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December 2011
The Nerve Center
By Zenda Douglas

     Most business owners and managers have dreamed of having imaginary elves appear on the scene after hours or during critical times to help shoulder the workload, solve problems, take care of the details, clean up a mess or otherwise save the day. Suite 1000 does just that, or rather offers services that essentially can make magic happen.

     “Most of our clients prefer that we are completely invisible to their customers,” says Laurie Leonard, president and co-owner of the “live” 24/7, 365-days-a-year business call center. “We join their businesses by telephone and Internet to create seamless transitions—from their staff to ours—for customer service and sales support.”

 

Seamless and Endless Support

     The options and combinations of today’s call center services are seemingly endless. Examples in the sales support arena include capturing and qualifying leads from advertisements, handling requests for information packages and catalogs, setting appointments, making reservations, and taking orders and subscriptions.

     Customer service support may include screening service calls and open work orders, dispatching field sales and service personnel or making outbound calls for customer satisfaction surveys, invitations or service reminders. Call center representatives can act as a full-time, part-time or overflow receptionists depending upon a client’s needs.

     Leonard, together with co-owner and partner, Ty Leonard, who also happens to be her mother, acquired Suite 1000 in 1993 when the business was 10 years old. Leonard had become aware of the company’s search for a general manager and referred her mother, who accepted the job. Leonard herself took on some sales consulting for the company.

     “Within two years, we made an offer to buy the company,” remembers Leonard. Ty Leonard now serves as its chief financial officer.

     “The whole call-center industry has changed dramatically over the years,” says Leonard. “You’ve heard General Motor’s tagline ‘It’s not your father’s Oldsmobile anymore.’ Well; the same thing applies to our industry. It used to be a simple, paper-based business. You were just a glorified message-taker.

     “That has completely changed with the rise of the Internet. Now, we can interact with our clients’ own software applications. We can become an actual extension of their company so when our clients close up shop for the day, have emergencies, meetings or utility outages, we can continue with their business as though it had never closed.”

     Suite 1000 clients come from all over the United States as well as from the United Kingdom, Canada and France. They represent diverse industries with very individualized service needs but, as a common thread, they usually have experienced a problem in some area of communications.

     “Honestly, we tend to get clients after something bad has happened—they’ve lost a big sale, ticked off a major client, or worse,” says Leonard. “One North Carolina company that sells gas-powered equipment came to us after an after-hours service call regarding a gas leak went unaddressed. The leak resulted in an explosion that leveled three buildings and killed seven people. Service calls can be a very big deal.”

     Leonard recounts other examples: a heavy equipment rental company lost an after hours service call that would have meant a quarter of a million dollar contract; a law firm missed out on a multi-million dollar case due to a missed call. Companies tend to fumble an important call for one of two reasons. Either no one was available to take the call or there was no process in place to determine how to prioritize and escalate an urgent call.

     Communications overload is another challenge companies face, according to Leonard. “They come to me because they are barraged by dozens of phone calls, hundreds of emails and text messages. Trying to handle all of that has made them less and less productive. Some of them are almost at a standstill.” In such situations, Suite 1000 provides a front-end filter to determine the nature of the communication, how urgent it is and who the right person is to receive it.

 

The Nucleus of the Nerve Center

     When a call comes in to the Suite 1000 call center, it is accompanied by a computer screen popup which automatically pulls up an account customized for each client. The account provides the call center reps with information on how to answer the phone; it opens forms and provides the appropriate questions to ask for each type of call. Based on the answers, the software guides representatives in different directions, allowing them to facilitate very elaborate work flow.

     “What makes us different from other answering services is that we actually work with software developers to design software that pushes the process and eliminates errors,” says Leonard. “The system can keep up with very complex instructions so our reps can focus on assisting the caller.”

     Familiarity with each client’s business and their industry terminology is also important. Suite 1000 spends a lot of time and attention on training and preparation for each new client. “Callers need to feel that they are talking with someone who is professional, knowledgeable and can truly help them with their inquiry.”

     Every prospective client is provided with what Leonard calls the Value Interview: “Our job is to map out their processes and determine where we can add genuine value. Where can we help them save more money or make more money? Saving money might include helping them avoid the need to hire additional staff or incur overtime. Making money could mean capturing more sales leads, taking orders or identifying up-selling opportunities.”

     Suite 1000 also offers a unique No Surprises Pledge: “We don’t just give prospective clients pricing. We share what they can expect the cost of entire billing to be before they even start working with us. It’s our job to help them track their usage and put them in control of their budget,” explains Leonard, who adds that the pledge is another offering that sets the company apart from their competition.

     The Internet has had a spectacular impact on the call center industry, according to Leonard. Suite 1000 has its own proprietary software and access to a whole plethora of hosted software applications that can be used in tandem with a client.

     “The Internet gives us a pipeline that lets Suite 1000 and our clients interact with each others’ applications. Now it’s possible to build an enormous amount of complexity into an account that a human being could never remember to do,” says Leonard.

     Leonard gives an example of software allowing for very complex interaction with clients: “Suite 1000 works with a materials handling company, with multiple locations throughout the Southeast. When callers need an urgent equipment repair, a number of factors come into play—the location of the equipment, the type of equipment they are having trouble with, the time of day and the day of the week.

     Suite 1000’s software allows our reps to maintain a complex on-call schedule that ensures that the right technician is dispatched through the right type of communication device every time. Customer retention is our client’s number one priority, so we have to get it right every time.”

     Suite 1000 also works with a home renovation company that generates a lot of calls from advertising. The client’s challenge was that their employees were always at job sites, not in the office. The solution was to have Suite 1000 handle all of their initial sales calls and use an Internet-based calendar to book appointments for estimates.

     “The client can log in and see their schedule in real time. Now, our customer can focus exclusively on spending time with new sales prospects and supervising projects,” says Leonard.

     “Sometimes we do things that are really cool and rewarding,” says Leonard. “We had an opportunity to work with an orthopedic surgeon on a groundbreaking new surgical procedure. His practice sponsored a series of TV commercials to educate the public on the new treatment that would restore people completely disabled to normal function.

     “Together with the surgeon, we created a telephone patient screening process to identify who might be good candidates and then to schedule exams. It was very gratifying to be part of the team able to make those connections that so significantly contributed to the quality of those people’s lives.”

 

Synaptic Synergies

     Strategic partnerships and vendor relationships have become increasingly important, according to Leonard. “Industries are changing really quickly and my clients need tools to cope with that. My success and the success of my customers are very dependent upon how well I surround myself with smart innovative partners.”

     When clients need a communication and process solution, they need it ASAP. “Now, we can partner with experts in specific areas of concern and develop something in a flash,” says Leonard. “In the next five years, the speed at which you will need to respond to business demands will be unprecedented. We’ll have to have more and more of these strategic partnerships to package the solutions that our clients will need.”

     Suite 1000 often partners with consultants and vendors in specific industries to solve client’s problems. One example is Internet marketing firms. Says Leonard “They often get frustrated because they can do a great job for a client but if the client doesn’t have a support system in place to capture leads, qualify them, track them and schedule appointments, it can make a good campaign fail. That’s where we come in,” says Leonard.

     Inevitably, with thousands of calls coming in each day, representatives will encounter the occasional irate customer. “Telephone reps need specific training in the proper techniques required to satisfy upset callers,” according to Leonard. “You also need to give your reps the authority to step outside of normal instructions when the situation requires it. Protecting our clients and their relationships with their customers is our number one priority. We have had to deal with many unusual situations and even emergencies as serious a chemical spill, a fallen elevator and a four-alarm fire.”

     Leonard welcomes the great diversity among her clients: “There is a lot of cross-pollination and we learn a lot. What is normal operating practice in one industry can be a revelation in another. Plus, there are issues with ebb and flow. Different industries have different needs at various times of the day and night. If we didn’t have multiple industries, it would be extremely difficult for us to staff shifts efficiently. Having clients that operate in different time zones also helps to even out the load.”

     Leonard comes from a family of entrepreneurs including her mother, father and grandfather. Suite 1000 is her second company. She grew up in Rock Hill, S.C., and graduated from Winthrop University in 1984 with a degree in business. A job in the printing business led her to Florida where she later ran her own printing brokerage business.

     With a special fondness and empathy for entrepreneurs, Leonard spends considerable time supporting them. As a member and former president of The Entrepreneurs Organization, she networks with and counsels entrepreneurs. She has also served on the Mayor’s Small Business Task Forces and participates in several industry groups.

     She sums up her business succinctly: “The first thing that I have to sell is trust. You’re asking people to turn their business over to you for a period of time. We’re best suited to clients that want a real partnership. The more they are willing to share about their strategic goals, the more helpful we can be.”

Zenda Douglas is a Greater Charlotte Biz freelance writer.
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