Cold calling: World’s northernmost call center hopes to sell concept to locals, products throughout Norway

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To all the greenies in Norway: if your dinner is interrupted by a phone call from someone selling magazines just remember they’re doing a job that’s far more environmentally responsible than coal mining in the country’s natural crown jewel.

Besides, the callers supposedly reveling in a workplace dominated by “prizes, pranks, cookie-making (and) trips” are just making a valuable offer snagged up by nearly 10 percent of the people answering the phone. Or so the bosses say.

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Regardless of whether that pitch makes you a “convert” or not, the world’s northernmost call center is about to become the first of many pieces as Longyearbyen struggles to answer the question of how it will establish a future economic base after the collapse of the mining industry that sustained the town for the past century. Store Norske is in the final stage of laying off but 100 of the 400 employees it had in 2012, during the past few years, with affiliated industries ranging from transportation to cleaning services also affected.

“My motivation for starting this was the situation in Longyearbyen,” said Tor Kristian Berge, founder of Svalcom, which is tentatively scheduled to begin operations at the beginning of September. “It’s an opportunity offer people a different kind of job.”

Berge said he plans to employ about 10 people during the first year and hopes to increase that to 15 to 20 people afterwards.

The Norwegian government approved 50 million kroner in development and incentive funding last year to help lure small new businesses to Longyearbyen, with a brewery, a company selling premium-priced bottled water from a glacier and an extreme-climate paint-testing center among the companies that have opened. Given all the possibilities for a new business, why did Berge opt for a call center?

“I’ve asked myself that a few times,” he admitted, noting it’s his first venture into the industry and there have been difficulties setting up a business originally scheduled to open in April.

He initiated his efforts after meeting Dag Harald Johansen, who’s been working in the industry since 1996 and is now Svalcom’s marketing manager. Johansen said telemarketing has good profit potential and he finds the unpredictability of the work intriguing.

“Imagine going to work every single day not knowing what the outcome is,” Johansen said.

He also has experience with the downside of the industry, including serving as the chairman and CEO of Unicall AS, a company with call centers in several European countries which has had several subsidiaries in Norway go bankrupt since 2011.

Svalcom’s first contract is to sell magazine subscriptions, Berge said. He said he expects to lure other telemarketing contracts during the company’s initial operations, then potentially expand into other activities such as customer service and polling as the company’s reputation improves.

“Everybody wants those projects,” he said.

Berge and Johansen said they are hoping to get more local applicants as they begin interviews next week, but the response so far means they are considering people from other areas – as long as they speak Norwegian.

“Two minutes ago I spoke to a girl working at a call center in Belfast,” Johansen said.

While people are willing to apply for just about everything and anything to live and remain in Svalbard, the perception of telemarketing is obviously something less than esteemed. Forty percent of Norway’s population is on a “no-call” register, primarily due to “annoying, dubious and even illegal marketing methods,” according to Virke Hovedorganisasjonen, a multiindustry trade group, in an October 2015 letter to the Norwegian government arguing against toughening what the group called already stringent consumer protection measures.

The telemarketers, of course, also have to cope with having a significant amount of their paycheck based on sales – and a lot of people rejecting them. While numerous factors determine success (“conversion”) rates, general estimates are well below one percent for “cold calls” and perhaps three to four percent for promising prospects who have expressed an interest in being contacted.

Johansen, on the other hand, said the kind of telemarketing Svalcom is doing has a nine percent success rate. Berge, in a subsequent written statement when asked for the source of that figure, stated it’s based on “Virke and Nordmas last large survey on outbound call centers.”

“Keep in mind that most call centers actually call existing clients to offer new services or to extend service… what determines good sales rates are good data mining and to tailor the offers to your target group,” he wrote.

Svalcom’s leaders are also pitching the work as far from the typical stereotype of a “boiler room” (and not just in the labor sense, since the office is in the ISS building with impressive views of the fjords). Linn Kristin Hornstuen, the company’s general manager and the person accepting application, filled a local Facebook “help wanted” add with a barrage of cheery words and emoji

Oh, we gonna have fun at work 😊,” she wrote. “Good and social environment with prizes, office pranks, cookie-making, payday parties and trips together…we’ll also do some work 😉.”

And Berge, in a post separate from the ad, urged locals to learn about the call center before forming any opinions about it.

“I think, if you have the chance, that you should come by and say hello and se how we really do our job in a call center in Norway,” he said. “Everyone that says “yes” to buy a product gets an SMS after where they have to confirm. We take pride in what we do and never trick anyone to buy something they don’t want.”

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