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Angie Wieck, Published September 28 2012

Travel call centers a way for Serco to expand into private, commercial centers

FARGO - An agreement signed by Orbitz to help American Express cardholders redeem reward points for travel has led to 120 new jobs at a Serco Group call center here.

Orbitz provides the website and technology necessary to make the travel arrangements, but it contracts with Serco to provide customer service for travelers.

The Fargo call center opened at 1001 28th St. S. in 1994 as a division of Rosenbluth International Travel, a corporate travel agency founded by Hal Rosenbluth.

When it was not included in the sale of Rosenbluth’s North Dakota call centers to American Express in 2001, the company went out on its own and turned its focus from corporate travel to an outsourced customer service model.

It began contracting with companies such as Orbitz and US Airways that were interested in outsourcing their customer service needs.

That business model made it a good fit with Serco, the U.K.-based corporation that purchased the call center in July 2011.

Christie Cox, Serco’s head of communications for the Americas, describes Serco as a managed services company that provides business process management services in a number of industries worldwide.

The list of industries in which Serco operates is long. To name a few just in the United States, Serco contracts with the government to process all visa and patent applications, manage retirement funds for retired federal employees and essentially serve as the human resources department of the U.S. Army.

Until recently, its focus has been predominantly in the public sector, but Cox sees the purchase of travel call centers as just one way to expand into the private and commercial sectors.

Serco began hiring in May after learning of the agreement between Orbitz and American Express. In addition to the 120 jobs in Fargo, 100 positions were filled at its Campbellsville, Ky., location.

A hiring challenge at both locations was finding employees with strong reservation center or travel agent experience.

Many people left the travel agent industry years ago after changes in commission practices. Also, few schools teach the trade anymore.

In order the fill an additional 50 positions, Serco offered work-from-home opportunities to those possessing experience regardless of where they lived.

While many companies hire work-from-home contractors as a way to save money, Serco does so in order to find workers with the skillset its customers require. It tries to recruit people who understand corporate-managed travel and speak fluent French.

The level of knowledge necessary for travel representatives protects a call center like Serco from being moved overseas to places like India or the Philippines.

Bill Hoppe, vice president of operations for the Americas, explained that customers are not calling to say their widget doesn’t work. They’re calling to say “Hey, I’m on these four different airlines flying from Fargo to Melbourne and then back through Johannesburg, and I have this problem. How do I fix this?”

Representatives need to understand geography and air travel, as well as the policies of the company they represent in order to provide the caller with a solution.

“Everything that we do is helping the customer get from point A to point B,” Hoppe said.

The good news is that the hiring is not over. Serco contracts with travel and hospitality companies in addition to Orbitz, and is looking to hire an additional 35 employees.

Angie Knapp, director of human services, pointed to the benefits of working for Serco.

One selling point is travel opportunities. Knapp said that while travel perks may not be what they were 20 years ago, many contractors provide perks such as free or discounted hotel stays.

Advancement opportunities are another marketing tool. Knapp said nearly all team leader and management positions in Fargo are held by employees who have moved up within the company. The required knowledge and experience is difficult to obtain from outside the company.

Although Serco’s focus has always been on travel, employees who date back to the early days of the Fargo business have seen a few different owners between Rosenbluth and Serco. Hoppe thinks the company gained stability with Serco.

“It’s great to have a strong parent company,” he said. “The journey has been very interesting, but we think we’re at home at this point.”

Readers can reach Forum reporter Angie Wieck at (701) 241-5501