UB Insider #22: TCN, in the Business of Taking the Pulse of the Nation
About this episode:
If you’ve recently gotten a call about a poll or a survey about politics (or healthcare, or autos), there’s a chance that call was hosted by St. George-based TCN. Between 2012 and 2015, TCN completed more than 140 million calls and surveys a year, and 2016’s numbers are projected to be around 150 million calls and surveys. In this episode of UB Insider, Utah Business’ Lisa Christensen talks to TCN COO Darrin Bird, calling from his office in New Jersey, about what those polls are used for and how those calls help shape political races—and the country. Subscribe to our podcast or download this episode on iTunes and Stitcher.
Lisa Christensen: Hello and welcome to UB Insider. I’m Lisa Christensen, online editor at Utah Business magazine. You’ve probably gotten the calls before, if not this election season then during another one asking you how you felt about certain candidates, or how you intended to vote. Political polls are used to give candidates and the media an idea of how people feel about the issues before election day.
St. George based TCN hosts many of these calls. Between 2012 and 2015, TCN completed more than 140 million calls and surveys. And by the end of this year, that number is projected to hit around 150 million calls and surveys. Talking to us from TCN’s office in New Jersey is Darrin Bird, COO of TCN. So Darrin, tell me about the political calls and surveys that TCN does.
Darrin Bird: Right now we’re doing a lot of different types of surveys and political calls. We break it down into two different elements. One is just the basic, I’ll call it the get out the vote or just notification message that’s just delivered… Hi this is a call for X, calling from a certain Senator or on behalf of a certain Senator to let them know their position or get you out to vote. But a lot of the calls we’ve been doing lately, that we’ve started to get a really big niche in is these polling calls.
Political polling, surveying type calls where you’re going out and just trying to get a pulse on possibly where their feelings are regarding a number of different issues or different people who are running in a Senate race or different types of congressional races. And then based on a number of different questions, if you press 1 for this or press 2 for that, based on that it branches into a number of different questions or different surveys that they may ask to get a read. And one of the powerful tools is the reporting side.
So once we’re done, a lot of these different technologies you have to take all these reports and crunch the numbers and come up with a report and take hours to do and that. Almost, as soon as our calls are done they can formulate these surveys and send them over to their analysis group. And within a matter of, oh, less than an hour, they can have their results on different levels of questions, different sensitivity analysis on. Are they interested in this candidate? Are they interested in these types of issues? And who are they? Where? By state, or by location to give them really good polling data to help their clients dictate where they should be sending their message or what their candidate should be saying or not saying. So that’s kind of how we’ve broken it down.
So we’ve started to see a lot of opportunities and kind of created a niche because of the hosted solution that we are on a lot of these complex polling questions. Some will go, I’m looking at some now, and some of these polls could be seven or eight pages long. And so it takes a pretty flexible system to be able to create these types of polling surveys to go out to these clients or to these consumers and customers.
Lisa Christensen: So how is using a hosted service like TCN, you know, you mentioned these really complex surveys, different than how polling used to be done. You know, you hear about the old premise based dialers or what have you.
Darrin Bird: A couple of things. One is I don’t believe they were able to go into these types of depth and reach with these premise solutions. They were constrained by the ability with the text to speech to, what I mean text to speech, to be able to insert who might be calling or who they’re looking for a certain person in the household or if they’re trying to read off pieces of the survey based on a response. If you press 2, it might go down this way and then they say well ok, based on you pressing 2, you have an interest level in Senator Sanders, per se. So we would insert that. So a lot of them didn’t have that text to speech capability along with the ability to send out the calls in a very rapid, efficient manner so they can get a large data population so that they can get good, accurate polls. And then if they could, it was often very cost prohibitive as well.
You know, for example, we have a client that we do work for in the political area and two weeks ago they called us up and they needed to make about 20 million calls in about a five day period. They had about 1.2 million people and they wanted to call each one of those people three or four times during the day to get a response if they didn’t respond. So we did that over a four or five-day period with a polling survey that was about 14 questions deep and we were able to make about 20-25 million calls for those individuals to get the data sample that they needed. Historically, that was not, I shouldn’t say it was never feasible, but it was very hard to be feasible on a premise solution where we were constrained by lines and capacity. Well we were able to expand our capacity to meet the needs of this client without it being a huge burden of cost for us or to our client. So that’s one of the large strengths of being a hosted versus being stuck in the premise with a lot of hardware and equipment that it’s just very hard to expand on the fly.
Lisa Christensen: So what does that result in? How does having this capability for more flexibility, more complexity translate after the results are given?
Darrin Bird: From the client side it allows them to take on more work. It allows them to say yes, we can go out and take on this work and get you greater data, better, more accurate data. We can expand our surveys so we don’t just need to limit to two or three questions. We can make it to 13 or 14 questions.
If we’re interested in multiple pieces of data, we can send out corresponding surveys or polls maybe back to back instead of having to wait for weeks or get stacked into a log jam of projects. It gives them much greater flexibility in the reporting and in the customization of their messages. We were able to build these messages within 24, 48-hour period. If you were to build these messages typically on an old premise solution it would be a seven to ten-day turnaround pretty typically with, you know, oftentimes $10-$20 thousand just in cost to build out these messages. Well we’re able to build them in house typically on the fly with limited to no cost to the end user, or to the client I should say. And then give them the accurate data and reporting that they need in real time. And then from our side it matriculates into more business opportunities without a great burden of increased cost to us. So it just helps our business from our side.
The political business is not typical year-round business and so you try to build a business model around what you’re typically going to be able to do in the course of a year or in the course of a month. And then you build some head room so I can handle some kind of increase in capacity as my business grows. Political seasons come around, presidential races come around every four years, you know, and then congressional or senate races come around every couple. And so, being in a hosted environment it allows us to expand to meet the needs in these one off type of years where you have heavy political dialing and so as a business you can handle that so you can grow. It allows you to grow your business, pay your people and add additional resources and so forth.
But the premise solutions couldn’t do that so they, a lot of them, we always called it, they would roll out their systems during the political years and put it back in the closet during the off years. And just try to get what they could out of it. It was usually older type of technology that couldn’t really compete with the demand. And so because we can expand, you know, we doubled our capacity within 48-hours of finding out about this project. So that’s not atypical in this kind of marketplace in today’s environment.
Lisa Christensen: Yeah. That was going to be my next question to you. Is, you know, this is a much more political year than some years. Some years you only have congressional races or senate races or even just local elections and I’m sure your demand, essentially, is a lot less then than in a year like this. So exactly how much does your polling change in those off years or in those lower volume years?
Darrin Bird: We’ll probably see about a three times increase in years like presidential years where there’s just a lot more awareness. It’s not always due for making calls or doing polling for the presidential campaigns, it’s the senate races or congressional races are oftentimes much more heated. They oftentimes have much more light on them, so they’re also more concerned at times based on if their presidential candidate is doing well or not doing well. If their presidential candidate is doing well, they oftentimes feel a little bit better about their stature versus going wow, my candidate isn’t doing too tell. They may be hurting me. I need to increase my outreach to my constituents to make sure I understand. Hey, they may not be happy with who’s running for our party for the president, but are they still happy with me? Are their issues still the issues that I’m trying to protect?
So we’ll typically see, if you look at the last few years, we would typically see about a two and a half to three times jump in a presidential year races or this fourth year versus the off years. In the off years you’ll be down even more than that. We do get steady business throughout the years, it’s just people are, these polling companies are trying to keep a pulse on what’s important to people. As individuals are trying to decide if they’re going to run. If they’re going to run, what’s important from a political standpoint?
Lisa Christensen: So you touched on this a little bit, but why are these political calls and these surveys valuable? You know, why, you have a surge because people want these polls. Why are they valuable for your clients? And, you know, who tends to be your client base?
Darrin Bird: Yeah. A lot of our client base is polling companies. Political polling or political consultants who are working for candidates who might be working for not for profit entities that are trying to help frame a platform or help prioritize their platform on what are the important issues facing the individuals in the state of Florida or the individuals in South Jersey. Where this office is for TCN. And so it helps them prioritize what are important. And it may be five key areas, things that people are really interested in in Florida, but let’s try to rank them. What are the top five things in order of priority? And then they try to align those with hey, is this candidates talking points correct? Although he might feel that position X is important and he agrees with position X, his constituents think that issue Y is more important. He also agrees with issue Y, but he wasn’t, he or she was not pushing issue Y. So they’re really trying to flush out what’s important from a platform standpoint.
And then they’re also trying to find out, hey, where do I stand amongst the other candidates? I’m running against four other candidates, and where do I stand? Am I number three or number four? Some of the polls that we see on some of the news channels that we watch or the newspapers we might read are coming from a lot of this data that we are helping to capture or helping these companies capture. Some will do all of this research just to sell it. They’ll capture all this data and then sell it off to other consultants or political organizations that are looking for this kind of data. So they’ll gather all this research content and then sell it off.
The data is happening…you don’t have to wait. It’s not like you’re sending out a postcard or you’re standing in front of a supermarket and trying to collect surveys. You get the voice calls out, you get immediate responses. So if you’re looking for 2,000 responses, boom. When you get to 2,000 responses you can cut off the campaign and not have to write more because you’ve got those 2,000 responses across the demographic you were looking for.
Lisa Christensen: Yeah. So on, you know, the callee end, for the people who are called for these surveys, why is it important for them to pick up and participate in the survey?
Darrin Bird: Let me put a caveat. Most of us get these kind of prerecorded calls and we hang up. We’re like oh, great. But as people realize that they’re not calling to sell you something. They’re not calling to interrupt your dinner or try to book a vacation or tell you about a credit card offer. They’re really trying to figure out what’s important to you, maybe your spouse or your family, what affects you, to help the candidates that a lot of us will be voting for know that this is what’s important to us. So if it’s not important to you, then it better become important if you want to represent us or this district or this country. So they try to get some power behind it and push forward.
And so when they get the call, they don’t take a long time to answer, but they are providing some good data, some good content so their voice can be heard. It’s one of the great things about living in this country. Is we can voice our opinion whether people like it or not. We have the ability to voice our opinion unlike many other countries where they’re silenced and they’d love to be asked what they think about certain issues. Or they would love to be asked what candidate they would want to vote for amongst four or five people and get involved. It’s one of the great things about our democracy here.
Lisa Christensen: So it’s a means of expressing your voice before the actual election.
Darrin Bird: That’s correct. That’s correct.
Lisa Christensen: So this election year is a little more heated than most, even in terms of presidential elections. Has that affected the kind of polling that you guys are doing, you know, in terms of volume or in complexity of surveys or in who you’re talking to?
Darrin Bird: I don’t know if there’s a direct correlation. I believe that because of the presidential election there will be more people that will come out to vote than in the off years because presidential elections drive more people to vote. And so there’s just a greater audience and a greater focus on the other candidates what they would call down the ballot. You start with the president and then go down the ballot based on senator and congressional and so there’s just more focus on those other candidates and so with Republicans trying to keep the house and pick up seats in the house and the senate and keep their seats in the house and the senate, they’re trying, they’re going to put a lot of pressure on that, the Democrats on their side trying to pick up seats in the house and the senate.
They know they’re going to get a lot of people out to vote and so they’re going to put a greater emphasis and a greater push on the amount of polls and all types of outreach that they’ll do during these types of years because of the sheer numbers that are coming out and who are listening and who are involved are just greater than the two years from now when there’s another election but there’s no presidential election. If that makes sense.
Lisa Christensen: Yeah. Yeah, sure.
Darrin Bird: You have a greater target audience during presidential years than you do in non-presidential years. And so you have to spend more time, energy and money to reach that larger audience than you do in the off years.
Lisa Christensen: But because of your platform you don’t have to hire a bunch more people or bring in any special equipment?
Darrin Bird: Nope. Because of the platform we can expand it. We work with what we have. We have a couple handfuls of different telco providers that we utilize to deliver the phone calls so we’ll work closely with them to make sure they understand our capacity needs and we can build up that throughout the year. And then being a cloud-based or hosted solution, a SAAS based solution, one of those three, whatever you want to call it, we just have the ability to expand our platform to meet those needs. And then because it’s web-based, the customer service level or the need to get these calls out just falls within, I mean, people might work a couple of extra hours during the day or maybe work a longer weekend, but we’re not having to hire additional staff or additional people to do this.
One of our strengths is that we have an ongoing and continued business that we focus. We do a lot of healthcare. We do a lot of automotive in the automotive sector. We work with a lot of financial institutions throughout the year. So we’re constantly using a great deal of capacity throughout the year. So it’s not like we all of a sudden when political years come we go from 0 to 60. We may go from 60 to 90. So we already have infrastructure built that’s running on a day to day basis handling our other market verticals. And then when the political season hits and it starts to pick up, it just folds into our normal course of business over those four or five heavy months. Usually starting in mid-summer and goes into late fall, early winter in the November timeframe.
Lisa Christensen: So you guys are just hitting your busiest time now, then?
Darrin Bird: Yeah. We’re going into it right now. Yeah. About the first part of August through basically that Tuesday before the election, November 5th, we will be busy.
Lisa Christensen: Well good luck with that.
Darrin Bird: I appreciate it. But yeah. It’s been good. It’s good business. The people we work with are good. Regardless of what side of the aisle they sit, they’re both trying to serve a good purpose and get information from us as individuals to take back to their candidates.
Lisa Christensen: Ok. Well thank you so much Darrin for talking with us, especially all the way from New Jersey. Appreciate that.
Darrin Bird: Not a problem at all.
Lisa Christensen: Thanks to Darrin for joining us today and thanks to Mike Sasich for production help. Thoughts on today’s episode? Drop us a line at firstname.lastname@example.org or on our Facebook, Twitter or Instagram pages. You can also subscribe to our podcast and catch up on old episodes on iTunes and Stitcher. Thanks for listening.