CC33 has seen incredible growth over the past very difficult year – including a recruitment drive for over 150 positions and securing employment for people who lost jobs during COVID. As the UK continues to battle the pandemic, MD Paul Fletcher tells Jill Theobald how challenging the perception of the call centre industry helped the company become a ‘speedboat in a tugboat market’ enabling them to navigate the current ‘tricky waters’ for staff, clients – and the city itself 

‘There’s no limited belief system here at CC33 – that’s a big part of the culture. People with limited beliefs will see the ceiling. But for us, we have this ‘unlimited’ concept – there is no ceiling, we can achieve, and nothing is impossible.’

The culture and the concept behind South Yorkshire-based contact centre CC33 backs up this vision from MD Paul Fletcher – in numbers alone, before we get to the story behind it.

Since launching in 2015 with just 70 staff, CC33’s annual turnover has increased by 336 per cent as the firm expanded its services and client base.

CC33 now employ more than 350 people, look after more than 30 clients across various sectors and operate from three offices – two in Sheffield and one in Rotherham.

But when COVID struck in March the team transitioned 300 people within four days to working from home – and then won a large public sector piece of work and recruited an additional 250 staff, meaning across the whole period CC33 had helped more than 500 people move to remote working.

Part of their ability to adapt so swiftly and successfully is down to the firm being a tech-led business, says Paul, but also their different take on the contact centre industry which stemmed from time overseas and at home in his beloved city.

After working for a number of South Yorkshire agencies, Paul was headhunted to become operations director for a call centre in Durban, South Africa where he took the business from 10 staff over a year and a half to 1,500 and learned a lot about creating the right company culture. After moving back to Sheffield, Paul joined a marketing company before taking time off to spend more time with his family (“I wanted to be a dad to my little girl after putting in 15 hour days”) and began consulting work.

“Working on the other side of the fence, the client side, was a different experience for me. Working with call centres, it became very clear the industry was crying out for some kind of transparent partnership model. That’s how CC33 came about – people asked if I was going to set a call centre up with my experience but I didn’t want to do it until I’d identified what the biggest challenges were. When you’re in a company you think you’re the best in the world, but it takes consulting to identify what clients really need.

“I realised if we could answer three main areas – being tech-led, price-centric and data-driven – then we’d have something different to what everyone else was offering and it was a unique proposition.

“When we started CC33 we did things differently, so we gave everyone a desk top icon to listen to calls whenever they want, talk to the agent live, have live reports – a very transparent model.

“We didn’t want to be the biggest centre in the world and chase every bit of business – we had a set of values and every client needed to fit within those values to build the client and agent experience and build that transparent partnership model while maintaining a boutique feel.”

And ‘Boutique’ today is CC33’s bespoke sales and support service for start-ups and smaller businesses, which celebrated 200 per cent growth during this very tricky year.

“We’ve been successful because of that approach,” says Paul. “Even though we’ve grown we’ve kept the consultancy structure that the client can still talk to the MD, see what’s happening, they really feel we’re an extension of their brand – as far as they’re concerned we could be in the same building.

“When we first started, people I knew in the industry would say ‘why are you doing this, you’re kind of opening Pandora’s Box?’ But if you’ve not got anything to hide why not? We were recruiting, training and managing staff correctly, ensuring compliance was right. We enable anyone to listen to a call and that’s what being transparent is all about because we were so confident we had the right people in place. To this day we’ve never lost a client based on them listening to a call and having any issues.”

CC33 were early adopters of the tech-enabled workplace, too.

“We’d worked with our tech provider a long time and we knew the offering worked, so we became development partners. We moved from a voice offering to an omni-channel offering so the team can make and take an in-bound call with the same tech but also answer an email, a web chat and video calls. Plus, there’s speech analytics and gamification to make it entertaining for the user and the agent. We worked with the tech provider to build a solution that is fit for purpose but still feeds into our ethos of transparency.”

That ethos extends to new business, too and has seen CC33’s tried and tested brand attracting some big-name clients.

“We don’t have a sales team generating leads – a lot of our work is referrals because we are trusted in the industry,” says Paul. “We’re seen very much as the ‘go to’ people – if you’ve got a problem in the call centre, CC33 will guide you through tricky waters.

“We’re adaptable – we’re a speedboat in a tugboat market. Our tech drives us to be flexible and our values drive us to do whatever we can for our customers. That’s how we grow. You don’t go in three years from £2m to £13m and win business with a huge blue chip without that consultancy approach and working with existing relationships.”

And it’s all about quality not quantity.

“We probably have fewer heads on the accounts than most centres but we will deliver better conversion, performance and ultimately ROI for our customers.  We know where we sit in the market and what we can deliver and to be working with massive brands is quite an achievement.”

CC33’s value-driven approach is equally important for staff development and company culture as it is for delivering for clients.

“One of the things that stood out for me in South Africa is if you get the right people in the right place you can achieve anything. The work ethic there, the willingness and belief and effort levels from all of the team – that’s where this unlimited concept comes from.

“Sheffield’s got a lot of talent but sometimes you see in our sector a more transient workforce because people don’t understand there are real careers that can be made. That’s down to the mentality of the contact centre to change and drive the industry perception. If you’re a big centre you’re a number, that is the way it is unfortunately and it’s one of the reasons we want to keep the boutique feel and avoid that. Our company culture is about a lifestyle, so we have our ‘Be Yourself For a Living’ concept.

“An agent can be on a certain salary and bonus and that’s great, but we’ve taken time to understand what our staff like in their spare time. So, we’ll say ‘hit your target and we’ll invest in your hobby’ – for a musician, that could be an afternoon in the studio. We took it back to what’s important to our people.

“One lad started as an apprentice and is now a team manager and has grown through the business and we’ve got a lot of good stories like that – people who have been nurtured while bringing their experience to complement us.”

And in this most difficult year due to COVID, Paul has nothing but praise for the team at CC33 as a whole.

“It sounds like a cliché, but we are such a strong team and it’s all about pulling together – it’s not about how you operate when things are good but when times are tough. With COVID, it’s not just the management team, all of our staff have pulled together.

“Everyone at CC33 can be proud of how they reacted since the end of March, they’ve worked extremely hard in order to drive growth despite the unprecedented circumstances. I might head up CC33 but it’s a total 100 per cent team effort – our growth is down to everyone.

“We took on a huge piece of work trying to support the local community over that period – a lot of people who had lost income and jobs we re-engaged, re-trained and re-employed in our sector, a sector I don’t think they probably would have dipped their toe in before.

“Our city has really felt the impact of COVID – especially economically – so it’s fantastic to be able to provide opportunities to those who might have lost their income during this time.

“We worked closely with the council and other organisations to say ‘if you’re struggling, let us help you to work from home’ and that was a huge success and important for us to do that for Sheffield.

“We get offers to go to Sunderland and Northern Ireland and all sorts of weird and wonderful places but it’s just not even a consideration. I’m from Sheffield, I’ve done my travelling and I can’t think of any better legacy for me and my daughter than to do something that helps Sheffield people by taking a lead role in retraining and employing people right here.”

Keep talking

With the country going into lockdown in November and Tier 3 restrictions looking likely for some time to come, Paul shares his advice to employers when it comes to looking out for and after staff.

“It comes down to one important point – communication. We found in the first wave nearly 100 per cent of staff wanted to work from home and we facilitated that, but we also learned about the accompanying risks to mental health.

“That’s exasperated by the type of work we do – some industries won’t be affected as much but for us it is all about teamwork and the buzz of the environment. You can’t go from 100mph to a slow sedate environment and still expect everybody to feel the same.

“It’s about talking to people just to make sure they’re alright – staying in touch and keeping things as ‘normal’ as possible.

“Communication is paramount and that’s not just staff, that’s clients too. Ours didn’t really see any degradation in performance because of how we did it – continually liaising and communicating with staff and clients from director level down so they never feel out of the loop.

“This lockdown was slightly different because when we did communications around working from home we had a 50/50 split. That made it even harder to implement because ideally, we would close the offices, and everyone works from home but for mental health reasons, we can’t force this.

“We’ve kept the three sites open to give staff the ability to work in the office – we don’t want to make people stay at home and feel unwell, we want CC33 to be a happy place. Someone identified the other day if you turn our logo the other way it’s a smiley face!

“That’s what you want, you want a happy workforce and that means communicating at every single level of the business. If you’re adaptable for your customers, you’ve got to be just as adaptable to your staff, too.”