The silent star in the sales outsourcing sector

By Cora Llamas (Published December 5, 2010)

Joie Fuentes, the 20-something managing director of, which is touted by the company website as “the world’s largest online seller of promotional items,” takes pains to explain why the five-year-old Manila office is not a call center firm nor a service center, although the work it does can be classified as outsourcing.

First, he acknowledges the similarities. A huge portion of the 170-strong talent pool that comprises the Ortigas Center office are young adults, some of whom are fresh off college.

Like call center agents, they also tend to their customers based in the U.S. and Canada, man the phone lines, and shoot off e-mails during the midnightto-dawn shift.

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But that’s where it stops, Fuentes says earnestly. Whereas call center or business processing outsourcing (BPO) sites are branches or offshoots of the mother company that is usually based in and ultimately dependent on America and Europe, Branders’ dynamics is the reverse. Ninety percent of the entire Branders talent pool and the work they execute on a daily basis is located in the Philippines; the only workforce remaining in the original California office are the management team and less than a dozen veteran sales people who have been with the company since day one and now act as coaches and mentors to the new hires.

A Sales Organization

“If you close our U.S.-based office tomorrow, we’d still be operating,” Fuentes points out as a closing argument.

The Philippine office started in 2005, five years after the California mother company had become operational. Branders CEO Jerry McLaughlin was then initially scouting for Filipino sales representatives who could transform into a viable team based in Asia. But the Filipino’s linguistic skills and capabilities to form and maintain long-term relationships convinced him to set up a whole new office in the country. Fuentes came in as a management trainee and rose up the ranks to his present position.

What primarily attracted him then was the marketing core of the business which has to do with conceptualizing promotional designs for top companies like Disney’s and Microsoft, in alignment with their logo and in-house style, and then sourcing out the approved creatives to suppliers who would stamp them on promotional umbrellas, mugs, notebooks, and a host of other giveaways.

“Promotional products are an $18 billion industry in the U.S. alone,” Fuentes shares. “In the Philippines, only MNCs and companies with a bigger budget are into marketing themselves through promotional products. But in the U.S., even SMEs are into branding themselves using that approach. You can see it in their trade shows and other events. It’s like they think the customer leaves empty-handed if they don’t leave without any of their promotional giveaways.”

Half of the Branders personnel are sales people, trained to pitch the company’s core expertise to corporate clients, seal the deal, and long after the first designs have been implemented, nurture the relationship to ensure that the customer stays with them for the long haul.

“We are a sales organization, not a call center,” Fuentes maintains. “We give the sales reps all the tools to get the desired results and the leeway to use them. While we also give our own set of goals and guidelines, we also honor each one’s selling style. As long as you are producing, we’ll leave you alone.”

Unlike most outbound call centers, Branders’ sales reps do not resort to official formulaic scripts that have to be read rapidly in a given time frame. Fuentes mimics a telemarketer’s opening line and then says, “If you give Pinoys a script, the customer at the other end of the line will feel like they’re just reading it. We want a more natural conversation and just give our sales reps talking points that amount to just three sentences. They can ad lib in between.”

Neither do these sales reps do cold calls. Instead, they follow up inquiries that come in through the website or other channels.

Another striking contrast is that Branders sales reps talking to Americans and Canadians readily identify themselves as Filipinos. Their e-mail signature blocks also openly state that the office is based in Manila. There is a measure of risk, as a few clients end the business transactions once they find out the Philippine connection. But Fuentes and company stand by their policy. “We don’t tell our sales reps to fake it and say they’re based in California,” Fuentes elaborates. “How can you keep that customer for life if the basis of your relationship with him is false? Can you keep the lie going on forever?”

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Small Company Culture

Business is increasing, though, and as of publication, Branders is continuing its recruitment efforts. The turnover has been remarkably low, with only less than five people voluntarily resigning in two years. Fuentes attributes this strength to two factors: an above-industry pay, which is 20 percent higher than the market rate (“We start new hires off at a base of P20,000, still exclusive of commissions and allowances”); and a mentoring culture that encourages initiative, creativity and flexibility. Almost on a regular basis, without having to wait for the standard six-month appraisal period, employees are routinely informed of their performance and are rewarded or given points of improvement accordingly.

Fuentes points to himself as an example, “When I came in, I was an analyst who was good at math. I dealt with computers, not people. But over time I was taught how to manage them. I also made the rounds, I went through sales and finance before settling down in marketing. I also had to create different brands on different Web sites—and I successfully launched three.”

A feather on his cap that he is happy about was his taking the lead in the buying out of a competitor. “I headed and priced that deal, talked to the owners of the company, met with them in the U.S., and communicated with them over a six-month process,” he enthuses. “Jerry was with me throughout the process.”

It’s that willingness to experiment while endowing your people with a healthy amount of trust that Fuentes wants to keep despite and throughout Branders’ growth period. “Although we’re growing, we don’t want to lose that small company mentality,” he says.

It is a balance that Branders has to maintain, especially given their target revenue of $5 billion in a few years. A closer, cohesive workforce who watches out for each other as they work towards a common goal carries that warmth and authenticity that translates into customer care, the kind which Fuentes describes as one that lasts a lifetime.

Source: Manila Bulletin

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