An up-and-coming site for U.K. call centers

Leeds: An up-and-coming site for U.K. call centers

Mallett, Evan F

Until recently, Yorkshire and Humberside has been regarded as an area in Northern England known best for its terriers and pudding. Through the mist of a spring day, one might behold old brick factory buildings – some of them vacant — interspersed with bright modern ones. There are miles of open countryside, quaint villages, several universities and two teaching hospitals. Ten years ago, no one would have pegged this area as a hotbed of business development, but that’s exactly what it has become. The dramatic growth, spurred on by relocating companies, has given Yorkshire and Humberside a reputation as one of Britain’s up-and-coming commercial hubs, particularly in the call center industry.

Leeds, an inland city not far from Liverpool and Manchester, has served as the epicenter of growth, which began during the industrial revolution and has since turned to finance and professional services. “Leeds is without a doubt the leading city in the U.K. for call centers,” declared Alison Kellington, a senior press officer at Halifax Financial Services Marketing Group, a Leeds-based subsidiary of the conglomerate Halifax plc, and a welcome addition to the area’s burgeoning call center scene. According to Kellington and others in her field, Leeds offers strong technological and economic appeal.

Following a merger with Leeds Permanent, Halifax erupted onto Yorkshire’s commercial scene in September 1995, when it set up a call center to service its Current Accounts customers. In January 1998, the site was expanded to address a full range of Halifax products and services. Today, Halifax Direct employs a staff of more than 600 and has the capacity for up to 1,300 telephone operators who in turn can handle up to 80,000 telephone calls per hour. With this call center in place, Halifax Direct offers its primary member services 24-hour-a-day, 365-day-ayear attention.

“We have found this region to be very useful for us,” said Kellington, “because of the cost of living, pool of labor and available communication links.” Although Kellington believes the region’s other call center growth cities, Glasgow and Dublin, offer a comparable cost of living, she argued, “The cost of living in Leeds is much lower than that of London and the southeast of England.” Citing inexpensive real estate and labor costs in Leeds, she claimed, “Glasgow has a lot of call centers, and Dublin does too, but neither one is so central to our U.K.-wide customer base…Leeds is definitely one of the U.K.’s up-and-coming areas.”

The international “pool of labor” in Leeds, which Kellington attributes to local university output and a fastgrowing local economic climate, has proven to be one of the region’s most attractive features. In the Yorkshire and Humberside area alone, more than 800 foreign-owned companies currently employ more than 104,100 workers. At Yorkshire’s nine universities, 9,200 full-time students are pursuing language courses, and an estimated total of 60,000 students in Yorkshire and Humberside are currently enrolled in language courses. On a larger scale, lower social costs in England translate into low labor rates, accounting for just 30 percent of the total cost of labor compared to 40 percent in France and 51 percent in Germany and Belgium.

Because call centers also demand some unique architectural specs for the buildings that house them, warehouses old and new in Leeds are being bought and converted to call centers. “We were looking for a very large building we could gut,” Kellington recalled of HD’s inception, “one which had open floorplans and very few offices.” Buildings like that, she said, are a dime a dozen in Leeds. Today, all 600 of Halifax Direct’s operators coexist on one massive main floor.

Of course, a great building does a call center little good if the building itself isn’t accessible to major transportation systems. Kellington said the company’s decision to move “within close range of a train station and a major roadway” was key. “Very good road and rail links to other regions” have facilitated customer interaction as well as transport to the Halifax headquarters, which lies 25 miles from Leeds.

Other Emerging Markets

Halifax plc is just one of several companies that have planted seedlings in the technologically fertile soil of Leeds and surrounding towns. In the city of Leeds alone, British Telecom Mobile, GE Capital Retail Services, ASDA supermarkets and the Automobile Association have set up national headquarters.

According to Martin Liddament, head of Corporate Affairs for the Yorkshire & Humberside Development Agency (YHDA), other emerging markets besides call centers include automotive components, packaging, the food industry and medical equipment.

Via its established “node” on the Global Network Services, Leeds offers direct links to more than 100 countries. At last count, more than 30 major data processing, telephone banking and insurance services had set up shop in Yorkshire and Humberside, including Bell Cablemedia, Kingston Communications, Yorkshire Cable and Torch Telecom. These and other corporations have united to create an ISDN-based digital network with broadband capabilities that can handle even the most demanding telecommunications applications quickly and accurately.

According to Paul Moulds, product manager of Torch Telecom, “Yorkshire has become the telemarketing capital of the U.K.” Based on the established network and the tight-knit community that relies on it, Moulds predicted, “We will be seeking to attract more companies to Yorkshire.” Even within the call center industry, Halifax has made great strides. When a Halifax customer calls Halifax Direct, the operator’s computer retrieves the customer’s account details and displays them on screen as soon as the caller is connected. To minimize paperwork, Halifax has also developed imaging and workflow capabilities that put electronic images of paper on the operator’s screen and enable network users to move work through and around a predefined PC environment.

Starting in 1998, Halifax Mortgages Direct, another branch of the call center business, has emerged, giving customers the opportunity to apply for “agreement in principle” on a mortgage. This spring, the company hopes to have a system in place for offering a full mortgage service, including applications over the phone. Other services, such as Premium Savings Direct, personal loan services and a 24-hour helpline for Halifax Visa cardholders, have also contributed to the company’s success. Alison Kellington reported that, at present, Halifax Direct is handling around 33,000 calls a day, “substantially higher figures than what we started with in 1995.”

Last year, Halifax Direct received international attention, winning the Gold Award for Customer Service and the Platinum Award for European Call Centre of the Year bestowed by Telebusiness NOW, an international network, and by Call Centre Focus, a European magazine.

British Telecom: Paving The Way For A Community To Follow

More than 80 percent of the top companies in the U.K. use some sort of telemarketing communications, and virtually every one of them uses British Telecom’s ISDN in some part of their business. One of the first and largest — companies established in Leeds during its renaissance, BT has a vested interest in the area’s growth.

To further nurture local industry growth, a Regional Call Center User Group aims to network with service and product suppliers, conduct research and surveys among member companies, and organize seminars and workshops designed to improve the overall performance of each organization. A self-help industry forum comprised of more than 40 call center companies already based in Yorkshire and Humberside, the group has grown to become the largest call center forum of its kind in Europe.

Community Support

Constituents of the Yorkshire and Humberside region can also thank YHDA and its Investor Development Program (IDP) for fertilizing and maintaining the growth of so many new businesses in the area. The IDP is a team of people who monitor the activities of 900 foreign-owned companies in the Yorkshire-Humberside region, maintaining contact with those companies and offering aftercare support. “The work doesn’t finish when the initial investment decision has been made,” said Mike Pitts, YHDA’s investor development manager. “We have set up this program to help companies get the most from their investment. The help we offer depends on the needs of the company and can vary from coordinating assistance – including funding, grants, sites and professional contacts for an expansion project, through to finding nursery care for the children of expatriot managers!”

According to Liddament, the IDP helps local companies first set down roots in the area. When those companies look to expand, develop or change course, the IDP connects them to the sources they need in the private sector, further giving advice on a range of topics from legal to recruitment to financial. If a company needs training, the IDP sets up the company with a government-funded regional group known as Training and Enterprise Councils.

Given the network of support from both inside and outside the industry, it is little wonder companies like Halifax and British Telecom have set up shop in Leeds. Lending credence to the old real estate chestnut, “Location, location, location,” Leeds indeed leads when it comes to attracting growing companies.

Evan F. Mallett is a writer at O’Sullivan & Associates, which represents the Yorkshire & Humberside Development Agency.

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Copyright Technology Marketing Corporation Apr 1998

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