Intensive Caring for a Toll-free Business
An interesting piece of business mail once landed in my mailbox. From Ellen Martig, founder, president, and most active participant of ACTION 1-800, a telemarketing service agency in Phoenix. Its emphasis is inbound order-taking for business and consumer catalog operations, but it gets involved many other telemarketing functions as well.
The letter was intriguing. So I called her up. We talked and I invited myself to visit her place in Phoenix (the home office and original facility was and still is in Tucson). This story is a result of that visit and the interview I enjoyed with Ellen Martig.
Ellen, how did you get started in the telemarketing business?
It was a career change for me. I am a registered nurse. I put people to sleep for surgery. I did that job for 20 years and was burned out.
I had always wanted to have my own business. I had been on-call all of my professional life, and knew what a good page and a good message was. So I got into the telephone answering business, taking messages for doctors, lawyers, and other professional business people.
As telecommunications systems developed, that started to go away. So I looked around for something I could build upon. 1-800 was the business I chose.
OK why 800? Why not something else? What took you to that side of the communication business?
Necessity. I looked around and saw a need that technology had made available. Yes, 800 numbers had been around for a while, but the new technology allowed for a larger marketplace and a much better level of service.
And I knew the 900 service has lots of legal problems. I just knew I was not into the horoscope business. And the 976 sex lines open you up to all sorts of interesting people and problems. So 800 was a natural growth from my answering service business and background.
Ellen, let's talk how you got out of the healthcare field and into business at all. How did that happen?
My life story is another example of the American free enterprise system. The opportunities we have available to us in the US.
My parents were wonderful to me, but when you have 9 kids, there is never a lot of money and we lived below the poverty line. Of course when you're a kid you don't know that and we just made do. My dad died when I was a teenager. I watched my mother work to keep us all going. And I saw the US welfare system actually raise our standard of living.
Suddenly there was medical and dental care. Foodstamps so we could eat better. I earned a couple of scholarships, which is how I got into nurse's training ... and the middle class.
I also decided that if I had enough smarts to do that I should be able to get a man with a college degree. I married a school teacher and together we built a very comfortable life.
But soon I was both bored and burned out from the nursing responsibilities. And because I had always lived my life at the level of necessities - never more than that - everything I did was rational. Sure, we took some investment risks - prudent risks. Not always safe, because if I wasn't willing to take risks I don't think I could be a successful entrepreneur.
What drives you today? What keeps you up and going?
The excitement of the business. It is dynamic. Direct marketing as an industry is exciting. There's a little too much technology driving telemarketing today, but I'm coping with it.
We are really moving faster now than previous generations. But we're not moving as fast as the generations coming up behind us.
Because technology is moving rapidly and driving your business, how to you handle that most important part of your business - the people?
I incorporate the technology and the people together. You only use that which will be helpful.
Catalogs are a big part of our business and one of the key driving forces for catalog marketing is convenience. Another reason it is growing is people are working out of their homes more than ever before. Big city crime, traffic, and other factors are all driving us to an 1800s lifestyle.
So, this is how I think: I'm working with my clients and their clients as people. And I treat my employees the same way ... as they wish to be treated. I'm helping the customers live the lifestyle they want to live. And I work with my employees as a team. The goal is to get them to work with each other as a team.
Let's talk a little about how the business part of your operation runs.
Well, we are open 24 hours a day, 7 days a week because many of our customers need to offer that level of service. They need to be available to them at the consumer's convenience.
In order to be able to take hold of any assignment I am part of a consortium of 70 telemarketing centers across the US. Some are small with maybe 15 positions and some a very large with several hundred. Together we have 6,500 stations available to our clients.
We're all independent, yet frequently we work together. So far never all 70 at once - but that may happen someday. We organized the group so we can work together. We all have the same philosophy. We have similar types of customers. We have compatible equipment.
The advantage to the client is they never have all their eggs in one basket ... yet they enjoy a consistent level of service. And when any part of the country has a problem - like a blizzard in North Dakota or a flood in Missouri - the rest of us can pick-up and keep going. The client benefits.
Let's talk about training. How do you train your people?
Each of us in the consortium train our own people. Because we think very much alike, and we train from the same or similar materials supplied by the customer, there is rarely a problem.
Here we have a special training room, where we introduce a new project to our team. I am fortunate because I planned for this exact location, where is a safe location yet convenient for my telemarketers. Which means we have no difficulty attracting good people. And keeping them.
What is the most important part of your business today?
All of it is important! I don't look at any one client or person as more important than another. Or any employee as better than another. Or any project. If there is a problem, I want to fix it, fix it right, fix it quickly. Everyone of our clients knows that ... and all our employees do, too.
What part does database marketing play in your business and that of your customers?
Database is a major part of our customers' marketing efforts. All of them are keeping some level of database ... some more complete than others.
With the speed of delivery today, distribution channels are changing. At least they are expanding. Multi-channel distribution is not unusual for my clients. And with the home marketplace growing, I see catalog marketing growing.
Yes, home television shopping will continue to grow. And the Internet will become a factor in our marketing. Now those businesses are really just beginning
Are you saying retailers are going away?
No. I am saying they are going to have to change. The marketplace is not satisfied with the 1950s shopping experience.
Many will scale down, become smaller and specialized They will never all go away - yet with just-in-time manufacturing already working in some industries, it won't be long before just-in-time marketing will also be an everyday fact of life. I see it happening now.
Did you know when you were the 17-18 year-old kid in Iowa that you would have the life you have today? Did you see yourself doing what you are doing?
No. Nor did I know the opportunity was there. At the same time I felt I was smart enough to do something. My teachers told me I was smart. so I accepted that.
I was willing - and still am - to work hard and long. I knew how to organize I was detail-oriented ... which is one of the reasons I got into nursing. And is probably one of the reasons this business, which is very detailed, is successful.
I've always liked people. That didn't matter a whole lot to my success as a nurse - but it didn't hurt. I also learned to work as part of a team when I was nursing, which is very important in this business today, Getting along with people and working together.
Now that you've been in this business a while, do you see yourself as different from other businesses?
Yes, I do. This is capital intensive and people intensive as a business. That is what it is today in the 800 telecommunications industry. If you don't have good equipment and good people you will not make it.
So yes, I would say the average business and I are worlds apart. Most small businesses today have less 10 employees and really work for little more than a salary. Action 1-800 has a different business approach.
You've obviously been successful in finding the right people to work with you. What do you look for?
Average intelligence. A good sense of value. Someone who understands what work is and is willing to work hard. I want some one who is loyal. Not here today and gone tomorrow, which happens frequently in the telemarketing business.
I want a commitment. A commitment to the business and the philosophy we have at Action 1-800. And I'm looking for someone with a large dose of common sense. I'm not necessarily looking for someone with a degree, although that is fine if they have all the other qualities.
People here need to have initiative and want a little power. I'm more than willing to delegate them power and authority ... as long as they know what to do with it. I'm personally very flexible - I'll I take the lump of coal, as long as I know I can also get the pot of gold. I want my people to think and act the same way.
Let's end this on a personal note, Helen. You said you were active in the marketing associations, the Chambers and such ... are you also a sports fan?
No. Certainly not the gladiator sports. I'd rather do it ... which is why I fish and play golf I don't want to watch somebody throw a ball or dribble a ball or get in huddles.
I want to do things.
by ROCKINGHAM*JUTKINS*marketing, all rights reserved.