While a call centre is up and running to assist Manitoba businesses in applying for federal loans and grants in the wake of the pandemic, a provincial advertising campaign to promote the service is still days away from being launched.

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While a call centre is up and running to assist Manitoba businesses in applying for federal loans and grants in the wake of the pandemic, a provincial advertising campaign to promote the service is still days away from being launched.

Premier Brian Pallister caught many in the local business community by surprise on April 13 when he announced a $4-million contract to a call-centre operator to help Manitoba organizations leverage federal cash.

The contract, with local company 24-7 Intouch, was hastily arranged.

According to information posted on a government tendering website, Manitoba issued a request for proposals (RFP) at 2:20 p.m. on April 7, with a deadline of 2 p.m. on April 9.

Pallister called a news conference four days after that to announce the new initiative and the winning bidder.

Pallister estimated that more than 65,000 businesses, not-for-profits and charities stood to benefit from federal COVID-19 loans and wage subsidies.

"Literally billions of dollars are at stake," the premier said.

At the time, the province was not offering any direct assistance to businesses to cope with loss of revenue owing to the coronavirus.

24-7 Intouch began reaching out to businesses and other groups who may qualify for federal assistance last Thursday, the province says. (Mikaela MacKenzie / Winnipeg Free Press files)

24-7 Intouch began reaching out to businesses and other groups who may qualify for federal assistance last Thursday, the province says. (Mikaela MacKenzie / Winnipeg Free Press files)

The province says 24-7 Intouch began reaching out to businesses and other groups who may qualify for federal assistance last Thursday.

But with the federal government poised to start taking applications Monday for its multibillion-dollar wage-subsidy program, the province has yet to begin advertising the call-centre service.

According to the RFP, the call centre was to make initial contact with about 50,000 businesses within one week of operation, or provide a detailed description of when it expected to achieve that milestone.

Bidders were told the province would support its efforts through a "multi-channel advertising campaign to create awareness and establish credibility."

A government spokeswoman said a multi-platform campaign, featuring online, radio and print ads, is in the works. She could not provide a cost.

"The campaign should be launched in the next week or so," she said in an email.

An official with 24-7 Intouch did not return a request for comment on Wednesday.

For inbound calls, the government requires that 24-7 Intouch prepare staff with scripts to be developed by professionals with finance and accounting expertise. Government will help provide the necessary information, according to the RFP.

The province prescribed that the average wait for clients calling for help should not exceed 30 minutes, and that hang-ups or "call abandonment" be less than 10 per cent.

Premier Brian Pallister caught many in the local business community by surprise when he announced a $4-million contract to a call-centre operator to help Manitoba organizations leverage federal cash. (Mikaela MacKenzie / Winnipeg Free Press files)

Premier Brian Pallister caught many in the local business community by surprise when he announced a $4-million contract to a call-centre operator to help Manitoba organizations leverage federal cash. (Mikaela MacKenzie / Winnipeg Free Press files)

The winning bidder was also to establish "privacy procedures to ensure sensitive information is protected."

Some business leaders say a call centre can play a useful role in helping small- and medium-sized businesses navigate the federal system.

"I can see the value of having a co-ordinated approach to getting information into business and getting information from business," said Loren Remillard, president of the Winnipeg Chamber of Commerce.

The call centre can ensure that businesses are accessing the full range of assistance available to them, he said.

Remillard noted, however, that the Canadian Chamber of Commerce has created a portal called the Canadian Business Resilience Network, in partnership with the federal government, that has all the latest information on COVID-19 national assistance programs.

"We would hope that the call centre utilizes that portal," he said.

The chamber and the Canadian Federation of Independent Business have already been fielding numerous calls from local businesses about the various government programs.

"I think there will be a lot of businesses out there that call into the help line the province has set up, and I think this is a very good thing," said Jonathan Alward, director of provincial affairs with the Manitoba branch of the CFIB.

However, one businessman with strong ties to government said when the call centre was announced many in the business community were perplexed.

"That was not on anybody's radar," said the businessman, who requested anonymity.

"Unless 24-7 (Intouch) somehow, like the American Express card, gets you to the front of the line, what is it really going to do?"

larry.kusch@freepress.mb.ca

Larry Kusch

Larry Kusch
Legislature reporter

Larry Kusch didn’t know what he wanted to do with his life until he attended a high school newspaper editor’s workshop in Regina in the summer of 1969 and listened to a university student speak glowingly about the journalism program at Carleton University in Ottawa.

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