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Consumer Direct

Consumer Direct - Shawbost
Real Video Clip 1Mitchel Leimon from Consumer Direct [Real Video - 1.5MB]
Real Video Clip 1Ken Hills from Consumer Direct [Real Video - 1.5MB]

The success of Consumer Direct, based in Shawbost, Isle of Lewis, clearly demonstrates that the Western Isles is an ideal location for contact centre facilities. A highly skilled workforce, the availability of high quality prestige office space and, most importantly, a highly proactive approach taken by the Comhairle nan Eilean Siar (Western Isles Council) have enabled the Western Isles to make an outstanding success of Consumer Directís first year.

Consumer Direct at Shawbost is an achievement which provides a model to be followed by all those making investment decisions, particularly those involved in business process outsourcing in the public sector.

Funded by the Department of Trade & Industry, Consumer Direct is a new £30m national consumer helpline and online advice service, designed to work alongside and complement existing Trading Standards and Citizens Advice Bureaux, providing first tier practical advice to consumers throughout the UK.

The project has come a long way since it was initially put out to tender in September 2003. Since then the operation has become firmly established, having fielded over 100,000 calls nationally - 30,000 of them at the Shawbost call centre. Shawbost now employs 36 staff, and the Western Isles Council is working in partnership with TSC (Telecom Service Centres), one of Scotlandís largest contact centre companies. During November 2004 the second tranche of employees have received their official accreditation certificates and all the signs are that the Shawbost call centre is an outstanding success.

In an environment where job dispersal and slimming down of the civil service constitute a key focus of Government policy, the Western Isles has much to offer. As the conclusions of Sir Peter Gershon's review of public sector efficiency are implemented by the Government with regard to the public sector's back office, procurement, transaction service and policy-making functions, the Consumer Direct centre in Shawbost is a shining example of how the Western Isles can offer a high quality solution at an economic cost.

Consumer Direct has been able to benefit from an exceptional property package, centred on a brand new purpose-designed building. But this is not a one-off - there are a number of other similar developments throughout the islands, providing first class office facilities in idyllic locations, while also near to population centres. Constantly improving communication technologies, including the implementation of broadband during 2004/5 make the Western Isles an increasingly practical business location.

The role of Comhairle nan Eilean Siar has been critical throughout the Consumer Direct experience. The Shawbost centre remains the responsibility of the Council, although its partner TSC manages it on a day-to-day basis.

The Councilís involvement goes right back to the initial bidding process during late 2003. The initial aim of the DTI was to establish four pathfinder regions for Consumer Direct, one of which would come from Scotland. Five Scottish local authorities initially tendered for the project. Right from the start, the strategy in the Western Isles set its bid apart from all the others. Although the initial approach came in to Trading Standards, the invitation to bid was immediately recognised as much more than just a trading standards issue, but rather as an economic development issue.

Throughout all the various stages of the bidding process the Chief Executive was involved, along with the managing director of TSC, accompanied by a senior level team. The Western Isles bid was also fast winning friends in high places - commitments of support from both Highland & Islands Enterprise and from the Scottish Executive were early achievements. Later Alasdair Morrison MSP, Calum MacDonald MP and Government Minister Rt Hon Alistair Darling also leant their support to the bid.

Another key element of the bid package was the ability to demonstrate the robust nature of the technology which was to be employed. In fact the Council and TSC have jointly developed a case handling software tool which has so impressed the DTI that it is now the preferred bidder to be used nationally throughout Consumer Direct.

TSC was amazed at both the quality and quantity of people who came forward to be involved in the Shawbost contact centre. There were no less than 150 applicants for the first tranche of 20 positions and 60 for the second batch of 14. The geographically large catchment area comprises Shawbost itself, the West side of Lewis and as far as Stornoway on the East side. This level of interest immediately scotched any lingering doubts about the ability of the Western Isles to deliver a team of people capable of operating a busy modern call centre operation.

The experience has demonstrated that location is simply not an issue for this kind of business. The Western Isles bid was perceived by the DTI entirely in terms of economics and competence. Was it possible to deliver the service required within the budget available? The answer is a resounding: Yes.

Consumer Direct has occupied the Shawbost building since April 2004 and has been providing a service to Scottish consumers by telephone, email and internet since 12 July, when Rt Hon Patricia Hewitt MP, Secretary of State for Trade & Industry formally launched the service.

At the end of its first quarter of operation, Shawbost conducted a customer satisfaction survey, the results of which exceeded expectations. 89 per cent said they were satisfied with the service and 95 per cent said they would recommend it to other consumers.

As an example of successful job dispersal, Shawbost is now showing the way to public sector investors.