The 50 Yr. Establishment of Ansafone Contact Centers and How They Pioneered the Call Center Industry

In this full 30 min. interview with Ansafone Contact Centers, Tim Austrums, the VP of Sales/Marketing delves deep into the ins and outs of the call center industry, sharing industry knowledge, vast experience, and crisis management. In a candid and personable interview, Tim talks about why he got into the industry, what this "people's business" has taught him and what is the true asset and culture of Ansafone Contact Centers that was originally built from a family business for 50 years!

Interview Highlights:

What separates Ansafone Contact Centers from Other Call Centers?

Moving forward into the future with Ansafone Contact Centers!

How has Ansafone Contact Centers sustained its Longevity?

What’s an Important Decision You Had to Make?

Enormous gratitude for call center customers

FEMA in a critical situation

Customers Vision

How does outsourcing a call center work?

Customers Vision

How does outsourcing a call center work?

Our business is about the people

Sneak Preview

Transcript:

[00:00:00] Hello, everyone, this is your host, Craig Casaletto, and I am here today with my co-host Judy Lin, and we are honored to take part in the Ansafone Contact Center’s podcast interview with the Vice President of Sales and Marketing, Tim Austrums. Tim, how are you? Doing great, thank you. Thank you so much for being here. Really appreciate that. So, Tim I just really to kick things off. I just want to find out a bit about your background, about where you’re from and how you got into the call center business. Sure.

[00:00:24] Well, I’m born and raised Minneapolis, Minnesota, sunny, warm Minneapolis. And out of college, I ended up getting into retail management and from there moved into an ad agency, ad agency for a short period of time and met somebody who directed me towards an outbound contact center at the time. And while I was working there, I loved the business. I loved interacting with the people and the work that we were doing and have since been with two other companies over the course of the last 20 years. I have a passion for the industry and feel like it’s a great home for me.

[00:01:02] Would you say when you have a passion for the industry, does it mean you have a passion for people?

[00:01:06] I do. I do. Helping people, understanding people, trying to come up with better solutions.

[00:01:12] So, Tim, what types of services does your company provide right now?

[00:01:15] So we provide inbound calling, outbound calling, email chat and social media response.

[00:01:22] One thing, Tim, when you’re talking about Ansafone and your integration into this business from college.

[00:01:27] do you have a specific philosophy or certain way to go about delivering great customer service to your clients? I think it really it really starts with understanding the client’s vision and having a true perspective of their brand. What are their goals? What what’s important to them? And then taking that information and building that and making sure that that culture is also there with your team.

[00:01:54] Would you agree with this? Like customer service is just is just difficult. Do you find that a lot of people want to gravitate to that type of industry?

[00:02:01] I think it takes the right person to get into the industry and be successful and in the industry.

[00:02:07] Has there been anything specific about what Ansafone is doing that kind of separates you guys from other people that are doing the same thing?

[00:02:14] You know, I think that the model in which we look at people and screen people in order to bring them in. One of the challenges of every contact center is turnover. And employee turnover is expensive. And it hurts us. It hurts the client. So, for us to find the right people out of the gate saves everybody a lot more time and energy. And so, we do a lot of prescreening of our agents. And we also like to hire people who have some related experience. It doesn’t have to be phone experience. It can be related customer care face to face experience from a retail outlet. But if they already understand, you know, empathy and being able to problem solve, that’s a huge, huge step forward.

[00:02:58] Is there a big training process also that’s involved when you hire someone to help service your clients to your standard at Ansafone?

[00:03:05] There is. We have standard training for Ansafone and then we have customized training for our clients. And so oftentimes our clients come on site. They conduct the initial training and they do a train the trainer of our agent. So as programs grow and change, we’re able to utilize our now trained trainer and that individual will be able to bring people up to speed on the program so we can continue that level of quality.

[00:03:29] Great. Have you had a lot of success with that?

We’ve had a lot of success. A lot of feedback from clients.

[00:03:33] So and that’s critical to the interaction and the feedback that we get from clients. And what we provide to them helps us continue to enhance and modify that process so that we can continue to get better and better.

[00:03:47] It’s always evolving like it’s continuously turning. So, it’s always the training never ends. I take it never ends.

[00:03:53] It’s continuous improvement. And in this business, nothing stays the same. So, with clients, there are always different initiatives, there are different products, different services.

[00:04:03] And with those products and services, we need to modify our process in order to provide the best service for that.

[00:04:12] So, Tim, in all your years that you’ve been an Ansafone, what would you say is the winning formula in making Ansafone so great? I mean, you talked about the people and the training. Is there something specific as an asset?

[00:04:24] Know I think there are several different things. I think that the culture that we have within the company is critical of the fact that we’ve got 50 years of experience. Not a lot of companies have been around as long as we have. And we’ve continued to grow through there. We’ve got a lot of people in the management team and throughout the company who’ve been with us for many years. There’s not a lot of management turnover, which has been very beneficial for us. The technology we use is bleeding edge. And so, we have omni channel platform that we use. That’s Genesis that. Has provided a lot of insight into client programs. We also for our size were unique. We’re a mid-sized firm, so we’ve got about a thousand agents. That’s unique. A lot of companies have fewer and can’t handle small to mid-sized programs as they’re growing. You have to move to another company, or they have many, many more seats. And if you don’t have a really large program for them, it’s just not a good fit. So, for us you can be a big fish in a small pond regardless of who you are. Because of our capacity being enough, but not too much.

[00:05:36] Tim, could you share some really difficult client situations that you’ve handled with Ansafone and how they were resolved?

[00:05:42] Sure. So, one that comes to mind is relating to a program we did for FEMA and it was dealing with the hurricane that hit Puerto Rico. And in that program, they needed us to ramp to 200 people instantly. They needed people with background checks that were bilingual, that were empathetic, that understood what had been going on there, and also would be able to resolve the situation and help these people at their greatest time of need. And I think for us, that was probably one of the most challenging, because it wasn’t just handling a basic customer experience situation. These were people who didn’t have a place to live anymore. These were people who didn’t have any money to purchase food. And we were directing them in so many different ways and trying to help them with basic needs. And so, every call is critical.

[00:06:36] Do you find that the type of service that you guys provide is kind of standard or is it is it extra ordinary depending on the situation that it calls for?

[00:06:46] I think there are very few companies that could have handled that program because of our desire and ability to jump through hoops, to meet timelines that were critical and to really search for that exact individual. We had many people that were pulled off other areas of the company to interview and flew out to California to make sure that all the different components of that program were going to be successful. And there were a lot of changes. So, what we all thought was the end, but we started with. There were script changes. There were policy changes. There were a variety of different things that came from the client that we had to continue to modify our approach and continue to train the agents on all those changes throughout the day.

[00:07:35] Was that something unique for you guys or did you have something similar that you’ve experience like that before that you could pull from?

[00:07:41] There are other programs that we’ve done that have been somewhat similar to that more in the healthcare space and other emergencies. So. So, yes. We have had experience doing things sort of like that, but this was unique. The criteria for the agent was much more specific here. FEMA flew out specific individuals to actually fingerprint our agents before they could actually be on the program. That’s above and beyond what we usually do and getting our agents onto a campaign nuclear program.

[00:08:14] Tim, that sounds like an amazing, huge undertaking. So, in that kind of situation with emergencies and disasters, what would you say helped your team pull through?

[00:08:26] I think it was everyone coming together. We had the executive team, we had buy in throughout the company and everyone agreed that we’re going to do whatever it takes to make this work and to make it successful and to help these people.

[00:08:41] You know, that’s amazing and super impactful.

[00:08:43] I mean, just being there and I think a lot of people don’t really realize that component of the process of getting people back up and running and help facilitate recovery rate. And that’s just so important. Do you guys ever go back and take a look at situations like that and say, OK, this is what we learn from them. This is how we can kind of maybe remain consistent with our practices or maybe change some of the things that we’re doing to maybe better serve clients in the future that maybe experience the same type of thing.

[00:09:09] Absolutely. Absolutely. It’s it for us. It’s about continuous growth and it’s about learning how to make the next situation, the next client needs to work more effectively, quicker, easier. We now have a pool of people who have background checks. We have a greater resource of individuals that we can tap into for other calls, spiky types of programs. That mindset.

[00:09:40] How would you say Ansafone has sustained its business for longevity like that?

[00:09:46] You know, I think that probably the simple answer is it’s been focusing on our clients, on their customers, on making sure that the needs that our clients have, the overall performance that we provide takes them to the next level. You know, our relationships with clients, we have many clients who’ve been with us 10 of 13 years. So traditionally when people come on board and they talk about, you know, how long, maybe we’ll get a 6 month, a one-year agreement, it’s like we understand. But just so you know, we’re in this for the long haul. Right. And we’re expecting this to be a long-term partnership and we’re willing to invest in your business and whatever it takes to make that happen. Do you actually feel you become part of their business? We really do. Our agents will oftentimes, if you ask them who they work for, they’ll say our client’s name, not our name. The paycheck comes from us, but they truly believe they are working for a client.

[00:10:45] And it’s amazing. All the different services that you guys provide could range. I mean, it’s not it’s just not necessarily in a situation where you have you have an emergency management issue and then you have a customer service issue or maybe an I.T. tech support issue. It’s just it’s a various different things. But it’s amazing how you have these call centers that are out there, and they provide all these different services. And it’s very diverse.

[00:11:05] It is. And oftentimes we’ll start working with a client just handling inbound calls. And as we learn their business, we recommend and offer other solutions that might be able to assist them further. It could be email response or back office work. It could be chat. So there’s a variety of things that as we learn more about our clients and truly develop that partnership that we’re able to system in other ways that they may not have thought of that will be beneficial and help them push forward and not be distracted by other things where their energies can continue to drive the company where it needs to go.

[00:11:42] Do you feel like a lot of companies that rely on your clients, do they have a specific like demand or specific things that they ask of you maybe for just to make sure that their products or services are delivered in a certain way?

[00:11:53] I think that they come to us oftentimes. Most of our clients, first of all, have internal centers themselves, and they will either send us a certain call type, or they will send us a percentage of their calls and we’ll get every call type. But they traditionally come to us with certain a certain description, an expectation of how we’re going to perform and what’s going to take place during those calls and materials and things that help our agents be up to speed and be trained on what’s happening.

[00:12:23] So, Tim, what would you say are the top three consistent problems in the industry for call centers?

[00:12:30] I would say that we are in a business of variables. Mm hmm.

What do you mean? We have a client in Boston who gets a snowstorm. No one knows how bad it’s going to be until 4 a.m. when we get a call that says their agents are not going to be coming in and they need us to bring in as many as we can to help them beat service levels during the time of need. We have a client in Louisiana. Terrible flooding occurs, another situation where we need to figure out how we’re going to accommodate and service them during this unusual circumstance. It seems as though what would oftentimes be a rarity, but it happens more than you think. And so, you know, so I think for us it’s being prepared as best we can in order to assist clients during those challenges, in those challenging times.

[00:13:32] You’re like a hero in disasters, like a disaster hero.

[00:13:39] Do much more than that. But what I wouldn’t say the most challenging part of our business is definitely dealing with disasters, dealing with a unique situation.

[00:13:48] It could be you know, it could be a client running into, you know, to credit card theft issues or something like that. Data lost on their side where we are, we’re dealing with a variety of scenarios just to help out and to try to make sure that their customers are taken care of. So, it’s just not a consistent business. Right. It’s. We’re dealing with people and people have different needs and people have challenges that come up and every day there’s something it’s a people business that’s amazing.

[00:14:27] Sounds like your clients have enormous gratitude for what you do.

[00:14:32] That makes it exciting for you.

[00:14:34] It does. It does. I think for me and I think for many of the people in the company, it’s not knowing what’s going to happen next. And it’s also. Adjusting to and tackling what comes up and so. Every day is different. Hmm. You don’t go to work and say, here’s exactly the way my day is going to lay out, it lays out differently every day.

[00:15:00] So what would you say that adaptability is like one of your greatest assets and that providing your services or when you look at being around 50 years?

[00:15:09] I mean, yeah, that adaptability has been probably one of the very most important things to maintain our business and grow our business during that time.

[00:15:21] Incredible. Tim, is there a time where you had to make like a really important decision without enough information, something that’s maybe come across your desk that you had to you had to make an important decision on?

[00:15:33] So specifically, I think of a client that we have who had some changes to their state health plan that affected current and retired state employees, and they weren’t sure how many people would call in. However, the cost of insurance for the members was going to go up significantly and the coverage was going to change significantly. And so, we staffed based on what they projected and found that we needed not 80, but one hundred and sixty people in order to handle those calls. So that that would be a scenario that comes up more often than you’d think with new programs. And the key for us is adaptability, flexibility, bringing in people quickly and getting them trained quickly so that they can get on the phones and help these individuals who have to make a decision in a matter of days as to what health plan they and their families will be covered under.

[00:16:32] You know, I was thinking about the adaptability part that you’re talking about, Tim. And is there ever a situation where a client comes into you guys and says, listen, these are everything that I feel like we need and or they me? And it could be I could be a ton of different services there. They they’re looking for. Or maybe it’s just a minimal amount of services. You ever go into a situation, maybe you say, well, I think it may be a little bit more than you need or maybe you should look at it, maybe expanding that a little bit more based on what we know about your company and the service you’re trying to deliver.

[00:16:59] Absolutely. I think that we run into relatively frequently in a new program when clients are trying to sort of answer every possible question that could come up. Not knowing which of those are really going to come up that often. And so, you can train an agent for two weeks on a program that might really only need three to five days of training to try to cover every scenario. Oftentimes in those situations that it makes more sense to train what you believe is going to be asked and maybe a little bit more, but not try to create and cover every scenario of what could happen, because it just puts more training energy into the agents that that isn’t necessary. And in turn, they may forget other pieces that that are even more important when the agent is trying to figure out a problem for, let’s say, a caller and they need additional information as it usually go back to you guys or is it go back to the company themselves as far as trying to figure out a solution combination, we have specialists on the floor, team leaders who have additional training above and beyond what the agents have. And so those individuals will come by assist with the questions that come up. Hand can go on the air. There are different methods that we have to communicate for the agent with the with the team lead in order to get answers to that. But if it’s something that we are not familiar with right away, a message goes out to the client. And oftentimes either we will follow up with the customer calling in or potentially the client themselves will call them directly and engage with them to make sure that the answer is properly communicated.

[00:18:38] To Tim, what is a culture of Ansafone and how do your core values help mark?

[00:18:44] Our core values really add balance to the company. They cause us to think inwardly about the business and the employees. They cause us to be focused on the customer. And they also cause us to be focused on the community and thinking about those above and beyond just our employees or our customers. But people who live around us that we want to help. Yeah, that sounds like a really strong guideline. It helps us really be able to think beyond just the daily life and workings of the company and data and statistics, right?

[00:19:21] Exactly.

[00:19:22] And really making a difference bigger than just how can we handle that call? It’s way beyond that.

[00:19:30] Yeah. Sounds like you guys have very, very strong work ethics.

[00:19:34] Well, I think that these core values and things have also been what led to so many people staying for so many years at our company. Many, many employees are there have been there for over 10 years. And it’s because of these core values in this culture that keeps people in the organization.

[00:19:51] One thing I want to add to that, Tim, was we talked about the importance of just hiring the right agents. What is the importance of just retaining good agents?

[00:20:00] It’s really understanding the lives of the people and what they’re going through. It’s being there for them during their time of need. Because when you help them, they help you. It’s a partnership. It’s really not just you’re an employer and we’re an employer. It’s we’re in this together. And there are times where we need to accommodate things that are going on in their lives. And we understand that. But in turn, they understand that they’re there because our clients need them. They’re a critical part of our business. And we all believe that it’s working together. And that’s what I think causes us to provide the best solution.

[00:20:39] Looking forward. But what would you like to see happen? You know, for the industry of BPO and call centers, as anything specific you’d like to see happen as you guys move forward, looking at where the industry has been and where it’s going.

[00:20:52] Technology is playing a much more significant role in handling customer experience situations and bringing in a guy. And what that means to the customer, how do we help them without putting them into a situation where now they’re dealing more with a machine than a person? We don’t want that. We want them to now still deal with people, but we want that that machine learning that technology to be able to assist in providing better quality, in looking for different phrases and things that customers are saying during the call so that we can understand better why they’re calling, how to target their needs and be able to respond quicker.

[00:21:39] Do you feel like there has to be some type of balance between having that person at the other end of that phone call, but also being able to supplement that with some technology?

[00:21:49] Absolutely. It’s interesting because when I talk to people about A.I. and I talk to people about technology that may not be in the business, the first thing they say is I need to talk to a person I. Can’t stand getting caught up in an IVR system or its press, 1 for this and 2 for this, and it takes me much, much longer to get an answer if I ever get one. So, the last thing we want to do is put people in those scenarios. We want people to be able to talk to us. We just want the technology to be able to lead us through the most efficient and effective way to provide them with the right answer. The first time.

[00:22:25] That’s really interesting. I mean, artificial intelligence is such a, you know, trendy and modernized way of doing business and technology. It’s nice to hear that Ansafone is taking that aspect of it, but not letting it dominate the whole human experience. And you’re still focused on, you know, on your clients directly. Absolutely. Yeah.

[00:22:47] We’re using a Genesis platform which ties in A.I. and a variety of different technology. They’re always cutting edge in what they do. And because they are the tool that we use. We get the benefits of that as well.

[00:23:02] Yeah, that’s great. And even just to add to what Tim was saying before in reference to the retention of good agents, you know, really that I guess that’s the fairly the foundation of what you’re doing is having these really good people and then giving them the proper resources and tools like the technology and so on to help make them more proficient and at their job and provide better service.

[00:23:20] Absolutely. That’s that. And that’s a good point, because in the end, it does come down to the people, even if you have the most amazing technology, if you have the wrong person handling the call or the e-mail or the chat, it technology is not going to help. So, it really is still a people business, even though there’s more technology in it today than there ever has been.

[00:23:41] So the fiftieth year is coming up for Ansafone. How would you say that is going to impact your business and strategy?

[00:23:49] Well, I think it’s been a really, it’s a great time and it has been a great time for us to reflect back and look at. During these 50 years and specifically more these 10 to 20 years, what have we done really well? What areas would we like to continue to grow and improve on? To be a better solution for our customers? It’s all about continuous improvement for us as well as a company. And so, this is a time for us to, you know, review our vision and how we can help the most in providing the best service for the client.

[00:24:25] What is the happiest experience you’ve had with answer found him. What are you most proud of?

[00:24:31] One program that comes to mind right away is work that we’ve done for a Department of Children and Family Services. And it’s interacting with people who are at their lowest point. It’s women who have young children who are oftentimes alone, don’t have the resources needed to provide shelter, food, and we’re there for them. And the state provides different services. But oftentimes there’s an issue with either money going on to their card where they can purchase food in their SNAP program or, you know, funding that they should be getting or maybe they don’t know where to get it. They call us and we can help them during these times where they really have nowhere else to go. And so, for me, although it sounds like a sort of sad time, it’s happy in a way that we can resolve the situation and help them during their greatest time of need.

[00:25:24] That’s really amazing. I don’t think I’ve ever heard a call center provider do anything like that before.

[00:25:31] There are. Each state has a program and there are some companies that provide a service, but I think that this was very unique in that we were the only full provider. All right. Hair care. We didn’t handle a percentage of the calls. We handled all the calls. And so, they trusted us 100 percent with every situation that came up in the state with this problem. Child and Family Services program.

[00:26:01] Yeah, that is really amazing service.

[00:26:04] It says a lot about what you guys are doing. It’s a testament really to what you guys are doing to have the faith, to say, hey, guys, you guys are the professionals. We know you’re going to execute this extremely well. Go. No, go and do what you do.

[00:26:15] Absolutely. The other the trust that they have in us to take care of their people is it’s an honor.

[00:26:24] You know, Tim, I wanted to ask you something specifically about your role as the vice president of sales and marketing. Is there anything specifically about your role which you feel is like the hardest for you? And when it comes to getting a client to hire you guys to take over their call center or to establish a call center for them?

[00:26:43] I think that one of the biggest challenges is for people who have not outsourced before, is really helping companies understand that outsourcing is not a loss of control, that oftentimes we handle some of the calls. We may handle a percentage of them, we may handle a certain headcount of them, but we’re really there to supplement their team, were there to help them meet their service levels and their quality expectations were also there to help share some of the things that we’ve learned with many different clients in many different industries. Oftentimes there are best practices that we’ve experienced and that we know of that we can share that are above and beyond just training agents and having them handle calls. So oftentimes it’s helping them in their business. It’s helping them improve their business and growing their business and provide better customer experience.

[00:27:32] All right, Tim, so thank you so much, obviously for being here with us. But I’ve been itching to ask you a personal question. But if I ask a personal question, go for. So, we obviously know, and we had a chance to talk before we started this that you’re a connoisseur of coffee. We know you love your coffee, and I appreciate that, because I do, too. But I also found out that you’re a runner. I am. So, can you tell me a little bit about your running and what running means to you?

[00:27:53] Great question. Running to me is it’s my therapy. It is a chance for me to come to regrown myself. You have a long day and you have a chance to just regroup. You have a chance to think about your day as much or as little as you want and sort of come back to just who you are. And so, for me, it’s really my therapy. I look forward to it. And it’s something that that I feel like eight days. I don’t do it. I miss it. It’s. And it’s amazing during a run how you can get answers to questions that you couldn’t get before you did it. So, I’ll finish a run with a with a solution to a problem that. I didn’t have more than one thing to add to that. Your favorite half or full marathon. And why? Oh, wow. I’ve done one marathon. I did Grandmas Marathon. And to lose Minnesota, I think that if I were to do another, it would probably be Boston. And it’s an amazing race because of all the excitement along the way and the fans and the cheering, but also the, you know, disaster that they had and all the people that were injured through that. It makes you want to go and just support them and run it in order to just. Be there in a sense for them. I believe that it’s an it’s a great cause. It’s done a lot of good and it’s I don’t want it to stop because somebody is doing things to disrupt it.

[00:29:28] Tim, again, thank you so much for being here. I really appreciate it. This, which is very informative, and I just loved hearing about your experience, both in your role as a vice president, sales and marketing with Ansafone. And just the answer company that you guys have been around for so long had just this great and continued success.

[00:29:44] Thank you so much for your time.

[00:29:45] Thank you. And thank you so much, Tim, for coming out here today. We really enjoyed this podcast and learning about Ansafone contact centers.

[00:29:54] And can you tell us where to find you so you can find us on w w w dot Ansafone dot com and click for assistance. There you can chat with us. You can fill out a lead form or there’s a toll-free number you can call, and we’ll have a chance to speak. Person to person. Awesome. Thank you so much, Tim. Nice to see you again.

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