EASTSOUND, Wash. -- Jill Blankenship will tell anyone who listens that the days of needing a giant office space to house a call center are long gone. Also heading the way of the dinosaurs are proprietary employees who only handle technical support over-the-phone for one company.
Blankenship’s company Frontline Call Center is in a relatively small building (compared to massive call center office spaces) and her employees provide customer service support for a number of clients. What makes her very different from the competition, though, is where her business is located – in Eastsound, Wash., on Orcas Island, part of the San Juan Islands.
The remote setting means that she can only have a handful of employees physically work at the main business building, so she hired other call center agents across the country to be able to provide 24-hour assistance to the company’s clients. Blankenship’s innovation, dedication to technology, savvy business planning and help from the U.S. Small Business Administration (SBA) has established Frontline Call Center as a leader in the call center industry and helped earned her the SBA 2013 Washington state Small Business Person of the Year recipient.
Frontline Call Center is a rural outsourcing call center that provides a full array of telecommunications solutions and has grown to become a multimillion-dollar company employing more than 60 people across 12 states. Started in 2005, Blankenship created the company as a response to meet Orcas Island’s need for steady year round employment in a rural area with severe location challenges. Last year, she opened another call center location in Friday Harbor, Wash., part of San Juan Island.
Frontline has helped evolve the rural telecommunications/call center industry for rural island communities with limited access to the mainland thanks in part to several SBA 7 (a) loans, with the most recent loan totaling $140,000. Nearly 10 percent of her sales are from export clients, allowing Blankenship the opportunity to branch out to new markets and hire more employees, making Frontline Call Center one of the three largest employers on Orcas Island with 14 full-time employees.
“The support I have received from the SBA in loan and resources assistance has been vital to my business being a success,” Blankenship said.
Having the remote workforce that can work on multiple accounts gives Frontline lots of flexibility. Employees can be on flex schedules, work three-hour shifts at a time. Blankenship learned early on that she needed call agents in various time zones to ensure that no matter who was calling, an excited, knowledgeable agent was available, no matter the time. There’s a big difference between having a smile on your face at 6 a.m. versus 3 a.m.,” she said.
While some managers might be reluctant to have employees so many states away, Blankenship said she recognized that employees who worked from home were more productive, happier and interacted with the company’s mission, vision and goals better. Her goal is to continue hire enough agents to take her business to the next level, and she thinks she will need about 200 agents to do that.
“As we continue to grow, our top priority is to have our employees engaged in our culture so that the expansion is smooth,” Blankenship said.
Blankenship devotes many hours each month supporting nonprofits in the San Juan Islands. She is the president of Orcas Angels, a local nonprofit that provides assistance for Islanders in crisis. This crisis relief support has delivered dinner to those in need, provided clothing and shelter to those fallen victim to house fires and built ramps for those who could not get into their own homes.
“These angels are dedicated to the well-being and success of the residents and business owners of Orcas Island,” she said.
When she is not overseeing operations at the call center or working with nonprofits, Blankenship mentors and advocates for startup organizations in the San Juan Islands.
“I try to bring to light the challenges of residing in a rural location and overcoming the lack of access to resources and networking needed for success,” she said.
Being named the SBA 2013 Washington state Small Business Person of the Year comes with a trip to the other Washington. Blankenship flew to Washington, D.C., earlier this year to spend a week with the other state winners and received a reception from Washington state Senator Maria Cantwell. While she did not win the overall Small Business Person of the Year for the nation, she will never forget that special opportunity.
“It’s easy to feel disconnected living on an island and having our business highlighted has been really rewarding, and I feel we are getting our name out there for Orcas Island,” she said.
Blankenship’s advice for other small business owners trying to get ahead in their business is to treat your business plan like it is your Bible.
“It needs to be clean and clear and you should have done at least 10 renditions on it before you can call it good to go,” she said. “I think some people find that (much editing) really overwhelming to do, but the business plan is such an important piece to a successful business; you need to devote the time.”
For more information about Frontline Call Centers, visit www.frontlinecallcenter.com.
For more information about the SBA, visit www.sba.gov/wa.