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Omaha Magazine

Telecommunications Capital of the World

Jul 25, 2019 12:08PM ● By Kara Schweiss

Sometime during the second half of the 1980s Omaha became known as the “Telecommunications Capital of the World” due to the presence of several dozen inbound and outbound telemarketing companies such as Gary and Mary West’s WATS Marketing of America and West Teleservices, and Steve and Sheri Idelman’s Idelman Telemarketing Inc. Omaha was also known for company call centers such as those of First Data Resources, Marriott, Hyatt, Greyhound, and Ford Motor Credit. The industry thrived: a 1991 New York Times article estimated the number of Omahans employed in the telecommunications sector at the time to exceed 10,000. Today, the number of people employed in “telemarketing” positions, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, is under 700.

Steve Idelman, who in 1981 with wife Sheri founded the forerunner to Idelman Telemarketing Inc. and ITI Marketing Services, said the rise of telemarketing in the 1980s and 1990s was commonly credited to Omaha’s Central time zone location, which easily accommodated time differences across the country, and the technical infrastructure such as the availability of flat-rate, long-distance WATS (Wide Area Telephone Service). But he said other dynamics were more significant.

“I believe the call center industry blossomed here at a very important time in the evolution of Omaha’s business community and economy…It’s a labor-intensive industry and at the time,  Omaha’s labor force was in need of good part-time and some full-time employment opportunities,” Steve explained. “The workforce itself was ideal: the Midwestern work ethic and no discernible accent, which would enable people to communicate into all regions of the country with relatively equal degree of effectiveness. But what really pushed Omaha to the point where it became the telecommunications capital of the world was the aggressive support of what was then Northwestern Bell Telephone and the help of the Chamber of Commerce in bringing call center entrepreneurs to Omaha.”

The Idelmans were Chicago natives who found their way to Omaha and into the telemarketing industry mostly “by accident,” Steve said. The couple recognized opportunity and built it into a company that eventually spanned several Midwestern states, operated bilingual operations in the Miami area, and employed thousands of mostly part-time telephone representatives and support staff. The company was sold in 1995, and the Idelmans went on to found a cybersecurity firm. Today, Sheri is co-owner of an exercise studio while Steve is, as he puts it, “retired from active duty.”

Like the Idelmans, the industry went on, but evolution was necessary for survival. “Call centers are still here in Omaha. They are not the big story in Omaha any longer as Omaha [has] continued to grow,” Idelman said.

That number set up by the Bureau of Labor Statistics is strictly defined by those people who work in outbound sales. In many cases of inbound calling, the job description and title has changed, but the job is still working in customer service, and there are several thousand people working these jobs.

One example: A recent online job description for an opening at PayPal read, “By using the latest in modern communication and technology tools, you will be able to provide our customers with accurate answers to their questions in both a quick and helpful manner.”

In its heyday, telemarketing offered some of the highest-paying part-time jobs in the region, and the availability of flexible schedules, including evening and weekend hours, made it ideal for students and people looking for supplemental work. Over time, workers—often called phone agents or TSRs (telemarketing sales representatives or telephone service representatives)—saw positive changes such as corded desktop phones and handwritten, labels-and-paper call tracking give way to headsets and computer monitors.

The industry itself had to fundamentally transform with the emergence of communication technology such as interactive voice response and the internet, increasing consumer use of caller ID and call-blocking technology, companies outsourcing offshore, and the establishment of the Federal Trade Commission’s Do Not Call Registry in 2003.

“I’m not a subject matter expert on call centers today, but I think it’s fair to say that, first and foremost, technology plays a much bigger role,” Idelman said. “It’s much more automated, less labor-intensive. I think outbound has become more teleservices than telemarketing; much more customer service- and customer retention-oriented. Inbound doesn’t have the type of negativity associated with the old-style outbound telemarketing. There are no time-of-day restrictions and so forth, and you’re answering calls from people who’ve proactively placed them. And call centers today are more of an integrated ‘MarComm’ [marketing communications] pursuit. I know call centers wouldn’t exist in a vacuum today; they work together with multimedia.”

Today's Telecommunications

“Omnichannel” is how Carmen Tapio described it. Tapio worked as a call center executive before founding North End Teleservices in 2015.

“We are an omnichannel outsource contact center provider,” Tapio said of North End. “The new term is ‘contact center’ because it is phone, email, SMS text, and social media,” she explained. “And it can be more than just the human interaction; it’s evolved with the artificial intelligence that is being used in call centers.”

Tapio started working in an inbound call center at age 18, and witnessed the blossoming of a “follow the sun,” global, 24-hour support industry.

“Now we’re using reporting tools that allow us to have near-real-time and real-time intelligence on how the contact center is operating…and we’re able to deliver a much better and more seamless quality of service to our customers,” she said. “CRMs [customer relationship management data analysis] can provide intelligence to operators as they’re speaking.”

Technology makes it easier for call center personnel to do their job, she said, but it doesn’t replace the human element.

“This is and has been a people industry, supported and underscored by technology. The technology has evolved but a lot of the data we look at is the same. How we get to it is different, but we’re still talking about human interaction, and that’s the one thing I never want to see completely lost in our industry. That’s why I think call centers will never fully go away,” she said.

Tapio said telemarketing today is viewed as a more professional position than it once was because of the multimedia expertise involved, the speed at which information is shared, and the fact that the reputation of companies, products, and services can be made or broken.

“Every interaction matters,” she said. “We’re trying to increasingly professionalize the role; that’s why we have an apprentice program that’s registered with the Department of Labor, that’s why we have leadership development, career-pathing, a mentor program. We view this as a critical role.”

North End Teleservices provides not only jobs, it also creates careers, Tapio said.

“We take a lot of pride in doing business locally in our community and also on a national level,” Tapio said. “Our mission is creating jobs and changing lives, and we feel there are underutilized individuals and opportunities in our own state. We were intentional about bringing jobs to a community where unemployment is still way higher than the less-than-three percent that is talked about in Omaha; it’s still in double digits where we sit in northeast Omaha.”

Even the service reps who intend to go on to other careers learn valuable skills, Tapio said.

“We are trying to help people see themselves differently in the role and to see it as more than just a job. It is a career path,” she said. “The skills you learn, absolutely you take that with you.”

Idelman agreed. Two decades after leaving the industry, he still sees how former employees have made good use of what they learned in telemarketing.

“What I’m most proud of—and Sheri would share this with me—is the people; watching with great feeling and great pride how many of them have become big-time successful in not only in their business careers, but in their lives. And how many of these teammates—starting as part-time employees wanting to make a few extra dollars to support themselves or their families, or wanting to go to school—have grown up to be real leaders in their own respective endeavors,” Idelman said. “In the grand scheme of the world, ITI was just another small business. But to so many of us who participated in that together, it was like catching lightning in a bottle. The relationships and friendships; there are hundreds of people still connected through their experience at ITI.”

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This article was printed in the August/September 2019 edition of B2B. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.

Carmen Tapio of North End Teleservices