Detroit Brand Ambassadors Take Center Stage in Jobs Recovery Trend
Dan Gilbert’s impact in the Detroit Marketplace is continuing to grow. As cities across the country try to adjust to the growing disparity in jobs moving overseas, Gilbert’s commitment to Detroit reveals a new frontier, Call Center Employees. According to recent statistics Call Center jobs is considered the new entry point for stable and growing jobs in business sectors around the country.
Thousands of new jobs are opening and being filled by local Detroit residents. Companies consider the call center employee to be the “brand ambassador” point of contact for customers. So for those who have a great speaking voice, and a positive attitude, opportunities are great in the Detroit marketplace. And while you are applying for that great new job, say a special thanks to Dan Gilbert for spearheading this new frontier.
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In a little more than a year, 24-year-old Devoun Rushing has gone from working at Olive Garden to a management role in one of southeast Michigan’s faster-growing office jobs: the call center.
The Detroiter started off as an account specialist at Rock Connections, which is part of Detroit businessman Dan Gilbert’s family of companies. He made outbound calls to prospective Quicken Loans customers who had filled out online forms. The job’s standard hours are 9 a.m.-6 p.m., although those eager for more can get overtime.
“There is plenty of opportunity to make as much money as you want,” said Rushing, who attended Central Michigan University, but did not graduate. “So it’s up to the account specialist how much they really want to put into it.”
Rushing was promoted after nine months to a management training program and recently became a team captain, overseeing a group of 10 employees. Now he spends the first half of his days making calls and his afternoons on management duties.
“We really take pride in making sure everybody is doing their job, but having fun at the same time,” he said.
Metro Detroit businesses have been hiring dozens and even hundreds of workers to expand their call center operations as more commerce gets conducted over the Internet and companies reverse an offshoring trend that took hold in the late 1990s. Many of the new call center jobs involve not only talking on the phone, but e-mailing, texting and Web chatting with customers or even handling a client’s social media interactions.
In an interview last week, Gilbert said call centers such as Rock Connections offer a point of entry for Detroiters looking for a solid job with benefits. “There’s not a better business that we could be promoting in Detroit that would employ many of the people who otherwise wouldn’t get a good job,” Gilbert said.
Industry experts say companies increasingly see call center employees as front-line representatives and ambassadors of their brand. This elevation in responsibilities and communication tools is why some employers now prefer the term “contact center” or “Web center” rather than “call center.”
“It’s not necessarily everything on the phone anymore. You’re seeing social media in these contact centers now, too,” said Jim Hoen, vice president and division manager of KellyConnect, the contact center operations arm of Troy-based staffing agency Kelly Services.
While workplace conditions vary by employer, some of the new call center jobs are in ultramodern office settings featuring casual atmospheres and amenities such as ping-pong tables, which play well with the millennials set. “We have Nerf wars and ride scooters around the office. And we have very, very intense huddles,” Rushing said.
The centers generally don’t require a degree beyond high school to get in the door, and many offer chances for relatively quick advancement. Some of the better-paying jobs have commissions or bonuses.
“We want good people who can think on their toes and do more than follow a script,” said Matt Clayson, vice president and general counsel for Detroit Trading Co., a digital marketing company with a new 50-person call center on Fort Street in Detroit that plans to add more staff. He said their top-performing new hires can earn as much as $60,000 a year.
“We look more at emotional intelligence and your ability to have a conversation. … We look at that more than we do formal education,” Clayson said.
The former trend of businesses outsourcing call center operations to overseas locations such as India has slowed since 2014 as more companies place a higher premium on the quality of customer service — not only its cost, according to Skand Bhargava, a research program director for the Dallas-based consulting firm Everest Group.
Some of those outsourced call center jobs have come back to the U.S. This is particularly true for jobs in nonvoice areas, such as Web chats, e-mail and social media, Bhargava said.
Sean Kennedy, a manager with KellyConnect, said about 30% of KellyConnect’s new hires this year will be primarily dedicated to Web chatting, or interacting with a client’s customers online.
Another reason for the on-shoring trend is that call centers now handle a larger percentage of complex inquiries from consumers, because the simple calls, such as paying bills, disappear as more people perform those functions online. And U.S-based call center employees are generally better at addressing these non-routine questions.
“So the people who now call have more complex questions, and this is why some jobs are coming back,” said Jack Wilkie, president of jobs4america, a business coalition that advocates for U.S.-based call center jobs.
Entry-level pay can vary widely for call center jobs, generally ranging from $11 an hour up to $20 an hour, depending on the company and job description, according to KellyConnect. Positions involving more technical expertise and support can range from about $13 an hour to $29 an hour.
The median wage last year for call center-related jobs in southeast Michigan was $13.24 per hour, according to data collected by the Workforce Intelligence Network for Southeast Michigan. The network also reports that the number of call center-related job postings in the region increased 46% between 2011 and 2016 to 794 online postings last year.
Overall, Kelly Services estimates there are roughly 5,000 call center jobs in metro Detroit marketplace.
Call center firms, including Highland Park-based Dialog Direct and Cleveland-based S&P Data, have in recent years announced openings or expansions in metro Detroit and Michigan and the hiring of hundreds of workers, according to media reports. Neither company could be reached for comment last week.
DTE Energy hired 120 employees last year for its contact center operations, with 100 of the new hires based inside DTE’s headquarters in downtown Detroit. The company says it plans to add 80 to 100 more contact center positions this year in the city and just outside Grand Rapids.
Huntington Bank is in the process of hiring 60 more employees for its Flint call center, which currently employs 180. These employees are considered Huntington bankers — not simply support staff —and the new hires will generally be working with commercial banking clients, said Greg Viener, Huntington’s Flint community president.
To be sure, call centers aren’t known for their job security. Centers can sometimes abruptly close after setbacks, such as the loss of a major client.
Last fall, Dialog Direct closed its Novo 1 call center near Grand Rapids, laying off 106 people. The call center had opened to great enthusiasm in 2014 with a ribbon-cutting ceremony featuring Gov. Rick Snyder. Because the center closed before it could meet its hiring goals, state officials planned to claw back some of a $272,000 performance-based grant for training its workers, according to Mlive.
An Ann Arbor call center run by Toledo-based Universal Marketing Group also shut its doors last year. The call center was in the former Borders headquarters and was once expected to employ hundreds of people. A Universal Marketing Group representative did not return a message seeking comment Friday.
More recently, AT&T notified the state of its plans next month to close its DSL Care Center in downtown Detroit marketplace, laying off 53 workers. The layoffs follow a decline in subscribers to the service as people switch to faster Internet options.
One of Michigan’s fastest-growing call center operations is Rock Connections. The Detroit-based company refers to its headquarters as a Web center and plans to expand this year from about 800 employees to as many as 1,300 employees.
Rock Connections spun off five years ago from Quicken Loans, which pioneered the online mortgage business in the late 1990s by centering on a computer-and-call center model where consumers initially shop online for a mortgage, but confer about details of the loan over the phone with a Quicken representative.
Rock Connections began with a few dozen employees who provided phone support for Quicken Loans and other Gilbert-related companies. Most of its recent growth has come from providing services for non-Gilbert companies in the automotive, health care and real estate sectors.
Rock Connections has already outgrown the new headquarters it moved into last year at 1900 Saint Antoine across from Ford Field and is hunting for more office space in Detroit.
The company is making a particular effort to hire Detroit residents. Rock Connections CEO Victor You said that about a quarter of his employees are now Detroit residents.
The company encourages job applicants who don’t necessarily have a college degree to still apply at RockConnections.com/careers. The key requirements for a job are communications skills, enthusiasm and a positive attitude, Gilbert said.
“A college degree is definitely not required. Sometimes there’s even been a few exceptions on the high school side,” Gilbert said. “We like to see a high school diploma, but it’s not always 100% required.”
Gilbert believes quality concerns are what compelled businesses to reverse the trend of outsourcing their call center operations overseas. He said language barriers and time zone issues can lead to service problems for clients and customers, ultimately washing out the money-saving benefits of outsourcing.
“Companies are smartening up and moving from offshore back to onshore because it’s better for their business,” he said.
Detroit-based Meridian Health Plan is among the companies that have hired Rock Connections. Rock’s staffers supplement Meridian’s in-house call center, handling some of the health care firm’s inbound calls and outbound calls, including healthy reminders delivered for its health plan customers to schedule cancer screenings or immunization shots for their children, said Meridian’s CEO Michael Cotton.