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How firms use phones to bond with you

Arti Sharma in Mumbai | October 04, 2004

It was just what the doctor ordered for Marico Industries, the makers of Saffola edible oil. Two weeks ago the company kicked off its dial-a-dietician helpline in Mumbai and Indore and the calls have been coming in quick and fast ever since.

Some callers want advice on common ailments like diabetes and hypertension. Others have queries about calorie intake and exercise. On the first day a doctor called in asking about non-vegetarian food and heart disease.

Why has the Rs 890-crore (Rs 8.90 billion) Marico started a helpline with dieticians on the other end?

Firstly, because it wants to reach out to customers. More importantly, it wants to drive home the message that Saffola is an oil for a healthy heart.

"We don't expect it to result in direct sales as much as we expect it to build our brand equity," says Saugata Gupta, head, marketing, Marico.

Marico isn't the only company working the phonelines to drive home its sales messages and connect with consumers. Cosmetic company L'Oreal India has two toll-free numbers on which it offers expert advice on looking good.

It's also using the phones for its short-term free promotion, dial-a-trial service, to introduce its Excellence hair colour range.

As the going gets tough, the corporate world is getting on the phone. Companies are burning up the wires in a bid to get closer to customers and to sell their newest services.

Once upon a time tele-marketing was the exclusive province of financial services, telecom service providers and takeaway meal companies like Domino's Pizza.

Now, almost anything can be sold by phone. Godrej Hi-care, for instance, has started a dial-a-pest control. Samsung earlier this month introduced a dial-a-toner service for customers who use its printers.

Take, for example, tyre manufacturer JK Tyres which operates a dial-a-tyre service in the National Capital Region.

The company has two vans with trained mechanics who deliver and fit new tyres at customers' homes. Just as importantly, they answer automotive queries about problems like tyre maintenance, wheel alignment and wheel balancing.

"We felt that tyre marketing had to grow beyond dealers at some point and that consumers were seeking convenient services," says Vikas Marwah, senior product manager, JK Tyres. The company wants to expand the service to Mumbai and Bangalore by mid 2005.

It isn't tough to understand why companies are looking for new ways to build bridges with customers. It's a tough market out there and companies are forever looking for new ways to reach potential buyers. What's more, every new bit of information about customers helps.

"Interaction provides interesting insights on consumers, their aspirations and helps improve products," says Sanjeeta Joshi, national manager, training and consumer affairs, L'Oreal India.

Most companies are still testing out their call centres in one or two cities. But others like Godrej Hi-care are spreading out across the country.

The dial in concept was started as a pilot project in Mumbai under Godrej Sara Lee which manufactures household insecticides like Hit. In January this year, a separate subsidiary of Godrej Industries -- Godrej Hi-care  was set up for the pest management service. The service has now spread to eight cities.

"We are very excited about nurturing this service to slowly build branded services as part of the group's portfolio," says S Anand, general manager, new business development, Godrej Hi-care.

What impact does tele-marketing have for these companies? The answer is that results have been positive for quite a few. Marwah says that dealers in the NCR from where the replacement tyres are sourced saw revenues go up by 25 per cent in the first two years.

It's a similar story for paint manufacturer Asian Paints. In 1998, Asian Paints started a helpline as a pilot project in Chandigarh and later extended it to 22 cities. This will be gradually increased to 70 cities.

Initially it was started purely for information dissemination but later moved on to becoming a key marketing tool. Asian Paints now also offers its Home Solutions -- a service where the company contracted painters paint a house -- in eight cities over the phone line.

Paint dealers like Manish Shah who owns Central Paints in a suburb of Mumbai say that sales have shot up 40 per cent to 50 per cent and most of that increase can be attributed to the helpline. "Earlier we interacted largely with contractors and now its largely with end users," he says.

Asian Paints is now turning its helpline into an integral part of its operations. Call centre operations -- which were initially started in each city -- have been centralised at Mumbai with 12-15 desks. The annual operating cost is roughly Rs 75 lakh (Rs 7.5 million). Through the service, it receives 8,000-10,000 paint jobs annually.

"We'd like to grow the service but to ensure quality, we feel that a very rapid pace is not advisable," says K B S Anand, vice president, sales and marketing, Asian Paints.

Or, look at Samsung which now sells over 4,000 laser printers a month compared to roughly 2,000 printers last year. Printer users can call in for technical support or order toners which will be delivered in six hours, within city limits. And only outstation deliveries incur a courier charge.

Says Vivek Prakash, vice president, marketing, Samsung, "Customers don't plan toner purchases till they are exhausted, which invariably happens when it's needed the most. We want to provide the customer the most convenient way to purchase our products."

Samsung has tied up with 25 dealers for eventual delivery and plans to extend the dial in service from 13 to 190 cities by January 2005.

Currently, Samsung's eight-seat call centre gets anywhere between 20 to 50 calls a day. Samsung expects toner usage to go up by 20 per cent since the conversion rate of enquiries into sales is roughly around 20 per cent. Once the service stabilises Prakash and team also plan to offer online purchases.

"Such services need an installed base which is not the case with other Samsung products. If we do get into similar businesses this service will be extended," says Prakash.

Of course, tele-marketing is part of a larger sales effort. In Marico's case, the dial-a-dietician service is linked to what the company calls the Saffola Healthy Heart Foundation.

Saffola currently contributes 15 per cent of Marico's total turnover and the marketing team spends roughly 5 per cent of the Rs 8 crore (Rs 80 million) Saffola brand budget on SHHF. It has hired two qualified dieticians on a retainer basis for the exercise and in the first three days it received over 26 calls.

Gupta and team, claim they will have met their target if the number of calls goes up to roughly 30 calls a day. Marico also has a toll free line -- Skinfoline -- for its skin care brand Kaya to deal with skin-care related queries.

But getting on the phone doesn't always work for a company. Also, gestation periods can be long even though investments are small. So companies use a mix of local media and print to advertise the service.

Like L'Oreal's sporadic month-long promotional activities like dial-a-trial in different cities where an average of a 1,000 customers are informed about the activity through local centres.

The exercise targets the uninitiated customer willing to experiment with hair colour. L'Oreal trains 15 local professionals to go door to door and carry out sensitivity tests, colouring and gathering consumer feedback.

Some marketing analysts are sceptical about whether phone enquiries really boost sales. But they all agree that the convenience and personal contact goes down well with customers.

"If a customer has used the service he is more likely to revisit it. But initiating that phone call is where the challenge lies," says one marketing expert. And as the selling game gets tougher expect more companies to reach for the phone.

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