an enviable reputation as a vibrant and enjoyable place to work.
In our business, we need to be able to attract and keep a high volume and calibre of staff, so we invest considerably in what is considered by industry consultants to be an exceptionally welcoming environment, compared to other outsourcers.
Our staff always come first and this is reflected in our physical spaces that are striking, clean, modern with wall-to-wall sea views.
We have our famous ‘star walls’ that reward individual employees on a monthly basis, complementary massages, free fruit Wednesdays and special food days such as Ice-cream August or an International food day such as Italian or Indian, all supplied by local companies.
By treating our staff well and listening to what they want, they all have a real passion to provide the best possible service to our end customers. In many situations, it is our environment and people that tip the balance, because the brands can instantly see and feel the contented faces and energy when they walk through the door.
Keeping staff content and motivated is essential to growth
Final advice to others?
Always fully understand what your USPs are, how you will differentiate and what your objectives are? This will help you create a strong ethos and culture that you can then communicate to your staff and customers.
Always challenge conventions so you can give more value to customers - thinking ahead all the time and knowing your industry inside out will offer both insight and innovation.
Be prepared to work all hours but at the same time your need to trust your staff and be able to delegate so you don’t carry it all on your own shoulders. Remember, nothing is ever as it seems, always expect the unexpected.
On a practical note, the money in the bank isn’t yours, it is the company’s and the company needs it! Don’t chase wealth, chase success. Measure the happiness of your staff and customers. If this is high, then affluence will naturally follow.