April 10, 2011

The Bottom Line: Answering the call
to serve the Hispanic population

Portland is the headquarters for a Spanish-language call center that is one of the nation's fastest-growing private companies.

By J. Hemmerdinger jhemmerdinger@pressherald.com
Staff Writer

PORTLAND - For two Portland entrepreneurs, the word "awesome" has special meaning.

click image to enlarge

CEO Craig Handley, left, and President Tony Ricciardi of Listen Up Español work from an office in Portland.

John Patriquin/Staff Photographer

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HISTORY: Partners Tony Ricciardi and Craig Handley founded Listen Up Espanol in Portland in 2006. That same year, they opened a call center in Hermosillo, Mexico, where Listen Up Espa?s Spanish-speaking telephone agents take orders for products advertised on television infomercials.

NUMBER OF EMPLOYEES: Roughly 770, including 750 in Mexico and 20 in Portland.

EXECUTIVES: CEO Craig Handley, 40, and President Tony Ricciardi, 44.

WORTH NOTING: Neither Ricciardi nor Handley speaks fluent Spanish.

FINANCIALS: Listen Up Espanol grew 6,914 percent between 2006 and 2009 -- from annual revenues of $212,115 to $14.9 million. Revenues dipped to $10 million in 2010, but are forecast to climb to $17 million this year.

Neither Handley or Ricciardi speaks Spanish, but both have sales and marketing experience and had consulted to the call-center industry.

It's a core value of their company, Listen Up Espanol and anchors their mission statement, a 10-page document titled the "Code of Awesomeness."

Perhaps they're on to something.

Portland-based Listen Up Espanol, which runs a Spanish-speaking call center in Mexico, is one of the nation's fastest-growing private companies, with three-year revenue growth that approached 7,000 percent in 2009.

And despite setbacks in 2010, the firm's leaders say they are back on track, thanks to a powerful company culture and booming demand for Spanish-speaking telephone agents.

"Be true to yourself, and live life like an extreme sport," said Listen Up Espanol CEO Craig Handley, 40, last week, explaining his philosophy of life and business.

"The only thing that makes us succeed is our people. (They are) the DNA," added President Tony Ricciardi, who is 44.

In 2006, Ricciardi and Handley launched Listen Up Espanol, a company that fields customer service calls from Hispanic U.S. residents and takes sales orders for a variety of "As Seen on TV" products, such as Jack LaLanne's Power Juicer, the InStyler hair iron, the Magic Bullet blender and the Ab Rocket.

The partners said they started Listen Up Espanol because very few companies specialized in taking calls from Spanish-speaking U.S. consumers.

But the market is huge, Ricciardi and Handley said, noting that there are some 50 million Hispanics in this country, and millions of undocumented Spanish-speaking residents -- more people than the populations of Canada or Australia.

"It's not a population people should be ignoring," he said.

The partners called their company Listen Up Espanol -- a name they took from Listen Up, a Westbrook-based call center that they partly owned.

Because they live in Maine, they based the company in Portland, but chose to locate their call center in Hermosillo, Mexico, an industrial city in the northwest part of the country.

Today, Listen Up Espanol has some 750 telephone agents in Mexico and 20 staff in Portland who manage sales, finance and strategy.

The company fielded 1.8 million phone calls in 2010.

Neither Handley or Ricciardi speaks Spanish, but both have sales and marketing experience and had consulted to the call-center industry.

They financed Listen Up Espanol with roughly $850,000 from Revenue Enhancement Consultants, a call-center advisory business founded by Handley in 1996.

Spinglass Management Group, a Portland-based business consultancy and merger and acquisition firm, invested $250,000.

The partners said the early days were difficult.

Money was tight, and the company hadn't perfected sales techniques, data-tracking systems or call-center technology. And their phone carrier was dropping a high percentage of calls -- forcing Listen Up Espanol to credit clients for lost business.

"We were doing a lot of calls, but the (sales) opportunity was falling apart at the call center," said Handley.

Payment problems also hampered the young company.

Handley said the industry assumed Hispanic consumers preferred to pay by c.o.d. -- the "collect on delivery" method -- rather than by credit card.

But buyers frequently weren't home to meet the postal carrier. Sales went unclosed.

Using techniques they learned as consultants, Handley and Ricciardi started making improvements.

Simple changes paid huge dividends, such as requiring telephone agents to complete a purchase before "upselling" -- an industry term for encouraging consumers to buy additional products.

Handley and Ricciardi also instituted a compensation program they say encourages friendly competition among agents to close sales.

Listen Up Espanol also stopped accepting c.o.d. payments and upgraded its reporting.

Ricciardi now measures the business against a range of factors, including revenue per call, cost per call, and overhead expenses.

(Continued on page 2)

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