Martin Anderson launched Lemon Contact Centre having started out with a reclaimed, £40 PC operating from a room above a garage. It now employs more than 100 people providing 24/7 call handling services to a range of sectors.
What was your first job (and what did it pay)? My first job was as an apprentice technician at Comcast, which later became NTL and then Virgin Media. I was paid the princely sum of £6,000 a year, which wasn’t bad for an apprentice in 1997 and allowed me to buy my first ‘sports car’, a black Toyota MR2. Apprenticeships back then weren’t the massive beast that they are now, and there wasn’t many outside of the classic trades like plumbing and electrician. They were also a little bit out of fashion as the Labour government encouraged everyone to head off to university but I managed to get in to telecoms right on the eve of the dot com boom and it was a fantastic time to learn. I did three years, rotating through departments every six months. I ended up as an engineer working in the network operations centre, which gave me my first taste of a contact centre and I guess set me down the path to where I am now.
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What is the best advice or support you’ve been given in business? There are a couple of key pieces of advice I was given in the world of work which have stuck with me since my first job. Firstly, being told that it wasn’t going be glamourous by a director in my first few days as an apprentice; this almost innocuous piece of advice was significant as at highlighted to me, at a young age, the importance of completing all tasks, glamorous or not, with the same endeavour and attention to detail that you would the most rewarding of tasks. Since then I have picked up the phrase ‘how you do anything, is how you do everything’ and it is a mantra I use every day. Secondly, I soon learnt that delusion is a gracious thief, especially in sales, which is something to always be remembered if you’re going to have a successful sales pipeline!
What are the main changes that you’ve seen in your business/sector, and what are the challenges your facing? The massive change that I’ve seen, which has been relentless during my time in business, has been the advances in technology. We quickly moved from landlines and snail mail to the mobiles and email, now we’re in a world of web chat and social media-based customer service.
The next big issue facing us is AI, which could hugely disrupt the contact centre world. It isn’t that people will be exclusively speaking with ‘robots’ because I think people will always value human-to-human contact, but that AI will help sort and triage customers to the right person. A really exciting application is on quality measurement; humans just can’t practically monitor and rate every single customer interaction, but I can easily see how an AI programme could do it. That would be revolutionary for the contact centre industry.
How has the pandemic changed the way you work? The pandemic was a turning point for Lemon. There was this huge upheaval of absolutely everything which made us really revaluate the business and look deeper into our financial data and processes so we could better understand ourselves. We made some big changes to our fee and service structure to make us more resilient to a changing economy – and it has helped us to win new work and grow the business.
In the early days, we foresaw a massive shift for businesses to be better at online services, so we put a big focus on developing our multichannel capabilities. It put us ahead of most of competitors and meant that we were well placed to help businesses through the pandemic, with many still using our services to this day. We are definitely a lot stronger and more agile for coming through the pandemic than we were beforehand.
Who is your role model in business? I’m always very impressed by Richard Branson. There are so many lessons to take from his decades in business. He is someone who always thinks big. There’s a quote I’ve seen from him ‘that if your dreams don’t scare you, they are too small’ which I always like. You should be ambitious and set yourself goals which you will need to work hard to achieve.
But, at the same time, he is someone who places a lot of value on his team and employees. I’ve read a few of his books, and books about him, and his belief in building a great workplace through respect, decency and supporting people to be their best is something I’ve instilled into Lemon. If people enjoy coming to work, and enjoy what they do, they will work harder and do better. It is beneficial for everyone. Branson has had many failures, but his ‘bouncebackability’ is what makes him such an effective entrepreneur. After all, you learn to walk by falling over!
What would your dream job be? I think my dream job would be working for Nasa. My background in engineering means I am just fascinated by the amazing work that goes into a space launch and the fact that they are constantly pushing the boundaries of what is possible. The Apollo 13 mission, depicted by Tom Hanks in the film of the same name, blows my mind in how they managed to get the astronauts back to Earth after such catastrophic system failures and it is rightly called ‘the most successful failure’. To have worked on the NASA Apollo missions, including the moon landing, would have now be my dream job.
What advice would you give to someone starting out a career in your sector? Most importantly is knowing what good customer service looks like, which isn’t easy. Everyone knows what a bad experience looks like, but it’s about putting yourself into the customer’s shoes and navigating the conversation to a suitable outcome for everyone using the right language, tone of voice and actions. Customer service is often like a show and you’re a performer, it is your job to make the customer feel important and ensure that their request is completed, with minimal effort on the customer’s behalf. A great starting point is looking at Disney, their attention to detail is out of this world and yet they make it look easy. I would say go out an experience all levels of customer service, from the worst to the best and take note of what is happening around you to make it happen.
What makes the North East a good place to do business? What I love about the North East is that you can build a career and business here which rivals anywhere else in the world, but without the hectic-ness that you experience in places like London or big city regions like Manchester. You can get to work and do what you need to without an hour and half of travelling on a busy commuter train. I also think the can-do mind-set of the North East is admirable. We are always trying to punch above our weight and grow and improve our position – we have had plenty of setbacks but continue to keep going forwards. It’s that bouncebackability that I spoke about earlier. It speaks volumes of the region and its people.
How important do you think it is for business to play a role in society? I think business has an important role to play in society, but I think that some people overstate the role it should play. My perspective is that businesses are there to provide jobs and generate profits that can be taxed by the government to support those who need it. A good business provides a stable job in a supportive workplace with opportunities for people to increase their skills and experience, so they can progress up the career ladder and improve their lot in life. If a business wants to go beyond that, it should be commended, but business’s role is to be a business.
Outside of work, what are you really good at? Being a dad! Outside of work, most of my life is spent with my children, taking them to this club or that sports tournament, and trying to keep their business lives organised and instil in them the values they need to succeed as independent adults. I’m in a fortune position to be able to show them the possibilities in life and that with compassion and drive they can do and be whatever they want.
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