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INTERVIEW: John Devlin, managing director, Ascensos

‘Social media has made a big change to our industry’

John Devlin

There’s a lingering view about call centres that John Devlin wants to put right. They’re not the poor-paying sweat shops of popular folklore, he insists. The business has moved on, providing valuable careers for an increasingly skilled workforce. It’s changed in other ways, too.

Those working in the sector have always preferred “contact” to “call” centre but both no longer adequately describes what they do, he says.

Devlin is a call (contact) centre veteran who was part of the team that built and sold beCogent to Teleperformance. He, as managing director, and former colleague Dermot Jenkinson, as chairman, now run  Ascensos from a former Lloyds Bank contact centre in Motherwell, and the 170 staff working there have a collection of abilities that belies the common image.

“Social media has made a big change to our industry. We are a hybrid of a contact centre and a digital marketing agency,” he says.

The change was a big realisation for the new team when they launched the business in 2013 after a three-year lock-out that followed the sale of beCogent. In that time social media began to take hold of the way customers engaged with companies and it was clear that the old ways of working were no longer applicable.

The traditional job of answering phone calls or even electronic messages via email has been vastly altered. Only 50% of staff now use the telephone, and non-voice contact has become the norm.

“We now have to recruit young people with digital skills and the ability to write for social media, build a social media campaign, engage in video chats,” he says. “They have to work to shorter deadlines and know how to handle complaints or queries that may spread quickly. We also need people constantly monitoring social media.”

Fifty ShadesAscensos handles customers for DIY giants B&Q and Wickes and the launch of the film Fifty Shades of Grey (left) sparked interest in belts and other products used in sexual bondage. His firm got into the spirit with a tongue-in-cheek campaign for B&Q to promote client products.

“It had to be done tastefully, of course, but it worked for the client and the staff loved working on it,” says Devlin.

The battery-hen environment in which operatives were pressured to meet targets and were penalised for exceeding time allowed for toilet breaks is becoming a thing of the past, he insists. Nowadays it is a more creative and relaxing environment.

Even so, the business is no less demanding and social media has shortened expected response times for customers from a typical 24 hours to an average of eight minutes.

The changed ways of working are a response to the ways in which customers choose to engage with client companies.

“The new generation of customers do not think about picking up the phone. They are straight on to Twitter,” he says.

All this has required considerable investment in smart technology, data analytics and in the sort of person being recruited.

“We are hiring people suited to the clients. We have staff handling fashion accounts [the company handles Coast, Karen Millen, Oasis and Warehouse] who worked for fashion outlets, and ex-joiners and plumbers working on our DIY accounts. They are great because they can answer customer questions from having done the job themselves.”

Devlin, now 47, trained as an electrical engineer and his journey into business took one notable diversion when he joined the board of Albion Rovers FC and spent a year as chairman. It was during this time the club donated the income from a lucrative cup run to the Cash for Kids charity.

“It felt like the right thing to do,” says Bellshill-born Devlin who, in his younger days, harboured a desire to play for his local club.

He has found a new team game in the contact centre business and after a slowdown caused by the independence referendum – “clients just would not commit during that period” – the company is embarking on expansion. It is considering a facility in London with multi-lingual staff able to cope with another aspect of customer demand.

Ascensos received a £1.8 million regional selective assistance (RSA) grant from Scottish Enterprise when it launched on the promise of creating up to 600 jobs over three years and it remains on course to achieve that target.

By then, the industry may have changed in other ways.

“I like to refer to the business as a customer intelligence centre. That’s the journey the industry is on,” he says.


Birthplace: Bellshill

Age: 47

Educated: trained as an electrical engineer

Career highlights: European marketing programme manager, Motorola; UK business manager, Modus Media, part of RR Donnelley; operations director, beCogent; managing director, Ascensos.

Describe your management style

I am a very relaxed individual. Inclusive in terms of management team. Client focused.

Are you ambitious?

Very ambitious. Passionate about the sector. I believe contact centres have a significant impact and role to play.

What would you change if you were in government?

I still believe not enough is done to encourage young people to consider business as a career.

I would also reform the TUPE – transfer of undertakings (protection of employment) – laws. They rightly protect employees, allowing them to retain jobs when contracts are switched, but they are a barrier to trade. Realistically, people will not move from one end of the country to the other, but we still have to go through a lot of process work. It could be made a lot easier and quicker for everyone.

I also believe the transport infrastructure in Scotland is worse than down south. Clients find it impossible to get form Edinburgh airport to Motherwell without several train, tram and bus journeys. It gives the impression that Scotland is difficult as a place for doing business.

Who or what has been the biggest help in your career?

Dermot Jenkinson has been a great mentor to me and a fabulous adviser. He is very well connected.

What makes you angry?

I don’t like people being treated unfairly. I also get irritated by those who can’t spell or do simple maths. I was not happy about the BBC documentary on contact centres. It set the industry back several years.

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