FOCUS: CRISIS TELEMARKETING - Calling global rescue services/Call centres have become the preferred way of dealing with corporate crises Now PR and telemarketing companies have to consider the needs of international audiences. TARA NEALON reports.

The occasions when international crises strike individual companies are few and far between, but when they occur, they can be devastating on a global level for those that are unprepared.

The occasions when international crises strike individual companies

are few and far between, but when they occur, they can be devastating on

a global level for those that are unprepared.

A central part of dealing with any crisis today is setting up one or more

telephone helplines to inform the various affected audiences. Normally,

one telephone line is established with an automated system, routing the

caller according to their enquiry.

On an international scale, however, a whole call centre can be established

to cope with complications such as language barriers.

Telemarketing company Direct Dialog’s managing director Kevin Burne

suggests that in the international arena, there should be an automatic

detection of telephone calls for different audiences.

’There needs to be a classification of calls included in the system to

determine whether they are from very urgent or angry callers; from other

businesses which may want to know if there’s a normal business; or calls

to handle the media.’

One of the most important elements in handling calls in a crisis is for a

compnay to humanise the process. For a company which is not prepared in

times of a crisis, it is essential to bring in trained operators who are

experienced in coping with crises and with callers who can range from the

concerned and anxious to those that are angry or upset. Operators are

provided either from a list maintained by the company concerned, or by a

telemarketing company and are trained to quickly pass on the required


A trained operator will be able to guide the caller, and to establish the

message, sometimes working from a script provided by the company.

This can bring reassurance and help the caller accept these messages.

Bearing this in mind, one of the most obvious barriers facing a company

involved in an international crisis is that of language. If prepared,

groups of people with language skills can be pooled in one call centre or

in telemarketing bureaux around the world.

However, if a crisis requires several call centres to be set up across

Europe because of language differences, telemarketing centres in Brussels

and Netherlands tend to have the highest proportion of multilingual

speakers, according to telemarketing company TSC UK’s managing director

Arthur Bird.

SITEL Europe plc’s vice chairman Martin Shields says: ’We would deal with

a crisis on a local level because of the language barriers. Rather than

handling it from one location, we would break it into units to achieve

more effective and rapid results.’

The SITEL Corporation Worldwide is able to operate in 30 languages with

more than 70 call centres throughout the world. But while poised to deal

with the eventuality of an international crisis, Shields admits that the

company has not yet been called on to handle a truly global event.

It is also suggested, although not essential, that international companies

facing a cross-border crisis offer a toll-free telephone number for


BT offers a toll-free international service, although Broadsystems’

managing director Alex Green says: ’I would offer it only so that friends

and relatives can call without having to worry about paying for the

international call.’

Airline operators are inevitably some of the heaviest investors in crisis

telemarketing. Sudden occurrences, such as crashes, require advanced

planning to ensure that there are telephones and a way of activating

operators in the event of a disaster.

British Airways was a pioneer in this field, establishing its facilities

in 1972. According to British Airways’ senior manager, Operations Control

Contingencies Ron Lindsay, its call centre has been used as a model around

the world.

The EPIC (Emergency Procedure Information Centre) is a call centre that is

activated for a major event, such as an aircraft accident, which works

closely with the Metropolitan Police. It is used only for family and

friends of relatives who may be on a particular flight. In times of

crisis, it can be manned by 600 trained British Airways staff and

volunteers who are drawn from a pool in London. The database catalogues

different skills, including languages. A dedicated media line is also

handled by the press office.

In an emergency, there are over 60 telephones with a duplex to two

telephone exchanges, which means that if one exchange fails, BA can switch

to the other. The calls come into a filtering system and a backlog of

calls are held in an automatic queue which plays a reassuring recorded

message before being put through to initial operators who will identify

the credibility of the caller by asking the name of the passenger and his

or her first initial before passing the call onto two carousels of ten

agents. These agents are allowed to provide nothing but the facts they

have at their disposal. ’In these circumstances, we don’t want to build

expectations as to survivors,’ says Lindsay.

The centre can handle 600 calls in one hour and the operation can be

activated within 25 minutes of notification of an emergency. If the

emergency happens during the night, an on-call team will activate the

centre and summon volunteers within an hour.

EPIC holds four mock emergencies a year including one major emergency

training session carried out in conjunction with the British Airport


The OCIC (Operation Control Incident Centre) is situated next door to EPIC

and is the command centre for the BA crisis management team. It is the

nerve centre of corporate response where strategy is developed and


The press office liaises with OCIC to have a cross flow of accurate

information for television and radio. Press releases are constantly

generated as new information comes out with the aim of pre-empting

inaccurate and damaging information that may be broadcast.

’We have to make sure that what gets out is up-to-date and accurate rather

than being reactive,’ says BA spokesman Jamie Bowden.

While the call centre is getting ready to open, the press office aims to

issue a statement within 45 minutes of the incident.

EPIC and OCIC were both working together during several incidents last

year including the KLM emergency landing last summer and the Virgin

Atlantic emergency landing last November at Heathrow Airport. EPIC was

also used in last month’s fire at Heathrow’s Terminal One for BA staff


Other airlines such as South African Airways, Cathay Pacific and Singapore

Airlines are to emulate BA’s example by establishing hubs in Johannesburg,

Hong Kong and Singapore respectively. BA also contracts its centre out to

78 other carriers.

The UK Foreign Office also has emergency procedures in line for

international crises involving British citizens. Its prime objective is to

protect British nationals abroad. It has procedures for any sort of

emergency including evacuations, nuclear disasters, earthquakes coups and


In cases of emergency, a telephone number is released through the


When called, a recorded message is given and details of the incident are

given. On the same message, a further number is given for inquiries for

friends and relatives. Ten trained telephonists are brought in to man 15

lines, guided by whichever six members of the consular division are on

standby. The telephone system displays the speed with which calls stack


The operators who take the calls take details such as the name of the

person or persons concerned, a phone number and a UK address. This

database is used to contact callers again when more information becomes


In the Luxor massacre in Egypt last year, for example, six British

nationals were killed. The consular emergency unit was activated and more

than 1,500 calls were taken in three days.

For most companies planning for an international crisis is a one-way draw

on funds which is unlikely to show any sort of return. Even many

telemarketing companies have not had the opportunity to handle a worldwide

crisis. But as the business world continues to grow smaller, in-house

teams, PR consultancies and telemarketing suppliers cannot afford to

ignore the global communications consequences of any incident.

CASE STUDY: Trying to overturn effects of a ’moose test’

Car manufacturer Mercedes-Benz made a strategic move one-and-a-half

years ago to develop a range of luxury cars for the lower-end


Mercedes hoped its reputation for safe, high-quality vehicles would carry

over to a range of smaller cars.

It designed the A-class and, in 1995, began promoting it on a tour of

cities across Germany and continental Europe (not the UK). But just as it

was arriving in European showrooms last October, the A-Class hit a speed


A Swedish journalist was testing the A-Class for a motor magazine’s ’Car

of the Year’ award. He conducted what is called the ’moose test’, designed

to simulate a swerve to avoid elk on Swedish roads. The car flipped


To make matters worse, it did so in front of television and press cameras

and the Swedish journalist held a press conference to announce to the

world what had happened.

A core crisis team of 20 people, including the divisions of PR, marketing,

engineering, supplies and logistics, was formed Roland Klein, spokesman

for Mercedes’ parent company Daimler-Benz, says that the communications

task was to ensure that Mercedes’ reputation for safety was not


Meanwhile, Mercedes-Benz accident engineers discovered that the tyres used

on the A-Class could slip off the wheel rim in extreme conditions.

The PR members of the crisis team developed a question and answer document

for a helpline. This was translated into different languages and the Q&As

were updated every day as new information was released. The message was

the same in every country.

Two days later, a press conference was held for 200 journalists at which

the tyre problem was announced. At this point, charge-free numbers and

call centres were launched in each European country where the car was

available. The key messages sent to each caller were that Mercedes-Benz

was still the ’safest car on the market’ and that engineers had identified

the weaknesses in the A-Class and were addressing them immediately. The

final message was that Mercedes-Benz was value for money and the top car

in every respect.

More than 150,000 consumers requested copies of a free video on the ’moose

test’ and the fundamental safety of the A-Class. Mercedes-Benz wrote to

all customers who had purchased an A-Class and those who had placed


Another video was filmed at a PR event at which the Swedish journalist and

former Formula 1 driver Niki Lauda tested the newly improved A-Class.

’The message was again passed that we had made a mistake, the problems

were rectified and that we had satisfied our harshest critics,’ says


An outbound call exercise offered 2,600 existing A-Class owners a C-class

car on loan while their car was modified. Only one-third of existing

owners took up the offer.

During the month that Mercedes-Benz had its crisis, sales only slipped

from 100,000 the previous month to 96,000. Once the crisis was resolved,

the sales jumped back to 100,000.

CASE STUDY: Swiss Bank’s search for dormant accounts

When the 50th anniversary of the end of World War II was commemorated in

1995, eastern European archives were opened to the public triggering a

discussion in Switzerland about the dormant accounts of those who had

faced Nazi persecution. In late 1995, the Swiss Bank Association (SBA)

ombudsman asked for all Swiss banks to report on dormant assets.

The SBA established a helpline as a central contact point in Zurich in

early 1996, allowing people who believed their families held dormant

accounts to give personal details and to initiate a search. Calls were

made from all over the world and more than 13 million Swiss francs of the

initial 40 million Swiss francs traced were paid out to these


As a result of these discoveries the search spread worldwide. The Swiss

government also set up independent commissions to research all names

linked to accounts.

At the same time, preparations were made to establish helplines once the

names were published. Charge-free numbers were established for 30

countries and call centres were located around the world in Sydney, Tel

Aviv, Budapest, Basle and New York. Several charge-free numbers were

assigned to some call centres to cater for language requirements.

Callers could order information packs which included a claim form and

directions, a questionnaire (in 19 different languages) and a list of

contact offices and charge-free numbers. Also included was a letter from

the SBA explaining the initiative and expressing the banks’ commitment

to returning the funds. The information packs were developed by PR

representatives from many of the large Swiss banks, the SBA and New

York-based PR agency, Kekst and Company.

Hundreds of operators were hired and brought to training centres in Zurich

and New York for a one-day training session. Most included native-speakers

of 19 different languages. This training involved rigorous psychological

preparation which enabled operators to listen to the caller, react to

tones of voice and to stay calm and friendly. One training course employed

a survivor from the Auschwitz concentration camp who offered to talk about

her experience and to prepare the operators for what they might hear.

After months of research, in July 1997, the names of holders of accounts

opened before World War II were published in newspapers around the world

and on the internet (HYPERLINK by the


Published alongside these names were charge-free numbers for 30


To date, more than 55,000 calls have been taken from all over the world

and more than 6,000 claims accounted for, and payments made. The internet

site has had over 200,000 hits.

For the Swiss Bank Association, the call centres have been extremely

successful in communicating its message. ’We sent the message out that we

had a commitment to return this money,’ says Swiss Bank Association

spokesman Christophe Meier. ’We reached out to all four corners of this

planet and gave everyone throughout the world an easy opportunity to get

in touch with the banks.’


In times of crisis, ensuring that a coherent message is transmitted to

affected consumers requires a carefully crafted, and adhered to,


Such a script can include Qustion and Answers (Q&As) and frequently asked

questions (FAQs). In some cases, telephone operators are able to utilise

technology by entering caller’s queries into pre prepared computer

packages which can generate an immediate and appropriate answer.

In a crisis, the script should be a collaboration between the

telemarketing company and the PR team or agency representing the affected

company. ’The exact message you want to get across needs to come from the

horse’s mouth,’ says managing director of telemarketing company

Broadsystems, Alex Green.

There also must be consistency of messages on an international scale,

particularly if there is more than one set of call centres around the

world. ’It is important to give the same message out; giving the facts

and reassurance about the company or brand,’ says Sally Penn, managing

director of ADS Telemarketing.

Once the message has been agreed, the structure of the script should be

designed to include an introduction, the presentation which will include

the message or questions and answers, and, of course, a conclusion.

According to Dianne Hickerson, senior vice president of the SITEL

Corporation Worldwide, the script must contain just the right amount of


’In a crisis situation, there is no tolerance for paraphrasing or


The most challenging part of writing the script is honing the message.

’It is essential to translate the message into the script,’ says Dineshi

Kodituwakku, a consultant for TSC UK. ’The writer is having to transfer

one-way communication into two-way communication.’

Kodituwakku says that the script must communicate three things. Firstly,

it must reinforce the brand. Secondly, the operator must get the customer

to trust the brand in order for it to have credibility. Thirdly, once that

trust has been established, the operator is better able to pass on the

message to the caller.

SITEL’s Hickerson says: ’Over the telephone, an operator has a singular

objective during a crisis - to make a quick assessment of the caller’s

mood and tone. Based on this assessment, inform the caller with factual

data, ask questions through inquiry and move into a solution.’

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