For more than 20 years, contact centres have been at the heart of Sunderland’s economy.
From insurance to mobile phones, and banking to energy, big name businesses have looked to the city to provide a base of operations.
And as the industry readies itself for the North East Contact Centre awards, Kevin Clark explores the value that the call centre industry adds to the city.
The hold music stops and at the other end of the phone line is a friendly voice, with an accent that is immediately recognisable as coming from the North East.
It is an accent that the nation trusts, suggesting friendliness and professionalism. It is an accent that greets tens of thousands of people who call into a Sunderland based contact centre each week.
With names like Royal and SunAlliance, Barclays and EDF Energy all calling the city their home, the contact centre industry continues to thrive in Sunderland.
“They’re crucial. The value that the contact centre industry brings to our city should not be underestimated,” says Councillor Paul Watson, leader of Sunderland City Council.
More than 12,000 people in Sunderland owe their livelihood to call centres – many of which have been based in the city for two decades – yet for an industry that relies on excellent communication, it remains somewhat silent when it comes to its own significant contribution to the North East economy and jobs market.
It is a sector that quietly gets on with its business and is seldom cited when the spotlight falls on city success stories.
“There was a period in which people started to view contact centres as transient employers – particularly in the 2000s, when many contact centres started to divert their operations to India,” explains Coun Watson.
“However, we have seen that come full circle, with many of those that explored offshoring now renewing their focus on the UK.
“And of course, looking at the businesses we have in Sunderland, most of them have that staying power.
“They have been with us for a long time, and have skilled people who can meet and exceed their customers’ expectations.”
It is estimated that more than £210million is being pumped into the Sunderland economy thanks to its contact centres.
Many of the major contributors are based out of Doxford International Business Park, which boasts large office spaces, suitable for the high volume of roles many of the major players require.
But while the companies themselves have remained, the nature of their business is fast-changing.
According to recruitment company GEM Partnership, which works many of the major contact centres in Sunderland and across the North East, the skill set needed by call handlers has been influenced greatly by the advent of self-service – something many of the businesses based out of Doxford International now offer.
“People use contact centres in a different way nowadays,” says Chris Boughen, volume operations manager at GEM.
“Ten years ago, telephone would have been by far and away the most common way to interact with businesses. Fast forward to 2015, and people are able to service their own accounts online, which has effectively changed the nature of calls advisors now receive.
“Primarily, when customers call a contact centre now, it is because the system has failed them and they need help and support. Or they may well be calling to make a complaint.
“You can see that transition now – roles are changing and the skills that contact centres demand are becoming far greater – they need analytical people; people who can solve problems, people who can use their judgement and come up with a good solution. The good news for us here in the North East is that we have the right people to perform in a contact centre environment.
“Aside from the skills base we have, the area is famed for its friendliness. Time and time again, the North East accent comes out as being one of the warmest in the UK.
“People feel instantly at ease, and trust the person they’re speaking to, and that is – and has always been – a massive draw for the businesses that choose Sunderland,” he added.
It’s not only Sunderland though that is seeing its contact centre industry grow.
North Tyneside has enjoyed recent success with BT and Sky respectively, both choosing to re-shore in the North East. Sage Plc, based in Newcastle, has also seen growth and Teesside-based Scoot, which was bought out by US online giant Web.com, has also seen a steady increase in its contact centre function.
Their success is set to be celebrated, as the region holds its annual North East Contact Centre Awards event on November 20 at Ramside Hall Hotel.
The event, now in its 12th year, is organised by Sunderland Live on behalf of Sunderland City Council.
The awards – open to businesses across the region – recognise the brightest talent in the sector, with individual and company categories.
“Sunderland has a fantastic contact centre industry, and that’s something that shines through at these awards. We are pleased though, to provide a platform for the whole region to celebrate its success in this field.
“And to create an awards that lets businesses benchmark against their peers; that healthy competition is what keeps our contact centres up there with the best,” added Coun Watson.
The awards are split into 11 categories, including Outstanding Contribution to Community, recruitment Champions and Inspirational Leader.
Last year, the big winner was Barclays, which is based in Sunderland. The company is one of a number that is expanding, having announced plans to add 200 new people to its then 1,500-strong team.
Christine Allenson, Barclays’ Sunderland site president, said: “The awards provided have a great platform to share the work we are doing and have external experts assess it against the work of similar businesses in the North East.
“To come out on top was a huge honour and we were absolutely thrilled. It provided the whole Barclays team with a major morale boost, and proved to us all just how well we are doing.
“The contact centre industry is one in which highly skilled people work.
“From graduates to apprentices, you will find people with deep technical knowledge, capability and customer service skills.
“They’re not easy skills to come by, so there is no doubt that these are skilled, responsible jobs, but we are fortunate to have people who fit the bill in Sunderland,” says Ms Allenson.
Barclays is competing in this year’s awards, though has not entered the overall award category having enjoyed success for three years running.
All of the winners will be announced at the awards ceremony, which are expected to attract more than 400 guests.
For more information about the North East Contact Centre Awards, visit www. necontactcentreawards.co.uk.