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October 19, 2013
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Call centers dial up success in Roseburg

For those who’ve ever called a 1-800 number and wondered who’s behind the voice on the other end, just look around next time you’re in line at a grocery store or walking through a park.

Due to several factors that make Roseburg unattractive to some — low wages, high unemployment, distance from metropolitan centers — the city has proven a suitable home for two growing call center businesses. Together, they employ nearly 1,000 people, and their managers say they have no problem finding and keeping good help.

They say Roseburg is at the forefront of an evolving industry that’s bringing jobs back to America. Here in Oregon, they’re tapping one of the workforce’s natural advantages — a neutral American accent.

“We’re creating a revolution in outsourcing,” said Matthew Achak, chief revenue officer for First Call Resolution, the younger of the two companies.

FCR employs more than 300 people at its two call centers on Northeast Winchester Street, and 300 more at its locations in Coos Bay and Grants Pass. The company was named for the second consecutive year one of the state’s top 10 workplaces based on employee satisfaction by The Oregonian newspaper. Company representatives say it grew 30 percent last year.

It’s nearly ready to open a call wing adjoining its Roseburg administrative office and a fourth location in Veneta. The reader board out front last week read, “NOW HIRING. 30 POSITIONS AVAILABLE! APPLY TODAY.”

The other Roseburg call center, Telecommunications Management Systems, in the old Roseburg Athletic Club at the corner of Casper and Commercial streets, keeps about 500 employees on the payroll and buzzes with primarily young sales agents 24/7 every day. It grew by 50 percent last year, according to its CEO, and plans to take on 250 additional sales agents for the Christmas season. They rely on word of mouth to fill positions, and don’t even advertise their openings.

“I bet we never have less than 100 applications on file,” TMS CEO Dotty Stapleton said.

ROSEBURG’S EDGE

There are several reasons Roseburg might be a good fit for call centers.

Brian Rooney, regional economist for the Oregon Employment Department, said the success of TMS and FCR could be attributed to solid telecommunications infrastructure, a large available workforce, lower wages and proximity to Interstate 5.

A decade ago, economic development groups pushed to bring fiber optic cable to rural Oregon. Improved broadband made its way to Roseburg, though many areas in the state remain unserved. Representatives of TMS and First Call said the improved Internet service helped keep their companies in Roseburg.

Unemployment for August, the most recent month available, was 11 percent in Douglas County — the sixth-highest rate in Oregon. Per capita income for Douglas County, $21,342, is 30th out of 36 Oregon counties.

Starting employees at the Roseburg call centers earn about a dollar more than minimum wage — a bit less than they’d earn in Portland. But both provide incentives intended to fill the gap.

FCR offers profit-sharing to employees after two years on the job. It works out to about a dollar an hour for most employees who qualify. At TMS, sales agents start earning commission on day one, and can supplement their paychecks by up to about $5 an hour by “upselling,” or getting callers to purchase additional products.

Rooney said it’s difficult to know for certain what effect I-5 has had, but a large call center in Coos Bay, in more remote coastal Oregon, recently closed after floundering for years.

First Call Resolution was formed in 2005 when the Roseburg communications firm Comspan was purchased by a Canadian corporation. Comspan investors retained the call center side of the business, and forged ahead with Comspan co-founder John Stadter and his friend and former colleague Matthew Achak pitching a new way for businesses to outsource customer service. First Call emerged as Comspan Call Center Services in 2005, before changing its name in 2007.

TMS was founded in 1990 in Sonoma County, Calif. It relocated to Roseburg in 1994.

“We moved here, one, because I’m a native Oregonian, and two, because I was looking for a place with high unemployment,” Stapleton said.

More than 450 sales agents work out of TMS’s bustling and compact office in a residential neighborhood, though the number is always in flux. TMS agents work on 150 accounts, namely product catalogues and infomercials, but also companies such as vacuum manufacturer Dyson and Beachbody, seller of the P90X workout DVDs.

If you’ve ever used a phone to order a Magic Bullet Blender or bottles of Super Beta Prostate — pitched by former pro quarterback Joe Thiesmann — you’ve spoken with a Roseburg-based sales agent, Stapleton said.

First Call’s Stadter asked The News-Review to not name his clients, though readers have likely heard of some of them.

The company does customer service for a coffee company, a dating website with highly visible TV commercials, an insurance company with its name on a Major League Baseball park and one of the country’s fastest-growing online companies. A major client is one of the world’s leading electronics corporations, one with a major stake in video games.

A RELIEF TO HELP PEOPLE

TMS and First Call are, respectively, the fifth- and seventh-largest employers in Douglas County. Stapleton said the two Roseburg call center companies coexist peacefully because they aren’t in direct competition. Her employees primarily field calls from customers. First Call handles customer service for corporate clients.

TMS operations manager Kelly Lowman said the company gives slight preference to applicants with work experience at First Call.

“It’s not for everybody,” she said. “For someone coming from the mill, it’s a shock, sitting around all day and talking.”

Representatives of both companies said a major job requirement is the ability to speak English.

“Our agents get asked all the time, ‘Where are you?’” Lowman said.

In the field of customer relations, there’s a bit of a backlash against off-shore call centers. For industries like cellular service and computer hardware, off-shoring is popular either because customers are locked into service plans, or the companies can’t afford good service.

At First Call, employees say many callers are happy just to get a real person on the phone, not an automated menu read by a human-sounding voice.

Delivering a high level of service takes agents who like to talk to people, said Stadter, who runs the operations side of First Call Resolution.

“It’s much easier to train an empathetic person the technical side of this than to train a technical person the empathetic side,” he said.

Or, as Kelsi Russell, program manager for one of FCR’s accounts, a dating website, said: “You can’t train personality.”

First Call applicants must be 18 years or older, have at least a GED diploma and no recent felonies. Training can last from three hours to four weeks, depending on what a client requests and is willing to pay for.

TMS has no minimum education requirement, but applicants must give off the right vibe during an interview, and successfully pass training courses.

Insurance companies contract with First Call to handle the influx of calls following a natural disaster, as well as standard claims calls. Several of these insurers are in the South. One made a deal with First Call following Hurricane Katrina, when it saw other insurers overwhelmed and shut down by the rush of new claims.

These accounts are dormant nearly all of the time, but when they’re active, it’s all hands on deck, Stadter said.

“We’re kind of an insurance company for the insurance companies,” he said.

The insurance accounts require the most empathetic reps, said Vice President of Operations Katheryn Carnahan.

Clients as a rule don’t want “dead air” during calls so representatives are trained to ask personal questions and build a connection when things get slow over the phone.

“I did sales for years, and it’s such a relief to be able to help people,” said First Call agent Judy Havens.

She discovered during one service call the woman she was talking to had been a caregiver for Havens’ grandmother shortly before her death.

First Call employees said the interpersonal connections help make it a rewarding — and often entertaining — job. This becomes apparent listening to a room of employees swap stories.

Most of the reps had resolved a service call in mere seconds by asking if the problem device was plugged in. One agent spoke with an insurance claimant calling from his tornado shelter, with his livestock swirling around outside. Another man called immediately after a truck had driven through his house.

Tragedies are often so fresh that reps have to instruct callers to call the fire department after hanging up. Police reports sometimes need to be filed before claims can be processed, as well. Agent Terri Hillis said she once told a woman to file a lost property claim with police after a cow ate her cell phone.

“She said there’s no way she’s going to do that, so she was going to wait for it to come out,” Hillis said.

According to management, these representatives have something integral to First Call’s bottom line: a seeming lack of a regional dialect. It was one of the main reasons the company chose to incorporate in Roseburg, said co-founder Matthew Achak.

“You can’t tell where an Oregonian is from over the phone,” he said. “The flat accent is so important to us. Anyone can use us because we sound like everyone.”

Achak, who runs the business side of First Call out of a small office in Seattle, said that in providing customer service, companies have been quick to jump on the latest trends: interactive voice-recognition technology, email, web chat, social media.

FCR offers those options, but Achak said the popularity of telephone customer service has only increased.

“At the end of the day, people are going to want to make that call.”

• You can reach reporter Garrett Andrews at 541-957-4218 or by email at gandrews@nrtoday.com.


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The News-Review Updated Oct 20, 2013 12:03AM Published Oct 22, 2013 03:38PM Copyright 2013 The News-Review. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.