Problem: Out-of-control telemarketing

Solution: An off-the-shelf call-center application

Payoff: Increased productivity, on-target customer analysis

When Douglas Kerr founded American Direct Business Insurance Agency Inc., an insurance underwriting manager with current sales of $600,000, he drew on the only experience he had in the industry--his work at Travelers Insurance Co. and General Reinsurance Corp. So Kerr went out and purchased lists from places like The Dun & Bradstreet Corp., hired 12 callers, and set them loose on potential buyers.

Although Kerr played around with programs, planning to automate the process, things moved slowly at the Hartford-based company. Sales were slow, and analyzing calls proved impossible--each telemarketer seemed to have his or her own variation on the sales script and could never remember which lines he or she had used on which customer.

Kerr had lost--or rather, he'd never had--control of his telemarketers. Although he had all the right lists, enough callers, and a crude database program that could produce simple reports, he didn't have the multimillion-dollar systems the big guys were using to standardize and monitor the selling process.

But thanks to a recent boom in the computer-telephony market and falling prices for those systems, Kerr wasn't out of control for long. Today, using a state-of-the-art telemarketing system, American Direct's callers average 10 to 15 hot leads a day (people who ask the callers to quote a price for a policy), up from around 6, and the company expects to top $8 million in sales by the end of 1997.

The system, Versatility CallCenter (from Versatility Inc., of Fairfax, Va., 703-591-2000 or 800-VERSATILE,, links American Direct's computers directly to its PBX phone switch. Drawing from a database of phone numbers that has been imported into the program, CallCenter automatically dials and then distributes calls among the telemarketers. Instead of reading from a dog-eared script with notes scribbled in the margins, the telemarketers read from a standard script that pops up on each of their computer screens. The software prompts them to ask questions, starting with: "How long have you been in business?" If the person answers, "More than three years," he or she is considered a good insurance risk and the software moves on to other questions, such as: "Does your business operate out of your home? If not, do you own the building?" The telemarketers immediately enter each answer into the computer. Because everyone's on the same page (literally), it's easy to analyze the effectiveness of the process. Now Kerr can see exactly how long calls take and where the script breaks down and loses customers.

The system also analyzes Kerr's customers (American Direct sells mostly to mom-and-pop businesses), enabling him to target those that are worth his dime. One analysis showed that sales calls are wasted on barber shops and beauty salons. Their owners barely have time to answer the phone, let alone listen to a pitch. And when they do buy insurance, they usually spend very little. By purging those types of businesses from his lists, Kerr has saved tens of thousands of dollars on wasted phone calls.

American Direct's vice-president of sales, Geoff Green, who oversees the telemarketers, can modify the script and instantly communicate any changes to all the telemarketers via their computers. And if, in the middle of a call, a potential customer requests a brochure or some other information, the telemarketer can quickly import the person's name and address into the company's mailing list (in Microsoft Word)--all the time continuing the pitch.

The entire LAN-based system cost him around $150,000. And, says Kerr, the company's productivity has increased as much as tenfold over similar companies that still have agents call on prospects in person.