Dialing For Dinero

Marty Shih, a Taiwanese native, has something a lot of marketers want: a vast knowledge of Asians, including cultures, languages, and buying habits--and a multilingual phone staff for reaching them. Last year, the 40-year-old founder of Asian Business Connection in Rosemead, Calif., sold Asians living in the U.S. $40 million worth of goods by phone. His 200 operators hawked everything from flowers to hotel rooms to Sprint long-distance service--in six different Asian languages.

Major marketers are drawing a telephonic bead on immigrant and ethnic markets--a fast-growing reservoir of potential customers who have been bombarded by far fewer sales messages than mainstream consumers. And they find that, unlike mainstream customers tired of fending off intrusive callers, many immigrants are receptive to telemarketers who speak their language. That makes the ethnic market one of the fastest-growing segments of the $500 billion telemarketing business.

For some, foreign-language telemarketing is a response to a changing customer base. "Last year, people woke up and realized that a third of all [our] new business is coming from these markets," says Gary Matus, executive vice-president of Bank of America. Now, BofA's bilingual telemarketing staff phones new, foreign-speaking customers in their native languages within days of their first visit to the bank.

MCI Communications Corp. is also using its phones to ring up sales in the immigrant market. The long-distance giant credits much of its four-year, 9% market-share gain in outbound international minutes to its 19-language telemarketing efforts. "The international market is growing 15% a year--twice the domestic market," says John Donoghue, marketing vice-president for consumer markets. Sprint Corp. estimates that recent immigrants spend four to five times as much as average customers on long distance.

AT&T can reach out and touch sales prospects in 140 languages--and it begins the process before newcomers even reach these shores. It runs seminars for would-be emigrants in the Philippines, distributing helpful information on setting up utilities and dealing with immigration authorities in the U.S. Included, of course, is AT&T's 800 number staffed with Tagalog-speaking operators.

But telemarketing across cultures and languages can be tough. Immigrants are not always familiar with the gadgets or services being pitched. That helps make foreign-language calls longer--and more expensive--than pitches in English. Cultural differences can also throw up roadblocks. Hispanics, for example, tend not to carry credit cards, making paying by phone difficult.

EXPERT HELP. That's why many companies farm out telemarketing to experts. Matrixx Marketing Inc., a subsidiary of Cincinnati Bell Inc., grew from sales of $5 million in 1988 to $226 million last year. Two years ago, it added ethnic marketing, and last year, it handled at least 12 million foreign-language calls. "We get incredible economies of scale," says CEO David F. Dougherty, who says Matrixx can slice one-quarter to one-half off the cost of a foreign-language call that might cost $6 to $9 if a client did it in-house. He expects foreign-language telemarketing to grow 20% this year.

The market has attracted some new players, too. D.F. King & Co., the privately held New York company best known as a proxy solicitor, found itself with sophisticated but idle phone gear when the takeover frenzy of the 1980s died. With King's proximity to the ethnic enclaves of New York City, foreign-language telemarketing was a natural step. Last year, it handled 1.75 million calls, half of them in foreign languages. King's call center, staffed with recruits from college campuses and referrals, has grown from 30 operators to 200 in three years.

Like other telemarketers, King says foreign speakers welcome a call in their language. That helps propel responses from fast-growing Hispanic and Asian populations to rates two or three times those of campaigns in English. For telemarketers who have called mainstream customers once too often in the middle of dinner, that's a welcome change.


Some big-name marketers are wooing ethnic customers by phone


Does in-house telemarketing in languages from Polish to Chinese. In certain markets, such as the Philippines, it uses "pre-immigration" programs to introduce AT&T even sooner.


Launched "Showtime en Espaol" last season with a big telemarketing push. Found their Spanish-speaking customers easier to retain.


Outsources telemarketing in at least eight languages. Finds that recent immigrants spend $75 to $150 a month on long distance and are receptive to telemarketing calls in their own language.

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