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April 2007
Putting The Pieces Together
By Ellison Clary

     Suppose you’re shopping the Sprint Web site for a cell phone and you can’t decide on a model or service plan. You click Sprint’s help button and start an online chat with a service person that guides you through your options and then takes your order. Or perhaps you’re talking about buying a digital camera with a representative on the Olympus customer service phone line.

     In either case, the person you’re dealing with is in Concord, N.C. That person is working for Connextions, Inc., an Orlando-based company that specializes in support functions for its clients. Its customer relationship management offerings include contact center services, fulfillment management, supply chain management and warehouse distribution.

    The person you carry on a virtual conversation with regarding your Sprint phone or speak with about an Olympus camera is at a 40,000-square-foot facility in Concord’s International Corporate Center.

     That facility is packed with workstations which include computers, telephones and headsets. The people who use them help customers interact with Connextions clients such as Sprint and Olympus.

 

All the Pieces

     The huge room hums with activity. The sun beams through giant windows. Bright colors cover the walls. Exposed ceilings and functional features with decorative touches keep energy levels high.

      In charge of this bustling hive is Tracey Ayers, senior vice president, who moved to Concord last year from the company’s only other center, a 300,000 square foot structure in Orlando where 1,500 employees support companies such as Levi Strauss and Mercedes-Benz as well as the Lance Armstrong Foundation, FedEx, UnitedHealth Group and Caremark.

      A separate health care division in Orlando provides clinically experienced, registered nurses for patients of medical-related clients. The nurses are available 24 hours a day to monitor clients’ patients by phone, fax and the Internet.

     Ayers, 44, has been with Connextions for almost six years. The University of Massachusetts graduate has nearly 20 years of experience in contact center work and is quick to explain how Connextions is much more than a call center.

     “Our people learn from their first day that this is a different company,” she says. “It’s not a capacity-driven model; it’s a value-based proposition. We effectively write programs that add value back to our clients.”

     “We don’t just put people in seats to take phone calls,” she adds, with a tinge of brogue that betrays her Boston roots. “There are a lot of folks out there that can do that. That’s not us.”

     Indeed, Connextions can fulfill orders. Ayers says the firm can pick and pack, procure merchandise, store it, handle returns, host Web sites for placing orders, and ship. It also manages supply chains and warehouse distribution.

      Connextions sometimes operates an outbound contact program; such as one it hopes to start in the Concord facility this spring for a health care provider. That would involve agents calling doctors, hospitals or clinics to educate them on the health care firm’s programs.

     “We don’t like straight selling,” Ayers says. “It doesn’t fit our business model. There are plenty of folks out there who will do that.”

     Before they start supporting clients, Connextions’ Concord recruits complete a specially designed training course administered in partnership with Rowan-Cabarrus Community College and its continuing education center. Course length varies by the client the workers will support, because they learn much about the products and culture of that client. Sessions can continue anywhere from two weeks to as many as seven.

      New hires also get acquainted with the history of Connextions and learn that the company’s passion is centered on, as Ayers describes it, “our people, our clients and our environment—the building and the community.”

      The first class of 50 started work in the Connextions Concord facility in October 2006. By then, upfit work that began in July was fairly far along. The company continued adding classes of 25 to 50 people to the work force every two weeks, and now has 360 in Concord.

     But that’s not nearly enough. Ayers says, “Our intention is to grow the center to 650 people.” That would place Connextions among Cabarrus County’s biggest employers, along with Philip Morris, Sysco, Lowe’s Motor Speedway and Northeast Medical Center.

      To make room for the additional workers, Connextions is upfitting another 12,000 square feet of contiguous space. It is scheduled to be ready in May.

 

Choosing Concord

      The same growth that is fueling that expansion is what led Connextions to look for another center outside its Orlando base. The private firm anticipates $100 million in revenue for 2007 compared to $65 million for 2006 according to Ayers.

      To find another operation site, the firm searched within a two-hour flight radius of Orlando, scrutinizing places such as Knoxville and Nashville, Tenn., the Raleigh-Durham area of North Carolina and the greater Charlotte region. When a deal for a Knoxville facility fell apart, Connextions got serious about Charlotte, but still hadn’t identified Concord as a possibility.That’s when Kenny McDonald, senior vice president at the Charlotte Regional Partnership, weighed in. “Tracey, why is Concord not on your list?” Ayers remembers him asking via long distance telephone. That was about 36 hours before she and her crew were to touch down at Charlotte-Douglas International Airport.

     The Partnership had more than a few properties lined up for the Connextions brass to see, but McDonald says he worried that none of them was quite right.

      “Part of our role,” McDonald explains, “is to help clients get a real comprehensive look at our region. The property in Concord is the type they are using in Orlando and I thought it would be appropriate.”

      The Connextions crew “fell in love” with Concord, Ayers says, not only because of the available building but also because of what they perceived as a quality work force. They haven’t been disappointed.

      “The work ethic is extremely strong,” Ayers says of the applicants she and her team see. “People rate very highly on our evaluation testing. There are skilled workers in this area. They come from very solid backgrounds and have a solid work history. They’re genuinely interested in being a part of the Connextions family.”

      Many employees of Connextions in Concord come from customer service backgrounds, including retail, home nursing and even some call centers that operate in Mecklenburg County. “We do have some former textile workers here, Ayers says, “but we’ve found that a lot of those individuals have had another job prior to coming here, generally in the service-related areas. They’ve retooled.”

      Brandi Brown of Charlotte was among the first 50 on the job in Concord. Formerly with call center giant Convergis Corporation in Mecklenburg County, she recently won a promotion to a supervisor role.

       “The atmosphere here is positive,” says Brown, a graduate of East Tennessee State University. “Everybody’s concerned about everybody else. You’re not a number. You’re a person.”

      The Connextions operation runs seven days a week and is shut down only from 1 a.m. until 6 a.m. Work schedules can be configured to accommodate employee needs, such as a day off for a doctor visit. Part-time hours are available, too. There is a cafeteria on site and benefits include health and dental insurance and a 401(k) plan.

     The wage scale, which Ayers characterizes as competitive, starts between $10 and $11 an hour and runs up close to $15 an hour. Performance rewards are also available.

“If they’re doing their job and doing it well, they have the ability to earn more,” Ayers says. “We are results-oriented.”

     Ayers herself enjoys being near her parents who retired from Boston to the Lake Norman area. She’s building a house for herself and cocker spaniel Chelsea near Davidson, about halfway between the Connextions center and her parents’ home.

      “The primary focus of my job is around the people, the clients and the environment,” Ayers says. “It includes being the cultural ambassador and coaching, mentoring and developing that next set of leaders for Connextions.”

       Connextions wants its employees to feel empowered to solve problems, she says. “They can reach out to me or their peers and collectively we’ll go about solving problems.”

       She also stays active in the Cabarrus community, “making sure people know who we are.” The company takes pride in being part of the civic network, she says, and even though getting fully operational made schedules hectic, Connextions employees raised funds for a sheltered women’s agency throughout the past Christmas season. Connextions matched the total.

 

The Completed Picture

     Ayers reports to Mike Tripp, executive vice president for contact center operations, based in Orlando. Jack LeFort of Orlando is chairman and chief executive of Connextions, which started in 1996 as an outgrowth of Magnetix, an audiocassette-manufacturing firm LeFort started in 1986.

     Ayers explains the evolution simply. The cassette company began shipping its own cassettes. “That’s what started our fulfillment, supply chain management and reverse logistics business down in Orlando,” she says. “The natural progression was, well, if you can ship, you can also take an order. And that’s where the contact center evolved. We build our business practices around the client’s core competencies.”

     LeFort grew the company on effective customer relationship management. Connextions clients get “customized solutions that enhance their customer and supply chain strategies,” he says. “Clients appreciate relationships,” he adds, “but they commit to value.”

     For evidence that the LeFort approach is working, Ayers points out that Connextions has doubled in size annually for three years running.

     “We grew out of space in Orlando and we’d also been hit by three hurricanes,” she says. “When the opportunity to start a facility outside Florida came up, that was definitely where I wanted to be. We had a chance to create something from scratch up here.”

      The company will continue to grow, Ayers vows, in health care and in its core business of high-value commercial services. A decision on placing a third facility in another city, probably in the Central time zone, could come by late this year, she says.

The future could be bright for the Concord operation, as well. Connextions might open a complimentary facility nearby to house another 200 to 300 agents, Ayers says. “We’ll watch closely as Cabarrus County grows,” she says, “to see if it offers the same quality of hires.

      “I think we’ve been received well in Concord and Cabarrus County,” she adds. “Over the next six months, we’re going to be reaching out even deeper in the community than we have to date.”
Ellison Clary is a Charlotte-based freelance writer.
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