National Careers Week kicks off today, so i thought it would be a great opportunity to revisit an interview that we did a while ago with Maria Opuni. She started her call centre journey with RBS who are the headline sponsor for this campaign and her story really demonstrates how working for a company that invests in you and your career can really shape your future…
Maria is an extremely passionate, driven, inspirational figure in the call centre industry clocking up around 20 years of experience. She has an impressive track record of delivering exceptional results and turning around businesses that are complex and challenging. Her key to success is fostering a ‘high challenge, high support’ environment, allowing people to reach their optimum potential and creating high performing contact centres. Even after a brief chat with Maria, it is clear to see that she has an infectious personality and zest for life that no doubt rubs off on everyone around her.
So where did it all begin?
Maria describes herself as “a bit lost” in the early stages of her career however her move to join RBS in the mid nineties was really where it all began. And it couldn’t have been a better time to join the bank. It was in the days when traditionalist banking was changing into a more telephony based offering for customers, and the rise of call centres for financial products was just beginning. RBS at the time was the fourth biggest bank in the world, and was, as Maria describes it, “a super place to work that heavily invested in staff”. Maria began working on the Lombard Direct loan brand as a frontline advisor, driving sales and financial products over the phone. She quickly progressed into leadership positions within the bank….and the rest is history!
After working her way through the ranks at RBS over a 9 year period, Maria moved on to head up the Lombard Direct contact centre. At the time it was a purist call centre, mostly inbound driven and very media driven. Here Maria learnt everything from marketing to pricing of products. But what has stayed close to Maria over her career is her learnings in terms of the leadership of large volumes of people. “I learnt how to engage staff and drive performance. It was a fantastic nine years that set up my entire career”.
But never one to sit still, Maria was keen to broaden her horizons and move away from the comfort blanket that comes with being part of one of the biggest banks in the world. She was keen to get back to basics and experience something that was much more entrepreneurial. So after months of persuasion, Maria’s former boss Sean Guilliam convinced her to join his new business venture, Direct Dialogue. Together they built the business over a period of 5 years. “It was really challenging, but the best thing I could have done. Without the backing of a big brand it brought so many challenges and taught me so much”. Maria helped build an extremely successful business that operated over two sites and created a really great culture by putting years of leadership experience into use.
When Direct Dialogue was hit by the recession, Sean wound the company down and Maria decided it was time to take on something new, back in the world of retail. And she decided to keep challenging herself and join Comet when they were really in trouble after missing the online boat. She was brought in to reshape their contact centre operation and eventually help them close the site. “It was an emotional ride but massively developmental for me”.
After 2 years at Comet, Maria moved to work for Capita running a customer service centre for Volkswagen in Leeds. Maria described it as a fantastic place to work, particularly if you are starting out your career, but Maria needed something more challenging so she sought her next mountain to climb.
What do you do now?
Maria was headhunted at the beginning of last year and subsequently met the Board of what was known then as A4E (now PeoplePlus). As with all of Maria’s appointments, it was one that presented many hurdles and provided a huge learning opportunity. A4E were going through massive change, and were looking to centralise many of their operations and build a strong contact centre offering. Maria was brought in as Customer Services Director to lead this change.
A4E, who run huge government contracts for the Work Programme, were an extremely complex business. “At the heart of their business is recruitment, but you are dealing with huge amounts of customer data across the UK and dealing with a lot of compliance and regulatory issues”. So Maria is dealing with many new, challenging situations and her customer’s needs were very different to what she had experienced before. “I’m dealing with a completely different customer base – people who need a lot of help and support in finding work, and when they do find work, our role as a company is to help them upskill within their job”. But she explains that although this is new ground to her, the same principles that she learnt, tried and tested over the years still apply – “building an engaged workforce that give the best customer experience”.
Maria’s time at People Plus is soon to come to an end so she is currently figuring out her next move. There is one thing for certain though, she definitely isn’t looking for an easy ride, but something that is exciting, challenging and has a strong leadership and people element.
How did you get to where you are now?
Maria’s career is very impressive, and there is one thing that is constant within all of her jobs, and that is challenge. She seeks out opportunities that will test her and giver her the opportunity to really make a difference to a company and its people. Her ethos is “working hard is not optional”. “My first job at 16 was working in retail and I still say to people now, ‘if you want to understand business, get a job in retail and work on a shop floor’ as it gives you a great insight into how everything works”. And standing on your feet, working long hours and selling to customers are the kind of work ethics that you need to apply in a contact centre.
What Maria was noted for and still is, is leadership of people – “it’s that emotional intelligence”. She built her career by going through the ranks so Maria feels that she brings a certain authenticity to a role. “I very much believe in working to people’s potential, getting engrained in what they are doing and creating fantastic places to work. The whole culture of a centre is what makes it great or not. How do you get people jumping out of bed in the morning? I do this by taking an approach where I work for them and not the other way round”.
And Maria is a great believer in listening to people – “people on the front line are the closest to the customer, they have the best knowledge and they should be the people that shape the environment, driving improvement and strategy. Contact Centre Directors don’t have all the answers, you need to ask, listen and engage”.
Why did you choose to build a career in call centres?
Working in a call centre wasn’t something that Maria set out to do but having spent most of her career in one she is a massive advocate of the industry. ”There are some really bad ones, but it’s an industry that has to adapt and constantly change according to the market and technology and it is therefore a really is a fantastic and interesting industry to work in”.
Maria has worked in the industry for nearly 20 years but she still feels that there are things that she can learn and the changes in the market keep her on her toes. “I’ve got a lot of experience but I meet people that are rookies in the industry and there is a lot I can learn from them”.
And she describes how the impact she has made on people’s careers has been really important to her and she has been complimented on her people focused approach on many occasions. Feedback like “it’s the best centre I’ve worked in”, “I’ve learnt so much from you” and “you always put us first” is extremely meaningful to Maria. “If you have made even a small impact on people’s lives then that’s really great”.
What is your advice to anyone starting their call centre career?
“Grab the opportunity, don’t just do the basics, put the customer first and don’t be afraid to challenge the processes and the status quo because that’s how the industry keeps moving forward”. “Stand up, be counted and make your voice heard”. And as Maria explains, don’t stick with it if you don’t like it. Every call centre is different so “don’t assume that you know everything just because you have worked in one”, there may be somewhere else that is more suited to your skills.
But if you haven’t got the right attitude, it’s probably best to stop looking. “Being the best is non negotiable – if you are authentic, honest and clear with people they will follow your lead and be the best they can be”. Well I’m certain that Maria is always the best she can be and that has definitely got her a very long way.