In Salisbury, Putting Christmas On The Line

SALISBURY, MD. -- Santa Claus is coming to town. Or at least some of his helpers are. 

When holiday shoppers phone in their Christmas gift lists to Santa's helpers at companies like Macy's, the Sharper Image, Frederick's of Hollywood and Saks Fifth Avenue, they're really calling operators at a former steakhouse here.

For more than a year, operators at CallCenter Services, a Cresskill, N.J.-based telemarketing company, have answered phones here for catalogue orders from across the nation. Each day, two facilities in Salisbury handle about 10,000 phone calls for catalogue orders and customer service. Each call takes about three minutes to process in the 24-hour-a-day, seven-day-a-week facilities.

CallCenter employees consider themselves a high-tech answering service that takes and processes orders to central warehouses across the nation, and neither rain nor snow nor dark of night stops the operation.

Companies like Macy's and the Metropolitan Museum of Art are joining a growing list of firms that use the services of the 20 companies similar to CallCenter.

CallCenter Executive Vice President Douglas Comfort says mid-sized companies that cannot afford to staff multiple phone lines or buy expensive computers can have their work done for them. CallCenter charges its customers on a per-phone-call basis.

CallCenter began operation in 1986 and moved to Salisbury almost two years ago. Salisbury was chosen, according to Comfort, because it is a point-of-presence city, meaning that it is a drop-off point for long-distance carriers American Telephone and Telegraph Co. and MCI Communications Corp. The city also boasted an ample and competent labor supply, Comfort said.

"We liked the quality of people we saw here," said Comfort. "We've been very pleased so far with the caliber of people who've worked for us."

Comfort said CallCenter makes most of its promotions and managerial choices in the area. "We have lots of talent right here," said Salisbury division director Steve Groom. "We make our additions to management from within."

Operators begin by learning the Frederick's of Hollywood catalogue and merchandise line and move on to other sales. Some experienced operators know as many as 10 companies' products. A computer tells operators which company a person is calling and the operator can immediately access a computerized order form.

Once the order is complete, it is electronically sent to the company's distribution center, from which the order is shipped. The entire process can take as little as a couple of days.

But with the extensive technology needed to run the operation, what happens when power fails or computers break down? CallCenter has battery-operated back-up power supplies and soon will get a generator. Each computer program is written in-house and tested before it is used, Comfort said. A technician also stands by to take care of any problems.

Despite the recession and a decline in catalogue mailings because of high postage and shipping costs, Groom and Comfort say CallCenter's business is growing.

"We've grown about 30 percent and that has helped us get through the recession," said Comfort. Groom said CallCenter expects to employ almost 300 people by Christmas.

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