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October 17, 2016

SaviLinx thrives on not being your average call center

Photo / Tim Greenway
Photo / Tim Greenway
SaviLinx CEO Heather Blease is adding 130 employees to a workforce that is already at 450. Revenue is expected to top $10 million this year, up from $4.3 million last year.

SaviLinx

74 Orion St., Brunswick

Founder/CEO: Heather Blease

Founded: 2013

Employees: 450 (130 more being hired)

Revenue: $10 million-plus

Product/service: Call center, business process outsourcing

Contact: 607-4433 / www.savilinx.com/contact

When Mark Ranalletti sought customer service help for his online flower business, Calyx Flowers Inc., he wanted to work with a call center that was flexible, offered diverse skills, treated its own employees well and provided feedback on metrics that could help grow his company.

"We want to start targeting professional industries and businesses and introduce our product into a new market," says Ranalletti, who bought the business a year ago with his wife, Kap Wallingford. They moved to Freeport from Vermont, where they still have three employees working from their homes in a virtual business setting.

Ranalletti had been using another call center that he declined to name before switching recently to SaviLinx of Brunswick. He wanted both to see more content from the customer calls and work with an organization that could help him expand beyond consumers and perform outbound calling and corporate sales to bed and breakfasts, restaurants and hotels.

For example, with his former call center he just saw that a customer called and the time of the call, whereas SaviLinx will provide information on whether the conversation was an order, complaint, request for a catalog or other information. "This can help us tailor our strategy," he says. "It's not just answering a call. They have to know the product and be subject matter experts."

Calyx had $3 million in sales in 2015 and expects that to grow 5% to 10% this year. Some 70% of sales now are online, while 30% come through a call center. The latter could expand as the company adds corporate clients.

"We need help in terms of selling," Ranalletti says. "We're interested in Canada. SaviLinx can help us grow internationally." He says SaviLinx has workers who can speak one or more of five different languages, which will help with his future international business.

Calyx is just the type of new client SaviLinx founder and CEO Heather Blease desires as she grows her business.

"It's business process outsourcing," she says. "We have lots of startups as clients and we are helping them build their customer support process strategies from soup to nuts, as well as training." That type of outsourcing is something she said serial entrepreneur and AOL founder Steve Case advocates for startups so they can focus on their core business strategies.

Ranalletti says he wants to make his business as Maine-based as possible, including contract vendors. For example, he's using Hall Internet Marketing in Portland to create his digital marketing and systems platforms. "They built our internal vendor system," he says.

Flex scheduling

Ranalletti also likes that SaviLinx is only three years old and a startup itself, and has set up its business model to be flexible. One example is so-called "SuperQ" teams in which a handful of SaviLinx workers have multiple specialties and can easily switch from one account to another. That's good for Calyx's business, which is seasonal and extremely busy at major holidays and then falling off in between.

"This helps us as we grow versus getting dedicated customer service representatives [year-round] now," he says.

The SuperQ customer service representatives handle a number of smaller contracts, says Paul Van Savage, SaviLinx human resources specialist in charge of recruiting. "They're adept at shifting gears and handling one, two or three different incoming calls." There currently are about a dozen SuperQ team members, but he'd like to grow that a bit as the company takes on more small business clients.

"This is cost-effective support," Van Savage adds. "I see SaviLinx as being extremely flexible and doing what we can do to meet specific needs of customers."

Van Savage also is the type of employee Ranalletti liked to hear about when he first visited SaviLinx: Van Savage, a former L.L.Bean employee working in the direct-to-business division, was looking for a job at a startup, and joined SaviLinx in late June of this year as a subject matter expert. By August he had been promoted to his current job as a human resource specialist.

"I bring significant management experience to the table," he says, adding that Blease looks actively to promote from within. Employees typically start out as customer service representatives, some making $16.50 an hour on government work. They can advance to subject matter experts who help customer service representatives if they need expertise, then supervisory or administrative positions, then project coordinators and then up further into salaried management jobs, he explains.

"I had an opportunity to get in with a company that was growing exponentially at the time," he says. "I was willing to take any position to get into the company."

He joined in SaviLinx's first big push to nearly double its staff to 450 employees starting in May with 200 more call center positions from an unnamed insurance client. The company currently is seeking 130 more workers for an expanded government contract, 30 of whom are expected to be reassigned from inside the company and the other 100 to be hired from outside.

The company has been growing quickly and expects revenue to rise to more than $10 million this year, up from $4.3 million last year. The 30,000 square feet of space at Brunswick Landing is filling up quickly, though about 200 of its employees are in Mississippi and some work from home.

Some 75% of the revenue is from government work, which requires the comparatively higher $16.50 per hour starting wage, Blease says. Within that wage, workers can either choose to get benefits or they can use spousal benefits and still have the same wage.

The remainder of the work is for commercial companies, including startups, and runs from $10 to $18 per hour plus benefits.

Making it homey

"My reaction when I first came in was that I was impressed that people could make their cubicle their own and dress it up," says Van Savage.

Call centers, which started in the mid-1960s, still carry the perception of long rows of bland cubicles under fluorescent lights.

That's not the case at SaviLinx, where visitors are commonly greeted by one of the office cats, Savi or Linx, who spend the day roaming around, balancing atop cubicles and lounging in sunny spots. Several people also bring their dogs to work, including Amy Burns, a customer service representative and Gulf War veteran who is inseparable from her service dog, Mac, a four-year-old Chesapeake Bay retriever and huskie mix who can extract a head pat out of anyone who walks near him.

Burns had been working at a local car dealership and likes the idea of working for a new, woman-owned business. Plus the pay is a lot better.

"I look forward to coming to work every day," she says during a phone interview on "pajama day" at the company. She also is convinced she'll win the Halloween decoration context for her cubicle.

She says the collegial atmosphere at SaviLinx helps when upset customers call in, or simply when taking 15 to 35 calls a day. She also learned skills during an in-depth, two-week training course for new employees. Key skills for call centers, she says, are listening, empathy, thinking clearly on your feet and computer knowledge.

"People may call in upset, and [I feel good] if they know that I've given them the very best information," she says. "It's like a family here all working together. We all help each other."

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