CallCenter helps buyers make the connection


SALISBURY -- If you are calling an 800 number to order a videotape from a Playboy catalog, don't expect it to be answered in the basement of Hugh Hefner's mansion. More likely the call is going to a converted horse arena in this Eastern Shore city.

In fact, if you make catalog calls to Macy's, Lord & Taylor, Saks Fifth Avenue or Frederick's of Hollywood, there is a good chance they will be answered in the same place -- CallCenter Services Inc., a 17-year-old company that specializes in the burgeoning business of handling other companies' 800 catalog calls.

Handling some 7 million calls annually, CallCenter is part of a new breed of company that is changing mail order into phone order and is helping to entice consumers to reach out and buy something.

The growth is reflected in CallCenter's grand opening here last month of its $2.5 million, 45,000-square-foot building that includes a 7,500-square-foot warehouse.

The complex features a complete fiber optics network and a fail-safe link to the telephone network.

"It's one of the most advanced systems," said Douglas W. Comfort, president and chief operating officer of the company, which is based here.

CallCenter began its operation in 1990 with 50 people; it now has 500 workers, annual revenues of $12 million and an annual payroll of about $7 million. It expects to have 650 workers in about a year, Mr. Comfort said.

At the heart of the operation is a huge room -- 150 feet by 200 feet. Several years ago, the space had a dirt floor and was used to show horses as part of a large equestrian complex known as Winterplace Farm.

Now covered with charcoal-gray carpeting, the former horse arena is half filled with 280 beige cubicles, each outfitted with a video monitor, a keyboard and a telephone. From these spartan work stations, workers earning $6 to $6.50 an hour to represent major corporations such as Time Warner, Smith Barney Shearson and NationsBank field 100,000 to 300,000 calls a week.

CallCenter is benefiting from consumers' shift to 800-number phone orders instead of the traditional mailed-in order forms, according to Bill Kuipers, a direct-marketing consultant based in New York.

"America is a hurry-up, please-me-now culture," he said. And 800 numbers fit that mindset, Mr. Kuipers said. "It's free and you get better information."

Fueled by the proliferation of 800 numbers and credit card buying, phone-in orders account for about 70 percent of all catalog sales, compared to only about 25 percent to 30 percent in the late 1980s, he said.

At the same time, catalog companies are increasingly contracting with companies such as CallCenter, which eliminates the need of buying computer and telephone equipment, staffing the operation and continuously updating the systems.

CallCenter is one of the fastest growing companies in the new area because it is "very responsive" to its customers, Mr. Kuipers said.

CallCenter's operators can handle four or five different companies at a time.

Whenever a customer uses a particular company's 800 number, the name of that company pops up on the telephone's display screen. An operator then answers the phone using the client company's name. The operator has computer access to the company's inventory information and customer base -- everything necessary to complete the transaction.

CallCenter began in 1977 in Englewood Cliff, N.J., by handling subscription inquiries for the New York Times. The Times moved its subscription service back in-house by 1983, but by then, CallCenter had moved to Cresskill, N.J., and had branched out into handling catalog sales.

The company also started setting up satellite offices, first in Monticello, N.Y., in 1988 and then here in 1990, with an 8,000-square-foot facility. As business mushroomed, it added another 8,000-square-foot building in 1992 and started consolidating the Cresskill and Monticello operations here.

Besides being attracted by a high-quality work force and moderate weather, the company also found the county's economic development office more than willing to help the company expand.

"The county development group was very interested in our business," Mr. Comfort said. "They have been very aggressive in getting us to expand."

This government help is reflected in the financing of the new center. Besides an $800,000 Block Grant loan from the state, the Maryland Industrial Development Financing Authority also guaranteed half of a $1.4 million loan the company received from First National Bank of Maryland.

The company took another step in its evolution on May 13 when it combined with six same-day delivery services around the country to form U.S. Delivery Systems Inc., a Dallas-based company with combined annual revenues of $108.6 million. To capitalize the new company, U.S. Delivery raised $27 million in a public stock offering that same day.

With all of the other companies specializing in courier service and corporate mail needs, Mr. Comfort sees his as the link between them and retailers seeking speedier delivery of products. "The next delivery frontier is same-day delivery," he said.

The company is also venturing into interactive computer retailing, working with America Online and CompuServe -- two major on-line computer services -- to link them to Shoppers Express, a Bethesda company that coordinates a supermarket and pharmacy delivery system. CallCenter already handles Shoppers Express' 800 calls.

"It keeps us close to the state-of-the-art," Mr. Comfort said.

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